Roughly one in four of the people who voted in Greater Manchester’s first mayoral election voted for Conservative candidate Sean Anstee. His campaign manager Nick Kilby reflects on taking the fight to overwhelming favourite and ultimate victor, Labour’s Andy Burnham.
At a reception in Manchester in late June 2016, Sean Anstee said he intended to stand to be the new Mayor of Greater Manchester, what did I think? My initial thoughts remain as true today as they did then. It was Labour’s to lose, yet the Northern Powerhouse was a Conservative policy. The Conservative candidate needed to be passionate about the role and the new combined authority. It was important for the key issues to be debated, not lost in a lacklustre campaign or for that matter a coronation of one candidate. It also couldn’t do any harm for Sean to raise his profile outside Trafford. Sean agreed and asked if I would be chairman of his campaign. “Erh, I am not from here, I am from London!” He laughed and said: “That’s a yes then”. I retorted “Only if we actually try to win, it would be dull otherwise!” And so, our journey began.
- Promote the role of the new mayor and combined authority and encourage a wider public debate about what could be achieved for the region thanks to devolution
- Develop Sean’s own political standing in the region and in the wider political community through, in part, him expressing his own personal passion for the Northern Powerhouse
- Promote a Conservative agenda that illustrates the way the mayoralty could benefit Manchester – making its own way in the post-Brexit world. Local goes global
- Support the work done by Sean and his nine fellow borough council leaders in creating the combined authority and its key policy objectives, including the GM Spatial Framework
- Contribute positively to raising awareness of the election and increase the number of people that actually turn out to vote (against a backdrop of poor turnouts for the police and crime commissioner elections)
On paper the task of winning looked impossible to achieve but without that goal the other outcomes would never have been achieved. The campaign had to have vision and energy and in a new scenario that was never going to be easy. The turnout for the Police & Crime Commissioner, the closest election there had been to the new mayoralty, was very disappointing [in 2012 the PCC election turnout was less than 14%]. We had to try to build enough interest to beat those turnout figures if the new mayor was to have an electoral mandate to be proud of.
Conservative Central Office focused on the “The Midland’s Engine” as its big prize; this left us to build our own campaign. Sean and I quickly convinced Colm Howard-Lloyd to be the campaign director. The Ground War would be run by the Conservative Northern team based in Salford and we would look to devise a campaign that covered our priorities, could be funded and make the biggest bang possible. We had wonderful support from Doug Ward of Tech Britain, a first-time supporter who felt Sean had the right vision. Soon we had found Paul Evans of Rumpus PR and Paul Barnes of We Are Brave, all taking part for the first time in a political campaign. The learning curve was steep but soon their creative energies and genuine excitement at working with Colm and Sean got things going and we launched the “From Here, for Here” campaign.
Yes, it was a dig at Andy Burnham, who by now had been selected by Labour but it was much more. It was Sean’s platform to express why it mattered to him that Greater Manchester had a mayor and how the Combined Authority which he had worked so hard to create with the nine other council leaders mattered.
One of the early debates was about the Greater Manchester Spatial Framework, already heated and controversial with Green Belt groups forming all over the GM region. Sean was firm that he would not duck the debate and it was important to him and his fellow council leaders that their efforts to protect the Green Belt and provide a robust planning framework for the region should be defended and explained. For me, it was a brave and honest move. Some will not agree but it was typical Sean, people may not support him for his position but it was the right thing to do. It also became a clear issue between Sean and Andy Burnham, who lost no time suggesting he would rip it up and start again. The nine Labour leaders who, like Sean, had been directly involved in the plan must have felt a little annoyed!
While all the local authorities have a proud history of working together, it had been a long time since the Conservative Party on the ground had. We found the resources and availability of active ground troops thin and we would have loved more support from sitting Conservative MPs but these challenges can all be overcome in three years’ time.
Significantly it was also clear that all the other parties had their own problems on the ground. It’s a reflection of modern life, as there are shortages of Scouts and Cubs leaders, school governors and charity supporters, it is also true that political parties now struggle more than ever to get volunteer support. This is not reflected in election expenses that still seem to assume every party has an army of free labour. We therefore decided to focus our spending power on a regional campaign with billboards, posters on transport routes and investment in social media, as much as we could.
