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The Big Interview: Lucy Powell

Jonathan Schofield interrogates the woman who will (probably) be the next Manchester Central MP

Written by . Published on November 14th 2012.


The Big Interview: Lucy Powell

The Manchester Central By-Election is to be held on Thursday 15 November.

“THE LABOUR PARTY must really love you,” I say to Lucy Powell. “They’ve given you the candidacy of a safe seat with almost a 10,500 majority at the last election. You don’t even have to bother campaigning?”

“I can’t think like that,” says Powell. “I was the candidate for Manchester Withington at the last General Election. The campaign ebbed and flowed, and in the end I lost. Having been through that process once, I don’t take a single thing for granted.”

If there is a sure bet in politics then this is it. Nailed on as we say. But of course Lucy Powell can't say that.

“That was different though,” I say. “There were other factors, and maybe many Labour party folk or those who might have voted for you, felt fed up with the tail end of the Blair/Brown years. Here there’s a different demographic and a different record for Labour. It’s a mid-term by-election during a Conservative/Lib Dem government. Manchester Central has been solidly Labour since the constituency was created in 1974. It's a nailed on result?”

Lucy Powell takes a moment to consider before adding.

“This is traditionally a very solid Labour seat,” she says, “but you can’t be complacent. I’ve been out on the doors every single night of the week, every weekend for months and months, and I’m pleased to say the response has been very positive. So, while I can’t take things for granted, hopefully, we can translate that into a good majority.”

If there is a sure bet in politics then this is it. Nailed on as we say. But of course Lucy Powell can't say that.

But first, let's give Powell her biography. 

The Manchester Central candidate is Manchester raised and Parrs Wood School and Oxford University educated. She joined the Labour Party at 15, later working as the very grand sounding, Director of Britain in Europe. As mentioned above she was the Labour candidate for Manchester Withington in 2010 where surprisingly she lost, despite the much publicised support of celeb lefties such as Eddie Izzard.

Following the defeat she was appointed Campaign Manager for Ed Miliband’s Leadership Campaign, then acting Labour Chief of Staff and now Deputy Chief of Staff. She’s married with two kids and lives in south Manchester and is apparently a City fan.

The Manchester Central Manor looking eastThe Manchester Central manor looking east, to Etihad Stadium

The Powell Approach To Politics

“Manchester has a tradition of radicalism,” I say. “There have been many politicians who’ve been prepared to speak out. Has the modern party machine stopped that? Will you have to toe the line, Lucy, or will you have your say?"

“Politics has definitely got one-dimensional," says Powell, "although I don’t think it’s the fault of the party machine or the politicians themselves. I think that’s part of the whole media and the whole eco-system that makes our political system. You can’t put a foot wrong and you’re expected to be perfect.”

Not bad. Seven minutes in and the media gets the blame.

“Don’t be perfect then," I say. "People want from their politicians humanity and personality and colour...”

“I see myself,” says Powell, with a hint of fire in her voice, “as slightly different. I will be the first woman Labour MP in the Manchester Central constituency, second only woman MP in Manchester. Given this is the home of the Trades Union movement and the Suffragette movement it’s pretty shameful it’s taken this long. I’m born and bred Mancunian. I’m only interested in representing this city.

“I’ve always described myself as an egg-breaker,” she continues. “I’m relatively young in terms of what I’m doing. I haven’t got to where I am by toeing the party line or toeing any line. I’ve got to where I am by being someone prepared to take risks on issues or causes that people aren’t always prepared to take. If you want to make progress, if you want to get things done, you have to be someone who’s prepared to fly their own plane.”

Here’s hoping. Because despite that flicker of fire, Lucy Powell seems such a nice woman – a cup of tea, biscuits and a chat on a sofa sort of person. Unless I’m missing something she doesn’t come across as a prospective MP with real bite nor a natural future leader. If she’s an egg-breaker it might only be to make omelettes.

Manchester Central, The Mad Constituency

But Manchester Central needs a strong character, it’s after all a crazy mixed up place.

“If you win you'll inherit the most schizophrenic constituency in the country," I say. "You’ve got deprived inner urban areas and cheek by jowl Phil Neville trying to sell a flat for £4m in Beetham Tower. How does that affect the way you think about Manchester Central?

