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Methods in Motion 28: Georgina Blakeley – Research in a turbulent political environment

15 September 2017
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Senior Lecturer in Politics Dr Georgina Blakeley outlines how a research strategy can be changed in response to unforeseen developments.

When asked ‘What is most likely to blow governments off course?’ Harold Macmillan (British Prime Minister from 1957-1963) is said to have replied ‘Events, dear boy, events’. This well-known maxim holds true for students and researchers of Politics, who may find their neatly defined research projects blown off course by a changing political environment.   

Metro-mayors, and the combined authorities they lead, are a major constitutional innovation in English politics, which makes them worthy of research attention.  Yet, as this blog will outline, the turbulent political environment characterised by the Brexit referendum and the 2017 snap general election has complicated attempts to scope a research project around them.

Elections for metro-mayors, the brainchild of the then Chancellor George Osborne, were held in May 2017 in six city-regions: Cambridgeshire and Peterborough; Greater Manchester; Liverpool City Region; the Tees Valley; the West of England; and the West Midlands. The Conservative candidate won in four of these city-regions while Labour won in two, Greater Manchester and Liverpool City Region. The most surprising result was the Conservative victory in the Labour stronghold of the Tees Valley. This upset was the first political event to affect our research project.

Along with two colleagues, I had been researching the metro-mayoral election campaigns in Greater Manchester, the Liverpool City Region and the Tees Valley. The comparison between these three city-regions built upon and advanced our knowledge of politics in the north-west of England, a topic we had been researching for over a decade.

Each of these city-regions faced the challenge of deindustrialisation and its attendant problems; each felt left behind by Westminster politics. All three were Labour Party heartlands, although the Labour tradition in each area was different. They were united in their support for the much-vaunted Northern Powerhouse (an attempt to rebalance the UK economy away from London and the South-East) and it was anticipated that their metro-mayors would provide the three with a collective voice.  Each city-region, however, has different powers, agreed as part of devolution deals individually negotiated with central government.

Having produced analyses (see blogs) covering the powers of the metro-mayors, the themes of each election campaign, the nature of the elections as second-order elections, the campaign techniques used and the results and turnout, our aim was to explore the first three-year term in office of these new metro-mayors in order to understand how each candidate used soft power to develop the role from its tightly-defined set of hard powers. 

We had already conducted interviews with each of the candidates and council leaders in the constituent authorities of the city-regions. We had undertaken textual analysis of the election manifestos, we were participant observers during campaigning by activists and we had attended the numerous hustings which became a novel feature of these election campaigns. The next phase of our project would take a similar mixed-methods approach.  

The defeat of Labour’s candidate in the Tees Valley, however, led us to change research strategy. We moved to a comparison between two city-regions, where two Labour metro-mayors – Andy Burnham and Steve Rotherham – are likely to work together to ensure that devolution progresses.  Greater Manchester and the Liverpool City Region can be understood as atypical in comparison to the other four city-regions, as each of them has a fairly well-defined geography and identity in addition to a metro-mayor with a relatively high profile. We see them as political laboratories in which new ideas and ways of governing may be tested.

The second event affecting our research project was the woeful performance of Theresa May in the 2017 general election. The resulting weakened position of the Conservative Government, in tandem with Brexit, has diverted national attention away from city-region devolution.  Without its champion George Osborne, English devolution could run out of steam. The Labour Party remains lukewarm towards devolution; and the office of metro-mayor is a statutory creation by Parliament that Government could decide to abolish.   

Political winds blow hot and cold and can affect the design of a research project, particularly one examining a political innovation whose very existence can be called into question. It remains the case, however, that English metro-mayors and their combined authorities are an innovation in English politics, and it is therefore incumbent upon both the office-holders and academics to ensure we learn as much as possible from these new governance structures, whether or not they are here to stay.  

For there to be any hope of delivering the economic growth and improved public services which city-region devolution promised, we need research to inform the metro-mayors and combined authorities before the next election in 2020. And, most importantly, any research must also inform the general public, if the aim of revitalising democracy – always a poor third to the main motivations of economic growth and improved service delivery – is not to be sidelined.

 

Georgina Blakeley is a Senior Lecturer in Politics and Director of Teaching for Politics, Economics, Development and Geography, in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the Open University.