This epilogue gives a good summary of the topics covered in the whole account and has some of Kath’s hindsight opinion on events.

The battles between the left and right-wings of the Labour Party in the late 1970s and 1980s seem so very anachronistic now and it is interesting to reflect on them in the context of the later Blairite Labour Party. Take, for example, Peter Kilfoyle, who, before becoming an MP, was the North West Regional Organiser of the Labour Party, and was considered by some to be an extreme right-winger. He was nicknamed ‘the witchfinder general’ by the Militant Tendency for his attempts to root them out from the Party. Yet later on he was regarded as somewhat left-wing (in that he was opposed to the Blairites). I think that he would say that he didn’t change politically – he was opposed to the manipulation of the Labour Party by the Militant Tendency in the 1980s and he was opposed to the manipulation by New Labour from 1994. Similarly, Roy Hattersley was very firmly on the right-wing of the Party then, but in the Blair years, was considered to be left-wing, but openly said that it was the Party that had moved, not him.

At that time in Manchester (as I’m sure elsewhere in the country) there were an amazing number of young, passionate and committed individuals who were active in the Labour Party. There was close collaboration between the party activists and the left-wing councillors, and the City Party had enormous influence – both in relation to determining the policies and also in choosing the people elected to positions of responsibility to carry out those policies. None of the left-wing councillors had any experience of chairing council committees or working directly with council officers, so it was remarkable how quickly they ‘learned the ropes’ and got on with the job of implementing their radical agenda.

Despite the fact that neither Graham Stringer nor John Nicholson had any real leadership experience, they were both highly skilled political operators and even though there was a mutual hostility between them, the Labour Group was held together very effectively until 1987. I think, from the very beginning of the new administration taking over in May 1984, that Graham Stringer recognised the need to work with private sector ‘capitalists’ and to compromise in order to get things done for the benefit of the city, whereas John Nicholson was never prepared to compromise.

Embarking on a tactic of not setting a rate (in 1985), as a way of confronting the Tory government, brought drama to the council meetings, as well as a camaraderie with the left-wing councillors and activists in other parts of the country. Because of the financial penalties that could be imposed on individual councillors, it was inevitable that the tactic would fail, but it enabled a very strong message to be transmitted to the people that it was a Tory government and not Labour councils that were forcing cuts to local services.

There is no doubt that without the genius of Frances Done and the City Treasurer in devising the fantastically successful creative accountancy schemes to combat the punitive government measures designed to bring local councils to their knees, things would have been much harsher for the people of the city. The only glimmer of hope to sustain the councillors was that the General Election in 1987 would usher in a Labour Government and salvation.

When it came to implementing the new policies, great energy was put into the initiatives, without recognising how much of the bureaucracy would have to change. In those first few years after 1984, the Left’s approach to governing created a major culture shock within the Council bureaucracy, and the relationship with senior council officers was initially confrontational and uncompromising in pushing out those who were not prepared to co-operate with the new policies. However, the new ways of working together that were developed were then found to be crucial in implementing those policies. The working parties became forums in which sympathetic senior officers and councillors could work together and share ideas and knowledge with a blurring of their respective roles, and these have left a lasting legacy in the Council.

John Shiers believes that the establishment of the new policy units and committees and the changes made to senior personnel were merely a tinkering with the bureaucracy, rather than fundamentally changing it, but I think these were necessary steps along the way to achieving change. Although things might have changed again more recently, for most of the 1980s and 1990s I believe Manchester council did operate in a fundamentally different way from most other councils.

The abolition of the Lord Mayor is universally recognised as having been a big mistake. Although the initial aim of removing the pomp and ceremony surrounding the post may have been sound (seen as antipathetic to democracy and the principles of equality), there was a failure to recognise its symbolic role, and the antagonism generated from the Manchester Evening News, mitigated against any possibility of building support for other more important measures. However, ending the practice of the Lord Mayor and family actually living in the Town Hall for a year was a sensible move.

