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Does Manchester need the Tories? Labour's virtual dictatorship isn't working

Probably reads The Guardian (Leon Neal/Getty Images)


August 19, 2022   6 mins

“It’s just not something I talk about to people. It’s almost a heresy not to read The Guardian here.” Diane lives in Didsbury, one of Manchester’s most affluent suburbs. But even here, among the neatly pruned hedges, she feels isolated as a Conservative. There are Tories in Didsbury, perhaps a few hundred, but most of them vote for the Liberal Democrats. Didsbury used to have a Tory MP, Diane reminds me, but not since the Seventies.

Manchester is a city where people take great pride in not kissing Tories, not knowing any Tories, and definitely not electing a Tory to the city council. As in every other northern city, there are no Conservative MPs representing Manchester in parliament. But today, Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak will arrive for yet another leadership hustings.

They shouldn’t expect a warm welcome. They’ll be greeted outside the conference centre by the serried ranks of Manchester’s Left: the CND, the TUC, a local refugee charity and the people campaigning against having police officers in schools. “I have some good Manc Tory info for you but only if my placards are being put on the news,” one activist texted me yesterday.

“Manc Tory info” is in short supply, for the simple reason that there are hardly any Tories here. The party hasn’t had a councillor in Manchester since the Nineties and managed to gain fewer than 10,000 votes at this year’s local elections, less than 10% of the vote share. As a result, 91 of the city’s 96 councillors are Labour.

“It simply isn’t healthy to have this monopoly,” says Diane, recalling a time before the coalition destroyed the Lib Dem brand here, when it was conceivable that Labour could lose control of the town hall. “I resent the loss of an opposition in the City Council,” she says. And she’s right to be worried.

Labour has built a formidable electoral machine in this city, one that has maintained its grip on the working-class communities in the north of the city while benefiting from the influx of liberal young university graduates elsewhere. As a result, the city lacks meaningful political dissent: Manchester is a place where voters have handed Labour a virtual dictatorship but where the trains don’t run on time.

What is strange about this leadership contest is how detached it is from the issues that determine life here: the dreadful transport links to London or other northern cities, or the way in which energy bills and rising food prices are making every weekly shop stressful for poorer families.

If Truss and Sunak arrive by train this morning, they may get a taste of the nightmare that is playing out on the line from London, where Avanti West Coast has cancelled the majority of its services after staff “withdrew their goodwill” and refused to work overtime to keep services running. On Wednesday, passengers on one of the company’s trains were locked in a station late at night and had to scale a seven-foot spiked gate to escape.

These northern rail disasters don’t tend to get prominent national news coverage in the way they would if they happened in London. And generally speaking, they wouldn’t happen in London, which has benefited from decades of massive investment from Whitehall. As Mike Emmerich points out in his book about reviving Britain’s cities, real change only comes from “doing the right things, at scale, for a very long time”.

Liz Truss says she is committed to delivering Northern Powerhouse Rail — the much-needed new line connecting the northern cities — in full, rather than the pound-shop version laid out in the government’s recent Integrated Rail Plan. It hasn’t been a core theme of her campaign, but it would be hugely welcome. But real levelling up, as the Cambridge economist Diane Coyle told me recently, will involve changing Treasury funding formulas that have consistently benefited the South East, as well as a concerted effort to boost productive industries and create well-paid jobs across the region. Yet there’s plenty of evidence that candidates are planning to do the exact opposite.

Earlier this month, for instance, Sunak remarked in Tunbridge Wells that he had changed Treasury funding formulas because the ones he inherited from Labour “shoved all the funding into deprived urban areas”. The comment did him no favours in Manchester, where it reminded voters of the virulently anti-urban Toryism of the Thatcher years — the period that, along with the past decade of austerity, still frames this city’s view of the party.

“I remember a fist fight in my ex-wife’s family when someone said they voted Tory,” says Pete, who grew up in the city in the Sixties. “It’s deep, it’s visceral. If you lived through 1981 or 1982 in this city, you would know why.”

He mentions Patrick Minford, an adviser to Thatcher who’s now considered Truss’s economic guiding light, whose plan to close unproductive heavy industry caused devastation in areas like east Manchester. The Tory government, most people here believe, didn’t care about those who were losing their jobs and wasn’t willing to invest in their communities to soften the blow. “They completely fucked this city,” Pete says. “The absolute dogmatic ideological cynicism with which they did it was what turned these great cities into total fucking basket cases.”

Nowadays, Manchester in the process of rapidly un-fucking itself. From my office on St Ann’s Square you can often see more than a dozen cranes at work; one estimate says the city has more tall buildings in the works than any European city outside of London. The city centre is filling up at incredible speed — up from hundreds of residents in the Nineties to tens of thousands today.

