The proud history of towns like Manchester and Leeds offers Labour a model for practical socialism

by Jonathan Todd

Alan Bennett has written that he felt growing up in Leeds in the 1940s can’t have been unlike growing up in a fifteenth-century Italian city state, such was Leeds’ sense of itself. Now Leeds has more councillors over the age of 80 than under the age of 35. It is not ageist to see this, sadly, as a sign of civic decline.

Similarly, the grandeur of Manchester town hall, which will again play host to events at Labour party conference, seems to recall a time when the city was more certainly in command of its future.

Paul Salveson recently published a book that describes and celebrates a distinctive northern socialism that never waited for a hand out or hand up from London. Long before the classic social democracy of Crosland and Hattersley, which saw mechanical reform from the commanding heights of Whitehall as the road to socialism, Salveson’s heroes – such as Hannah Mitchell, Benjamin Rushton and Ben Turner – got on with morally reforming themselves and their communities with a swagger to put the Stone Roses in the shade.

Salveson’s writings uncover a past where active equality, driven by civic pride, was the norm. A pride which brings to mind in a more localised sense a line that Tim Soutphommasane, an inspiration to Jon Cruddas, is said to be fond of: “My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.”

This is not the socialism of ambiguous metropolitanism but an urgency to right the wrongs and champion the distinctiveness of the particular and specific place that forms and is formed by its people.

The building blocks of the national rebuilding that Cruddas seeks are to be found in recovering this urgency. The UK will be rebuilt street by street, community by community, city by city, country by country.

Hope does not reside in nebulous, arm-chair discussions on the nature of Britishness, Englishness or Scottishness, but in the practical steps of active equality. Action precedes hope, not the other way around, pace Barack Obama 2008 vintage.

Unsurprisingly, Richard Florida reports that mayors are more popular than other politicians. They are potent vessels of civic pride, which Mitchell, Rushton and Turner would recognise, targeted only upon pragmatic solutions. While Whitehall mandarins fight their turf wars and most politicians fixate on the urgent, mayors knock heads together, cross dress and build allegiances beyond tribal lines as required to secure the important.

Mayors were largely rejected at referendums in England in May. However, as Henry Ford knew, people would have stated a preference for faster horses before knowing what cars are. As far as possible, the attributes of automobiles must now be grafted on to the equine structures that grasp towards leadership of our cities. In other words, we should devolve power to the existing institutions, rather than seeking to have institutional change precede this. Putting rocket boosters under the city deals programme is an obvious way of advancing this.

The incentive that the government are offering to councils of retention of 50 percent of business rates raised in enterprise zones could contribute towards this by being adapted and extended. It should be adapted to reflect the rate of change in business rate generation, not the level, so that less prosperous areas are not further disadvantaged. Its logic should be extended to other areas: Why couldn’t the government, for example, agree with localities a set of outcome indicators to be targeted by their early intervention grant and promise to increase funding in future rounds commensurate to their performance against these indicators?

This would put councils in a position where they are incentivised to break down whatever barriers to better public health outcomes exist in their locality. It may, in some senses, be astonishing that the public sector does not already work in this way, but the reality demands a twin-track of devolution of powers to our cities and regions and intelligent reform to our public sector plumbing to have it incentivise delivery by public servants of outcomes valued by the public.

The debate on what it means to be Brummie that Cllr Waseem Zaffar has led has uncovered deep reserves of civic pride, as the #mybrum hashtag attests. Such raw material built Manchester town hall and was the foundation of the Leeds of Bennett’s youth. This material has too often been squandered by structures that divide the public sector against itself and those that is intended to serve.

The past that Salveson recalls and future that Zaffar reaches towards demand a different kind of public sector: one that is truly united with its citizenry.

Next I will argue that public sector reform does not just matter in improving public sector outcomes but also to improving our economic performance.

Jonathan Todd is Labour Uncut’s economic columnist

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3 Responses to “The proud history of towns like Manchester and Leeds offers Labour a model for practical socialism”

  1. themadmullahofbricklane says:

    If there is one thing that undermines your arguments completely in relation to the efficacy of Mayoral inner city run systems as opposed to others it is simply The London Borough of Tower Hamlets.

    The borough is run by a clique of Islamists and businessmen with the support of the extreme left who are still calling for the Mayor, Lutfur Rahman, to be readmitted to the Labour Party after he was removed as Labour candidate when it was proved at an NEC meeting that he had packed Labour Party membership lists with fake members.

    He then went on to do deals with Syhleti power brokers who in return for handouts to “community ” projects and jobs brought blocks of votes at the election. His Labour opponent was smeared in the entire Bangladeshi media as an apostate who drank alcohol and beat his wife.

    The turnout was twenty five percent the bulk of which were Bangladeshis the largely white electorate ignoring the process as the two main candidates were Bangladeshi. The majority of voters are in fact white and have disenfranchised themselves from the political process as seeing it as something that doesn’t concern them.

    Since the election a series of Bangladeshi Labour councillors have defected to his Independent group and been rewarded with either cabinet posts or as advisors on increased ” special responsibility allowances”. One former councillor for Respect defected straight to the Tories and then to the Independents bypassing Labour entirely!

    The local and national press have been awash with stories of scandal after scandal involving vote rigging, now a police investigation, councillors first of all jumping the housing queue and then renting the flat out resulting in a jail sentence for Lutfur supporter Shelina Ahktar.

    Her replacement as Lutfur’s man in Spitalfields and Banglatown which he won with a majority of 47 votes in yet another election the subject of a police investigation is now under investigation himself for inflating invoices. Gulam Robbani who had lucrative health care contracts from the council is now to be investigated by the borough’s Corporate Fraud Manager reports this weeks East London Advertiser.

    The whole story can be followed in all its intricate twists and turns on Ted Jeoy’s Tower Hamlets blog. Google Trial by Jeory for all of the juicy details, the ones that can be mad public at the moment that is!

    Basically the writer of this article is an academic as is Richard Florida and academics like to construct hypothetical wished for situations to suit their Phd thesis. The world simply isn’t hypothetical, it’s real and has to be dealt with in that way.

    The political forces that shaped cities like Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds etc were, usually, Labour ones made up of councils and committees of men and women who had been trades unionists, who came from their local communities and understood them.

    Deal were done of course and accommodations were made, that’s life, but at all times there was a flourishing local democracy which has all but disappeared in Tower Hamlets and is doing the same elsewhere.

    Democracy needs informed citizens who engage in the process of local government in a real way. The mayoral system, which is fortunately being rejected around the country, totally bypasses the democratic system of checks and balances and gives virtual dictatorial powers to Mayors who can be removed only every four years or by criminal actions in the courts.

    Like the Democrats, Labour is obsessed with finding an “ism” which will fix everything. There is no “ism” so stop trying to find one. Instead start to look at what the academic tinkering has done in Tower Hamlets.

    An elected dictatorship which can sack the CE, which publishes at public expense and distributes a weekly rag that Goebbels or Stalin would not have been ashamed of, that can shameless rig elections with the list packing, that indulges in the most blatant nepotism and jobbery and, because of its control of a tiny proportion of the electorate that it can turn out, is virtually irremovable.

    What blue sky thinkers like yourselves should be working on is how to get rid of the mayoral systems as quickly as possible.

  2. swatantra says:

    Its also the co-operative capital of the world, and if you are looking for practical solutions then co-operative and mutual solutions are the ones.
    Coops UK will be hosting the finale to the IYC, end of Oct in Manchester, which will probably be more relevant than all the political party conferences put together, and that includes the TUCongress.

  3. themadmullahofbricklane says:

    Swatantra. In English?

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