Article published: Monday, November 12th 2012
With the Manchester Central by-election on Thursday 15 November, Beth Knowles begins a series of various candidate profiles including the Green Party, Liberal Democrats, Pirate Party and TUSC, by interviewing the candidate for Labour, Lucy Powell.
South Manchester residents may recognise the name Lucy Powell from the 2010 general election where she ran against the Liberal Democrat and now MP for Withington, John Leech. After losing out to the Liberal Democrats in her home constituency, Powell successfully ran Ed Miliband’s campaign for leadership of the Labour party and until recently, served as the Labour leader’s Chief of Staff.
As the underlying issues Manchester faced during the Labour government are now surfacing as major concerns for Manchester Central’s population, Lucy Powell promises to work with the council to ensure sections of the city do not become disconnected and people become reconnected with politics in the fourth safest Labour seat in the country.
Poverty and deprivation
Manchester has long been the beacon of New Labour’s regeneration policies, with Urban Splash-type developments for the growing number of young professionals entering the city taking precedent over communities desperately needing a financial injection. The consequences have been the highest rates of child poverty in the country even pre-austerity, the lowest life expectancy in England and Wales (men shouldn’t expect to reach 73) and in 2007 the greatest levels of inequality nation-wide according to Centre for Cities.
I asked Lucy Powell why Manchester Central has suffered from these specific measures of deprivation, despite being marketed as the showcase for Labour’s regeneration policies, Powell argued:
“Obviously there is still a lot to do, we made some strides while in government, but Manchester contains very diverse communities that remain the poorest in the country… however the picture is changing and not always static within the city.”
She went on to say, “A lot of investment has gone on and some of those initiatives haven’t fully come to fruition yet, one of the things I’ve been campaigning on is Sure Start, we know some of the people that very first accessed such facilities are just seeing their children turning ten or eleven … you don’t really see the impact of that investment for twenty or thirty years”.
At 44% in the 2010 general election, Manchester Central has the lowest voter turnout in the country. In a city ruled by a Labour majority for 70 years; I questioned whether Powell thought this figure was a result of disillusionment with big party politics.
She queried the measurement of the statistics debating: “There are a few reasons why [turnout is low], there are lots of transient communities, lots of students and young professionals who move house frequently and perhaps haven’t got the ties locally, the motivation locally to vote, or the means because their vote exists somewhere else. Of the real electorate if you like, people who aren’t on the register somewhere else, if you took that 20% out the figures would probably be healthier than they are.”
Whilst placing the onus on to the transient population of young professionals and students, who supposedly brought her adversary John Leech to power in Withington two years ago, Powell touched upon the many traditional working class voters disappointed with Labour and disconnected from the middle class Liberals and Greens who are turning away from politics entirely.
“In some of our more traditional communities there is still more widespread apathy than I would like to see, this is something that the Labour party is starting to address in terms of people losing faith in politics. I’ve spent the last 7 months speaking directly to residents, people who have never been spoken to before by a candidate.”
According to a recent report by the MEN, as many as one in five 16-24 year olds are unemployed in parts of the Manchester Central constituency. As tackling this impending crisis is one of Lucy Powell’s main interests, I asked how she planned to address the issue if elected.
“Youth unemployment is one of the biggest issues [affecting Manchester] Labour has a policy to create 100,000 apprenticeships, that’s one option. Ed Miliband has also introduced a new vocational qualification for people over 18, for a lot of young people the choice is either go to university or work in ASDA. We need to address the [lack of] a skill base as well as opportunities for people.”
The link between unemployment and voter apathy, especially for young people who are out of work, not in education and don’t see politics as a way of addressing their situation is clear. Powell came to life as she explained how she plans to engage more people in politics from a younger age.
“I’ve always advocated votes at 16, the political discourse in this country would be very different if 16 year olds had the vote. I don’t think the government would have so quickly scrapped EMAs and maybe would have taken a different route with tuition fees. I don’t think politics in this country is attractive to most people, especially young people, the way in which we do politics needs to change and that’s a very big beast to take on.”
Even from within the Labour Party many are of the opinion not enough was done during their time in power to develop and expand social housing, with 20,000 people on the council’s waiting list in Manchester, I raised with Powell how she plans work to with the council to improve the current situation.
“We didn’t do enough to tackle the problem’s [surrounding social housing] in government, which is a view widely held in the party. However, Manchester City Council have been quite forward thinking in their initiatives, but their hands are tied, they don’t have the power or the money to invest in the level of social housing that’s required. “
As the council is aiming for as little as 5% of all new developments in the city to be social housing, she explained what new schemes could be looked into:
“I know there’s been a recent initiative to use the pension pot as security to invest in new homes… I would lobby for a different framework where housing can be invested in, but it’s very difficult to get the money together at the moment.”
The future of social housing in Manchester hinges on this relationship between national investment and local power, hopefully Powell can maintain her rapport with the council to ensure social housing is no longer the forgotten project of the Labour Party. As the council prepare to launch their new initiative, 20,000 people in a city of 500,000 languish on the list, waiting for decisive action.
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