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Labour’s Andy Burnham Says Just ‘50 People Run the UK’ as Mayor Hits Out at Westminster and Sunak’s Scrappage of HS2

The Greater Manchester Mayor wants the UK to adopt a new codified constitution, proportional representation and an overhauled House of Lords

Andy Burnham, Mayor of Greater Manchester, at a rally with former Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown last year. Photo: Rich Dyson/Alamy

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Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham has called for a new, codified constitution for the UK to wrench power out of Westminster, as he hit out at a tiny clique running British politics. 

The Labour metro-mayor backed overhauling the scandal-ridden unelected second chamber, as well as introducing proportional representation for the House Commons, as he remotely addressed the Democracy Network conference in London on Wednesday. 

The calls go significantly further than Labour Leader Keir Starmer is currently offering.

Burnham, who is writing a book on the state of UK democracy, said: “Look at the COVID Inquiry… It is showing people how dysfunctional the running of our country is. Because of the whip system, and the way we run things, I would say no more than 50 people run this country at any given time. 

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“In effect, Parliament hands a lot of power to the executive, and it’s a mixture of mainly unelected [people] but also a group of Cabinet ministers who run the country at any given time. 

“I would argue that it is dysfunctional in normal times. It’s downright dangerous in a pandemic. And that is what we saw. We saw decisions being hoisted out onto the country without consideration of the local impacts without consultation.”

The former Labour MP was outspoken on Boris Johnson’s Government during the pandemic, which he said locked regional and devolved governments out of decision-making and discussions on pandemic responses. 

“It was awful,” he told conference attendees. “On what basis was Greater Manchester not represented on COBRA [Cabinet Office emergency briefings]? We were never invited once to attend a COBRA meeting… It can’t be justified. So [we] need a new set of rules for how the country works and who sits where and whose voice is heard, and how decisions get made.”

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Burnham was particularly scathing about the short-termism of the current Westminster political system – singling out Rishi Sunak’s recent decision to cancel the Northern leg of HS2 from Birmingham to Manchester. 

“The entire Government came to the city from where I’m talking to you from now for their party conference and allowed a rumour mill to get out of control around the scrapping of a rail project that we were promised 10 years ago [HS2] when George Osborne first delivered his Northern Powerhouse speech. 

“Even though they were in a hotel yards from us, they ignored repeated requests from myself and the Leader of Manchester City Council for a meeting, or at least a discussion about something that had massive implications for us and cost implications for us as well.

“To stand up in our city and then just tear it up in our face – should any government be allowed to do that? Should you be able just to unilaterally, without consultation, rip up something of that magnitude, given that a rail project like that goes beyond the life of any government or Parliament? I honestly don’t think you should be able to do that.” 

The Mayor added that a written constitution would “codify” relationships between national, local and regional governments “so that democracy functions properly, it’s wired properly, and decisions are made with due consideration of different perspective”. 

Elsewhere at the conference, Labour’s Shadow Minister for Democracy, Florence Eshalomi, appeared to row back from Starmer’s 2022 commitment to abolishing the House of Lords, telling Byline Times it should be “partly” but not wholly elected. 

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Corruption and Election Chaos

Also at the Democracy Network conference, Daniel Bruce, CEO of Transparency International UK, suggested that the UK’s honours system was corrupt. He told attendees that if a political party tells a company “donate £2 million and we’ll give you a seat in the Lords” it’s illegal. However, he explained, these kinds of promises are not formally written down, so parties get away with it.

Compass think tank director Neal Lawson also told the conference on Tuesday that the current leadership of the Labour Party is “implacably opposed to proportional representation” because they “know there’ll be new parties and they won’t be able to dominate. They are not going to allow it to happen. They will have to be forced”.

Lawson branded Labour’s approach to elections – including its failure to back electoral reform – akin to “an abusive relationship, with members and voters who have nowhere else to go”.

For Dr Hannah White, director of the Institute for Government, it is “very hard to see” how proportional representation would happen anytime soon, since the policy “won’t be in [Labour’s] manifesto”. But she said the movement for PR in the party is prominent and growing. 

Dr White added that parliamentary scrutiny has fallen off a cliff in the past decade. She told the conference that the Government’s flagship Rwanda Bill – which may breach international law – would have been subject to 20 or so scrutiny sessions in committee, going through it line-by-line, if it had been proposed 20 years ago. Now it is being pushed through with just a few days of debate, she said. 

Akiko Hart, interim director of human rights campaign Liberty, told the Democracy Network conference that sentences for non-violent protests are becoming ever harsher, with some hitting three years. “The whole point of protest is that it’s meant to be disruptive,” she said. “But it’s being used as a wedge issue and amplified by the media.”

However, several speakers were optimistic about the prospects for democratic change under a new government, with a potential for a renewed focus on standards, and vibrant campaigns pushing for political reform. 

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Josiah Mortimer also writes the On the Ground column, exclusive to the print edition of Byline Times.

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Do you have a story that needs highlighting? Get in touch by emailing josiah@bylinetimes.com


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