Devo Manc and the Northern Powerhouse – are they a chance to change Greater Manchester for the better or are they just rhetoric? Michael Taylor looks at where the city is today, and says it’s time to seize the day.
Overshadowing so much of what social democracy can be in the next century is Scotland. Labour’s destruction there, the surge of the Scottish National Party, is underpinned by three major drivers: economic justice, national identity and a statecraft to address the other two.
In the North of England, I’m convinced of the need to address the first. In fact, everyone is. Where I see an opportunity is through devolution, federalism and empowerment at the most appropriate level that finds a way to tackle this economic imbalance. What is trickier to negotiate are the political and cultural structures that underpin this.
It hurts me to even mention the phrase Northern Powerhouse because it represents grand larceny in the form of George Osborne’s audacity of ambition (more about that later). But it is our future – a federal Britain with a chance to redraft profoundly different needs in cities and counties. A fairer country where we build an alternative to London dominance. We shouldn’t and mustn’t attack the Devo Manc agenda because we see it as a Tory plot, but embrace it as an opportunity to change the country for the better.
Out of the mouths of babes
At a pre-election forum at Stockport College, I was grilled by the students and staff. On reflection, in many ways it was my favourite meeting of the many I spoke at in the campaign, despite Labour getting a rough ride from some of the audience. Partly this was because I was asked probably the best question of the whole campaign, and it was this: ‘why do you think there will be good jobs for people like us?’
The answer wasn’t in the Labour manifesto, but it was the answer I was actually able to give with more conviction than any other. The answer is Manchester. It is laid out in the Manchester Independent Economic Review of 2009, and in the work of Greater Manchester’s whole project of renewal since 1996.
These include, for starters, the BBC move to MediaCity, Spinningfields, Airport City, The Corridor, Graphene, Nanoco, Alderley Park, NCC Group, Laterooms, TalkTalk and The Shed incubator at Manchester Metropolitan University. These are all occurring in a city region with momentum and attraction; culturally confident, competently run, imbued with fairness and as at ease with the language of enterprise as it is with the need for a changing infrastructure and how we care for people.
The second best question I was asked at one of the early hustings was whether I was opposed to a link road that ran into the constituency and connected us to Manchester Airport. Lots of local people are opposed to it, including our Conservative MP. Some aspects of the consultation have been heavy handed and some of the mitigation is inadequate, but I actually don’t think it was disruptive enough, and favour an extension right through our constituency to the M60 motorway. It’s an expression of whether we’re a suburb on the edge of the Peak District, or part of the outer reaches of an exciting and dynamic global city with a centre, pleasant suburbs and an international airport. Is it to be the kind of place I grew up in – a Northern town I couldn’t wait to leave – or somewhere I feel excited for my five children to grow up in, to reach their aspirations and contribute to the growing prosperity of their community?
Seize the day
Yet somehow Labour – despite having helped create the conditions for investment – nationally managed to mangle the issues, and then concede one of the greatest successes of a progressive Labour project, the Manchester Labour devolution strategy, by burying Andrew Adonis’ Growth Review, clearing the way for George Osborne to seize his moment. In a cruel stroke, he reduced a moment of magnificence to a tactical Tory sound bite.
It was on this issue that I was asked the very worst and most depressing question of my campaign. In a public meeting for Labour activists across the Stockport constituencies, our guest speaker Owen Jones, on the platform with me, was asked to join a ‘fight back’ against ‘the imposition of American-style Mayors’ by a Tory government, ‘setting up Greater Manchester to fail, like the Welsh NHS.’
In truth, the compromise of an eleventh member of the Greater Manchester cabinet – effectively the power that a directly elected Mayor will have – isn’t massively game changing. But the meeting spelled out the stark lack of buy-in for a devolution project that offers us an opportunity to shape our own destiny in ways that have never been granted before. Yes, it’s flawed, and yes, there is too much emphasis still on a sequence of dismal caveats, summed up in eight binding words – ‘at the discretion of the Secretary of State.’ But it’s a start. Just as Scotland was.
Can’t run before you can walk
There is now a wide open window for some creative energy to be installed into the campaign for a Greater Manchester Mayor in 2017 that not only seeks to build on the incredible range of powers devolved to Manchester, but to start thinking about what else can be done. What brighter future can be imagined? What does a Manchester Health network look like? How do we encourage the values of co-operativism in the delivery of public services across the whole of Greater Manchester? And how do we encourage ambition, innovation and prosperity in a cold climate?
We still have a lot of growing up to do, but maybe we can build on our successes, not just wallow in our defeats.
But there’s a weakness in the identity element here too, a massive deficit from the Scottish experience. Any regional English political project is inevitably tied to weary Westminster culture where we’re losing and seem hell bent on continuing to do so. If Scotland has taught us anything it is that the firm link between identity politics, aspiration and better governance has proved truly inspirational. Similarly in Catalonia.
There are pockets of surging civic flag waving but they are not a foundation upon which anyone is suggesting we can build a viable political project. But it could be. In this age of political easy answers it is not beyond the realms of the imagination that a popular, successful Mancunian, with no particular political ties, could emerge as a catalysing and insurgent force. What if Gary Neville thought he’d like a go? A Manchester Movement, led by a successful sports personality, a super-bright business achiever too, a well-connected property developer and savvy media performer. The more you game it, the more urgent it becomes to seize the opportunity to do a Greater Manchester version of our values in a bold, inclusive and distinctive way.
Much as I’d like it to be so, there isn’t a strong Greater Manchester identity anything like as historic and emotional as that which drove the Scots awakening and sustains support for some fairly poor statecraft under the SNP.
But maybe cities are different? More open, modern, globally focused and therefore less tied to a static view of nationhood. More English, in fact. For there has to be far more to a modern English identity than just Britishness with the Scots lopped off the top.
- Michael Taylor has written about his experiences of being a parliamentary candidate for Labour in the 2015 General Election in Labour’s Identity Crisis – England and the Politics of Patriotism, edited by Tristram Hunt MP.
- His debut novel 40 by 40 was a finalist in the 2014 Pulp Idol prize. He also curated Northern Monkeys, a history of northern working class fashion.