Call it the Andy Burnham problem in British politics. Yet the Labour mayor of Greater Manchester is more a victim than a source of it. Nor is the problem confined to him, or indeed to the Labour party. The same thing applies in all the parties. It is structural, cultural, very British, and it needs addressing.
The problem is the mismatch between the realities of British politics and governance on the one hand and the assumed supremacy of the unreformed Westminster parliament on the other. Burnham’s case is particularly topical, because there may shortly be a vacancy for leader of the Labour party. If Durham police issues a fixed-penalty notice against him for breaching Covid regulations, Keir Starmer has said he will step down. Burnham is the bookmakers’ clear favourite as successor. As things stand, however, he is ineligible to stand because he is not a member of parliament.
The three main parties all currently operate a version of this rule. To be leader of the Conservatives, Labour or the Liberal Democrats, a candidate must be a serving MP. The existence of such rules did for Tony Benn’s chances of becoming Labour leader in 1983, and Michael Portillo’s of leading the Tories in 1997. Yet it was not always this way. Lord Alec Douglas-Home became Tory leader and prime minister in 1963 while he was still in the House of Lords, before renouncing his title and winning a byelection three weeks later.
It is possible Burnham could pull off something similar in a post-Starmer contest. But the byelection and his candidacy would need a lot of fast fixing from the top. Burnham supporters at Westminster have already raised the possibility that Harriet Harman, the long-serving Mother of the House, who is stepping down as MP for Camberwell and Peckham – where she has a majority of nearly 34,000 – might resign early and create a vacancy into which Burnham would be parachuted.
It is a risky strategy. Local parties don’t like being pushed aside in this way, as Labour has already found in its selection for the Wakefield byelection. Nor do voters like their support being taken for granted; Labour has lost seats in such circumstances in the past. Greater Manchester voters might take out their resentment against Burnham’s departure in a new mayoral contest. And it is far from certain that either Starmer, or a temporary party leader, would have the motive or the clout to deliver for Burnham anyway.
There’s another thing. What if the London mayor, Sadiq Khan, decided to throw his hat into the ring? Khan is essentially in the same position as Burnham. Yet Labour could face an embarrassing choice between the two if there was a byelection vacancy in Khan’s south London patch. What if the Welsh first minister, Mark Drakeford, who has proved an extremely effective Labour vote-winner in the last year, uncharacteristically fancied the bigger stage himself too?
This sort of problem is becoming more common for all the parties – and it will continue. That’s partly because the parties are less rigidly controlled from the centre. But it is also because power has been redistributed down from central government through devolution. In the UK this has evolved piecemeal and asymmetrically, mostly with England and the Westminster parliament as afterthoughts, rather than under some classical constructed constitutional blueprint. But people have got used to it.
Until the early 21st century, some of these conflicts were dealt with through dual mandates. Northern Ireland MPs often sat in both the old Stormont and at Westminster. During the transition to devolution, Labour’s leaders in Scotland and Wales, Donald Dewar and Alun Michael, remained MPs and sat in both parliaments. Alex Salmond was SNP leader for the second time from 2004 to 2014, even though he did not sit at Holyrood until 2007, and did not give up his Westminster seat until 2010 – even while serving as first minister.
Then came the expenses scandal. Dual mandates were now thought to be inherently sleazy and were widely banned. Yet the rules remain tangled. In Northern Ireland, the DUP leader, Jeffrey Donaldson, has just had to choose between his election to Westminster and to Stormont; he chose Westminster. A similar ban on dual mandates exists in Wales. But the Scottish Tory leader, Douglas Ross, still sits at Holyrood and Westminster.
And while Burnham would be required by law to choose between his mayoral post and a seat in parliament, Khan could hold both, as both Johnson and Ken Livingstone did for limited periods. Most mayoralties outside Greater Manchester and West Yorkshire also permit dual mandates. Labour’s Dan Jarvis was mayor of South Yorkshire until earlier this month, while continuing to be an MP.
The present mess does an active disservice to Britain’s public life. Any system that played a part in stopping a talented Tory like Ruth Davidson playing a larger role on the UK stage is a failing system. So is one that prevents Labour’s Burnham from leveraging the credibility he gained from leaving Westminster into a national asset for his party. Any system that instead produces a Boris Johnson – as our mismatch of devolved and centralised has done – needs a rethink.
Some will argue that the answer is an all-embracing new constitutional settlement, in which the great cities, regions and nations are all somehow represented, German Bundesrat-style, in a new upper house to replace the Lords. In an intergovernmental scheme of that sort the devolution barons – Drakeford and Donaldson, Nicola Sturgeon and maybe even a future first minister of England – might find a place ex officio, helping to make dual mandates more comprehensible and less open to charges of sleaze, and making it more likely that the parties will be able to elect the leaders they want.
The underlying difficulty, though, remains the abject failure of the UK parliament and the UK parties to either understand or adapt to devolution. Government in Britain was fundamentally reshaped by the creation of the Scottish and Welsh parliaments, plus the Northern Ireland assembly and the mayoralties. The parties were slow and resistant to change. Their rules and their thinking still reflect their reluctance.
The answer is neither to abandon devolution nor to embrace it with renewed fervour. It is to recognise its real strengths but also its real failings, and to adapt these lessons within a shared idea of Britain that is neither nostalgically reactionary nor grindingly utopian. This is not an argument for Andy Burnham to be the next Labour leader, or for him not to be. But it is an argument for him to be able to stand. It is an argument for parties opening up the rules a bit more, and for recognising the kind of country we have become. Do that, and we might be on the way to solving the Burnham problem.