The other core policy issue that was later recognised to have been a mistake (at least in the way it was implemented) was the Police Monitoring initiative. If the staff in the unit and the committee had worked closely with the Greater Manchester (GM) Police Committee, and used the Council’s resources to provide research evidence to back up the push for changes in policing, the policy might have been more successful. With closer collaboration, it might have been possible to persuade the GM Police Committee to change its approach on community consultation, in the way that later work on community safety proved to be successful. However, given the nature of the then Chief Constable, and the national political climate, it is likely that even a different approach to the GMPA wouldn’t have achieved any changes to the nature of policing at the time.

The most successful of all the new policies were the Equal Opportunities, Children’s Services and Neighbourhood Services initiatives, even though the latter was abandoned as impossible to fully implement.

In relation to the Equal Opportunities policies, I believe that the things that we take for granted today – such as disabled access, equal access to jobs regardless of gender, race, disability or sexual orientation, and the unacceptability of discrimination generally – wouldn’t have been achieved without the strong push from those few left-wing councils, such as Manchester and the Greater London Council (GLC). But the Equal opportunities policies were ground-breaking and difficult to implement. Manchester City Council learnt from the GLC experience, although it wasn’t a comparable organisation, being more policy based and less focussed on service delivery.

Without the strong political drive to eradicate discrimination and the adoption of policies, such as concurrent advertising that opened up Council jobs to outsiders, the Council workforce today would not have been so representative of the population of the city (in terms of race, disability, gender and sexual orientation). Although, it wasn’t until 1989 that radical steps were taken to really change the composition of the workforce and challenge the whole nature of the bureaucratic structures. The number of women in very senior positions in the Council, particularly those who have risen up through the ranks, is testament to the success of the anti-discrimination policies (although women appointed to senior positions from outside the council did find it hard to gain acceptance and to adjust to the Manchester culture).

Despite these successes, it was the Equal Opportunities policies that attracted the most vociferous vilification from the press (and from other Greater Manchester councils). Despite the vicious homophobia prevalent at the time, there is no doubt that the anti-discrimination work in relation to sexual orientation was very significant and Manchester really has established itself as perhaps the most gay-friendly city in the country.

I also believe that without the lead from Manchester and the GLC in the 1980s, the physical measures that make life easier for disabled people (such as accessible buildings, dropped kerbs, tactile road crossings) wouldn’t have happened. Ironically, Greater Manchester County Council also made a lot of progress on disabled issues – as somewhat of a cop-out since it was unable to support the other Equal Opportunities policies[1].

The attempts to involve community representatives in the Council’s decision-making processes by including them on Council committees was fraught with difficulties, although it did send out powerful messages to the local population, particularly disabled people, that local politicians were working on their behalf.

One of the key Equal Opportunities issues that wasn’t tackled was that of class. It came up in many of the early discussions, but was felt to be too difficult to deal with and so it was side-stepped. As a compromise, ‘anti-poverty’ measures were introduced as ways of addressing some of the more obvious class issues. The introduction of supplements for low-paid council workers and a failure to collect all the rates due between 1984 and 1988 (in the belief that poor people couldn’t be expected to pay[2]) did not significantly impact upon poverty.

The other incredibly successful new policy initiative was the priority given to Children’s Services. Although Manchester wasn’t the first council to recognise the need to merge Children’s Services in Social Services, Education and Health – in order to create a seamless service for children and families – it did successfully change the whole operation of council departments in order to prioritise and rationalise these services and influenced the decisions made by the incoming Labour government in 1997 in relation to the Sure Start programme, the merger of Social Services and Education and the policy of Every Child Matters. But whilst the Children’s Centre programme wasn’t opposed by the right-wing of the Labour Party, there was continual and vociferous opposition from the Liberal Democrat and Tory opposition parties.

