'He has failed abysmally': Meet the candidates vying for Andy Burnham's job

Ahead of the local elections on May 6th, The Mill hears from the people coming for 'the King of the North'

Dear Millers — with the local elections now less than two weeks away, we have been meeting the candidates who are taking on Andy Burnham in the mayoral race.

We asked four of the mayor’s key opponents what they think Burnham has done wrong, what they would prioritise if they got the job, and how their parties are faring down-ballot in the council races across Greater Manchester.

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By Joshi Herrmann

“We know it's a big ask,” says Laura Evans, speaking to me on the phone from her car during campaign stops in Bury. “It's a David and Goliath.”

To be clear, Evans is David, Andy Burnham is Goliath and the badly matched battle in the Valley of Elah is the mayoral poll on May 6th. “I expect to win,” Evans says towards the end of our conversation. “I'm going to win.”

Evans is the Conservative candidate for Mayor of Greater Manchester, meaning she has been given the unenviable task of overturning Burnham’s gigantic majority to deny him a second term in the job. In 2017, Burnham got 63.4% of the vote, almost three times the then Conservative candidate Sean Ansty’s 22.7%, and more than ten times the 6.1% posted by the Liberal Democrats.

But Evans says she meets voters every day who are disappointed with the mayor’s performance. “They feel he's failed on policing,” she says. “He has failed abysmally. And they don't feel he's done much.” Evans knows policing is Burnham’s weak spot, and she homes in on it with relish at every possible opportunity. You get the sense when watching the various mayoral hustings that the mayor wants to talk about transport, and Evans wants to talk about policing.

“I will put the buses under public control,” Burnham told viewers during a fiery debate hosted by Granada Reports this week, in which Evans repeatedly spoke over her Labour opponent. “And I will get policing back on track,” she said, interrupting him during his final pitch, “making sure people feel safe on their streets.” “It's his job to make sure policing is up to scratch,” she told me when we spoke yesterday. “Normally there is a flurry of activity after a report from the Inspectorate of Constabulary. There was nothing.”

Evans grew up with hearing issues and a speech impediment — “So I didn't have it particularly easy at school,” she says. That upbringing was in Kent, but she came to this neck of the woods in the mid-80s to study at Salford Tech, where she met her husband on the first day at the college. For most of her life, she’s run her own businesses, and she leans on those experiences to argue that she could attract more investment and revive Greater Manchester’s high streets. At one point, she and her husband had “quite a large business in fax machines” and now they have one that does fibre optics. It shows she understands technology and can move with the times, she says.

Having said that, Evans has shown a preference for analogue campaigning in recent weeks. Other candidates joke about how few hustings she has shown up for (there are dozens of digital hustings during the campaign, organised by various think tanks and lobby groups). Evans says she prefers spending time on the doorstep. “Some people think it's a really good Zoom-meeting all day long,” she told me. “The way this election is going to be won is people seeing me. I don't think I'm the best on a Zoom call.”

She was a councillor in Trafford for eight years, serving as an executive member for most of that time and ending in 2019. She thinks she has the recipe to save high streets across the city region, having been the council’s point-woman during the wildly successful redevelopment of Altrincham market. Aside from food markets, what would she do in declining town centres? “I would put homes in them,” she says. “I would dig them up and put parks in them. I would put leisure in there.”

It’s been noted that Evans is spending a decent amount of her time in Bury, which elected two Conservative MPs at the last election and is becoming fertile territory for the party. Tory activists are also feeling positive about Bolton, and they think there are pockets of Wigan and Tameside that show promise as well, where Boris Johnson is popular among voters (click here to read The Mill’s bumper local elections preview, including which wards to watch — members only).

In the rare moments where she isn’t talking about policing, Evans focuses on the economy. “For me, it's got to be about jobs,” she says. “I feel we are left behind in Greater Manchester.” She thinks there are big opportunities to attract green jobs to the city region, but only by working closely with her party colleagues in Downing Street. “Andy Burnham isn't going to work with the government. I will.”