“It’s an exciting place,” Powell says. “It’s a diverse constituency, and it’s also now the biggest in the country. We have 97,000 people on the electoral role and probably a few more thousand not on the electoral role.”

“There are different issues in different areas. In the city centre, for example, I’ve been running a campaign about making sure managing and letting agents behave correctly. This is less relevant in places such as Beswick, Moss Side or Ardwick, but there I’m looking at the changes to the welfare system and benefit cuts, housing shortages, and the cost of living crisis in terms of frozen salaries and frozen wages.

“So as a Labour Party MP, should you get in, would you see yourself representing more the deprived inner suburbs than the city centre?” 

“No, no, not at all,” says Powell keen to emphasise her inclusive Milibandism. “There are different issues for different areas, but there are also issues that cut across Manchester, such as investment in the city, jobs and growth, the economy. The economy affects all parts of the constituency, so that’s key.”

I decide on a change of direction.

The local Labour administration has been a one-party state since the 1980s. There is no prospect of it being anything else before the next Ice Age. This delivers stability of governance, but also the danger of a 'we're always right' attitude and a tendency to not listen to dissenting voices.

“How will your relationship be with the city council, should you win, given its national reputation for being single-minded and strongly led?” I ask.

“I’ve worked with the city council under Labour leadership for years and years,” says Powell. “There have been many things I totally support and agree with and some I don’t. But the record speaks for itself. Manchester is now punching well above its weight in comparison to other cities in the UK and we’re weathering the recession better than any other Northern city. Manchester city council’s got a fantastic track record and a good strategy for the future. But there have been issues where I’ve disagreed with the council in the past...”

“Name one,” I say.

“Things that are behind the scenes that I’ve lobbied for that you don’t even know about and that I’ve changed before they’ve come to light,” says Powell mysteriously and without pause and also noticeably without stating exactly what these ‘things’ might be.

“We’ll probably have more battles," she continues, "because it looks like there’ll be another round of major cuts in the next couple of years. Big decisions will have to be made on things we thought were settled. That might be over local libraries and swimming pools, or services for children and adults. But I guarantee I will absolutely make my case for what I think is the right or wrong thing to do for the communities or the services affected.”

The Manchester Central Manor looking southThe Manchester Central Manor looking south

Aspiration, Apathy And Parking

“Aside from the cuts, how can we raise the aspiration level of the inner urban areas?" I ask. "I know them well, and a big problem is that parents have generationally felt they’re not good enough, and if they’re seen to want to improve, then it’s class-war and they’re called snobs and worse. ”

“You're right. We have to think in terms of empowering communities to make decisions for themselves, and get people involved so they feel they can aspire,” says Powell. “A big part of this is, for me, as a politician, activism. We’ve picked up people along the way during this campaign who can deliver that. The Labour Party at the moment is looking at a community organising model, based on an American idea, this aims to build a community network. It can also even work in the city centre, because even though people might be more educated and aspirant, they’ve got no connections with each other. There’s no collective voice.”

“Maybe that's why this is such an apathetic constituency?” I ask. “The turn-out was only 42% in 2010.”

“True Manchester Central had the lowest turnout of just about anywhere in the UK at the General Election,” says Powell. “Turnout is a big issue. And it is the city centre dwellers that make it so low. It’s not what people might imagine, with traditional communities in social housing not turning out, there it’s reasonable. In the city centre, there’s a more transient population and more students. Some people have an apartment as a second home and will vote where their first home is located. In fact, it looks bad on paper, but if you take out people who are registered to vote somewhere else, it’s not too bad.”

“Let's finish with another aspect of city centre life,” I say. “There is a debate over car-parking and the introduction of Sunday and evening on-street charging plus extortionate multi-storey parking fees, and also questions being asked by residents who need to park in the city centre. Is parking policy hindering city centre development?"

“It gets raised with me by both residents and traders," saysPowell. "We’ve spent many years building up an outstanding city centre. But the truth of it is, we are in a climate where the city has to make hundreds of millions of pounds of cuts. You have to think where to get the revenue from and where to cut the services. If you’re making a decision over whether you provide services to vulnerable older people at home or put up parking charges a bit then, you know....You’ve got to constantly evaluate whether you’re tipping the balance or not. Of course I’d like to see the evidence and evaluation about parking.”