Who deserves the credit? One Tory who does betray excitement about Manchester’s growth is George Osborne, whose Northern Powerhouse project was rooted here. “Manchester is buzzing — it’s one of the most exciting cities in Europe, it’s the go-to place for people who want to set up businesses outside London,” he told me last year.

I was interviewing Osborne for a profile I wrote about Sir Richard Leese, the man credited with overseeing Manchester’s economic renaissance this past decade, who stepped down as leader of the city council last year after a 25-year reign. Leese was a Labour pragmatist who gave private sector investors a leading role in the rebuilding of the city, and in doing so deeply antagonised figures on the Left. In a city with no prominent Conservatives, Leese was cast as a Tory by housing activists who felt he was “selling the city” and ignoring the need for affordable homes. One even emptied a glass of red wine over him during a fringe event at last year’s Conservative conference in Manchester.

The dislike was mutual. “They’re middle class tosspots and I hate them,” I overheard him saying at a drinks event last year. Leese understood the old adage that you don’t have allies — you have interests. And while other northern leaders didn’t want to be seen taking money or favours from Tory governments, Manchester’s Labour leadership was willing to criticise the Tories in public while cooperating with them in private.

“Everyone used to say ‘Oh, he’s favouring Manchester,'” recalls Osborne. “Well the truth was, yes, it was the city I knew best. But it was also because they had the most original ideas. They would come to the Treasury with ideas about how to finance the metro system or how to get money into the cultural sector or how to support school reform in the city. And you just didn’t get those ideas from the other big cities of England.”

Andy Burnham, whose job was created by the historic devolution deal Greater Manchester struck with Osborne in 2014, has learned lessons from Leese’s tenure. Burnham’s best-known moment as mayor was his public confrontation with the government two years ago over lockdown funding. But the “King of the North” has generally chosen diplomacy over pitch battles with Tories in Westminster. The council leaders who sit with him around the Greater Manchester table have urged Burnham to be more critical of the government at key moments — for example after the recent announcement of an underwhelming bus funding package — but have been left disappointed.

As the Tory leadership race rumbles on, Burnham and his officials have been negotiating with key figures in Whitehall over their promised “trailblazer deal” — the next instalment of devolution. The mayor wants more funding and powers in areas like education, and someone involved with the talks told me they are getting a positive response from some Whitehall officials.

“The problem is, we don’t know who we are really negotiating with,” one insider told me last week. It won’t be civil servants who sign off a new devolution settlement or “levelling up” policy — it will be Truss or Sunak. So when the candidates arrive today, they will likely be greeted with more charm by the power-brokers in Manchester — behind closed doors, of course — than by the activists out on the street.

This sums up the nature of political debate in Manchester, which takes place, as far as it exists, within a closed shop. Scrutiny will be kept to a minimum and local problems, such as the skyrocketing rates of homeless people living in emergency accommodation, will remain unsolved. Meanwhile, Diane is unlikely to get her wish of being represented by a Conservative councillor or MP in the next few years. But I think she’s right to ask the question: wouldn’t Manchester be better if it had more voices in the room?


Joshi Herrmann is the founder and editor of The Mill.

joshi

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Norman Powers
Norman Powers
1 year ago

People in the north (where I’m from originally) never seem to have accepted that the broken industries that went down in the 80s weren’t maliciously killed by Thatcher, they were dead already, she simply ended the theatre of dressing up the corpses in clothes and pretending they were still alive. If they’d been healthy competitive companies they wouldn’t have died the moment state support was withdrawn, but decades of a “it’s not our fault it woz fatcher innit” mentality has stopped people from accepting that.
So it’s an endless circle of problems – who would want to try and set up a new company in a place where everyone is proud to be as left wing as possible (=they see management as enemies not friends which is the last thing you need when trying to build a firm), then without new companies they can’t move on from the past, and the poverty that results keeps people voting left wing so the cycle repeats.
It’s really sad. It also holds the rest of the country back (like Scotland is doing). The north means even the Tories have to worship the NHS even though it’s now in open collapse. What can be done about that sort of leftism?

Phil Mac
Phil Mac
1 year ago
Reply to  Norman Powers

I’m from Liverpool, and I can tell you they’ll never get over it, and as a result it’ll never rise above the ingrained sense of dependant entitlement.
Its like there’s pride in failure because it just proves how everyone else holds them back. They even manage to complain about probably the cleverest football club owners in the Country who turned LFC around from 30 years of decline.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago
Reply to  Norman Powers

“Death before Resurrection”.

Axel Kats
Axel Kats
1 year ago
Reply to  Norman Powers

Germany proves that another way was possible. She helped South England adjust to the economic realities of the 21th century, but took the North back to the 18th. And the whole country is still paying the price.

