I Went to a DJ Battle Between Two UK Mayors

Can politicians be good DJs? I watched Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham do a B2B set with Liverpool Mayor Steve Rotheram to find out.
Steve Rotheram smiles behind the dj decks, wearing a cream jacket, white top and jeans, holding a can of beer.
Photo: Shaun Peckham

It’s Friday night and I’ve just inadvertently tried to get into a Central Cee gig at Manchester’s Depot Mayfield. “No, no. You’re at the wrong space,” says the door staffer checking my ticket, with just the hint of a smirk. “You need the queue with the old people.” Ooft.

It’s clear, then, I look as lame as I feel turning up to a B2B DJ battle – between two, er, politicians.


Tonight, in a venue just round the corner from where one of England’s most exciting young rappers is playing, I am off to see *checks notes* the Mayor of Greater Manchester compete against the Mayor of Liverpool in a royal record rumble.

Labour big beasts Andy Burnham and Steve Rotheram are billing their evening as a fight for their respective cities’ musical pride – all while raising money for homeless charity A Bed Every Night.

Yet, strictly speaking, Manchester versus Liverpool feels like a secondary question here. The more intriguing conundrum: who on earth comes out on a weekend night to watch two middle-aged politicians playing records? And, well, are they any good at it?

Mayor Andy Burnham behind the DJ decks dancing with Angela Raynor and other Labour party officials.

Photo: Shaun Peckham

The format tonight at The Warehouse Project’s Archive room – a 600 capacity space that’s seen the likes of Dusky play – is simple enough. Burnham plays one song from Manchester. Then Rotheram plays one from Liverpool. In between, there is mucho banter about city football rivalries, the M62 and the Tory party being, as guest DJ and Hacienda legend Clint Boon articulates, a “bunch of cunts”.


The music is as you would probably expect. It begins with Oasis (“Rock n Roll Star”) and The Beatles (“Helter Skelter”), and never strays far from that template. All the usual suspects are here: The Stone Roses, The La’s, The Smiths, The Lightening Seeds, Joy Division, The Coral. It probably says something that the most contemporary track played is “Not Nineteen Forever” by The Courteeners. (Which is from 2008.) Oh, and there’s nothing as complex as mixing going on here.

All the same, Burnham and Rotheram – joined by guests including Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner, 80s indie singer Ian McCulloch and ex-footballer Peter Reid – appear genuinely in their element. They look, perhaps, like unusual superstar DJs. One is pure teacher-at-school-disco (Burnham, in glasses and a dark shirt). The other is more uncle-at-wedding (Rotheram, in a cream blazer-jacket-hybrid and white sweater).

DJ Clint Boon holds a microphone while wearing a long cream jacket. He has white hair.

Guest DJ and Hacienda legend Clint Boon. Photo: Shaun Peckham

Yet, stood up there for a solid three hours, the pair’s enjoyment is obvious for all to see. They dance, they hug, they wave their microphones and cans of Asahi larger about. “Thissss songggg,” shouts Burnham for… well, pretty much every song he bangs on. It’s pure hair down territory. The only awkward moment may be when Rowetta – another special guest – appears to joke about heroin. Musician Lee Mavers, she says, preferred Manchester to Liverpool in his youth because he could get better gear here. Both politicians visibly flinch.


The crowd, for its part, is probably not quite as vintage as the Central Cee geezer made out. Sure, there are plenty of people here who, like Rotheram (61) and Burnham (52), will remember bands like Joy Division, James and The Farm (ask your da’) in their prime. Yet, there’s also no shortage of 20-somethings bouncing around and spilling their fiver-a-can beer. Who are these people? Shouldn’t they be out taking ket and getting lairy at a proper gig on a Friday night?

Andy Burnham wears glasses and a black shirt and looks into the camera holding a microphone while DJing on decks.

Andy Burnham, Mayor of Greater Manchester. Photo: Shaun Peckham

“Why am I here?” ponders 29-year-old Dale Burden, as “Panic” by The Smiths roars into gear. “I’m a Labour supporter, I’m from Leigh [where Burnham was an MP for 16 years, up to 2017], and I love this kind of music. So, it felt like a good night all round.”

Fair enough, but shouldn’t politicians be concentrating on their day job instead of pretending to be Radio 1’s Jack Saunders? “It’s Friday night,” comes Burden’s reply. “They’re entitled to do something they enjoy in their downtime – especially if that also happens to raise thousands of pounds for charity.”

What of Burnham himself, though? Long-tipped as a future Labour Party leader (he’s run for the position twice before), could this be seen as a cold-eyed calculation to broaden his support base by nakedly displaying a human – even a (moderately) cool – side? Is DJing at a Warehouse Project venue essentially the indie version of Matt Hancock crawling through a trough of offal on I’m A Celebrity?


Another audience member, Louise Bowman, 23, reckons not. “This is just who Andy Burnham is, isn’t it?” says the railway worker. “I mean, he’s not Keir Starmer, is he? If you saw him [Starmer] suddenly going all Madchester, then I think you’d probably wonder what’s going on here. But everyone knows Burnham likes his rock ‘n’ roll.”

Steve Rotheram smiles behind the dj decks, wearing a cream jacket, white top and jeans, holding a can of beer.

Steve Rotheram, Mayor of Liverpool. Photo: Shaun Peckham

This may, in fact, be the key point: authenticity. Politicians who try to come off cool or relatable are – Sanna Marin possibly excepted – often playing with fire. From Gordon Brown suggesting he woke up to the Arctic Monkeys (he didn’t) to Ed Miliband going all mockney during an interview with Russell Brand, being normal can often seem out of reach for Westminster types. William Hague even managed to make going on a log flume with his kids seem weird.

Yet with Burnham and Rotheram tonight, it feels like this is precisely who they are: two blokes who, yes, lead the north’s two biggest city regions - but who also happen to enjoy channelling their inner Bez during “Step On”. Rayner, for what it’s worth, gives the same impression: like throwing shapes to N-Trance is the most natural thing in the world. Are we allowed to say it? She, sort of, rocks.

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None of the three, safe to say, are receiving £400,000 for doing this like Hancock is for his constituency-abandoning stint in the Aussie jungle. Nor, like the former health secretary, are they trying to rehabilitate scandal-hit public images.

So, sure I feel lame walking in, but, really, what’s wrong with politicians DJ-ing anyway? Aren’t we all multi-faceted, multi-dimensional creatures? Aren’t we all, to some degree, renaissance people – contradictory human packages of competing passions, interests and aspirations? Who’s to say that Central Cee, next door, doesn’t also have a keen interest in city devolution and urban transport policy in his spare time?

Tonight ends with some £20,000 being raised for charity and Burnham being declared the winner. Rotheram declares a rematch in Liverpool in the new year. Fair play to the pair of them. Rock ‘n’ roll stars, indeed.