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The bitter constituency

As election day dawns Jonathan Schofield takes a look at the scrap for Manchester Withington

Written by . Published on May 6th 2010.

The bitter constituency

Manchester Withington is bitter. Compared with most of the other constituencies in Greater Manchester the level of rancour seems unparalleled.

An elderly woman told one of our campaigners that Labour activists had been telling her that a vote for the Lib-Dems was a vote for the Tories as the Lib-Dem votes and Tory votes are counted together as one pile. Absurd.”

The boundary takes in Chorlton, Withington, Burnage and Didsbury. The population is diverse and highly politicised. Attend the South Manchester dinner parties, chat with people in the streets and shops, and pure bile surfaces.

Much of this is directed at John Leech, the incumbent Lib-Dem. Leech won the seat in 2005 with a 17.3% swing from Labour, one of the biggest in the country. In vote terms he got 667 more votes out of 37,458 cast.

The campaigns against Leech include twitter feeds and a website called Vote Leech Out. These call Leech unpleasant names and deride his claims to have worked hard for the area he serves .

“He's a political opportunist, constantly running down the Labour Party's fine work in Manchester,” says Roland Crump, a Chorlton resident with a typical view amongst old-school Labour voters. “Leechout, lying, thieving, hypocritical numb-nuts” screams a tweet.

“Since I was elected in 2005,” says Leech, anger in his voice, “I've put up with the Labour Party running smear campaigns and telling lies about me. They behave as though they have a God-given right to own the constituency. Manchester Withington was Tory until 1987. Labour then took it, before losing to me. They are arrogant and think it should be theirs to keep.”

One theory is that the bitterness against Leech is inevitable given the demographic of the area. There can't be a constituency in the north west with more creative industry and public sector worker types many of whom have a natural left bias. John Leech isn't sure that these are the problem though, it's more to do with the Party apparatus.

“A lot of old school leftwingers have left the Labour Party and these tend to support our stance on Iraq and so forth, they tend to be supportive of me,” he says. “But some who stayed, and some of the more recent ones, are very embittered. They feel they have to condemn our policies because they are not Labour policies and anything not Labour Party has to be attacked. They are angry and frustrated. If Margaret Thatcher put on a red rosette and campaigned as a Labour Party candidate, they would vote for her in this constituency.”

“They don't want to talk about our policies,” he says on full boil now. “They don't want to talk about giving people a better deal, fairer taxes, better schools, reforming the economy and cleaning up politics. They want to lie.”

“How have they lied?” I ask.

“There are lots of examples. An elderly woman told one of our campaigners that Labour activists had been telling her that a vote for the Lib-Dems was a vote for the Tories as the Lib-Dem votes and Tory votes are counted together as one pile. Absurd.”

“Meanwhile we've had 'coincidences', shall we say. During the last election, a 'concerned resident' phoned the emergency services to say our election office was a fire hazard. We had to close as the fire brigade carried out checks. Guess what? It happened again this year. There are appalling lies being told in a desperate bid to win back the seat. We don't do this. We stick to the facts on the doorsteps.”

What about all the porkies that angry Labouristas say Leech tells? One, of many, that goes the rounds is that the Metrolink currently being built through South Manchester is being claimed by Leech as one of his success stories as MP and formerly as a councillor.

“This is what happened,” says Leech. “Labour cancelled the Metrolink expansion in 2005. I fought tooth and nail to bring it through Manchester Withington. During the Congestion Charge which I never supported, Labour said there was no Plan B. Now Metrolink is coming through the constituency and I've tried to offer my support throughout and actively campaigned for it too. So there was a Plan B and yes I've exerted influence to help it happen.”

“As for saying I've constantly undemined Labour's achievement in Manchester,” says Leech referring to our Chorlton resident Roland Crump's claims above, “yes, I've fought against many of their ideas, because I think they could have done much better. What's wrong with that?”

Lucy Powell, the Labour Party candidate, is a little more relaxed than Leech. “I've not been putting out any literature that comments on John Leech. I've not been telling these 'lies'.”