Confidential finds it interesting how the reasons for parking policy in the city centre seem to shift. The council originally stated the changes were imposed to make the flow of traffic easier and fairer. Powell states she believes it was all about the cuts. 

And The Endgame?

“What are your ambitions politically?” I ask. “Would you like to fly all the way to the top? Does Lucy Powell want to be the first female Labour Prime Minister?

“No!” she says. “We’ll see how it goes. I have to be elected first. My first priority would be doing the job in Manchester. I have a young family based here, my children go to school here. If anything I’d like to spend as little time as possible in Parliament.”

That seems an odd attitude for a career politician. Maybe local government would have proved a better path?

What strikes me most is how careful Lucy Powell is with her answers, and thoughts aside from the moment of passion about not toeing the party line.

Perhaps she needs to be more careful she doesn’t become an identikit, apparatchik politician. It'd be nice to see her lash out a little, be less contolled.

No wonder Boris is getting so much attention in London

People crave personality, definition. Fear of the media – an irrational fear – has turned modern political parties into yellow bellies. They should be less afraid of the media and more assertive. If nothing else making their members more memorable might boost voter turnout and thus strengthen democracy.

I wish Lucy Powell had said she’d love to be Prime Minister. Occasionally I got a hint of steel and determination. But will a cast-iron, screwed on by-election victory bring this out or will it firmly push her into the comfort zone? The glimmer of hope is that if the Labour Party have given her such a good seat to fight then maybe they have plans for her. 

Follow Jonathan Schofield here @JonathSchofield

Manchester Central Constituency takes in electoral wards in Moston, Ancoats and Clayton, Ardwick, Bradford, City Centre, Hulme, Moss Side, Miles Platting and Newton Heath and Whalley Range. It was created in 1974. Every election has returned a Labour candidate. Tony Lloyd who retired to stand for Greater Manchester Police Commissioner was MP from 1997. Was the hapless Bill Boaks, the world's worst politician? He stood in the 1979 General Election in Manchester Central, on the ridiculous ticket of 'Democratic Monarchist, Public Safety, White Resident'. He got 12 votes - was that even all his family?

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35 comments so far, continue the conversation, write a comment.

Voice of the Ironing BroadNovember 14th 2012.

The only reason that Lucy Powell doesn't toe the party line is because the Party line has moved so far to the right and those with some sort of principles left long ago.
She was supported in by the brown nosed brigade in Withington CLP who were determined to back Keith Bradley who thought the best decision [for his electoral result maybe] was to abstain on the dodgy dossier war vote. I mean abstain....in favour or against yes, but a principled decision to abstain.

Where does Lucy Powell stand on a few practical issues here in Manchester Central...services to the elderly, charging £50.00 to sit in a miserable church hall laughingly called a day centre. Might just a sniff of the money paid to Alicia Keys gone some way to alleviate the poverty experienced by the inner city elderly.

Tony Lloyd is a sad loss and Lucy Powell will be no replacement.

AnonymousNovember 14th 2012.

Turnout will be 15% at best. The labour party could put a monkey in a dress and they'd still be voted in. Personally, I would like my MP to have had a real job before they decided they wanted to be an MP. Preferably, also been a local councillor in the constituency they wish to represent so they know the priorities of that constituency as soon as they get to Westminster. If only we had a candidate like that...

1 Response: Reply To This...
AnonymousNovember 14th 2012.

Now now Cllr...

Stephen DouglasNovember 14th 2012.

"If you’re making a decision over whether you provide services to vulnerable older people at home or put up parking charges a bit then, you know....|"

Except that's illegal - money raised by councils from parking charges & fines has to be ring-fenced for transport improvements. In this case, it was spent on the pedestrianisation of Canal Street.

Pat Karney also tried to blame it on government cuts but quickly backtracked when I confronted him on that.

6 Responses: Reply To This...
James SpencerNovember 14th 2012.

I am not sure you are right, It needed a council resolution to pay £50K for the scheme which looks like capital money, rather than small works from the parking money

James SpencerNovember 14th 2012.

Incidentally it confuses drivers

Stephen DouglasNovember 15th 2012.