The Neighbourhood Services initiative was rather less successful, although it did bring about a much better understanding of the operation of council services and what needed to change in order to improve their quality and delivery mechanisms. Proposals to decentralise council services were first considered in 1982, but nothing practical was implemented until the new administration took over in 1984. Although the Neighbourhood Services Strategy was seen as one of the core policies of the Left’s alternative approach to local government, there was a lack of commitment to the policy from Graham Stringer. Also, the protagonists were too wedded to the idea that neighbourhood office buildings were essential to the process of decentralising the services, and the Council simply ran out of money for new buildings, so the plan to continue with the roll-out of the programme post-1987 was doomed to failure.

The other fundamental problem, particularly for the new-build approach, was the time-scale. Even if there had been unanimous political commitment and more resources, it would have been difficult to keep the momentum going in respect of such a radical change for a long period of time. Inevitably, there would have been changes in personnel – both councillors and officers – changes in political priorities, and changes in government policies.

A less ambitious approach would have been to concentrate on a programme of conversions from the beginning, and to take a more flexible approach to exactly what services were to be provided (and how they would be managed) in each area. This would have recognised that a ‘one size fits all’ policy was not necessarily the best approach. It was assumed that the decentralised approach to service delivery would be more costly than the traditional approach, and this was certainly interpreted as meaning more revenue expenditure as well as more capital expenditure on buildings. But, in the light of the 1987 budget crisis, there was no prospect of obtaining increased revenue funding. There could have been a greater concentration on information systems, using lessons learned from the Information and Enquiry Centre and the A-Z Guide. A small number of service areas could have been chosen where improvements could be achieved by better integration (eg the maintenance of the physical environment), or by setting relatively modest targets. The issue of co-ordinating all council services at a local level (and involving local residents groups) wasn’t re-addressed until after 2000, when a system of ‘ward’ co-ordination committees were established.

When the Tories won their third general election victory in 1987, it took enormous courage for Manchester’s left-wing administration not to walk away from an impossible situation. It is difficult to imagine what would have happened if Graham Stringer hadn’t kept a cool head and steered the Party and the Group away from confrontation with the government. The commitment to the people of the city, and the knowledge of what another four to five years of Tory government would do, meant that the Labour Group couldn’t give up and gave the Labour activists no option but to carry on in order to mitigate the worst effects of that government.

Graham Stringer and John Nicholson had never socialised together or worked as a team and their relationship had by then degenerated into open contempt. The splits on the Left were by then inevitable. Withstanding that break up and building a coalition with former enemies on the Right, in order to put together a strategy for survival, took great willpower and it was no mean feat to work out ways of co-operating with the real enemy – the Tory government – without compromising on basic Labour principles.

In relation to the impact of the Council on the city itself from 1984, there is no doubt in my mind that the lack of a holistic approach to regeneration and the conflicts between Graham Stringer and Arnold Spencer, over the importance of the environment, impeded the improvement of the quality of life for Manchester residents. But, there have nevertheless been some significant developments which would not have happened without Graham’s considerable skills and vision. Not least of these being the Airport, which makes a significant contribution to the economy of the city and the North West region. In addition to the people directly employed, there are thousands more who are indirectly dependent on the Airport for their employment. The councils’ shareholdings also mean that significant sums of money contribute to the budgets of the councils in the Greater Manchester conurbation.

The other significant development is the tram system. Manchester is still one of the very few cities in England with a tram network that makes a considerable contribution to reducing the traffic congestion in the city centre.

In relation to the impact of the private sector developments encouraged and supported by the Council, there has been much publicity about the numbers of jobs created and the economic value to the city, but I remain sceptical about the quality of these jobs and whether the economic boom has really filtered down to improve the quality of life or levels of poverty amongst many Manchester residents. If there is some independent research to prove me wrong, I will happily revise my scepticism.

The twin attacks of the Poll Tax and Compulsory Competitive Tendering (CCT) had a devastating impact on local government across the country. In Manchester, because of its small population but large business community, the removal of the business rates from the Council’s income and basing the Revenue Support Grant on population, made a huge impact on the Council’s budget. The budget cuts experienced prior to 1990 seemed only cosmetic in the light of the £100 million cuts that had to be made then.