Eighteenth century hustlings

“Regarding the allegations about our campaigners," she continues, "I don't know anything about them. But we've also had reports and allegations about Lib-Dem campaigners asking people in the constituency who have Vote Labour posters in their gardens to take them down if they've ever had casework done by the Lib-Dems.”

(Casework means action taken by the Lib-Dems locally by councillors or by the MP following concerns raised by residents.)

“Meanwhile,” Powell continues, “Some of the comments coming from John Leech about me have been dismissive and personal calling me a career politician and a spin doctor [famously Powell, has taken her mate Eddie Izzard campaigning with her]. I'm not, I want to do my best for the area.”

“But Leech forgets that this is about choosing a government. It's a general election and we're fighting to represent this constituency in Parliament. I'm aware of local issues, of course I am, but I also want to show how we would make this country better through our policies. We have a massively strong track record locally in Manchester, but this is a national election.”

But what about the really vicious anti-John Leech comment-boards and so forth.

“They are nothing to do with me and I wouldn't have anything to do with them,”says Powell. “It's true that this is a hard-fought campaign, it is a marginal that could go either way. But just because of that we are in no way arrogant, we know we don't have a God-given right to this seat. We know we have to work hard in getting our message across. It's true that there's no love lost between John Leech and me, although I think there's less of that on my side. I just want to keep on campaigning until the end.”

But why is Manchester Withington like this?

The Conservative candidate, Chris Green, is more measured than the other two politicians. He can afford to be. The only way he'd get in at Withington is if he spent the Conservative's total election budget bribing people. Maybe not even then.

“I wouldn't pay any attention to the nasty comments,” he says. “It's a handful of people who shout the loudest and the hardest. Remember this is the constituency that had the biggest swing at the last election. This type of ugliness always rears its head, especially with the opinion polls switching around.”

He does agree with Leech on one thing though.

“I definitely don't think people should vote tactically. There's been a lot of chatter about this locally from one side and the other. You should vote by conscience. If you support the Conservatives then vote for us as that increases the share of the vote nationally and therefore increases the mandate should we be elected. It's simple.”

Leech says much the same about the Lib Dems.

Bitter campaign or not, all the three candidates we talked to, think that there will be a higher turnout this time and that the outcome is too close to call between Leech and Powell. They also agree that the Leaders Debates have been significant. Their conclusions about them are different.

“It made an enormous difference. Nick Clegg just needed a platform in which to outperform the other two leaders,” says Leech of his leader. “It's actually brought politics into general conversation which is a good thing.”

“I think an issue for us is that with the Leaders debates it's so personality driven. We would like people to think the issues through,” says Powell trapping herself momentarily in a contradiction.

“Personality driven,” I say. “You've wheeled out Eddie Izzard to doorstep with you.”

“He helped because he's a friend of mine,” she quickly says. “Eddie shares the same values. He is a celeb but as he says, one who's earned his own platform. He's not a wheel-out celebrity but a self -propelled personality.”

Right, Lucy. Nice to have him as part of the armoury though, isn't it?

The truth is that each of the candidates is trying everything they can to get elected. The battle in Manchester Withington which would have been bloody in any case, has become more so through Nick Clegg's perceived victory in the TV Debates.

You could argue that politics shouldn't be as nasty as this. You could argue that those Labour Party supporters who have been calling John Leech names are degrading the whole process. You could say it's only one step up from the eighteenth century hustings blighted by bribery, drinking and violence.

Or you could say that given politics spans and informs our lives from our education to our pensions, then passion is just what we need. You could say that it's a shame more seats aren't as marginal as Manchester Withington. The name-calling might be childish but no one can doubt how fired up people have become at this election: it's palpable, entertaining, exciting and vitally important.

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

Jim''ll Fix ItMay 6th 2010.

N o matter who wins this election I guarantee that tomorrow will be business as usual for most of us.

Every time there is an election it reminds me of the song "Won't Get Fooled Again" by The Who.

Specifically the lyric "Meet the new boss, same as the old boss". I want the liberals to win but I think we'll end up with a hung parliament.

AnonymousMay 6th 2010.

John Leech got elected on the back of Iraq nationally and by telling us locally that the Christie was going to be shut when it wasn't. This link pretty much sums him up:


Spy WednesdayMay 6th 2010.

