Head North by Andy Burnham and Steve Rotheram review – northern mayors’ manifesto for hope | Politics books

Head North by Andy Burnham and Steve Rotheram review – northern mayors’ manifesto for hope | Politics books

Never in living memory has the north of England felt so far removed from the economic and political power base of London. That the most – the only? – prominent northern accent in the House of Commons currently belongs not to a sitting MP but to the speaker, Lindsay Hoyle, speaks volumes about the complete disenfranchisement of northern influence in how Britain is currently run.

Step forward then Andy Burnham, a one-time potential Labour party leader who wisely recognised that making significant change within Westminster is often a thwarted and thankless task, survivable only by the biggest egos or the borderline psychopathic. However, as mayor of Greater Manchester he has rolled up his sleeves and dug deep into local politics and community policy making, and consequently proven himself to be that increasingly rare breed in the 2020s: a genuinely popular politician. Some still consider him to be a possible future PM, and with Head North he certainly stakes a claim as an individual with a clear vision not yet jaded by three decades in the cesspit of politics.

For many northerners, arguably the only thing more annoying than a train infrastructure that no longer works is the fact that they are continuously compelled to defend their region; the chips that are carried on shoulders have been put there by circumstance rather than choice. Take, for example, the 2010-2015 coalition government’s “northern Powerhouse” proposal to boost the economy. In fact, by 2019, 200,000 more northern children were living in poverty as a result of £3.6bn in spending cuts (versus a spending increase of £4.7bn in the south-east and south-west). And as for HS2, Rishi Sunak cancelled the crucial phase 2, which would have speedily linked the north to London and an increasingly distant Europe beyond.

Joining forces with metro mayor of the Liverpool city region Steve Rotheram, who was born just three miles away from him, Burnham interrogates such examples of neglect towards the north while offering a clear plan to improve living standards.

Though from different backgrounds – Rotheram was one of eight children and a bricklayer, while Burnham was at Cambridge – the pair were both politicised by close proximity to the Hillsborough disaster of 1989, and the false narrative that depicted Liverpudlians as perpetrators in the same decade that this internationally minded city was being put into managed decline. Little wonder the pair bonded over their outsiders’ distrust of Westminster, and have no problem calling Thatcher “the devil incarnate” today.

They’re also quick to correct the common misconception that “pro-north” equals “anti-London”, not least because Burnham ascended during New Labour’s glory years; though after some persuasion from Rotheram, he broke from Blair/Brownite consensus to ultimately return north, with the pair occupying newly created mayoral roles in 2017. Burnham was in at the deep end when Manchester Arena was bombed 14 days after he came to office – he found out from a screaming Rotheram, whose daughters were there: “In an instant I had that same feeling I had in 1989… sick to the pit of my stomach,” Burnham says.

There’s certainly a street-level approachability to the pair that’s sorely lacking in today’s leadership; you can’t imagine anyone in Sunak’s cabinet publishing photos from their 1980s building site days and hanging out with Paul Weller, or citing the June Brides and Boys from the Blackstuff as influences.

Their vision for equality appears workable and deceptively simple, and includes the renationalisation of public transport networks, some long overdue TLC for the NHS and a restructured education system as the engine for social mobility. When the purse strings are held fast by careerists who worship only at the altar of free market capitalism, it still all looks an alarmingly steep uphill struggle. At least Burnham and Rotheram are already proven entities among their constituents, having done positive work in tackling homelessness, public transport issues and fighting Boris Johnson for furlough funding during Covid, despite their entire delegation being muted on governmental Zoom calls. “I could just smell the bullshit,” writes Rotheram, whose commitment to his city was evident in his attendance at more than 2,000 events in one year, when Liverpool was the EU-funded capital of culture.

Andy Burnham (left) and Steve Rotheram with Hillsborough campaigner Margaret Aspinall outside Liverpool’s Anfield ground, May 2021. Photograph: Peter Byrne/PA

Their tangential career narratives also suggest that if the likes of Johnson and Farage can trade on their contrived “man down the pub” personas, then Burnham and Rotheram should be afforded serious consideration by those who prefer their representatives to be present, and whose politics are born of experience rather than privilege.

Not since Tony Blair 30 years ago have politicians advocated for the north from a place of understanding, while also acknowledging that there is no actual single “north”, there are infinite versions, and to view it as a homogeneous left-leaning, working-class, cloth-capped entity would be the same reductive thinking that has fuelled 14 years of Conservative punishment beatings. Go to Rochdale, to Middlesbrough or Blackpool to witness such economic discrimination.

Overseen by journalist Liam Thorp, who brings brevity and order, Head North ultimately offers hope to the northern regions when it is most needed, and reminds us that those politicians who refuse to toe the party line are often those who history remembers most favourably.

Benjamin Myers’s most recent novel, Cuddy (Bloomsbury), won the 2023 Goldsmiths prize

Head North: A Rallying Cry for a More Equal Britain by Andy Burnham and Steve Rotheram is published by Trapeze (£22). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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