Did Manchester City Council rig the vote on a controversial car park development? Was the Leese administration “rehearsed in private and performed in public”? Twelve guerrillas snapshots from the municipal front line

 

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Wednesday 12 May, 2021. Pat Karney Mission Control. The city centre puppet master is sifting intel ahead of the weekend’s Labour group AGM. The eyes narrow as he reads again the form submitted by newly-elected Hulme councillor, Ekua Bayunu.

In the section requiring members to list positions for which they’d like to be considered, the rotund, sixty-year-old community arts specialist has ticked the box marked ‘Leader’.

Bayunu has held a seat on Manchester city council for all of six days.

Karney isn’t daft. He’s had dealings with Bayunu before in her days at Greater Manchester Tenants Union. He has her number but opts instead to call her friend and fellow ward representative, Annette Wright.

“‘Annette…is this a mistake?” he asks, according to the timeline which can best be assembled from the available gossip.

People don’t always understand the paperwork they’ve been given..?

“I’ve no idea,” says Wright. “You need to ask Ekua.”

So begins the first public counterstrike against the Leese administration that anyone can remember…and with it the news that the broadside comes not from the left, per se, but from women.

 

 

“I think the next leader will be a woman and I suspect it will be Bev Craig.”

For two years a left-leaning Labour member has been offering this tip, preceded as it is by a subtler hint in want of unpacking…the suggestion that for some female members, having to act out a Labour autocracy is one thing; having to endure the politics of an ageing, patriarchal elite is another, and there are sufficient women among the group who are sick of it that when the time for change comes their votes may prove decisive.

They don’t like Leese’s womanising. They don’t like the whips’ office. They don’t like the way Karney does business.

The small cell of exclusively female left-of-centre councillors who have plotted secretly to fire a shot across Leese’s bows at May’s AGM have been planning the move across lock-down for more than a year. So low-key is the challenge that it barely makes a splash in the local press – as the giant Leese defeats the rookie Bayunu by 75 votes to 15, the bid is seen only for its eccentricity.

What’s curious is that the candidate fielded is a seeming no-hoper: a Black woman who professes privately to have a grudge against the council leader following a social encounter at the Royal Exchange theatre, where she claims to have been ignored in conversation in favour of her attractive young female companion.

The surprise fifteen vote macing served up may be small beer in electoral terms – but it disrupts the seamless narrative which has pervaded the Leese administration, nonetheless.

“A culture of playground snide is a good way of putting it,” one female representative, who claims not to enjoy life at town hall, tells me; a recent flashpoint having occurred in the aftermath of the vigil for Sarah Everard in March, which two women councillors were disciplined for attending. Public reprimand through the Labour group email has been a bone of contention, in fact. On this occasion there was uproar across the group until the sanctions were rescinded.

In response, a source close to the plotters arranges an off-the-record phone briefing, explaining to me that the women are attempting “to create a culture change where everybody can thrive as councillors and contribute to the city and its development”. They see the toxicity of the environment as being “very bullying, very white male, very friendship-grouping around this one leader, how long he’s been in place and how everybody seems to be fearful of him.”

The surprise challenge is therefore intended as a reminder to colleagues that outcomes are not pre-determined in politics and courses can be changed. Even in Manchester.

“All the real business is done in Labour group behind closed doors and then performed in public,” my insider tells me.

Performed?

“Scrutiny committees are open to the public but most of them have pre-meets, where the decision is made as to what questions are going to be asked and who’s going to ask them.”

And planning?

“I’m assuming so… look, I was told you’re the best journalist in Manchester so I’m holding you to account over this.”

Best journalist?

I’ve published two articles in the last twelve months, neither of them Orwell Prize material.

Sometimes in Hulme, in that old anarchist redoubt, you can wonder if you hear the echo of another actor, of quite royal talent.

You can think to yourself…who is building up who here, and why?

 

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