It was funded by capital money, but the money to pay for it was transferred from the parking reserve.

See council executive minutes at: www.manchester.gov.uk/…/12-CapitalIncreases.pdf…

(recommendation 3)

AnonymousNovember 15th 2012.

The money is ringfenced for transport. The main thing it pays for is the free Metroshuttle service that takes several million people across the city centre each year. But if the money wasn't available through parking charges, if the service was to be provided then it would have to be funded from elsewhere so Powell is right. Rather simple economics, no?

Stephen DouglasNovember 15th 2012.

It wouldn't "have to be funded from elsewhere", especially when the "elsewhere" that Powell is suggesting is social services for the elderly.

Metroshuttle is funded by the existing charges, the increase was not necessary to pay for Metroshuttle.

The parking reserve has a surplus anyway - £2.755m in March, up from the £2.151m that had been budgeted for. This came from a combination of higher-than-expected parking income and a lower-than-expected utilisation.

Stephen DouglasNovember 15th 2012.

Sorry, meant to post the minutes:

www.manchester.gov.uk/…/RevenueOutturn_2_.pdf…

Section 5.6

AnonymousNovember 14th 2012.

Whatever its history, the sad truth is Manchester is now a "POLITICALLY DEAD" city!
Surely the most socially vibrant & healthy of cities, are not one party dominant where opposition councillors/MPs BARELY EXIST?

AnonymousNovember 14th 2012.

I’m looking forward to Lucy becoming our first female MP in Manchester central. Despite it almost being a forgone conclusion that she is going to win tomorrow, she seems to have worked incredibly hard campaigning in the last few months, throughout the entire city - especially in comparison to the other parties. I think this is a testament to the sort of MP she will be when she gets elected.

Liam StarkeyNovember 14th 2012.

I think its a bit of a disgrace that Manchester Confidential interviews Lucy Powell on the week of the election. I know there is no law compelling newspapers to have fair coverage during election times but basic fairness would dictate that you give equal and balanced coverage to all the candidates. That said she is bound to win anyway.

Daniel JamesNovember 14th 2012.

Can we also have an interview from Marc Ramsbottom.

He has already done a lot of work as a previous local councillor, and it would be only fair to have his views.

1 Response: Reply To This...
Calum McGNovember 15th 2012.

Hear, hear!

EditorialNovember 14th 2012.

The reason there is no balance here is that she will win, whereas we have tried for balance in the Commissioner's debate. So in the end treat this as a review - just like a food or theatre one - because we've judged her and examined her. When we review an Italian restaurant we don't ask for a comment from all the other Italian restaurants.

7 Responses: Reply To This...
Liam StarkeyNovember 14th 2012.

Yes everyone knows she is likely to win but if you were a responsible publication you would be doing a feature on all the candidates (major parties and minor). You could easily save the Big Interview feature for after the election when she has officially won. Whether or not it is a one horse race you are essentially pre-judging the electoral process. As you are not a broadcaster you are not (currently) bound by any rules so I admit you are free to publish waht you like but I think its a bit contemptuous to the voters of Manchester Centra. I also dont think its fair to compare parliamentary candidates with Italian restaurants.

DavidNovember 15th 2012.

Mr SCHOFIELD is not a responsible journalist,he is not even worthy of being called one.His political bias is atrocious.But worst are the ridiculous excises he makes for it.No doubt he will claim non of the other parties candidates were available for interview,just like he claimed in past he claimed non of them could provide a person to write a political column like his chum Mr Stringer does.

DavidNovember 15th 2012.

This is not journalism this a blatant advertorial for the Labour Party,Schofield should be ashamed of himself.

DavidNovember 15th 2012.

That is an utterly pathetic comment,comparing it to a restaurant review.I suggest you stick to writing about things you have some clue about.
Are you really suggesting that if a contest is most likely to be one by one party,there is no point in examine the record of all the other candidates?.If that was the case there would be NO point in the local media bothering covering virtually all the contests in Manchester,as most are safe Labour seats.

DavidNovember 15th 2012.

Who are you to say she will for certain win anyway?.After all she lost last time.
It's also noticeable your bias towards the man who beat her.I suggest you are far from objective in your reporting.It would be interesting to know what your relationship is with this woman.

