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28 January 2016

Can local government save Labour?

Meet Richard Leese, the leader of Manchester City Council, and one of the most powerful Labour politicians today.

By Tim Wigmore

In the 1980s, the Democratic Party was pummeled in three presidential elections and appeared hopelessly out of sync with the American public mood. Rejuvenation did not come from Washington. Instead, outsiders with experience running states reinvigorated the Democratic Party. Bill Clinton, elected President in 1992 after the Democrats had been locked out of the White House for 12 years, was a successful governor; his running mate, Al Gore, was a pragmatic senator. Both appealed to the American people as forward-thinking leaders of action.

Just as the Democrats found salvation beyond Washington, perhaps the same could now be true of Labour beyond Westminster. “If you want to find innovative, dynamic, progressive politicians now you’ll find more in local government than you will in national government,” Richard Leese tells me in his office in Manchester Town Hall.

He is testament to as much: Leese has been the leader of Manchester City Council since 1996, during which the city has been transformed. The population, in decline then, has since risen by a fifth; the median age of the city today is only 29. Leese, who oozes vitality in his 65th year, is fond of quoting statistics that highlight how far Manchester has come. Perhaps the most impressive is this: in the last four years, the economy of Greater Manchester has grown by 4.6 per cent, a rate 1.3 per cent higher than the national average – and higher than London too.

In an age when Labour is locked out of power in Westminster, Leese is the most impressive of a band of Labour leaders thriving at local level. His is a governing philosophy that eschews ideology in favour of calm moderation. “There are two things we try to do in Manchester. One is to grow our economy: a strong economy underpins everything. And the second is to take the steps that we can to ensure that Manchester people benefit from that economic growth.” Leese tries to avoid ideological characterisation by describing himself as belonging to the “Manchester wing” of the Labour Party, but his is self-evidently a philosophy sharing little with Jeremy Corbyn. “I was very publicly not a supporter of Jeremy [he endorsed Yvette Cooper] but I’m a believer in democracy.”

In Corbyn Leese seems to detect a throwback to the politics of many local governments when he was first elected as a councillor in 1984. “The big cities – Manchester, Sheffield, Liverpool and some of the London boroughs – believed through municipal socialism we could take on the Thatcher administration and win! Well we didn’t. We lost. It was a very important piece of learning actually – particularly in the current era.”  

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Today Manchester is a city brimming with vitality. It has thriving culture, a superb selection of restaurants, two leading football teams, an excellent tram network and an easy self-confidence. Here is one part of England that has no need to look to London with jealousy and resentment.

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“Whether it’s banking or law or whatever, any service that 20 years ago you might have had to go to London for you don’t anymore. It’s available here,” Leese says, with the air of a proud parent. He locates two turning points for Manchester. First came “the difficult decisions we made in the late 80s and early 90s, and the recognition that if we were going to tackle poverty and deprivation then we had to tackle the causes of poverty and deprivation. At the heart of that was creating jobs.” Second, came a period in the early 2000s when the local Labour Party, who then had a slim majority on Manchester council “reappraised the position we were in within the city. It was about simple things – making sure we listened to Manchester people; making sure we stood up for Manchester, whoever is in government; and we make sure our councillors work hard. If they’re not working hard we get rid of them.”

Vindication for Leese’s philosophy comes in a photo that hangs proudly on his office wall. It shows a ‘full house’ of Labour councillors in the city: for the last four years, all 95 councillors in Manchester have been from the Labour Party. “We expect councillors, all year round, to be knocking on people’s doors, to be attending local community meetings, to be engaging with the electorate within the city. That’s partly to make sure we stay fresh and stay relevant,” Leese says. “Its not a Labour Party vision for Manchester, it’s a Manchester vision for Manchester. I think that works.”

Leese evidently considers himself a pioneer. “Other places, particularly the northern metropolitan cities, are to a large extent adapting what we started in Greater Manchester to suit their own particular circumstances.”

Yet the national Labour Party has been slow to recognise what local leaders have done. “If you look at the period from 2010 to 2015, cities and local government were doing lots of really interesting and radical things. To a certain extent the Labour Party were just paying lip service to that, and probably lip service to the devolution agenda as well. That needs to become real.” That Jeremy Corbyn has called the northern powerhouse a “cruel deception” suggests he might be even less enthusiastic about devolution than Ed Miliband; remarkably, Leese says that he has never met Corbyn. “The Labour Party nationally needs to start celebrating what Labour local authorities are achieving even in difficult circumstances,” Leese laments.

Failing to do so has allowed the Conservatives, and especially George Osborne, to wrap themselves in the cloak of devolution. Leese has spoken against Osborne in opposition to austerity, but this has not stymied his enthusiasm for the northern powerhouse. “Because I disagree with one set of things I’m not going to damage Manchester by not working with the government on another set of things,” Leese says. “I prefer people in Manchester making difficult decisions about Manchester if they have to be made. By and large, those will be better decisions because they are made locally by people who know what local needs are.”

Leese has a strong influence across transport, planning and housing and, particularly over economic strategy, his role has gained in power since 1996. From 2017 the Mayor of Greater Manchester will become an elected post, with beefed up powers in transport, skills and housing. Leese has already made clear that he is open to running for the new role. Of one thing he is certain: Westminster holds no appeal. “I’d rather stay in Manchester and run things than be lobby fodder in the Houses of Parliament,” Leese says, though he wishes that, as in America and France, more local government leaders would progress into national politics.

“If the Labour Party wants to learn and grow then one of the things that will help it learn and grow is take far more notice of what it is that we are doing in the towns and cities. Let’s face it: for the next four years, the only Labour politicians that are going to be exercising any power are people like me, not people in Westminster.”