VSall this Andy Burnham’s problem in British politics. Yet the Labor mayor of Greater Manchester is more a victim than a source. Nor is the problem confined to him, or even to the Labor Party. The same applies to all parties. It’s structural, cultural, very British, and it needs to be addressed.
The problem is the disconnect between the realities of British politics and governance on the one hand and the supposed supremacy of the unreformed Westminster parliament on the other. Burnham’s case is particularly timely, as there could soon be a Labor leadership vacancy. If Durham Police issue a fixed penalty notice against him for breaching Covid regulations, Keir Starmer has said he will resign. Burnham is the bookmakers’ favorite as a successor. As things stand, however, he is ineligible as he is not an MP.
All three major parties currently use some version of this rule. To be leader of the Conservatives, Labor or Liberal Democrats, a candidate must be a sitting MP. The existence of such rules reduced Tony Benn’s chances of becoming the Labor leader in 1983, and Michael Portillo’s chances of leading the Conservatives in 1997. However, it was not always so. Lord Alec Douglas-Home became Conservative leader and Prime Minister in 1963 while still in the House of Lords, before relinquishing his title and winning a by-election three weeks later.
It’s possible Burnham could pull off something similar in a post-Starmer contest. But the by-election and his candidacy would need a lot of quick fixes from above. Burnham supporters in Westminster have previously raised the possibility that Harriet Harman, the longtime mother of the House, who is stepping down as MP for Camberwell and Peckham – where she has a majority of nearly 34,000 – could resign early and creating a vacancy that Burnham would be parachuted into.
It is a risky strategy. Local parties do not like to be sidelined in this way, as Labor has already seen in its selection for the Wakefield by-election. Voters also don’t like having their support taken for granted; Labor has lost seats in such circumstances in the past. Voters in Greater Manchester could vent their resentment over Burnham’s departure in a fresh mayoral contest. And it’s far from certain that either Starmer, or a temporary party leader, would have the motive or influence to defend Burnham anyway.
There is something else. What if the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, decides to throw his hat in the ring? Khan is essentially in the same position as Burnham. Still, Labor could face an awkward choice between the two if there is a by-election vacancy in Khan’s south London part. What if Welsh Prime Minister Mark Drakeford, who proved a hugely effective Labor winner last year, uncharacteristically imagines himself on the bigger stage too?
This kind of problem is becoming more and more common for all parties – and it will continue. This is partly because parties are controlled less rigidly from the center. But it is also because power has been redistributed from central government through decentralization. In the UK, this has evolved piecemeal and asymmetrically, mostly with England and the Westminster parliament as an afterthought, rather than under a conventional constructed constitutional plan. But people got used to it.
Until the beginning of the 21st century, some of these conflicts were settled through dual mandates. Northern Ireland MPs often sat in both Old Stormont and Westminster. During the transition to devolution, Labor leaders in Scotland and Wales, Donald Dewar and Alun Michael, remained MPs and sat in both parliaments. Alex Salmond was leader of the SNP for a second time from 2004 to 2014, although he only sat in Holyrood in 2007 and only gave up his Westminster seat in 2010 – even as Prime Minister .
Then came the spending scandal. Dual terms were now considered inherently shady and were widely prohibited. Yet the rules remain tangled. In Northern Ireland, the leader of the DUP, Jeffrey Donaldson, has just had to choose between his election to Westminster and to Stormont; he chose Westminster. A similar ban on dual terms exists in Wales. But Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross still sits in Holyrood and Westminster.
And while Burnham would be required by law to choose between his mayoralty and a seat in parliament, Khan could hold both, as Johnson and Ken Livingstone have done for limited periods. Most town halls outside Greater Manchester and West Yorkshire also allow dual mandates. Labor’s Dan Jarvis was mayor of South Yorkshire until earlier this month, while continuing to be an MP.
The current mess does a disservice to British public life. Any system that has played a role in preventing a talented Tory like Ruth Davidson from playing a bigger role on the UK stage is a broken system. The same is preventing Labour’s Burnham from leveraging the credibility he gained by leaving Westminster to turn him into a national asset for his party. Any system that instead produces a Boris Johnson – as our mismatch between decentralized and centralized has done – needs to be redesigned.
Some would say the answer is a comprehensive new constitutional settlement, in which major cities, regions and nations are all represented in one way or another, much like the German Bundesrat, in a new upper house to replace the Lords . In such an intergovernmental scheme, the devolution barons – Drakeford and Donaldson, Nicola Sturgeon and perhaps even a future Prime Minister of England – could find a place of office, helping to make dual mandates more understandable and less likely to be accused of sleaze, and making it more likely that parties can elect the leaders they want.
The underlying difficulty, however, remains the woeful failure of the UK parliament and UK parties to understand or adapt to devolution. The British government was fundamentally reshaped by the creation of the Scottish and Welsh parliaments, as well as the Northern Ireland assembly and town halls. Parties were slow and resistant to change. Their rules and way of thinking still reflect their reluctance.
The answer is neither to abandon decentralization nor to embrace it with renewed fervor. It is recognizing its real strengths but also its real flaws, and adapting those lessons to a common idea of Britain that is neither nostalgically reactionary nor gratingly utopian. This is no argument for Andy Burnham to be the next Labor leader, or for him not to be. But it is an argument for him to be able to stand up. This is an argument for the parties to open the rules a little more, and to recognize the kind of country that we have become. Do that, and we might be well on our way to solving Burnham’s problem.