For one of the most marginal Labour/Lib Dem constituencies in the country I've only had one canvasser at my door in the last month and that was from the Lib Dems. Have Labour really put enough into winning back Withington? I've received a lot of expensive, full-colour, "personalised" letters from Lucy Powell, but no sign of the lady herself!


DescartesMay 6th 2010.

Hung parliament implies we're all f*cked, I prefer the Scottish term of balanced Parliament, but really, I hope and dream for proportional representation. Or another Guy Fawkes.

Simone13024May 6th 2010.

This national debt stuff scares me, especially when you look at Greece and the trouble they've got into after bloating their public sector. We add an extra £200m A DAY to the national debt. The national debt is now almost twice what it was just a few years ago and rising by £200m a day with no real way of getting it down quickly. Without a strong government willing to make savage cuts then we could easily end up like Greece.

DescartesMay 6th 2010.

I think we're headed that way anyway, strong gov't or no. We've got a lot of pain coming our way in the next few years. Labour took us down this road, they didn't see it coming and their economic policy has screwed us all right up the ass, I just don't buy the idea that they know how to sort it.

Simone13024May 6th 2010.

Most people just don't take it seriously though. I honestly think that Labour have no intention of taking the public sector on, so the only way to possibly avoid this is a strong Conservative win but I don't think that will happen. We're doomed.

Simone13024May 6th 2010.

I want a pic at the side of posts like Des. How do I do this?

Editorial for Simon13024May 6th 2010.

1.Go to http://www.gravatar.com and create an account using the same address as your mancon subscription
2.upload/choose a global avatar (Gravatar)
3.that'll now show when you comment on our site, and other sites that use the gravatar system

AnonymousMay 6th 2010.

Lucy Powell seems to have done very little doorstep campaigning, so I can't judge her personally, but comparing what Leech has actively achieved locally over the last 5 yrs with that of the previous Labour MP, I know who'll get my vote.

George PoultonMay 6th 2010.

I agree with spy Wednesday, i have not had a single candidate too my door or seen any sign of them around Withington.
In response to Simone13024 - why do you assume the tories would be best placed to tackle the national debt - the institute of fiscal studies found the lib dems polcies were the best placed to tackle the national debt - the tories cuts for service for the most needey are cancelled out by there tax cuts for the rich, meaning the national debt is not tackled while at the same time the most vulnerable are put in a worse situation

Jane BaxterMay 6th 2010.

Very well put Descartes. I totally agree. Labour always get us in a financial mess and have no idea how to manage the economy.

Simone13024May 6th 2010.

GEO, the study you mentioned was on the cuts outlined in each partie's manifesto. These cuts are frankly just the tip of the iceberg, not even that really, more likely the drip of water coming off the tip. The public sector is going to have to be cut back greatly and benefits cut for many. There are quite a few ridiculous benefits to be honest. The only party I feel will get out the machete is the Conservatives, obviously they couldn't go into an election campaign saying 'we're going to slash benefits and the public sector' but hopefully (and I'm not that hopeful) they'll get enough of a mandate to do so.

AnonymousMay 6th 2010.

Should we wake up tomorrow morning with a hung or balanced parliament be thankful - Vince Cable will be Chancellor. And remember, Vince Cable is the only ECONOMIST in the current hierarchy of government or government in waiting, all others being lawyers and barristers. Who would you rather entrust to sort out the economy - old Etonian Lawyer George or sensible grounded economist Vince? Not diffucult surely?..

DescartesMay 6th 2010.

What, you mean we might actually end up with someone working a position they actually know something about? That'd be crazy.

AnonymousMay 6th 2010.

By the way, this Cable predicted everything stuff is rubbish. He came out with so much he was bound to get some of it right. He also backed the bill that brought in light touch regulation. He said “I want to express broad support for the bill, whose philosophy and whose architecture of financial regulation reflect a broad consensus.” He then changed his mind after the event to “One lesson of the financial crisis is that the ‘light-touch´ regulatory approach was a failure.” Ok, Vince.

