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A Boris for Manchester?

Ed Glinert gives an opinion on the reasons why we should push for changes at the top in Greater Manchester

Published on June 24th 2008.

A Boris for Manchester?

The excitement was rare for a political contest. The Labour candidate: popular, maverick, a genuine man of the people. The Liberal: politically sound, mature, sensible, if too sensible. The Conservative: wild, wacky, way-out, but a winner.

"Today’s city needs a set-up more attuned to the modern world than a council elected by a tiny minority of the electorate on an outdated, first-past-the-post ballot."

This was London on 1 May this year and could be Manchester on 1 May 2014 instead of the same old staid council elections with a handful of seats changing hands after a woeful turnout. The recent mayoral election in London shows that democracy can be revitalized and the public invigorated.

This city has a special place in the history of democracy in England. It was in Manchester, at St Peter’s Fields, in 1819 that 15 people died during what became known as the Peterloo Massacre after the militia charged a peaceful crowd desiring representation. Two decades later, Richard Cobden, Manchester’s greatest political campaigner, led the movement to eradicate the feudal system of local government that ran Manchester and install an elected council.

The powers of councils like Manchester grew to such an extent that it was inevitable a Tory government would introduce legislation to reduce their role. But Ted Heath’s party, elected in 1970, messed it up. They created too many awkward boroughs lacking identity (locally Tameside and Trafford) and gave bloated metropolitan county councils such as Greater Manchester Council the power to run services like police and transport. With its members chosen in the same way as the borough and city councils, this had little appeal to the electorate.

Within 15 years another Tory government had abolished Greater Manchester Council and transferred its powers to quangos – appointed bodies – with even less accountability to the electorate. When Labour returned to power in 1997 they made provision for directly elected mayors. Middlesbrough led the way, but no big cities followed.

In the near future there may well be another Conservative government and the imposition of a new set of municipal policies. The Tories have already drawn up their plans: 'Re-empowerment of the Cities' devised by a task force led by former Environment Minister, Lord (Michael) Heseltine, and including Trafford Council Leader, Susan Williams. It plans to shift powers and public money from the quangos back to local government.

Manchester city council is not impressed. Council Leader, Sir Richard Leese, has called the proposals “a damp squib”. In private though, Leese might sympathise with a number of the Tory task force’s points, especially its claim that councils have been “emasculated and hollowed out” by “centralising Governments”. But in public Leese is hardly likely to go along with anything that reduces his own powers. This writer’s attempts to contact him with a set of straightforward questions about the viability of having a directly elected mayor were met with stony silence.

The only way the Tories, or any other new government, could revitalize the system is not by giving the existing councils more powers (some services need to be run over a larger area than a city or borough), nor by bringing back the unsatisfactory metropolitan county councils. Instead we need to introduce a brand new format, almost certainly a directly elected mayor, and an attendant Greater Manchester Authority elected by proportional representation.

What territory would the mayor and the new authority cover? It would probably not include the separate, traditionally Lancastrian towns that were incongruously roped into Greater Manchester: Bolton, Bury, Oldham, Rochdale and Wigan. (Bury, after all, is holding a referendum this summer to have its own mayor.) But if the Tories were pulling the strings it could well cover not just the City of Manchester but the City of Salford, most of Tameside and Trafford, particularly the smart bits (Altrincham and Sale), and urban Stockport, thereby allowing the Tories a political foothold in an authority centred on Manchester – a foothold they do not possess now. The inevitable use of PR in electing the Greater Manchester Assembly advising the mayor would also see Labour’s Manchester hegemony reduced.

And what would the mayor do? Alongside the services once run by the now abolished metropolitan county council – police, transport, fire, economic development and regeneration – the mayor would take over one of the most important local political roles. It's one that became paramount on UEFA Cup Final day: that of representing Manchester, and the greater city outlined above.

'Do we want one of these?'

A mayor, directly accountable to the public rather than a council leader answerable mostly to the Labour Group, would perhaps have made a better fist of this event, and have handled the United parade issue better. They could also take the mandate of direct election based on their policies and personalities, and force improvements on Metrolink.

A Manchester mayor? Perhaps we need it to happen. The city requires a twenty-first century style administration at the top. Just as Richard Cobden led the campaign to abolish the feudal system of local government, so today’s city needs a set-up more attuned to the modern world than a council elected by a tiny minority of the electorate on an outdated first-past-the-post ballot. ;This perpetually gives a narrow clique of Labour Party zealots the power to run a territory whose boundaries ensure a permanent Labour majority. Manchester must have a better system of local government if it is to continue its quest to attain international recognition in a premier league of leading non-capitals such as Barcelona, Munich and New York.

But what sort of character will the mayor be? Do any of the main political parties have a charismatic demagogue to rival Ken or Boris? The best local talents – Graham Stringer, Hazel Blears, Beverley Hughes (some might say, not the most inspiring bunch) – have left the Town Hall for Westminster Hall. Had the election taken place in, say, 2000 one candidate would have stood Beetham Tower-like over the rest, easily secured the Labour ticket, and walked the election, but sadly Tony Wilson is no more.

Still, the electorate has a few years left to find someone dynamic and stimulating. Otherwise, bearing in mind Hartlepool’s election of H’Angus the Monkey, it might be 'Step forward, Mayor Liam Gallagher.'

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CheeseyJune 24th 2008.

I have met Sir Richard Leese and he seems a thoroughly nice chap, with a genuine interest in delivering the very best for Manchester. However, I think a mayoral election could invigorate the community, particularly if it wasn’t a party political circus like London. Let’s just have highly opinioned local candidates with a Manchester only agenda.

Ali McGowanJune 24th 2008.

Here, here, give this great city of ours more focus and bring on an elected mayor :)

AnonymousJune 24th 2008.

Hazel Blears????!!!! The woman who is incapable of looking serious or smiling properly and instead just smirks in an extremely patronising way? I do not want 'a Boris', I want 'The Boris' who would tell the whining Guardian-reading public money grabbing 'Manchester elite' where to go.

AnonymousJune 24th 2008.

they have to have a charisma as big as the city- someone like Ian Brown, peter Hook or John Robb

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