Andy Burnham said the UK is “drawing a line” under Brexit after Leave-voting Hartlepool replaced Labour with the Conservatives in the by-election last week.
The Manchester mayor, who was re-elected last week with a massive 67.3 per cent of the vote, was asked whether reviving industrial regions in the UK could drive a movement to rejoin the EU by The London Economic at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.
Burnham said: “I think they have very much switched from the Labour Party perceived to want to stay in the EU as was, and people are embracing the fact that this is a new reality now in the UK, and I think that’s the way everybody needs to embrace it.
“But the way we will approach things is to be true to Manchester’s international perspective on life, its European roots, we want to carry on working with our partners and find a way of making Brexit work for our communities.”
Brexit ‘exposed regional divides’
Burnham said Brexit has exposed a “wide divide” between UK’s regions: “It has broken out this issue of regional inequality and now the Johnson government want to level up.”
He said he is “skeptical” about whether the Tories will actually follow through on this.
But he said he is glad this is now number one on the political agenda.
“In all of my life, having spoken out for the North of England in Parliament, I’ve never seen regional inequalities as the top issue in British politics. Well, now it is.”
He said rejoining the EU is ‘gone’ but Scotland should be a cause for concern: “I think it’s more of an internal debate that is going to go on in this country now about how do we get regional equality, rather than everyone talking about how quickly we can rejoin the EU.
“That’s gone I am afraid, maybe for now, or maybe forever, I don’t know.
“Now it’s about how does this Union of the UK hold together, because it could break down with things that are happening in Scotland.”
UK is ‘overcentralised and regionally unbalanced’
Mr Burnham also talked to TLE about British politics, past and present.
He said that the Westminster political system has created the north-south divide in the UK and that industrial areas have been “absolutely” abandoned.
He said: “I’m afraid the 80s were grim in this part of the UK, where the traditional industry left and there seemed to be a view that we could fund the whole country via the city of London and the service economy and that’s been really difficult but I think we are only just emerging out of it now. British politics is too London-centric.
“Now we have a government saying it wants to level up the UK, so we will see. But, you know, it’s a big big job, because it’s still a case that simple things like public transport cost so much more in my city than they do in London. How could that possibly be right? It’s because London got a mayor 20 years ago and all the governments have funded London and the Olympics and all of those things.”
He added: “We’re a very uneven country. In fact, we are the most politically overcentralised country in the OECD, with all power pretty much vested in Westminster but also one of the most regionally unbalanced. I think all these things are connected. You put all of the political power in one place, it tends to benefit that place more than it does everywhere else.”