A few days after winning the 2019 general election, Boris Johnson travelled to Manchester to deliver a speech on the transformation of the city. But this was not the usual exercise in Johnsonian boosterism. Perhaps because of the influence on him of the communitarian MP Danny Kruger, he had something else to say about the historic towns of the north-west – Oldham, Preston, Burnley, Bury, Bolton, Rochdale, Blackburn – that faced “endemic health problems, generational unemployment, down-at-heel high streets. The story has been, for young people growing up there, one of hopelessness, or the hope that one day they’ll get out and never come back.”
I know the north-west well because I have family there. Over the decades, I have visited the historic former mill towns of the region and been struck by their decline and moved by what they once were: their fine civic buildings, sometimes in semi-dereliction or disuse, stand as a rebuke to what has been lost. One looks upon these works and despairs.
In February, I took the train to Manchester, hired a car and toured several of the old mill towns, including Rochdale, where I dropped by to speak to Gillian Duffy, Gordon Brown’s former tormentor, and Jim McMahon, the Labour MP for Oldham West and Royton. I’d met McMahon several times in London and had been impressed by his decency, sincerity and the intelligence with which he spoke about the pressures facing his constituents and the need to dignify work.
He supported Keir Starmer’s leadership campaign and has since been rewarded with the shadow transport brief. He is also one of the Labour leader’s three front-bench representatives on the National Executive Committee, which had been controlled by the Corbynite left. “Keir has brought us real clarity of purpose,” McMahon said when we spoke last week via Zoom. “It’s all about acting respectfully and responsibly: not just to appear cohesive but to be cohesive.”
In February, before the pandemic swept the country leaving death and suffering in its wake, I visited McMahon one wet morning at his constituency office on Union Street. He wasn’t feeling well – he had a heavy cold – but honoured our appointment, knowing that I was in the area. We discussed the crumbling of Labour’s Red Wall, the losses the party had sustained in its old heartlands in the north in the December election.
“The scale of it took me by surprise,” he said. “I expected we’d lose some, because the undercurrent was there. For me it wasn’t a 2019, 2017 or even 2015 problem – this goes back decades. This is about power: economic, social and political power. You can’t get to the third until you sort out the first. There are too many people in Oldham who lack economic power. For a long time they’ve put their trust in Labour to fix that, and for whatever reason we’ve not been able to.”
Oldham in effect comprises seven small towns. It has areas of deprivation and a run-down civic centre where several of the grand Victorian buildings are empty. It also has what McMahon calls “a thriving, educated Asian community that is committed to Oldham and wants to stay here”. The challenge, he says, “is that generationally that will probably change. How do you convince somebody – you go to university, to Manchester and you rent or buy a flat – to choose Oldham as a place to come back to?”
Jim McMahon is one of the good guys and his personal story inspires. The son of a lorry driver, he left school at 16 to work in a cash and carry, “doing the trolleys”. “There was a conversation about college. But to be honest, you just get a job.” He later did a day-release course at Oldham College and became an audio-visual technician at Manchester University. When his partner became pregnant – his son Jack is now 18 – they moved to Failsworth, Oldham. He got involved in local politics and eventually became leader of the council and then an MP in 2015. “I recognised that to achieve change – and I wanted a lot of change: a new park, a new play area, a new school, new house centre, new district centre; and we did it all, by the way – the levers of power are important.”
McMahon has thought deeply about the politics of place and belonging, and how it feels, as many of his constituents do, to live precariously, without secure work and networks of support. He wants to create more “local resilience” through the decentralisation of power. He is not a sectarian and aspires to moderate the language of politics and rediscover a sense of the common good. He wants people to have more social capital and control over their lives. “As a society, we have been drifting apart and politics is a reflection of society.”
Some days, from high up on one of the windy hills of Oldham, McMahon looks down at the vibrant, sprawling metropolis of Manchester and knows something is missing. “You see the red lights of the cranes that are building in Manchester. You don’t see the same in Oldham… Town centres and high streets are really struggling. They become a symbol about where the town’s going. When people see shutters rolled down or the boards on the windows, they’re disheartened.”
Jim McMahon, the mission is to “rebuild the fabric of place”. He paused and looked directly at me: “If Oldham was a town built on key industries and those industries aren’t here any more, what are the new industries?”
This article appears in the 22 Apr 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The coronavirus timebomb