Following last week’s by-elections, there have been screeds of analysis on where next for Labour in the North. Most if not all of the commentary has missed the big solution staring us in the face.
The start of devolution proper in England in two months time presents an unmissable opportunity for Labour to get closer to those communities which feel left behind and to reinvigorate itself in its heartlands. But if that is to happen, we must first fully take on board the lessons from Labour’s mixed handling of devolution in the past.
Compare what happened in Wales and Scotland. In the former, Carwyn Jones pioneered a distinctive, patriotic brand of ‘red-shirt Labour’ dressed in the national rugby colours. In the latter, following the death of Donald Dewar, no high-profile Labour figure arrived to pick up the devolution torch and a large hole was left for others to fill.
In England, it is essential that we follow the Welsh example and enthusiastically embrace devolution from the start. People must put aside any lingering cynicism about George Osborne’s pet project providing a convenient cover for Tory cuts. While there may be some truth in that, and while I will continue to demand a fair deal for a Greater Manchester, focusing on the negative would be to spurn an historic opportunity for the reinvention of the People’s Party.
At the launch of my campaign, I pledged to help Manchester do what it likes doing best and that is to shake up the Establishment and do things very differently. To this end, we set the goal of developing a manifesto for Greater Manchester written by its people. Over the last few months, a huge number of events have been held in all parts of Greater Manchester and a large number of policy ideas gathered.
When “Our Manifesto” is published next month, it will unapologetically give birth to a new, distinctive political identity: Northern Labour. It will do this by proposing new solutions on issues that the public here have told us matter greatly to them but which have been long neglected by Westminster.
For instance, it will signal a new drive to raise the status of technical education. When traditional industry left in the 80s and 90s, so did the quality trainee schemes that had provided a ladder for working-class young people. But, sadly, the English education system did not respond to this seismic change. Instead, for decades, national education policy obsessed on the university route and left young people wanting technical skills feeling distinctly second-class.
As Germany knows better than anywhere, you can’t build a modern economy on this basis. So our goal will be to provide the same clarity for young people who want technical qualifications as those on the university route by establishing a UCAS-style system for apprenticeships across Greater Manchester.
“Our Manifesto” will confront another issue invisible to Westminster but the scourge of the North: absent private landlords.
Since the late 80s, large parts of many Northern towns have been owned by anonymous speculators. They have rarely, if ever, visited those communities and have no real regard for them.
The rise of the absent private landlord was a product of the collapse of property prices following the collapse of traditional industry and the introduction of Right-to-Buy. These people have been allowed to rake in the Housing Benefit cheques without having to reinvest any of the proceeds in the upkeep of their properties. As a result, they have dragged communities down and damaged the property prices of those around them.
While the powers of the Mayor are limited in this regard, that won’t stop me taking action on this critical issue if I am elected. My intention is to launch a Greater Manchester-wide ‘Good Landlords’ registration scheme which will set out the basic standards Greater Manchester expects from decent landlords. Those who refuse to join will then be aggressively targeted, including the threat of compulsory purchase. They will be given a simple choice: respect our communities or get out of Greater Manchester.
There is a third disastrous policy that was actively inflicted on the North by Westminster that we will seek to correct: bus deregulation.
When this was introduced by Margaret Thatcher in the mid-1980s, there were claims that the free market would improve services and bring down prices. The reality is the complete opposite. In fact, bus deregulation stands of an exemplar of the failure of Tory ideology. And what makes it all the more galling is that it was an experiment from which London was exempted.
For the last 30 years, the public of Greater Manchester have been badly served by the bus companies and suffered a bus service run in the private rather than public interest. Busy, lucrative routes like Oxford Road see buses of varying standards nose to tail. Other more isolated estates receive no service at all. There is no Oyster scheme because no common standards can be imposed on the operators. Single journeys can cost £3 or more – double the £1.50 cost in London.
Today, (Wednesday) a bill arrives in the House of Commons which will allow us to call time on this free market madness. The Bus Services Bill, and the power to re-regulate our bus services, was demanded by the council leaders of Greater Manchester as an essential component of any devolution deal. The fact that it is being brought forward by the Government represents a real win for the Labour Party and should be celebrated as such. If elected, I will use the new powers it provides to bring down the cost of travel and improve the quality and coverage of services provided.
When people debate Labour’s challenge in the North, there is a tendency to over-complicate it. From my point of view, it’s not complicated at all. By giving the public better answers on bread-and-butter issues like bus services, housing and education, we can win people back.
But new policies are their own are not enough. We have also got to show a willingness to do politics very differently. At present, devolution feels like a top-down, imposed project. Instead, we have got to open it up to a much wider range of voices and allow people to own it and shape it.
One issue that matters greatly to many in Greater Manchester is the rising number of rough sleepers on our streets caused by the Government’s harsh austerity drive and the cumulative effect of cuts to a range of crucial services. People here have never been ones to walk on by on the other side. They want to do something to help. Devolution will truly fly if it can open up decision-making to a wider group people in decisions and allow them to make a direct difference.
To this end, I am establishing a Homelessness Action Network with the goal of ending rough sleeping in Greater Manchester by 2020 under the leadership of Ivan Lewis MP and Councillor Beth Knowles. Any individual or organisation who wants to contribute to that campaign will be invited to join. It will be supported by a voluntary fund which will I start with a donation from my Mayoral salary. Already, typical of people in Greater Manchester, there have been numerous offers to match it.
The power of an initiative like this is that it can show how Greater Manchester can solve problems for ourselves and do politics differently. Rather than the cynicism that the public feel when politicians throw around public money at their own pet priorities, or simply shouting at the Government about them, we will show a different and better way of supporting people and helping them off our cold and wet streets.
In this way, Northern Labour will be a powerful, practical force that allows our people to put their values into practice. My hope is that, in time, it will build Greater Manchester into a beacon of social justice, inspiring others with a better way than the Tory way. And that is how, from the rubble of today’s political earthquakes, the Labour movement will rise again.
Andy Burnham is the Labour candidate for Manchester mayor.