In the Granada debate, Evans didn’t hold back in attacking the mayor, and she doesn’t while speaking to The Mill either. “He's a stale Labour party politician who clearly wants to go on and be the next Labour leader,” she tells me. “I would like to relieve him of his role here so he can go and do what he wants to do.”

'We are actually learning from one another’

Simon Lepori takes a very different tack to Evans. The young mayoral candidate for the Liberal Democrats is a chatty, collegiate character who likes building consensus and talking about the things the candidates have in common.

“We all agree on the issues,” he says, referring to his debates with Burnham and the Green candidate Melanie Horrocks — the hustings from which Evans has been absent, that is. “It's how you deal with them that we disagree on. “We are actually learning from one another,” he says, sitting on an armchair in The Mill’s office, wearing a checked shirt and brown leather boots. He cites Burnham’s proposal to allow some bikes on trams during off-peak periods, a policy advocated by the Greens and Lib Dems before he adopted it.

“Go down to local council level and we're biting chunks out of each other,” he admits. Lepori doesn’t seriously expect to win the mayoralty but hopes to scoop up more than 10% of the first preference votes, which would represent a much better outcome than his party managed last time. And he hopes there will be more yellow on the board across Greater Manchester after polling day. The party is confident of gaining councils seats in Rochdale, Stockport, Oldham and Manchester, but he says there will be some surprise results.

“We will see some oddities,” he says, “I think Bolton is a real opportunity for some crazy results. No one has overall control at the moment and the Conservatives are running the council with a mish-mash of independents.” When we meet, he’s recently received word of a Lib Dem defection to the Conservatives in the borough. His party’s big hope is to take Stockport from Labour by becoming the biggest party there — something they are quietly confident of doing (click here to read our special report about the battle for political control in Stockport — members only).

What’s it like running for mayor in a Labour stronghold like Greater Manchester, and against the so-called King of the North? “This city, yes, is dominated by Labour but it's not socialist hard-left Labour,” he insists. “The voters are moderate centrists at heart. They just want to get on with their lives, with good healthcare, good policing, decent public transport, clean air, safe streets, good schools for their kids.”

Lepori was born in Cumbria, and grew up in St Albans, where his mum was a nurse. He moved to Manchester in 2004, and he’s lived in Stretford for most of the period since. In that time he has worked in various healthcare roles — including nursing assistant, healthcare assistant and as an apprenticeship trainer for those roles — before joining the Lib Dems as a professional campaigns officer in Warrington in 2019. His professional background means he is particularly fluent when talking about healthcare, and is calling for public health funding to be brought up to the combined authority level so that Greater Manchester can respond more nimbly to threats.

He has been approached by people who say that his candidacy has given them a sense of pride, even if they aren’t planning to vote for him. “I've been quite open and honest about my personal life,” he says. “I'm an openly gay man.” He hopes a strong run will encourage other young people and people from groups that are under-represented in politics to step forward.

Not everything he says is genial and consensus-building. He criticises Burnham for the cultural issues within Greater Manchester Police. “He knows he's all over the place on it, and he knows it's his weakest point,” Lepori says. The Lib Dem candidate also spends a lot of time talking about the Greater Manchester Spatial Framework or GMSF, which he says has been “a colossal mess since 2016”, and how he wouldn’t put any new houses on green belt land, focusing on brownfield sites and re-zoning high streets for housing instead.

Evans has also made protecting the green belt a top campaign pledge, saying that she wants a proper register of brownfield land to be compiled. Housing experts tend to agree that it wouldn’t be possible to hit the government’s targets for new homes without re-allocating some of the green belt in Greater Manchester. Does Lepori think there’s an element of nimbyism in the arguments against the GMSF? "In some cases, yes, it is pure nimbyism,” he admits. “But in other cases, it's actually about protecting those green spaces because they know for the next two miles away from the house they have only got houses and roads, and no park,” he says (click here and here to read The Mill’s in-depth explainers of the GMSF — members only).

‘We've got to do it faster’

The other two notable challengers to Andy Burnham — the Green Party’s Melanie Horrocks and Reform UK’s Nick Buckley — could not be more contrasting in their outlooks.

