Wednesday, September 08, 2021

Sir Richard Leese, a real one-off



Sir Richard Leese announcing that he's stepping down as leader of Manchester City Council is a genuinely seismic, historic and crucial moment. I doubt we will see his like again.

I've written something for Place North West, but this is a slightly more political take.

As I wrote in my Masters thesis, the road to directly elected Mayors as a new form of devolved government in this country owes a great deal to how Leese and Howard Bernstein settled on Greater Manchester's particular Mayoral model, through negotiating and deal doing, but how none of that would have been possible but for a consistent Manchester narrative, rooted in capacity building and competent statecraft, built up over 30 or more years. 

The right calls. Throughout his twenty-five years as leader, Leese has clearly got more right than he's got wrong. The Commonweath Games of 2002, city-centre living, the tram network. He's consistently put Manchester's agenda way ahead of Labour issues, which in a way has insulated the party in the city from the catastrophe it has endured nationally. In the nineties, he continued - and accelerated - a policy of critical engagement with Conservative governments in order to extract good outcomes. He scoffed at the idea of a directly elected Manchester City Council Mayor, the equivalent of which Liverpool foolishly went for, and I was very pleased to support opposition to that at the time.  I said in the Place piece today that he was uncompromising, which he was, especially in pursuit of Manchester's ambitions. But politics is also all about trade-offs and deals and he was a highly intelligent leader who was able to make more right ones than wrong ones. However...

Some wrong calls. Congestion charging referendum, going balls out on HS2, Piccadilly Gardens, traffic in the city centre, local service delivery, housing shortages. But also optics. Quick anecdote, I worked on a potential new branding for Manchester's innovation district, the area along Oxford Road. It has been saddled with a clunky term 'the Corridor' which a decent amount of research amongst stakeholders there - the universities, the hospital, developers, businesses - was that it was time for it to go. Richard Leese just dismissed any change out of hand and everyone else fell in behind him. It wasn't a hill anyone was prepared to die on, it's just a name, but it is a particularly crap one.

A new world. Honestly, I think the election of Andy Burnham, a charismatic retail politician, to the role of Mayor wasn't the outcome or the system Leese wanted. He'd have preferred someone like the late Lord Peter Smith or Tony Lloyd doing the red carpet stuff while he operated alongside doing the hard work. His amusing takes on the Metro Mayor job before Burnham transformed it, was that it was a bauble, a PR man's job, which is why he wasn't interested.

A hard-working political legacy. If the Labour Party wants to know how to win again, there are probably more lessons to be learned organisationally from Manchester Labour than just a shrug about demographics. As red walls collapse everywhere, they don't in Manchester. Councillor contracts for the Labour group in Manchester require a high contact rate. I saw Councillors in Stockport laugh dismissively at the thought of trying to impose that kind of discipline over here, which is why this is a minority administration and Manchester is dominated by Labour.  There are plenty of areas of Manchester that share the same characteristics as places that have gone UKIP, Brexit and Tory, like Stoke, but sheer political will and work keeps them Labour; Manchester Labour. There's a lesson there.

Brutal. I've seen him in full flow in debates and he absolutely spares no quarter. At times he could be egregiously combative. There's nothing polite, forgiving or tolerant about how he engages with people he doesn't agree with when he sees the stakes as high, though sometimes his blood just gets up. Examples: HS2, congestion charging, left wing virtue signally. I saw him describe calls for a directly elected Mayor for Yorkshire as 'ridiculous' scoffing that Mayoral Combined Authorities only work for functional economic geographies, and you can't build one around "a brand of tea". 

National Labour issues. Even before I rejoined the Labour Party in 2014 and knew him in my capacity as a journalist I was always interested in his takes on national issues and leaders. He was quite candid with me that he was no fan of Tony Blair even at the height of New Labour, but was quite close to Neil Kinnock. He led a highly personal campaign firmly against the decision of Transport Secretary Alastair Darling to cut funding for Metrolink expansion. He told me he voted for Andy Burnham in the 2010 leadership election, he spoke at the rally I chaired for Caroline Flint's deputy leadership campaign in 2015, and shared my view that she should have stood for leader. He was no fan of Corbyn's mob, but I was a bit taken aback when he warmly introduced John McDonnell as the 'future Chancellor of the Exchequer in the next Labour government' at a Remain event in 2016.

A successor. My hunch is the next leader of the City Council will be one of the 50 or so women councillors that Richard has supported and encouraged to step up in the male and pale world of local politics. I can't claim to know a great deal about the personal loyalties across the group - and that's who elects their leader - but I personally really rate Bev Craig (statutory deputy) and know people are urging her to step forward. Failing that, Luthfur Rahman, the current deputy leader, will fancy himself as a strong candidate too. 


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