Trying to continue with the new policies and make the changes to the workforce, took enormous willpower. Even trying to maintain core council services was a major challenge in the face of these budget cuts and the massive legislative changes imposed by central government. Looking back, it is incredible how much was actually achieved. Changing the composition of the workforce and providing the range of Children’s Services available in the city, are a lasting testament to the hard work and determination of a relatively small number of people.

It was only the severe financial crisis of the Poll Tax that forced the Labour Group leadership to examine every council service in detail and question their quality and the infrastructure for delivering them. Over the subsequent two years, it was clear that there was no way of avoiding both budget cuts and massive redundancies, and it is remarkable how everyone managed to keep going in this crisis. Grim determination was the predominant emotion.

The CCT legislation caused a phenomenal amount of work in simultaneously restructuring the workforce into client and contractor roles, trying to protect council workers’ jobs, and at the same time reducing the size of the workforce in order to reduce expenditure. As part of the drive to reduce costs and win the tenders, all the bonuses (some as high as 20%) were removed from school caterers and cleaners, who were mostly women. The staff members were offered ‘buy out’ deals – done with the best of intentions, since losing the tenders would mean redundancies.

In a case in South Yorkshire, the Council won a tender, but to do it, they had to take out sickness pay and reduce the hourly rates. This only involved women workers as they continued to employ men under the national rates and conditions. The women’s trade union took the case to court in 2007, under the Equal Pay legislation, and won. The Council had to pay out huge sums of money because of all the years’ back pay. All the councils and public bodies that acted similarly (including Manchester), even though they felt they had no choice at the time if they were to avoid redundancies, have had to pay out billions of pounds. Manchester’s bill was around £90 million.

The necessity of scrutinising the budget and radically improving the quality of services was extremely challenging. Despite their unpopular ‘centralising of decision-making’, the Budget Review Working Party and the Service Review sub-committee changed the culture of the Council more radically than any of the Left’s policies in 1984. However, this centralisation was continued for too long and caused resentment amongst the back benchers.

Frances Done had believed there should be a financial review of all spending in all departments in 1984, to look at value for money. But she was castigated for this and received little support as it was seen as an excuse for making cuts. The Left didn’t want to go down this road because if there had been any effort to carry out a value for money review, the workforce, and the Town Hall trade unions who had supported the Left, would have shifted their allegiance. But, with the benefit of hindsight, she was right.

In July 1991 – four years after the general election in 1987 when the party had reversed its policy on cuts, Graham Stringer reviewed the Council’s achievements and summarised thus:

“Resigning would have meant someone else making the cuts; [there was][3] no support from TU’s or Labour party (locally or nationally) for confrontation with Tory government… Party was determined to protect core services, especially to those in greatest need, and to carry on with the basic political priorities of equal opportunities…

“Balance sheet – Minus side – control of schools passed to governing bodies; intro of poll tax and enforced tendering; loss of government grant and locally-determined business rate. More than 5,000 jobs lost; Ring-fencing of HRA[4] has forced council house rents from lowest to one of highest in country. A library and a swimming pool closed; Post-16 education re-organised; sites closed; school meals increased for first time in seven years.

“Plus side – influenced investment in Metrolink, second terminal at Airport, Rail link to Airport, Concert Hall; Capital programme spent approx £400 million and enabled the city to have the only viable Direct Works department with a capital section and 4,500 employees[5]; Those [services] forced out to competitive tender – Catering, Refuse collection, Grounds Maintenance etc – have all been won by council’s employees, thus avoiding compulsory redundancies; Education and Social Services – proportionally smaller cut than other services. Social Services spends 50% more per head than Salford; Education spends 25% more per head than Birmingham, Leeds, or Sheffield; Under fives provision [has] increased; [There is] between 10 and 20 times more spent on [the] non-statutory sector than other councils throughout the country; Disabled access improved throughout city; Twice as many black people employed on council and twice as many women in senior positions; Major campaigns launched again clauses 28 and 29.