Leigh ScottMay 6th 2010.

the xfactor style debating has delivered it's own hung parliament because people are able to see the various policies from three sides. The style in which they promoted the election this year allowed more of us to understand the three main parties policies. I think most of us are agreeing to vote for a party based on perhaps one or two policies rather than all 6-7 which is why there are so many still undecided even now!

Suzanne AckermanMay 6th 2010.

Agree with above comments re Lucy Powell.

I am sick of being told that I have 2 choices or my vote is wasted.

People should vote based on which policies they agree with and not on stereotypes or media impressions

Simon TMay 6th 2010.

Leech swung the vote last time round by scaremongering about Labour closing Christie's Hospital so the rancour goes back to that. Jonathan seems annoyed by Lucy P bringing top comedian and charity marathon walker Eddie Izzard to her side and parading him, but why not? All political parties have celebs; the Tories have wheeled out Michael Caine and Gary Barlow. It's just a pity Izzard isn't actually standing as an MP - he'd walk it. Literally.

RachadelicMay 6th 2010.

In my dealings with John Leech I have always found him very passionate and helpful. He is always willing to turn up to events etc when invited and clearly has time for his constituents. I have also seen him out and about in Chorlton taking pics of dodgy roadworks with the Lib Dem councillor around 7am on a Sunday, good work. Lucy Powell - she hasn't knocked on my door and even if she insists the smear campaign is not coming via her office - I don't like the labour campaigners tactics one bit.

However I will say - Labour have had a very hard time recently because people aren't happy with current situationbut they didn't wreck the economy (GLOBAL crisis, anyone?)
and have actually handled it very well (they have, most people have no idea what's involved in handling the economy) although, to be fair it would've been better
had they saved some money in the good years but who's to say what anyone
else would've done. To think teh Tories getting in would 'fix' everything is ridiculous, remember what they did last time?!

Watch this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EKFTtYx2OHc

A coallition/hung parliament would be a good thing as it would lead to parliamentary reform (enforced by the Lib Dems with support of others) which would mean future
Governments would be formed via proportional representation and also
democratically elected House of Lords. After a few months coalition with a
few major changes there would be another general election where no votes
were considered 'wasted' and it wouldn't just be a toss up between LabCon

If we do get a majority Gov't tomorrow though they will soon become the most hated in a long time due to the changes required to cut the deficit... So I at least hope that if the Tories do get in it will only be for one term!

AnonymousMay 6th 2010.

If you want to see some nasty personal attacks against Lucy and other Labour people check the twitter feed of @xwargod whose favourite insult for Lucy is ridiculous and who also targets others with personal and untrue smears.

Relatively speaking the Labour tweeters and bloggers have been sitting on their hands and whereas most of Leech's literature is highly negative and with questionable over claims and attacks there has been little of that - just one low volume flier with a "rag out" from the Mail about LDs diverting public money into campaigning - from Labour.

I can think of nothing more disreputable than giving out a leaflet claiming Christie was threatened with closure to patients waiting for chemo and radio therapy. Leech did that in 2005.

My partner received a letter from him recently in which he said he had enclosed a contract, setting out "what you can continue to expect".

Only problem? NOTHING enclosed! An accidental moment of truthfulness.

MattMay 6th 2010.

This is possibly the most simplistic and naive report on the election so far. And that is saying something.
How you can fail to mention Leech coming to power on the back of the Cristie lie, is beyond me. That's why Labour supporters are angry about him and the Lib Dems - they lied their way into the seat.
Why didnt you ask him about that - afraid or just ignorant of the facts?
Really piss-poor report, masquerading as political journalism. Stick to pots not politics.

AdamMay 6th 2010.

They can fight all they want. The Eddie Izzard thing was just bizarre. I'm voting conservative and I know a lot of others that are doing the same in Manchester Withington. There aren't just 2 parties here and my vote is not wasted.

AnonymousMay 6th 2010.

All I've had is leaflets and the lovely Brian Candeland. However, I've voted for john leech, he's accessible and appears to care about his local area. I don't like the approach of "I used to live here" Lucy Powell, I haven't seen her about at all in Chorlton. I don't want a Tory government but have decided to vote for someone who I feel listens to what people have to say.

cleggs cloggsMay 6th 2010.

off to cavendish now to follow the yellow brick road....

