By James Frith (@jamesfrith)
As we rub our eyes from the by-elections in Copeland and Stoke, our minds turn to May’s Mayoral elections. If Greater Manchester elects a Labour Mayor this May, Andy Burnham should start with the wards and towns it feels like Labour never got to in government.
Travelling about the north west you pass between areas where Labour’s time in government remains evident and those places where we’d have reached with just a few more years in power, I like to think.
Never afraid of its own magnificent self-promotion, Manchester is a beacon of Labour’s ability to recover, change, innovate, invest, lead and grow. But you don’t have to travel far to see the limits of a model which puts the city on a pedestal. And expects its boroughs, like Harpurhey or, further out, wards in Andy Burnham’s own constituency of Leigh, to join the queue and await transformation. These are the Leave Wards. They voted for change. And for better. Labour’s mayor should start here – with our poorest boroughs not the most powerful councils.
British politics is about homes and jobs. Let’s allow all rents to go partly towards a deposit to own a home? And on jobs, government at any level need not be just about lighting a pilot light but it can fan the furnaces too. A Labour Mayor should plan to grow existing and attract new growth industries putting sustainable jobs that come with this in the Leave Wards. On the ground, mayoral operations shouldn’t reflect the rebirth of the regional development agency but base itself as locally as possible, starting at ward level. The future is localisation.
Everyday-people want answers from politics to the problem they face everyday. For many, improving the journey to work will be the best impact the any Mayor can have. Transport remains one of the biggest problems facing our outer towns whether its a torrid time on the M60 or getting from home through town. The unregulated bus system is failing. Whilst profits rise, there are 6 Million miles of bus journeys per year fewer than 10 years ago. Our new Mayor should change the system and deploy buses accordingly, sharpening focus on the Leave Wards.
For all of Labour’s work setting up Sure Start, building schools for the future or creating walk-in centres to relieve the pressure on the NHS, we were impeded by time which we run out of in government. And now, these big gains are being lost. Nearly a quarter of all children ’s centres have gone, walk in centres are closing and the NHS faces collapse in some areas. Paramedics in Bolton spent a 12 hour shift outside the hospital queuing to get their patient in to A&E last month such was the shortage of beds and trolleys in corridors. Towns Labour did much to transform are facing the impact of cuts and huge losses of services. With places we didn’t reach remaining underfunded and overlooked. Labour’s challenge next time we govern is to enshrine its gains for the people into law. Let’s be brave and seal in law the provision of such socially accurate public services.
Spend any time in the Leave Wards of Greater Manchester, or round the country, speak to local Labour Councillors or door knocking party members in these areas and they raise the same problems. Rooted in poverty without a voice championing local problems at a national level of government of the poor, inadequate or non-existent housing, rising levels of crime, insecure or no work, poverty pay and poor prospects, they are left. Tory shires and boroughs aren’t lobbying Conservative Government ministers on these growing problems.
Labour faces its own voters not voting at all or turning towards UKIP and their cynical, easy, emotional answers to complex problems. There is a notion that ‘supporting UKIP’ includes not voting actually for them but simply not voting for the party you used to vote for. A short-hand for the non-voter or fed up voter registering their contempt. Certainly this can explain their parliamentary efforts to date whilst explaining poor turnout figures in Stoke compared to Copeland by-elections and a drop in Labour’s share of the vote in Stoke. Jack Dromey MP and campaign lead for the Stoke by-election said, following the result; ‘There is a view that Labour is no longer listening in the way it should do.’ And there is always the chance that come general election time, voters look to the Tories as they did in a two horse race like Copeland.
Consider Labour in Scotland, Brexit and now Trump. Nationalism, popular and emotional or gut instinct can trump logic, complexity and, very often, virtue. UKIP, as with Trump or the bloke in the pub, sell themselves as as a dart to the heart of the problems people are facing, offering emotional answers but fake news. Their language of confident disabandon feels fresh as well as traditional to those fed up with the couched terms and politically correct language of recent decades. Why shouldn’t the poorest and most overlooked speak bluntly as to how bloody fed up they are with politicians? Local issues chip away at people’s trust and faith in the established political parties and those who represent them. An assessment of the problem is not an endorsement of it though. Mimicking nationalism isn’t the answer either. The opportunity of a Labour renewal of city regions is to provide answers for the underfunded and overlooked. Start with them. And show we are listening as we ought to be. This begins with growing the local economy with a plan that generates income for our region.
Let’s bring a new wave of manufacturing to the North West. Not bringing back the pits or mills, but the mills of the mind – creative engines and service industries that many imported goods need from a local dynamic knowledge based economy. Skilled economies made from the great range of skills and abilities we have with access to lifelong learning for those of us learning anew. Let’s adapt to this, finally join up our training and skills provision with our brilliant universities, businesses and train all levels of apprenticeships with all types of learners. Labour’s candidate for Mayor with a good example of smart thinking, wants to begin this with a UCAS style clearing system for access to apprenticeships and vocational opportunities. Lets extend this to lifelong learning and re-skilling needs. At ward level this should be expressed as routes to work, better jobs and higher wages.
The biggest challenge for a Labour Mayor is the lack of new funding and the cuts to services handed down from the Tory government. The opportunity though is to pick up Labour’s unfinished business and fix his stare on the renewal needed in the Leave Wards of Greater Manchester. Voting Leave for many, was a lever to pull, to stop the show and be heard. Now we must show we are listening and doing in the way we ought to be.