“Those who argued that nothing could be protected have been proved wrong. Those who argued that we should refuse to make immediate cuts would have led us to deeper cuts and compulsory redundancies. It was also said that people would not vote Labour if cuts were made, but there are now 12 more Labour councillors than in 1987[6].

“Those who are not paying the poll tax and arguing that other people should not pay, are arguing for deeper cuts and higher poll tax levels. This is already happening in Scotland. This is resented by Trade Unions and poll tax payers and turns the blame for poll tax from Tory government to Labour councils.

“Direct Works has to make a statutorily determined rate of return [profit] and if it continues to employ the current numbers, [it] won’t do so and could be closed down by the government (as was Hackney a few years ago). Discussions [are] ongoing with TU’s to resolve this. The Group may be asked to change policy on voluntary redundancy and severance. 160 – 200 jobs [are] at risk but [there will be] no consideration of compulsory redundancies.”

During this period the role of the City Labour Party was far less significant and there was no real policy development work going on. In 1992, there were two failed attempts to organise a quorate policy conference and all the policy working parties were defunct apart from Education (which merged with Manchester branch of the Socialist Education Association) and the Planning and Transport Working Party.

When Labour finally did win a general election in 1997, it was ‘new’ Labour that was in power, which seemed to have nothing to do with the values and policies that the Labour Left wanted to pursue. Manchester’s Labour Council had already moved away from these principles and had forged a ‘third way’ before Tony Blair.

One of the first things the New Labour government did was to replace CCT with a ‘Best Value’ regime, which brought another set of problems and proved to be more difficult to define in practice. The notion of Best Value prior to implementation was enshrined within one key consultation document: ‘Modernising Local Government – Improving local services through best value’ (DETR 1998a) and became enacted as the 1999 Local Government Act, coming into force from April 2000. It emphasised the importance of partnership in service provision and the adverse effect of competition as a prime objective.

Bernard Sutton gave me one of his clever anecdotes to illustrate the differences:

“CCT was like being in the castle chucking rocks at the invading enemy who were trying to batter down the walls. With ‘Best Value’, somebody came along and told us all to be friends so we went to sit outside having dinner on trestle tables with them, and while there, the enemy went and took over the castle. They [the private sector] got by guile what they couldn’t get by force. We got so used to fending them off that when they got in we were gobsmacked and made to feel the way the old CIA ‘China hands’ were made to feel after the cold war – a bit of an embarrassment in the new order. ‘Best value’ is difficult – internalising what’s wrong. It’s more difficult to deal with when you have to find out what the problem is yourself than when someone else is trying to point it out to you. There is so much self-flagellation that some people in the public sector are now convinced[7] that we have to have partnerships with the private sector to get better”.

The change of Manchester’s Council Leader in 1996 didn’t make a significant difference to the political direction of the Council, as Richard Leese adopted a pragmatic rather than political management style. Graham Stringer had been an incredibly skilled political leader with many leadership qualities – intellect and strategic thinking – but lacking in many personal and social skills, relying on others (particularly Pat Karney) to ‘fix’ things behind the scenes[8].

In 2002, a group of academics from Manchester University published a book about Manchester called ‘City of Revolution’[9], in which they highlight a “narrow obsession with city-centre regeneration [a glitzy make-over][10], the (re)emergence of elite decision-making networks and privatised governance”. They say that “Manchester has led the way (for good or ill) in a number of areas – smartening up the Canal Street area and Chinatown, giving Manchester the air of a confident European city”.

Several of the chapters refer to the “embrace of municipal entrepreneurialism” being a tactical response to the loss of local government power, and that having once talked about working with comrades in socialist cities of Sheffield and Liverpool and London, Manchester went to work on re-inventing itself politically, as a friend of central government and local business – “Capuccinos and designer cakes at meetings in café bars replacing tea and biscuits in the Town Hall. The City Council remained a central player in this process but the nature of its power and influence had changed, perhaps permanently, and with consequences that were not easy to predict”.