The hustings, started by Place North West, have been one of the great triumphs of the GM mayoral campaign. So many organisation have staged hustings and Sean and Andy have attended almost every one. This has helped greatly in getting the issues that matter out into the public domain and I think helped spread the word that the Mayoralty was worth taking an interest in. It’s also true that the selection of Andy Burnham helped with his national profile but the great success was all the organisations, from every interest group and walk of life, who put their time into staging, promoting the meetings and encouraging their supporters to attend. Thank you to every group.
As the campaign developed it’s true to say we learnt there were more limitations of resources and budget than we expected. We always wanted to do more but struggled to get people to give up their time. We also found the lack of polling undertaken by the regional media disappointing but when they did, it wasn’t fun to read, for us at any rate, although for everyone it showed the mayoralty was getting slightly better traction than past experience suggested.
In the final weeks, it was clear that while it was Andy Burnham’s to lose, he was taking nothing for granted and making some extensive pledges and undertakings to secure the support of pressure groups.
The announcement of a by-election which was then trumped by the announcement of a general election all added to the drama of delivering a campaign and at points cemented the uncertainty as to how the voting public really felt about the entire concept of a Mayor for Greater Manchester. We remained focused however and the campaign largely unfolded as planned. We wanted more through the letter boxes, as one always does, but the ground troops could not have done moreand did what they did brilliantly.
Twitter was alive with praise and anger at Sean for his support of the Spatial Framework but on the whole, we had a positive online message to disseminate and people showed their support.
When election day came we knew that we had achieved much of our five objectives, the bookies and our instinct told us we would not stop Andy Burnham from winning but had we pushed the turnout up? Had we made it a clear two horse race? Had we created a platform for Sean Anstee to be the voice of the opposition in the new combined authority?
On election day, we again hoped for more troops on the ground, in the areas where we had strong GOTV [Get Out The Vote] operations the impact was noticeable. Thanks to the by-election in Trafford [marginal Broadheath ward was won by Labour’s Amy Whyte], we had an early insight into what Friday would hold. The Labour party had come out in force to support Andy Burnham. But even as we felt the disappointment that our efforts had not been better rewarded we also noticed the lower than expected voting for the Lib Dems – we had made it a two-horse race and Sean would have a solid mandate to act as opposition to Andy as mayor.
- RESULT RECAP: Turnout: 566,735 (28.9%): Andy Burnham, Labour, 359,352 (63.41%); Sean Anstee, Conservative, 128,752 (22.72%); Jane Brophy, Liberal Democrats, 34,334 (6.06%). Full results here
The day of the count was a very relaxed affair for the key team members, our role was done, it was for our agent to see the count process through to the results being declared. Our thoughts quickly moved on to the future.
Had we achieved our aims? Well yes, all but one. Sean, who as deputy chairman of the Authority, has a role he can automatically pick up to scrutinise the mayor. The elections in three years will have the benefit of greater awareness and the incumbent will have to answer for his track record. The success of the hustings has ensured that all the promised policy was public and now the new mayor faces a challenging three years in office, not long enough perhaps to do all he has promised.
Andy Burnham put in the time, took part in all public debates and is a seasoned political performer. He will now take on the mayoralty. He must quickly build a working relationship with the 10 borough councils that make up Greater Manchester as it is they who will have much of the say on what he can deliver in the next three years. I hope that he stays true to his word and makes the mayoralty genuinely work for all those he now serves, and is not tempted to use the role as a platform for national profile.
The Lib Dems will have to re-think their campaign; the candidate, genuine as I am sure Jane Brophy is, seems to be the only candidate not to have grown in stature during the campaign.
As for Sean, well he is only 29, he has his role on the combined authority, his standing regionally has grown and for many in the Conservative party he has grown tremendously as a political leader. As I travelled back to Piccadilly station, someone who had been working on the count said to me, “I am not sure Manchester was ready for a Conservative Mayor”, she may have been right but as with London that time will come and my money is on Sean Anstee being that Conservative Mayor of Greater Manchester, as after all, he is From Manchester, For Manchester.
Nick Kilby is chief executive of Cratus, a local government consultancy, cratus.co.uk