And they’re off… a great start to the GM Mayoral campaign

On Friday I had the pleasure of spending my evening with the Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat candidates vying to become the first Mayor of Greater Manchester.

The first debate in the build up to 4 May (no one referred to the date as Star Wars Day, much to my disappointment) was impeccably organised by Place North West and took place in the beautiful Midland Hotel, the birth place of Rolls-Royce and once the home of Stephen Fry. The guest list was a who’s who of Manchester property, construction, transport and infrastructure, and me.

Both Sean Anstee and Jane Brophy started their pitch for votes with an “I’m from Manchester” angle, something that we can expect to hear more of as they attempt to portray Andy Burnham as an outsider. For Burnham’s part, instead of just completely avoiding the issue, the Leigh MP reminded everyone that he represents a Greater Manchester seat. He also professed a great love of the North West, which sometimes felt like he was trying a little too hard.

Sean Anstee focused on his experience as leader of Trafford Council and his support of the Greater Manchester Spatial Framework; he did caveat this support with several well-made points on how the Framework should be presented to the public and that the focus must not be on the small amount of Green Belt land which is earmarked for development.

Jane Brophy seemed to refer almost exclusively to the NHS (she is an Allied Health Professional) and the benefits the EU has brought to Manchester; there were a few mentions of her opposition to Green Belt development too. As for GMSF, Brophy argued that its drafting has been a top-down process, with the Framework being imposed on local people, which is why there has been such a strong reaction to it from the public and politicians. She also observed that “we are building a sprawling 19th century city, while living in the 21st century.” Several people around the room visibly bristled at this point.

Andy Burnham, rightly, made it clear that he is the most experienced and senior politician in the race. Having served in several senior positions in government he is well positioned to comment on how he can deal on a par with politicians and officials in Whitehall. He laid the groundwork for this to be a pivotal part of his campaign whilst also linking his values to those of ordinary Mancunians.

Overall though Burnham’s experience shone, he handled the questions with relative ease and used his time to drive home the message that he is the only candidate with the experience to deliver what Manchester needs from its Mayor. Anstee was also impressive and very much on message with aspirational, but achievable, ideas. Brophy was less polished than the other two, occasionally straying into a re-run of EU referendum arguments.

It is clear from the debate that Burnham shouldn’t be measuring the curtains at Churchgate House just yet. Anstee’s performance matched his ‘rising star’ status within the Conservative Party and got one of the only rounds of applause on his support for the GMSF. With only 12 weeks to go until Polling Day, the mayoral contest looks set to be fascinating for political anoraks like me.

The full recording of the debate is available here, on Place North West’s Facebook page and you can read my live tweets of the event here. Please comment below with your thoughts on how the candidates performed.

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