What I find strange is that none of the writers appears to have recognised the political situation as a result of the 1987 general election result and the introduction of the Poll Tax – saying blandly – “What all agree on is that something happened in the 1990s that seems to have nudged the city towards a qualitatively different development trajectory. The council has shed over a third of its workforce since the late 1980s. Many of the factory jobs were dirty, but were better paid and usually more stable than the modern-day equivalent in the services sector”.

From the perspective of senior council officers today, things are much better than in the 1980s and 1990s. Their perception is that elected Members behave more like officers (which they see as a good thing) and there is more integrated working between departments and external partners. However, there are currently very few services still actually run by the Council and the City Labour Party has very little influence on the political direction being pursued.

Many of the Labour activists who were involved in Manchester politics in the 1980s feel, perhaps cynically, that there is no legacy from that period. Pat Karney is frequently quoted as dismissing the 1980s as an aberration, referring to those years as ‘our Chinese period’, but I feel it was a time of great innovation. In addition to all the new initiatives introduced and the changes wrought within the Council, a significant amount of money was devolved out to voluntary and community groups and lots of projects flourished and made a significant difference to many people’s lives.

On the one hand, the Left had little understanding of the operation of the local state apparatus and on the other hand wanted to retain the structures in order to keep a no-cuts position, and just get more money into the system to pay for the new initiatives. Local Government was seen by many on the Left as a vehicle for empowering local communities, without any recognition of the regulatory, social control function the Council had to fulfil. What was needed was a proper strategy, which the new administration had no experience of developing and which didn’t happen until later.

The new decision-making structure that was introduced by the Blair government nationally in 2000 – having a strong, centralised Executive or Cabinet with a series of Scrutiny Committees – has yet to be properly evaluated. The previous committee system, despite its faults, had a key strength in that it involved a lot of people in decision-making. It seems to me that the great drawback with the Scrutiny Committee system is that it (mostly) examines decisions after they have been made, rather than having an input into them beforehand.

In this book I have tried to give a fairly comprehensive account of a 13 year period in the Council’s history (1984 – 1997), but it isn’t by any means the complete story. Although I have made reference to a number of things that have happened since, I think the time is now ripe for a proper evaluation of the following 13 years (1997 – 2010), if there is someone ready to take up that challenge. I hope there is someone, and I wish them luck.

Kath Fry
10th April 2011

Editorial Comments

There is some text in parentheses within quotes that I am unsure whether these are actually part of the quote or are added by Kath to make the text clearer. There is also no attribution where the quote from Graham Stringer comes from, but I have left it in because it doesn’t seem too controversial to me. I have removed a small section that used language I would have advised Kath to change, but I don’t want to put words into her mouth to rephrase it so have just taken it out. This section was completed less than a month before she died when she was very unwell and on high doses of pain killers.

I feel I have to add one point in relation to the first footnote. Making physical changes to the environment to accommodate disabled access will come from a different budget source and is a completely different kind of work than changing hearts and minds. Highway and building modifications would mostly be capital expenditure and would also be easier to monitor or count as an achievement. An officer or officers to try to change people’s attitudes and practices would be a revenue expenditure and much harder to measure. It is an over-simplification to imply such things were not done because there wasn’t a will.


[1] Meaning disabled access was seen as more of an acceptable thing to accommodate than other areas of discrimination. See Editorial Comment.

[2] The hard line adopted after the Poll Tax was introduced, I believe, went too far the other way (Kath says).

[3] Items in brackets added for clarity?

[4] Housing Revenue Account

[5] Salford has less than 300 employees

[6] Kath says this was misleading, as 9 seats were lost in 1987

[7] Wrongly in my view (says Kath)

[8] A small section removed here.

[9] “City of Revolution”, edited by Jamie Peck and Kevin Ward, Manchester University Press, 2002.

[10] Don’t know if the words in brackets are from the actual quote or added by Kath.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *