Manchester is not a 'radical city', Salford is - of housing, Labour, and neoliberal bastions

As the Corbynistas besiege the New Labour diehards, as in other Labour-run councils, the main battleground is housing. Meanwhile, Salford is pursuing a genuinely radical path.

Steve Hanson
2 February 2018
manchester pound empire.jpg

Picture caption: Manchester, Empire of the Pound/Steve Hanson.

Andy Burnham has a look of Tommy Carcetti, the fictional mayor in the celebrated HBO TV series The Wire, played by Aidan Gillen.

In a memorable scene Tommy Carcetti is told by a fictional former mayor of Baltimore that his job, if he gets elected to mayoral office, will be to eat bowl of shit after bowl of shit. One each, from 'the unions' and other urban groups. It is an offensive metaphor, but now is not the time for politeness.

I am sure the parallel is not lost on Burnham. Having won the new Greater Manchester Mayor position with his easy populist style, he’s been continuing that style with media actions such as charity runs and spending time out with firefighters on bonfire night - during which he had fireworks thrown at him. He’s now settling down to eat the notoriously noxious Mancunian shit.

But Burnham has a large ego and desire for power and no pity should be given to players. Several narratives seethe just below the surface of Manchester and we can view them via a thin but deep crack running across the frozen surface of city politics.

Has this fissure in city politics has been created by the housing crisis? Sir Richard Leese continues the old fundamentalist New Labour game of enabling the property developers, via which he seems to think the homeless problem will somehow miraculously heal itself.

Meanwhile, the Labour Party centrists’ grip on Manchester City Council is now being challenged as councillors are deselected and replaced with Momentum sympathisers as boundaries change. Of course, these local shifts mirror national tensions between Burnham and Corbyn, Leese and Corbyn, Old New Labour and emerging New Old Labour.

Burnham, at times vocally opposed to Stockport Council’s plan to build on green belt land in High Lane, Cheadle, Woodford and Heald Green, could be found declaring - at a mayoral hustings in Stockport I attended - that we should not be shy of building on green belt land to solve the housing crisis. The unglamorously-titled Greater Manchester Spatial Framework is still being developed, but it’s already a highly contentious mess.

Meanwhile, over in Salford, and of course getting little coverage in mainstream media, solidly pro-Corbyn City Mayor Paul Dennett is getting on with trying to sidestep central government regulations that effectively act as a ban on creating new social housing, by working on inventive new housing strategies. Burnham has strong links with Dennett, but he is overlooking already existing radical housing strategies in Manchester.

Rhetoric and reality

I live in a property that is part of New Longsight Housing Co-op. This housing co-op began in the 1980s and picked up cheap properties to rent out at social housing rates, about a third of market prices. The house I previously rented burned down nearly killing me, and my attempts to chase the unscrupulous agency, landlord and the others involved were futile. The co-op is quite literally a life-saver. For the first time in my life, at 45 years of age, I actually enjoy paying my rent, because I believe in what I am paying into.

Just before Andy Burnham was elected I attended an event he and his team hosted on housing. During this event we were told support for housing co-ops was on the cards. I duly voted Burnham. I then tentatively chased Burnham up via email. New Longsight Housing Co-op needs to expand, to extend its provision to the worst off in Manchester with its affordable rent. To do this, it simply needs access to land to build on.

I communicated this by letter repeatedly. It took well over six months to get a reply, and the perfunctory reply said please register yourselves with self-build, a scheme that pre-existed Burnham's election as mayor. Further emails asking Burnham to visit the Co-op to see what we do have been ignored: Promises made pre-election have been reneged on already.

Or, to use a less polite metaphor, a bowl of shit pushed aside in the mayor's office means hundreds of citizens who might eat less of the landlord's shit are denied such charity. On one hand all the rhetoric seems to be directed at the homeless problem and the housing crisis - Burnham gives a portion of his salary to the causes of the homeless – yet when a genuinely radical provider of low cost housing for the needy tries to get help, they are brushed aside. Meanwhile, private for-profit players such as Capital & Centric are effectively being handed public money. These contradictions are not anomalies in Manchester.

The CRESC/LSE Public Interest Report warned that Manchester has created a 'monoculture' of property speculation. In a book on Engels, Steven Marcus wrote that nineteenth century Manchester 'was the Detroit of the first phase of the Industrial Revolution', and that 'the historical fate that befell a town that was committed overwhelmingly to a single industry is a cautionary tale in itself.'

Apparently nothing, it seems, has been learned in 150 years. Instead Manchester is now reaping the consequences of another kind of revolution. From the late 1980s, Manchester City Council (MCC) have out of sheer desperation begun to seek money from all kinds of non-governmental sources. This essentially became the model for the neoliberal form of governance and statecraft in 1990s Britain, including the re-calibration of the Labour Party as New Labour, eventually under the leadership of Tony Blair.

Labour in Manchester became 'successful' in terms of metrics and big business, at the same time as the symptoms of those processes began bleeding out of the surface of the city, homelessness particularly. Last week it was announced that homelessness is up by over 40%.

Meanwhile, Labour Party central and many among the general population have begun the process of leftward reorientation, leaving this New Labour city council stranded, unable to change direction.

Manchester, a city of myth and concrete

Manchester is the last refuge of the neoconservatives. We can see this in Peter Mandelson's appointment to Chancellor at Manchester Metropolitan University. We can see it in George Osborne's announcement of his Northern Powerhouse vision at the Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI) and then with David Cameron in the Old Granada Studios.

The former Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer greatly admires Sir Howard Bernstein, an icon of neoliberal city governance. Osborne’s connection to the city was reaffirmed when he was awarded an Honorary Professorship in Economics by Manchester University. Osborne's vision for Manchester is as Shock City 2.0.

All of this is completely contrary to the stories the city tells itself. Manchester's 'revolution' in the nineteenth century was overwhelmingly economic and technological. The real 'radical politics' that followed were put in place to try to deal with the rapacious machine of industrialism. Manchester is not foremost a political innovator: The real socialist innovators were the daughters of disaster, the co-operatives, for instance, borne out of sheer poverty and need.

A 2016 CRESC/LSE Public Interest Report even suggested that Manchester's emotive city symbol of a worker bee might be more appropriately replaced with an image of a lift in some private residential new build block. But the worker bee is actually very appropriate: Pull yourself up by your bootstraps it says; be self-made or be undone, nobody is going to save you. Buy a new shirt, get out there and work, or die in a doorway.

Maureen Ward, co-founder of Manchester Modernist Society, explained to me how the same logic underpins the sense of Manchester as a resilient city, it can be seen in its sense of pride too, and most recently in the co-opting of the ‘I heart MCR’ sign and the worker bee as symbols of resistance to the terrorist attack at the MEN Arena. That resistance is 100% admirable, but the form it takes tells us other things about the city too. Here we see the logic of what became known as ‘Manchester Capitalism’. If we pull together we do so in a place of savage circumstance. We do so to get by, to survive, not to criticise the logic of the going order.

But the logic of the going order must be challenged. The CRESC/LSE Public Interest Report also evidences how Manchester is not significantly ahead of other similarly sized cities in terms of the outputs of its 'creative industries'. This myth in Manchester is as swollen and nonsensical as the idea of Manchester as a radical city.

It is time to peel the myths about Manchester off, all of them, discard them completely and see what we are left with. Because the homeless still sleep in doorways as yet another Christmas passes and the temperature stays well below zero. Current data suggests that more will join them.

Still the trite, lazy, retroactive dead rhetoric rolls out, for instance in the opening lines of the 2017 Manchester Literature Festival brochure, that Manchester is 'a city of activism, protest, pioneers and radicals.'

This is nothing but a middle-class alibi. Manchester's real power is Sir Richard Leese, but Andy Burnham has been working with Paul Dennett, elected City Mayor of Salford, to push a new housing agenda, so there is still time to write his legacy.

We have seen in the last couple of weeks how the Labour Party’s National Executive Committee – in the wake of the Carillion collapse - requested Haringey Council halt the Haringey Development Vehicle, partly delivered by a property developer. Here lies the big crack in city politics: Manchester are completely at odds with the emerging anti-corporate Labour Party.

Of course, there are complaints about how 'elected councillors' are being over-ruled, but those councillors have also voted austerity through for years. There isn't a direct line between the vote and support of individual councillor actions.

This is going to be a big part of future right-left slanging matches. Corbynism will of course be vilified by the tabloids, a simplistic hammering of the 'authoritarian state'.

But this will also be a big part of internal Labour wrangling as well: A leading researcher on the city told me that Manchester is like Kiev after the Russian revolution, the last stronghold of the Tsarist Whites (or New Labour) under siege by the red masses (Corbynistas). This researcher is currently preparing work on the city that contains unexploded ordnance.

Burnham is not completely in agreement with Leese's vision of the city, and he is setting himself up to charge every citizen of the city an extra £10 ‘precept’ to fund his active mayoral role. But he needs to use that well, and through a very different strategy to the one currently pursued by Manchester City Council, or his term will be up with little to show for it. He may be good at making people like him, but unless he can change the dreadful state of housing in the city, he has failed.

However, I suspect that Labour or not, Leese, Burnham and the other centrists need to go before real change can take place. We cannot wait for the young Momentum candidates to slowly seep into the Council. It could take a decade. Meanwhile, over in Salford everyday radicalism is being attempted against the odds.

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