The Burnham Effect

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In May 2021, Labour experienced the worst council election defeat for a new opposition leader in at least 40 years. But in the regional Mayoral elections in England, the party had a relatively good night. Although it fell short in the West Midlands and lost hugely to a popular incumbent in Tees Valley, the party gained two Mayors from the Tories in Southern England, and the two incumbent Labour Mayors in Liverpool and Greater Manchester were re-elected by a huge margin.

It is these latter two elections that I want to focus on, because both Andy Burnham (Greater Manchester) and Steve Rotherham (Liverpool City Region) massively outperformed the Labour Party in their regions in May, often winning in council areas that Labour lost or barely won on that same day. As Labour seeks to rebuild its support across England in the aftermath of the 2019 election, these results suggest that it should be looking to its regional Mayors for advice.

Ticket splitting

First off, a little background. In May, in part due to elections being delayed from 2020, many areas held multiple elections on the same day. In some cases, thousands of voters backed different parties in different elections. In the West Midlands, for instance, Labour lost the Mayoral election (winning 40%) but won the PCC election (winning 46%).

In some areas, voters’ partisanship was remarkably consistent. In the city of Norwich, for instance, the Conservatives won 22-23% of the vote in all three elections (PCC, County Council and City Council). Labour also performed similarly consistently (42-45%).

In other words, there is no guarantee that voters will back the same parties in different elections. And whilst this trend resulted in some Labour defeats (particularly in the West Midlands) it also resulted in huge Labour victories.

Liverpool

The city of Liverpool itself was largely not a success story for Labour in 2021, with the party losing 14pts in the city Mayoral vote and 7pts in the city council vote. Across the Liverpool City Region, the party won just 46% of the vote in the local council elections.

But even as his party struggled in Liverpool, incumbent Labour Mayor Steve Rotherham swept to a landslide victory, winning 58% of the vote across the region.

Rotherham’s huge victory was driven in part by massively outperforming Labour in safe Labour areas (he won 66% in the city of Liverpool, compared to Labour’s 51%) but also by winning hugely in areas that are less safe for Labour. Most notably, in Wirral (home to the marginal Parliamentary seat of Wirral West), Labour won just 39.5% of the vote in the council elections – Rotherham, however, won 52%.

Greater Manchester

But Rotherham’s success, whilst impressive, seems unimpressive when one looks at Andy Burnham’s landslide victory in Greater Manchester. Labour won just 46.2% of the vote across Greater Manchester in the local elections, but Andy Burnham won a stunning 67.3% of the vote, reportedly winning every single ward.

How did he do it? Labour is nowhere near that popular across Greater Manchester, as the council elections showed. Burnham’s sizeable victory was, like Rotherham’s, partly down to piling up votes in strongly Labour areas. In the city of Manchester, Burnham won 77% of the vote, compared to Labour’s 65%; in Wigan, Burnham won 70% to Labour’s 51%.

But Burnham also won enormously in areas that were more marginal, or even voted Conservative, in May. In Bolton, the Conservatives won the most votes in the council elections by a 3pt margin (38% to 35%). But Burnham won 64% of the vote within Bolton, defeating the Tory candidate by a 39pt margin.

In Bury, Labour barely defeated the Tories in the council election (41% to 40%). Burnham, however, won by a 38pt margin within Bury.

The most astonishing example of ticket splitting, however, was in Stockport. In the council elections, Labour won just 32% of the vote to the Lib Dems’ 31%.

Yet Burnham won 66% of the vote within Stockport, compared to the LDs’ 6%. Even as his party barely outpolled the Lib Dems in the council election, Burnham defeated them by a margin of nearly 60 percentage points.

These enormous differences in how people voted are important because they show how Burnham’s victory went beyond simply being a Labour candidate in a Labour area. Even as Labour struggled in Greater Manchester running on a UK-wide message of having no policies, Andy Burnham won landslide victories in areas that Starmer lost by promising to bring buses into public control.

Voters are more complicated than centrists assume. The same voter can, on the same day, back a Tory councillor and a Labour Mayor who favours public ownership of transport. Just because someone votes Tory, that doesn’t mean they are totally opposed to left-wing policies. Often voters just want a leader who stands for something and will work to change their lives for the better.

Burnham offered voters something, and they backed him in enormous numbers. Starmer is currently offering voters absolutely nothing, and the outcome in May was a disastrous defeat.

Labour will not win unless it offers voters a vision and a set of policies that they want. If Starmer is incapable of doing this, he should stand aside for somebody who is.

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