Anne Torr
Anne Torr
1 year ago
Reply to  Norman Powers

It’s the same story in Newcastle where the LibDems had a taste of power in the Council but lost to further hegemony by Labour. And the people wonder why nothing changes when they have the same old, same old in charge for ever. As Oscar Wilde put it – a triumph of hope over experience.

SIMON WOLF
SIMON WOLF
1 year ago

What is missed out in this article is that ever since Manchester and Liverpool became dominated by Labour they have used the Local Govt machine as a propanganda machine for left wing views.The one that got away was Brexit.On the evening of the referendum i had a social event in Tameside with 20 mostly working class local people and it turned out only 2 of us (the 2 bohemian people present) were voting remain .In the 2019 election the Tories came within 1000 votes of taking what had been a very safe labour seat there.What the Tories need to do is a U-turn on Net Zero and take on the green red left on energy policy.

Ian Morris
Ian Morris
1 year ago
Reply to  SIMON WOLF

Yes its so blindingly obvious. Net zero is pointless, irrelevant and not based on science. And yet it will make the poor even poorer. Why on earth cant the Tories see this. It’s an open goal to win back the red wall

Desmond Wolf
Desmond Wolf
1 year ago
Reply to  Ian Morris

Because the green movement is generally not calling for policies that make the poor poorer. Quite the opposite, if not implemented regressively (as it has been by the economic right here, in France, the Netherlands etc): insulating homes would save working people money, the green new deal would create proper paid, highly skilled jobs, renewable energy development would reduce our dependency on foreign energy (although of course national storage capacity needs to be expanded to avoid the ‘unreliables’ accusation) – unfortunately however our government isn’t doing those things

Lee Kenyon
Lee Kenyon
1 year ago

Just for information (as another Tory, originally from Manchester), Didsbury, as part of the Manchester Withington constituency, had a Tory MP, Fred Silvester, until the 1987 election. Didsbury Ward continued to be represented by three Conservative councillors until 1994. The last (elected) Tory councillor, Cllr Peter Hilton, lost Didsbury in the May elections of 1996. He’s now the President of the Manchester Conservative Association. The absence of any Conservative representation — or alternative to the dominant left-wing voice — on the city council is indeed a sad loss, not least given the very long and distinguished service of the Tories in the city (Dame Kathleen Ollerenshaw, Nellie Beer, Eveline Hill, Harold Tucker, etc.) throughout the 20th century.

Ann Ceely
Ann Ceely
1 year ago

I thought that Manchester was given a Mayor with additional spending money – Andy Burnham, I believe. What’s he done?
Over on Tees-side the Mayor there seems to be running a Free Port and investing in manufacturing!
What’s wrong with Manchester? Are they sitting down with their feet up?

Chris N
Chris N
1 year ago

I feel so isolated as a single parent conservative party member in likely the most socio economically run down neighbourhood in Manchester that im relocating to a more conservative city in the South. The lack of motivation to improve ones lot is incredible. I refuse to have my child grow up thinking this life attitude is acceptable.

Last edited 1 year ago by Chris N
Andy Moore
Andy Moore
1 year ago

The simple answer is no, they don’t need the Tories. Apart from London, the NW, you can also add the NE, receive more funding than any other region in England including the SE. What would having a few Tory MPs do for them. Burnham is clear going for more power, which is the next logical step.

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
1 year ago
Reply to  Andy Moore

The problem is that so many people only think of London when they think of the SE. I have heard many work collegues who relocated from the North to central southern England saying that they were unaware that there was any poverty in the South, they believed that everyone was sitting pretty here; food banks in the South was something that they could not conceive of.

Last edited 1 year ago by Linda Hutchinson
CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago

Deprivation in parts of London is also Dickensian,
as a stroll around Tower Hamlets will quickly reveal
The pampered parasites of Quislington are the exception not the rule.
Fortunately London is policed by, as we used to say “the finest Police Force money can buy”, so there is no cause for concern


..yet.

Richard Slack
Richard Slack
1 year ago

Islington has some of the highest levels of deprivation in the country

Tom Scott
Tom Scott
1 year ago
Reply to  Andy Moore

Do you have any evidence to support this?

Andy Moore
Andy Moore
1 year ago
Reply to  Tom Scott
Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
1 year ago
Reply to  Andy Moore

Thanks for this link – very interesting.

Russell James
Russell James
1 year ago

The article doesn’t fit its headline. How is it Labour’s fault that consecutive Conservative governments have invested so little in the north? (And, from what they have been telling us, whoever wins this drawn-out leader contest will continue in the same vein.)

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
1 year ago
Reply to  Russell James

Conservative governments have invested huge amounts in the North. It’s just that as it’s in large part via public sector salaries it’s not very obvious.