Jonathan SchofieldNovember 15th 2012.

Oh David, you do amuse me. I'm sorry I keep you awake at night.

GordoNovember 15th 2012.

Blimey, David, have you heard the term troll? You are very amusing though; tell me, had the medication worn off by 2:30 AM; I'm jealous of Schofield having such an excellent Troll, I have two but they are a right pair of numpties...

AnonymousNovember 14th 2012.

I think Lucy will make a great MP for Manchester Central and I would echo the comments above that she has worked extremely hard in the last few months. She has some great ideas and a genuine passion for making Manchester a better place to live in. I wish her all the best for tomorrow.

AnonymousNovember 14th 2012.

If you want a simple demonstration of why the Tories are so reviled, look no further than this article.

www.guardian.co.uk/…/council-cuts-targeted-deprived-areas…

This targeting of cuts at the most deprived areas is an issue that has been floating around since the last election, yet Labour have failed to make any political capital out of it.

Cuts are needed, of course, but they should be fair and proportional, not punative of those people and businesses that most need quality services and investment.

You rather get the sense that part of the reason is the contempt with which all Westminster politicians regard local democracy and local government.

Few countries are as so chronically centralised as ours.

Therefore what I would like to see prospective candidates and MPs of all political persuasions campaign on is for further and significant devolution down to the local level.

Westminster government and Whitehall mandarins have demonstrably FAILED to improve the lot of many places outside London.

Only properly empowered and resourced local government and local communities understand the complexities and uniqueness of their local area. Local MPs might have a similar sense but they work on a casework basis and lack the overview and clout to effect real change where many of the issues places like Manchester face are complex and multi-faceted.

So please Lucy, if you get in, make DEVOLUTION your mantra.

2 Responses: Reply To This...
AnonymousNovember 14th 2012.

Or rather, 'DEVOLUTION, DEVOLUTION, DEVOLUTION'.

Has a certain ring to it, don't think?

James SpencerNovember 15th 2012.

I think you want a Boris. Some of us asked for one but we were refused The Tories don't want another one :-)

Ps I know we really have one but not an elected one

Joe LovanoNovember 14th 2012.

Lucy has said nothing - either in this interview or on the hustings - to convince me that she is anything other than a career politician. Check out the Pirate Party manifesto before you vote Labour on autopilot. Political monopolies can be every bit as stifling as commercial ones.

Poster BoyNovember 15th 2012.

Seems like Ms. Powell has been listening to David Brent with all that psycho-babble.

It used to be only the McKinsey intake of bright (sic)young Tory boys that came out with such management BS.

She'll be telling us she 'admires' Yvette Cooper next...

ShaunNovember 16th 2012.

I didnt see her out campaigning once, the fact is she won a real safe seat in one of the poorest electoral turnouts in history speaks volumes.

AnonymousNovember 16th 2012.

I live and work in the city centre, both just off Deansgate. I'm out and about all the time and love the city.

I've not seen her once, nor did I receive any campaign material from her, so to say she'd been out knocking doors seems a little unreal.

Anyway, let's hope she does a good job. I can't help but remain apathetic about her thanks to the fact that even if she cocks up, it'll remain a Labour seat.

JoanNovember 16th 2012.

Anon: Lucy has done lots of campaigning and I know she did some city centre meetings inviting residents from certain blocks. Unfortunately it's not possible to knock on every door; there's just too many. Canvassing in the city centre is rather limited anyway by security issues in the residential blocks. I live just off Deansgate and have delivered materials to many nearby buildings, but some block managements refuse access. I think that's unfortunate as communication is essential. You should have received a postal communication from Lucy as well. This is standard in Parliamentary elections and is provided to all candidates. If you'd like to get in touch with me I'd be happy to look at ways of improving communication. cllr.j.davies@manchester.gov.uk

AnonymousNovember 16th 2012.

Could it be, Anon, that you live in one of the off-Deansgate locations which is not in Lucy's Constituency?

Duke FameNovember 17th 2012.

Yet another clueless career politician from Labour. Why does ever down at heel city voter a bunch of losers, make the connection.

almondcroissantNovember 27th 2012.

the words 'party apparatchik' spring to mind...
Lucy is a hopeless candidate which is probably the reason she didn't win in Withington

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