Horrocks is a solicitor with a sunny, upbeat style of politics who talks about the climate emergency all the time, tweets that “trans rights are human rights” and wants to stop treating Manchester Airport “like a cash cow”. Buckley is just about the opposite: a cultural right-winger who thinks the “woke agenda” is stifling proper debate about the problems in our city, including anti-social behaviour in tough neighbourhoods, an issue he has focused on for decades as a council worker and then as the founder of the award-winning charity Mancunian Way.

Whereas Horrocks appeals to voters who want to take cars off the road and initiate a revolution in active travel, Buckley’s strongest support base is — he says — among taxi drivers who hate the idea of a clean air zone in Greater Manchester and are sick of career politicians telling them what to do.

Horrocks told The Mill that she hears her fellow candidate talking about a London-style transport system, but she would rather that we looked to the continent, where cycling and walking are linked up better with trams, buses and trains. “You can get on a tram in Oslo, go out with your mountain bike and come back on the tram. Why can't we do that?” she asks. “We've got amazing green spaces all around our city region — we need to be opening that up.”

She’s also critical of local leaders in Greater Manchester for their sluggish progress on getting to net-zero carbon emissions. "We've got to do it faster," she says. "Climate emergency motions have been passed and they are not being stuck to." The party has set up its own scrutiny group, which watches council meetings and monitors whether councillors are sticking to their commitments.

The Greens have one councillor in Tameside and three in Trafford, which they say gives them a much bigger voice on those councils. They are hopeful of getting their first seat on Manchester City Council in more than a decade in Woodhouse Park, Wythenshawe, where they have polled strongly in the past. The local candidate there says he has been heavily involved in the community, organising litter picks and making himself known to residents. His mantra is “Putting pride back into our area”.

Buckley from Reform UK (the rebranded Brexit Party) believes “It's the sense of entitlement that is killing our inner cities.” He grew up in a low-income household in Longsight and say he could easily have fallen into a life of crime. It’s for that reason that he doesn’t mind telling young people to take some responsibility for their behaviour — a form of tough love that won him an MBE for his work with Mancunian Way. “We just teach people how to sign on and be a victim,” he says. “We have whole estates that are just completely forgotten about, and they have been for a generation.”

Last year, during the global protests that followed the death of George Floyd, Buckley was briefly sacked by the trustees of his own charity for writing a controversial blog post in which he described the Black Lives Matter movement as a “new fashion craze”. The incident made him a hero on the right of the culture war, and he quickly won back control of the charity via legal action. When he met The Mill earlier this month he was unrepentant, saying he stood by the substance of his blog post and doesn’t believe institutional racism exists in the UK.

Who are his voters? Former Labour voters who think the party has turned on them, he says. “I think it's to do with the woke agenda,” he explains. “Labour never seems to be talking about the working class. I think they feel despised — that Labour is embarrassed about them.”

Buckley began his campaign talking a lot about rough sleeping and how he would resign as mayor if he couldn’t end it within a year in office. But he soon realised the issue wasn’t “getting much traction at all.” What is getting traction? The proposed clean air zone, which he likes to call a congestion charge. “I've had lots and lots of messages about that, he says.

He spends a lot of time in hustings talking about how the education system is letting working class children down. “If we're going to solve some of our social problems — crime, anti-social behaviour, left-behind communities — it can all be traced back to education,” he told us.

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 The full list of candidates standing for mayor is as follows:

  • Nick Buckley, Reform UK

  • Andy Burnham, Labour

  • Laura Evans, Conservative

  • Marcus Farmer, independent

  • Melanie Horrocks, Green

  • Simon Lepori, Liberal Democrats

  • Alec Marvel, independent

  • Stephen Morris, English Democrats

  • David Sutcliffe, independent


Next week: The Mill meets Andy Burnham and quizzes the mayor on his record in Greater Manchester and his future in politics.

Go deeper: To read all our local elections coverage, including our bumper guide to the council races, our special report from Stockport, our analysis of Andy Burnham’s manifesto and our upcoming stories from wards across Greater Manchester, join us as a member today by clicking here.