Birmingham or Manchester: Which is Britain's second city?

Obviously, it's Birmingham.

Ten years ago, one of the most iconic buildings in the Birmingham skyline, Selfridges, was added to the Bullring shopping complex. It was part of a massive regeneration project, which is continuing today with "The Big City Plan". New Street Station is being transformed. The architectural marvel that is the new Birmingham Library opens next month, and there is even an inner city park being built on the Eastside, the first park in the city centre since Victorian times.

All are part of an attempt to rebrand Birmingham. It longs to reaffirm its status as Britain's second city, after Manchester's has increasing dominance over a title it has held since World War One.

As a born and bred Brummie, with a mother and girlfriend both from Manchester, I feel that I am better placed than most to judge the relative claims of each claimant to the princeship. And in all honestly, there is just no competition.

Hands down, Birmingham is Britain's second city. Why? Most obviously because size does matter. With the largest population and GDP outside of London, in quantifiable terms, the Midland metropolis trumps Manchester. But of course, Manchester’s declaration of superiority has never been based on size, but rather on "culture", supposedly based on quality, not quantity. However, as I see it, even if we analyse the supposed "Capital of the North" in terms of its cultural attractions, Birmingham still comes out on top.

Oasis, the Stone Roses, New Order, the Smiths, Joy Division, et cetera are listed on demand when you ask a Mancunian about their music scene. OK, so they were brilliant bands. They were. The up-and-coming music scene of today is centred in Digbeth, the "Shoreditch of Birmingham", as the NME calls it. As the likes of Peace and Swim Deep demonstrate, the ‘B-town’ scene is fast eclipsing Madchester as a hub of new indie bands.

Even if one does insist on harking back to past musical giants, it’s not only Manchester that boasts a proud history. Pioneers of heavy metal, Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, Napalm Death, and Godflesh, all originate from Birmingham, lest we forget that Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant, UB40, the Electric Light Orchestra, Duran Duran, and the Streets were all Brummie's who created an eclectic mix of genres and should not be dismissed.

Beyond music, admittedly, the recent move of elements of the BBC to Salford Quays and the enduring national treasure that is Coronation Street has brought greater media exposure to Manchester. Such exposure has fuelled misconceptions, demonstrated in a recent poll carried out by Trinity Mirror Data Unit. 28.8 per cent of people living outside of Manchester defined it as the second city, compared to only 18.3 per cent of non-Brummies choosing Birmingham.

However, again, if we delve beneath the perceptions, Birmingham boasts a range of oft-forgotten cultural gems. The city has more canals than Venice, lined with beautifully quaint barges, the largest collection of Pre-Raphaelite art in the world (which surely rivals Manchester’s Lowry centre), Digbeth’s Custard Factory with its vintage stalls and jazz music, the world-renowned acoustic haven that is the Symphony Hall, Birmingham’s Royal Ballet and of course, Cadbury World, a treasure-trove of unlimited chocolate and life-size drumming Gorillas.

Manchester’s curry mile must also bow down to Brum’s "Balti-Triangle", internationally recognised as the home of curry. Don’t just take my word for it, the New York Times listed Birmingham 19th in its 45 Places to Go in 2012 last year, thanks to the spectacular nature of its baltis. Space was one place behind in 20th, and Manchester didn’t even make the list.

Perhaps with all of this in mind, supporters of Manchester’s claim to the title cling on to the success of their hugely prolific and famous football sides, claiming that the prowess of United, and more recently, City, justify their sense of superiority. But by that logic, following their FA Cup win last season, surely Wigan should be considered one of the most important towns in the country, at least temporarily? Surely Swansea can claim to be the 9th most important city in Britain following its 9th place finish in the Premier League.

Even in football, one of Manchester’s strongest claims to superiority, if we delve beneath the surface, it is clear that Birmingham more than rivals its strength. A survey that featured in the Telegraph in 2011 tallied the hometown of every top flight footballer since 1992, and found that Birmingham had produced 55 Premier League players, while Manchester could only boast 42.

Whether it is due to the abysmally poor standard of Birmingham-based soaps such as Doctors and Crossroads, or the lack of media centres in the Midlands, non-brummies increasingly doubt their second city status. This needs to change. Birmingham possesses all of the ingredients that make a great city, and is still improving, as its "Big City Plan" continues to transform the centre’s architecture. All it needs is more a little self-confidence, so chins up fellow Brummies - our time is now.

10 years on from its construction, Birmingham's Selfridges building has become an iconic landmark. Picture: Getty Images.
Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.