‘Working class and middle class feel neglected’: How Labour lost a Manchester council by-election
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The tension in the room was rising as the votes were being counted.
Neither side was confident at the start of the night, but as the piles of ballot papers started stacking up, the smiles on some faces slowly disappeared.
Not since the Commonwealth Games were hosted in Manchester had the Lib Dems won in Ancoats, Beswick or Bradford – typically safe Labour territory.
But by midnight, members of the ruling Labour group were leaving Central Library with one councillor fewer following an unexpected by-election defeat.
So how did the yellow rosette triumph over the red in the recent Ancoats and Beswick by-election?
A vote which was called in controversial circumstances?
Perhaps the Liberal Democrats’ victory was not exactly as much of a surprise as it might have first appeared.
Marcia Hutchinson, who had served as a Labour councillor in Ancoats and Beswick for six months, quit last year, blaming “racist bullying” in the party.
Standing down the day before Sir Richard Leese resigned as council leader – a role he held for a quarter of a century – she said she had had enough of being “treated differently” by the group as one of the only black councillors in the city.
And the controversy continued even after she stood down with accusations that the local Labour branch had “gerrymandered” the process to select a candidate to replace her, resulting in some black members being “excluded”.
Labour denies all of the allegations Marcia made and party sources claim “all the rules were followed” in the selection process without any irregularities.
But some say serious damage had been done, contributing to Labour’s inability to hold Marcia’s old seat in the by-election her departure triggered.
The fall-out from her departure may not yet be over
Marcia, who has now quit the Labour Party, has already been approached by other parties – but she is considering standing as an independent candidate.
She says people told her they were “disgusted” by the way she was treated.
The former lawyer says some Labour members even encouraged people to vote Lib Dem in the by-election – enough to swing the outcome, she claims.
Some are sceptical that this was decisive – but none doubt it was damaging.
Local unease fuelled by the area’s development boom
The racism row was not the only reason why Labour lost, Marcia admits, claiming the ruling group does not understand what caused the defeat.
A “huge” amount of development in the area with “scant regard” for local people who are being priced out of their neighbourhoods, is one of her observations.
“They’ve managed to create a perfect storm of working class people in Beswick and middle class people in Ancoats feeling neglected,” she said.
Surviving Labour councillor Majid Dar, who has represented the ward since 2018 is sympathetic to this view – and to Marcia’s allegations against the group.
But he believes there are many factors which contributed to the loss.
Not only does the rapid pace of development in the area change the demographics of the electorate regularly, creating challenges for campaigning, but some proposals have been particularly controversial.
In 2020, plans to build an office campus on New Islington Green – land which was a lifeline during the lockdown – were approved despite overwhelming opposition from local residents.
A year earlier, the Trees Not Cars campaign to create a green space at Central Retail Park proved council plans to use the site as a temporary car park were unpopular.
Claire McDonald, one of the founding members of the campaign group which won a legal battle against the council overturning the decision two years later, says there has been a ‘big push’ for green spaces from Labour locally – but nothing has materialised so far.
“It was just greenwashing,” she said.
Many people voted for Marcia because she “did her research” about green spaces, Claire claims, but she did not get the impression that the new Labour candidate cared as much, focusing his campaign on other issues in Ancoats instead.
A struggle to secure Labour support in Beswick
Gareth Worthington admitted that while he was already well known in Ancoats, he struggled to gain ground in Beswick over the few weeks between his selection at the end of December and the vote on February 3.
According to Majid, who is one of two Labour councillors still representing the ward, cleanliness is a big issue in Beswick where residents often reporting rubbish.
He says some of his constituents complain of people ‘pissing on their fences’ and trashing the area – but he has not had the support to solve this.
The Labour councillor, who was suspended by the last council leader in 2019 after allegations of antisemitism, said he felt ‘let down’ by the former regime – but he feels ‘much more positive’ now under a new leader who has ‘listened’.
Addressing the racism row, he said, “I’m hopeful about the new leader.”
“If any other issues come up, it will be handled much better.
“I’m hoping past mistakes will be learnt from.”
The council’s new leadership promises listening and learning
Council leader Bev Craig, who took over from Sir Richard on 1 December, has spent the first few months in the role speaking to communities across the city.
She says she is committed to making sure people “feel pride” in Manchester, shape its future and that the benefits of its success are felt by all residents.
For this, the council must “get the basics right” – from building social and affordable housing to investing in parks and cleaning streets, she said.
“Losing a by-election is never easy,” she said
“We had a good candidate and a committed local team that despite the result are determined to put the people of Ancoats and Beswick first.”
How the ward made an appearance in the budget meeting
The battle to win back Ancoats and Beswick has already begun with all local councillors tabling amendments at a budget meeting on Friday (4 March).
Unsurprisingly, a Lib Dem bid to spend £3m of reserves on road safety, parks and basic services such as street cleaning was rejected, while Labour’s proposal to introduce residential parking schemes in Ancoats – spending £4m of cash from developers – was approved.
John Woods, who lives in Ancoats, says he and his neighbours have been calling for a residential parking scheme for years.
He claims councillors ignored requests and town hall staff said it simply was not possible.
“What’s been the sudden shift in thought?” he said. “Do we have to vote you out for you to listen?”
The 44-year-old says he has always been ‘one of those idiots’ who voted Labour just because his parents did.
But at this by-election, he voted Lib Dem for the first time – and he believes none of his neighbours will vote Labour again.
“I’ve never voted anything else and they’d never get my vote again,” he said.
What has the new councillor said about his victory?
Reflecting on his victory a week after the result, newly-elected Lib Dem councillor Alan Good said a Labour loss in this council ward had been a “long-time coming”.
He says he found voters in Ancoats and Beswick felt “ignored” by the council, with some telling him they had never heard from their elected representatives.
The opposition councillor claims his new constituents feel “disenfranchised”.
“This is a long time coming,” he said. “I don’t think it’s just this by-election.
“Their vote collapsed across the ward – in the most deprived part of the ward.”
Coun Good, who has been campaigning in the ward for years, says the “Burnham bounce” helped Labour secure a sizeable majority at the last election in May.
But he beat Labour at this by-election, winning more than half of the votes.
Alan says it would be “naive” to think national politics did not play a part.
“Some Labour voters said they didn’t like Keir Starmer,” he said. “Even in working class estates.
“The relationship between Labour and working class voters in areas like Bradford and Beswick is so damaged. It’s years in the making.
“People voted for Boris, but now they’re absolutely furious with him.
“If I were a Conservative politician in a Leave area – a working class area – I’d be really worried.”
However, Alan believes apathy is the underlying issue in much of Manchester.
What has the council leader said in the wake of the by-election result?
Council leader Bev Craig has been speaking with local residents in Beswick, Ancoats and New Islington over the last few months, saying, “there are lots of positives, but we have also listened to their challenge and will deliver”.
She promises under her leadership the council will invest in neighbourhoods and community facilities, ensure that developers contribute to community improvements such as residents parking, build more affordable housing and deliver much-needed improvements to estates such as at Grey Mare Lane.
“Going forward, we want to make sure residents from Beswick to Baguley feel the council listens and continue to be proud of our city,” she said.
“We want to hear from you. You can contact your local councillors or me directly to make you views. We are here to work for you.”