The alternative shadow cabinet?

Will the new metro mayors lead to an alternative Labour shadow cabinet?

Under the Coalition Government, David Cameron and Greg Clark announced a proposal for a ‘Mayors Cabinet’ to give cities a voice at the heart of government. The proposal was linked to the policy being promoted by the Coalition to encourage cities to opt to move from a council cabinet model to a directly-elected mayoral model.

In 2012, 11 cities from Birmingham to Wakefield held referendums on whether to move to the mayoral model. But the proposal didn’t catch on and just two cities ended up with mayors as a result (Bristol moving to the mayoral system and Doncaster voting to retain their mayoralty).

The Mayors Cabinet idea thus fizzled out under the Coalition but is it about to enjoy a renaissance following the city region devolution deals that are now solidifying around the country? But instead of a cabinet of city mayors making proposals to the Conservative Government, it is more likely that we are going to see an alternative power base outside of Parliament springing up in the Labour party.

While the Coalition was unable to encourage city-dwellers to opt for the mayoral system voluntarily, the Conservative Government has used the carrot of significant devolutionary powers to encourage combined authorities to opt for the system without need of a referendum.

Following the General Election of this year, a number of Labour politicians appear to have now woken up to the fact that these new metro mayor posts offer a significant opportunity both for profile building and to actually make a real difference. MPs who have indicated or declared an interest in running for metro mayor status include Andy Burnham for Manchester and Luciana Berger and Steve Rotherham for Liverpool.

The latter two would find themselves up against the current Mayor for Liverpool, Joe Anderson in what would be a fascinating contest between local leadership and Westminster campaign machinery. Other names being linked with a run at metro mayor status include Caroline Flint or David Blunkett in Sheffield and Emma Reynolds in the West Midlands. Most of the names being touted tend to be seen as outside of the main Corbyn camp, more in the modernising element of the Party and reconsidering which direction their careers should take.

Ben Harrison at the Centre for Cities has blogged on what the attraction might be, particularly for Labour MPs looking to move from Westminster to a city hall – broadly, an opportunity to build profile, to govern and to make a real difference to people’s lives, which is why most will have got into politics in the first place.

The majority of elections to these new metro mayor posts will take place in 2017. So what does this mean for the Labour Party in Parliament? Looking at the city regions in question – Liverpool, Manchester, the North East, Tees Valley, the West Midlands and Sheffield – Labour would have a strong opportunity in each.

While it isn’t guaranteed that MPs would be selected to contest each of them, the full slate could see a significant brain drain from the Westminster Labour party to the cities. That would dilute the already limited ministerial experience around Corbyn but more importantly would provide those MPs who might not be aligned with the current leadership with a significant platform outside of Parliament to promote their views. A hallmark of the successful city mayors – looking particularly at London – has been their ability to be independent from their party leaders and redefine their political position in office.

From 2017, the British public may be presented with two different models of the Labour Party – the Westminster one, built on Corbyn’s leadership, and then one built on Labour in power in metro areas across the country. There is a real chance that these city leaders become an alternative opposition voice to the Government, with a profile that matches or even drowns out the official opposition in Westminster. Whether this benefits or undermines Labour remains to be seen. It could see the Government fighting on two fronts – both inside Westminster and without – or it could do even more to divide the Labour Party. However, the old Greg Clark plan for a cabinet of city mayors appears now likely to emerge, this time more by accident than design.