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Why Mayors Outside Westminster Are Distancing Themselves From their Parties’ Politics and Colours

Much was made of newly elected Conservative Mayor Ben Houchen not being able to find a blue rosette – but outside the Westminster bubble associations with party brands are often an obstacle to get work done

Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen pictured in January 2024. Photo: James Hind / Alamy
Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen, commentators have suggested, has tried to distance himself from his Westminster colleagues. Photo: James Hind / Alamy

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It would be the rosette that did for Rishi Sunak. After all the court intrigue, the WhatsApp groups, the 1922 letters and the media briefings, the commentators were now convinced it would be the errant blue rosette that newly elected Conservative mayor Ben Houchen ‘couldn’t find’ at the count that spelled doom for the Prime Minister. 

The commentators may well be right that Houchen made a political calculation and distanced himself from his Westminster colleagues. But if anything, the attention this provoked points to a deeper irony: for the national media, everything orbits around Westminster, including attempts to escape that orbit and see politics through the prism of place.

In attending to local politics only for what it says about the ‘real’ centre of power, many (London-based) journalists masterfully manage to miss the message from the rest of the country: it’s not all about you.

For a start, it’s easy to miss the parallels to other English places.

Andy Burnham, Mayor of Greater Manchester, has built a similarly independent brand. The cover of his manifesto features a prominent profile picture and his name front and centre, with the smallest type reserved for the Labour logo, squeezed at the bottom.

The former Conservative Mayor of the West Midlands, Andy Street, also sought to strike a place and person-based approach, leaning less on party ideology and more on his long track record in business. His colour branding – green and purple – veered away from the traditional Conservative blue. It is no small irony that Street came so close to re-election, but is understood to have been scuppered by the unpopularity of the party of which he remains, sometimes incongruously, a part. 

Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham, pictured above in July 2022, has built a brand independent of Labour. Photo: PA/Alamy

Much has been made of the joint Andys’ positive relationship with one another – and their shared analysis that puts ‘party before place’. Beyond a focus on the person behind the rosette, this also gives the candidates more flexibility to bend beyond the tight confines of their parties.

When politicians are asked to take big political decisions beyond the halls of Westminster, they’re finding that, more often than not, associations with party brands are an obstacle to their work, both while in office and during elections. Political parties are ancient, worn brands which might work for those voters keen to pay as little heed to politics as possible, but may themselves contribute to that apathy. And for more engaged citizens, the story of UK politics over the past few decades is one of churn. Recall a series of votes that, whatever their outcomes, point to a general, sustained and deafening dissatisfaction with politics. 

Much of this is down to our voting system – a clunky machine that stifles voter expression and frustrates the majority. Big parties are the electoral winners, but lose out more subtly; their desperate attempts to hold together broad churches, rather than allowing for our pluralist preferences to find representation, keeps the UK electorate locked into an unhappy marriage with the duopoly.

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All the while, turnout drops, citizens turn away and the link between representative government and people’s lives frays. Combine this binary party culture with our rigid centre of government and the whole system begins to look hopelessly creaky.

The push factors away from Westminster need no rehearsing. But apart from the obvious unpleasantness of the working environment, the normalisation of division and the relentless infighting, there are more nuanced critiques that arise only through stepping away from Westminster and looking back.

After 16 years in the House of Commons, Burnham is a fierce critic of the whips system, a punitive approach to politics that rewards obedience and stifles debate within the parties. The mayors have also been commended for their openness to cross-party working, but most of them take it as read.

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But most of all, what the Andys have given voice and a face to is a new approach to representation: politicians that gain their legitimacy from their distinctive people and place, and model a culture – cooperative, constructive, collegiate – to match. Their respect for one another and their collaborative efforts to pry more powers from Westminster have shown the possibility of putting party allegiance second place.

A working relationship forged through a shared approach, and trust built across party divides – is a rare thing in British politics – and has already done much to demonstrate that devolution is about cultural, not just political, change.

Elsewhere, this week we also saw the English’s penchant for independently-minded politicians pop up in other places. Jamie Driscoll ran an impressive grassroots campaign for the North East mayoralty, without machinery or much airtime. Labour’s rejection of him left him at a clear disadvantage in terms of backing, brand and resources, but, as elsewhere, it also liberated him from the confines of party orthodoxy. This allowed – even required – him to lean into participatory politics, drawing the support of groups like Green New Deal Rising. 

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Whilst it ultimately wasn’t enough to beat the sheer force of Labour’s brand, Jamie’s campaign always offered more than a narrow focus on electoral wins: it galvanised people, especially young voters with a clear commitment to a different style of leadership. It was itself a brand that managed to win the votes of almost 127,000 people across the region, more than the Conservatives, Lib Dems, Greens and Reform combined. Last year, Labour HQ claimed he wasn’t a credible candidate and disowned him; but the local roots he’d cultivated by doing politics differently proved them wrong. 

Most of the time, the entrenched power of First Past the Post obscures this appetite for – and advantages of – this independent style of politics. But the local and regional elections – with the sheer number of seats up for grabs and the comparative chaos of ward-by-ward contests – offer the space for it to shine. 

The independence phenomenon helps us rediscover some of the best parts of local democracy: a more direct line from candidate to electorate, a short feedback loop, more locally-directed policies and the success of nonconformist politicians. People yearn for distinctiveness – and to put their place on the map.

The Flatpack Democracy movement, birthed in Frome, but spread around the country, has long carried the torch for this non-party and often highly popular movement. Even when sticking with the brand, the Preston Model, named after the pioneering city council seeking more economic autonomy, has been feted around the world.

At times harder to pin down, harder to analyse and often messy and confusing, this is arguably democracy at its best. It also demands that we all, but especially commentators and politicians, work harder to understand what’s going on – what are citizens feeling, thinking, needing and prioritising? 

What might all this mean for an incoming Labour administration? Well, it challenges leaders to think beyond the party duopoly, and recognise the multi-party reality of 21st-century Britain.

The demand for greater devolution is growing harder to ignore. The popularity of cross-party cooperation in the name of common good politics shows no sign of waning. Despite structural attempts to thwart it, pluralistic politics will find a way to poke through the cracks appearing in our crumbling FPTP system. 

Some might question the desirability of personality politics, especially when the current mayor candidates still skew far too white and male. But it does indicate a significant desire among voters for a recognisable and relatable figure, one who stands for their region and is closer to home, within reach.

This could also work to boost representation, if the parties can grasp the opportunity, with figures like Magid Magid in Sheffield bringing welcome life and spark to a local mayor’s position. And as of last week, for the first time ever, there are more women metro mayors than those called Andy.

Most of all, we’re going to see more of this, not less.

Labour could choose to champion the work of their mayors – like Burnham, Sadiq Khan and Tracy Brabin – and back both their independence and their individuality, not just how well they toe the party line. Or they can reject this opportunity to refresh politics and prepare to face more competition from independents like Jamie, who aim to give them a run for their money – and ‘their’ seats. Richard Parker – who has ousted Street – accused him of ‘being a Tory when it suits him’.

But this local independence seems to reward candidates who do the hard yards rather than winning on the slipstream of the party machinery, perhaps Parker will yet find that “place over party” might just be up his street. Bring on devolution all the way down – and bring on a politics that puts the person, not the party rosette, on the podium. 

Frances Foley is deputy director of the cross-party group Compass


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