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All power to Burnham’s northern alliance — the Tories must pay for their lockdown


THE failure to agree between the local authority leaders of Greater Manchester and the government is the issue over which the right-wing millionaire media have been predictably partisan.

And Dominic Raab — straying far and wide from his foreign affairs ministerial brief — seems set on establishing his canine credentials as the government’s rottweiller. Exactly on cue, he said that Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham should agree to the highest level of measures in the government’s three-tier scheme.

This exercise in breathtaking hypocrisy by a minister in a government that has dithered over every stage in the unhappy course of this pandemic is unlikely to convince anyone that the government is in control of the situation or has a clear strategic grasp of the measures necessary to contain and eliminate this infection.

The fact is that weeks ago the government’s own Sage advisers told it that a nationwide lockdown was necessary to interrupt the rise in infections and allow time for the full range of measures to deal with the pressure on the NHS and social care.

The Foreign Secretary said Burnham was “effectively trying to hold the government over a barrel over money and politics.”

Of course he is. He has a powerful local mandate. This is his job.

If the government had, from the beginning of this crisis, adopted a collegiate approach and insisted on a powerful centralised and co-ordinated approach to dealing with the pandemic, then there might be higher levels of trust. As it is, there is very little about the government’s language that allows for any reasonable expectation that help on the scale needed will be forthcoming.

Wherever Labour’s local political leaders have the power to impose exhaustive measures to control Covid-19, they do so. Mark Drayford is imposing a circuit-breaking lockdown in Wales. The Scottish government takes a similar approach.

In England, this power resides exclusively in the hands of the national government. Burnham doesn’t have this power and lacks the financial and material resources to do what is necessary. This, and the manifest unfairness of a partial, uneven and discriminatory allocation of resources combined with a very real fear of the local and regional economic consequences of a lockdown, is what is driving the concerns of a united front of northern mayors.

This northern alliance is nominally between Burnham, North Tyne mayor Jamie Driscoll and Steve Rotheram, mayor of the Liverpool City Region; but, in fact, there is a sense, even among government supporters, that the north is a testing ground for a government policy that is regarded by its own scientific and medical advisers as of dubious value.

When the mayors say, as they did today: “The government is claiming that the north is divided and only interested in getting what we can for our own region: that is simply not the case,” they speak for more than the citizens they directly represent.

This is a high-stakes conflict in which Rishi Sunak’s manifest reluctance to pay the wages of the people expected to test government policy is a critical factor.

The government approach to the Covid-19 crisis replicates the Tories’ long-standing attitude to local government. Decisive power is concentrated in Whitehall, councils are starved of money, statutory duties are heaped upon them and the inevitable consequences of year-on-year cuts is blamed not on these factors but the cash-strapped councils at the sharp end.

With 21,000 new Covid-19 cases and the highest death toll since June, clear thinking based on expert advice is needed. With co-ordinated action at both local and national level, Labour has a real chance to shift government policy.

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