Stephen RyanMay 6th 2010.

Anon: Whilst I can't be certain of Cable as the economic messiah until I see him in the chancellor's seat I can't help but think him admitting that something he backed was a failure is a feat that takes a pretty big pair around Whitehall.
When's the last time you saw Labour or the Tories apologising for taking us to war?

AnonymousMay 6th 2010.

SWISS, Sorry to burst that bubble but he didn't actually admit he was wrong. When it was brought up he became unavailable for comment and the Lib Dems issued this meaningless quote “At the time, and as the extract from Hansard illustrates, Vince made it clear that a balance has to be struck between regulation which protected consumers and maintained market stability without becoming so onerous that it was unworkable.

“While light-touch regulation was not at the time wrong, in principle the credit crunch has made it clear that the way this regulation was carried out was entirely inadequate.”

AnonymousMay 6th 2010.

As a longtime and typical Labour voter(working class manual worker) I can honestly say the relationship is dead in the water.The last ten years have been a disater for the UK, Iraq on a lie,Afghanistan, ID cards, trial without jury if required, Police right of entry without warrant, the list is endless from a "Socialist" party.
All the while many elected members use it as a career path and a way to feather their nests, after dinner speaches Mr Bliar(subject, getting away with it).
As for the Tories, you gotta be joking, spent too long on the dole with them in the dark days of the 70's/80's.
Libs,well it's a wasted vote apparently, we'll see.

James11364May 6th 2010.

Just to think the law has changed on police entering premises without a warrent here is the current position according to 'Liberty'

AnonymousMay 6th 2010.

most constituency have 60000+voters can you really expect to be visited personally by the candidates during the campaign. I do people want to be during then evening. when the match is on?
I think John Leech was out photographing hole in the Road when he was a councillor as well as an MP MP's can't do much about holes but they can secure the better management of them. which has still not been achieved in Greater Manchester. Had MAN Con provided the promised general rant section I was going to tell you about it since it was one of things people asked Richard Leese about.

Scott NeilMay 6th 2010.

splendid article Jonathan, and an excellent conclusion. some of the tricks in some of the east London seats make stuff up here look like child's play; RESPECT and the Tories are getting up to some very seedy, desperate measures against Labour in parts of cockney country...

AgricolaMay 7th 2010.

Leech held it with an increased majority. Izzard never worked out

Leigh ScottMay 7th 2010.

This muddy picture just demonstrates to me the complete ignorance of our local population. They clearly don't understand the importance of politics and how it affects them, and as such; when and if voting atall, they vote the same way their parents did.

Once a Citeh fan always a Citeh fan, sort-of-attitude.

Simon TMay 7th 2010.

Leech hangs on, but note that it was with only a slight swing to him from Labour - a much smaller swing from Labour to Lib Dem than nationwide. The locked-out voters story is important to investigate, although there weren't enough disenfranchised to make a difference to the result. If voters had known what we know now - that Clegg is happy to jump into bed with the Tories - then maybe the result would've been different. Manchester Withington is anti-Tory; it's odd that our Lib Dem MP might be helping to prop up Cameron.

Johnny TaskerMay 8th 2010.

In view of some of the results , how many of the cheating , lying , so called Politicians can even get their grannys to vote for them is beyond me. The good people of Salford are clearly saying , " Yes , more please , more fiddle and lies , oh yes please !! With regard to Nu Liarbour in general , when one sees the faithful performing seals clapping and baying at each liarbour victory , they must be saying " more lies , more wars , please ! "

Kate GMay 12th 2010.

“They don't want to talk about our policies,” he says on full boil now. “They don't want to talk about giving people a better deal, fairer taxes, better schools, reforming the economy and cleaning up politics. They want to lie.”

“How have they lied?” I ask.

“There are lots of examples. An elderly woman told one of our campaigners that Labour activists had been telling her that a vote for the Lib-Dems was a vote for the Tories as the Lib-Dem votes and Tory votes are counted together as one pile. Absurd.”

Not so Absurd after all.

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