With the Oldham west by-election looming today’s guest blogger Simon Parker asks what the future holds for England’s regional politics?
Oldham west is rapidly becoming one of those totemic by-elections that will be quoted by political historians for years to come. Will a crumbling UKIP machine be able to beat Corbyn’s Labour? But behind the headlines another, more human, story is playing out. It tells us a lot about the future of England’s regional politics.
The Labour candidate is Jim McMahon, the extraordinary leader of Oldham council. He is following in the footsteps of many a local government leader and taking his shot at the bright lights of London. In our centralised political system, this path is so well-trodden that we barely stop to ask why local politicians should want to win national office. Parliament is just better than running a council, right?
Making a real difference
Well maybe not. As leader of Oldham, McMahon can make a real difference. He commands a talented and innovative organisation that is successfully integrating its services with local health, fire and police while setting up radical new initiatives such as a white goods store to help local people avoid expensive consumer credit.
“You could describe his style as civic republicanism…a hugely attractive style of politics in our jaded age”
McMahon is undeniably a Labour politician, but he is something else as well. You could describe his style as civic republicanism: a concern to understand and deliver whatever serves the common good locally, with little regard to party political shibboleths. It is a hugely attractive style of politics in our jaded age, and with devolution coming to Greater Manchester it would have put McMahon in a prime position of influence in the city, perhaps even offering him a shot at the new mayoralty in 2017.
Compare this to the reality of today’s Westminster. McMahon is trying to trade real power and influence for what is likely to be at least a decade of opposition in parliament. Even when Labour does win power again, many former council leaders will find that anything less than a position as secretary of state can be a disappointment. Local government offers a direct chance to change people’s lives, whereas life in Westminster can feel hopelessly remote.
“Take David Blunkett, the firebrand leader of the People’s Republic of South Yorkshire in the 1980s turned arch-centralist by years in parliament”
McMahon’s powerful but softly spoken politics deserves to find a home amidst all the shouting and ideology of Westminster, but it is all too easy for the ideals of a civic republican to get lost in the posturing of the bubble, their devolutionary radicalism blunted by party loyalty and political convenience. Take David Blunkett, the firebrand leader of the People’s Republic of South Yorkshire in the 1980s turned arch-centralist by years in parliament.
Jim McMahon is exactly the sort of person any voter should want to see in parliament: a man who recognises that power is only worthwhile when put in the hands of ordinary people, making it possible for them to lead better lives. But if he wins, his challenge will be to change the system before it can change him.
Simon Parker’s new book Taking Power Back is available to purchase here from the Policy Press website. Remember that Policy Press newsletter subscribers receive a 35% discount – if you’re not a member of our community why not sign up here today?
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