Abolishing the Lord Mayor

Former Lord Mayor Cllr Harry Lyons hands over the chain of office to Cllr Elaine Boyes, May 2012. Click on image to jump to Manchester Evening News article

When the Left gained the majority after the local election on 3rd May 1984, the abolition of the pomp, ceremony and cost of the post of Lord Mayor was a way of asserting their political ideals. But there was a failure to recognise its symbolic role and the importance to the general public. Antagonism generated from the Manchester Evening News, mitigated against any possibility of building support for other more important measures.

Ending the practice of the Lord Mayor and family actually living in the Town Hall for a year, with attending servant, was not the issue, and was a wise cost saving measure. But the title and the chain of office are invested in such symbolism that the position was reinstated after a few years of turmoil. 
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Out with the Old Pomp and Ceremony
Although changing the status of the Lord Mayor was the least important of all the political objectives of the new administration (the left-wing activist being in the majority of the Labour Group after the election on 3 May 1984), it was unexpectedly one of the most controversial and it was the first to set up a vociferous confrontation with the Manchester Evening News.

The intention had been to remove all the pomp and ceremony surrounding the position, and particularly, the servant-like status of those working within the Lord Mayor’s apartments and the aristocratic symbolism of the position.

The proposed changes were put forward by the General Policy Working Party, the members[1] of which were hostile to the whole concept and style of a Lord Mayor. Most, if not all, of the activists were originally from outside Manchester and failed to recognise the ramifications of this proposal.

The proposals were included in the Manifesto for the 1984 elections:

“We shall immediately reduce the pomp and cost associated with the position of Lord Mayor. We intend to have a Chair of the Council who does not live in the Town Hall and who would cut expenses and associated ceremonials. Staff affected by the change will be redeployed. We would prefer to spend money on services rather than on excessive entertaining.”

History of the Lord Mayor and the Royal Charter
To have a Lord Mayor, cities had to be granted a Royal Charter; the criteria being based on population size and economic importance. Queen Victoria had granted Manchester a Royal Charter in 1853.

Sir Bob Thomas (Lord Mayor in 1962 and Leader of the Council from 1961 to 1967) believed that every person elected to the Council had the ambition of being Lord Mayor.

During his 30 years on the Council, the shortest period of time to be served before being elected as Lord Mayor was 16 years. The Lord Mayor and family lived in the Town Hall during the year of office, with servants. In Bob’s view:

“The man elected had to be a person skilled in the art of chairmanship, able to make a speech on almost any subject under the sun, and who could mix with all sections of the community from Royalty to the man in the street.”[2]

In some cities, the election was done on the basis of seniority, but in Manchester, traditionally, the Lord Mayor was seen as apolitical and the political parties took it in turns to select someone to hold the office, regardless of seniority or which party was in the majority.

At least that had been the case prior to 1980, when the ruling Labour Group decided to change the alternation rule and appoint the Lord Mayor from within their own ranks only. According to Bill Egerton, this was because the Tory Lord Mayor in 1979/80 (Gerard Fitzsimons) had not obeyed the rule of being politically neutral and had used his role to attack the Labour Party. He was considered to be so bad that the decision was taken that he would not be the Deputy Lord Mayor the following year (as was the traditional practice), but that Trevor Thomas (Fitzsimons’ Labour deputy and Lord Mayor the year before) would be the deputy for a second time to the newly elected Lord Mayor, Winnie Smith.

Reintroducing Proportionality
After Winnie Smith, the subsequent Lord Mayors were all Labour (see Appendix 3A for list of Lord Mayors during this period). However, there were lots of criticisms of this policy as the position was meant to be that of a civic head rather than fulfilling a political role and it was felt that someone who’d been on the council for 20 or 30 years ought to be able to have a chance at it, as long as assurances were given by the opposition that the role would be as a figurehead only.

So, in January 1984, the decision was taken by the right-wing dominated Labour Group to re-introduce proportionality. This meant that in 1984-85 the Lord Mayor would be Tory, followed by Labour in 1985-86 and then Liberal in 1986-87 (for the first time).

Following this decision, the Tories had selected Harold Tucker (a local solicitor[3]) as their candidate and he was expecting to become Lord Mayor at the Annual Meeting of the Council in May 1984.

Change of Control, Change of Plan
The Left’s plan to replace the role of the Lord Mayor with a Chair of Council meant that the person selected had to be Labour and thus necessitated a change in the proportionality sequence previously agreed. The councillor nominated by the Left for this new post was Ken Strath and the nomination for Deputy Chair of the Council was Margaret Ainsworth (who had only just been elected as a councillor).

The Manchester Evening News on Thurs 17th May 1984 initially covered the issue in a fairly even-handed way with an article headed ‘Farewell to Pageantry at the Town Hall’. The article described the proposals to end the practice of living in the Town Hall and wearing a robe and quoted John Nicholson giving all the reasons for the proposed change. On Saturday 19th May, it ran an article saying that Labour was confident of getting, what it described as ‘the top city post’.

But by Monday 21st May a storm was gathering. The paper that day ran a feature article on the retiring Lord Mayor (Michael Taylor) and an article by Gerald Brown on ‘pomp that faces the axe’ and also invited readers to respond to an opinion poll on the issue.

The following day, it reported that a 3,000 name petition had been handed in to the retiring Lord Mayor objecting to the ‘axing’ of the Lord Mayor. It also reported that at the policy committee, Labour had “grabbed all 23 places”. An unknown source was reported as making a ‘Red Fascists’ jibe at the hard left for this latter move. The paper’s opinion poll showed ‘an overwhelming majority’ wanted to keep the Lord Mayor and the Editorial Comment section (headlined ‘Hear the People’) reported that 67% disagreed with replacing the Lord Mayor with a ‘colourless’ Chair of the Council. The figures for Labour voters were 57% disagreeing with the proposals, 23% in favour and 20% unsure. Of course, as with all MEN opinion polls, the actual number of people taking part was not reported, so the percentages were pretty meaningless. The Editor’s view was that the proposals would “sweep away 92 years of tradition and rob the city of a valuable civic asset”[4].

Harold Tucker, the Last Live-in Lord Mayor

Harold Tucker Conservative Mayor of Manchester. Click image for Manchester Evening News tribute, 28 Oct 2015, the week after he died.

At the Council Annual Meeting on Wednesday 23rd May, the Labour right-wing voted with the Tories and Liberals to elect Harold Tucker as Lord Mayor (see chapter 1).

Bill Egerton says now that they decided to vote that way for three reasons – firstly because they’d had feedback from London Boroughs who’d tried a Council Chair and had problems – “people in this country still look up to Royalty and figureheads like Lord Mayors”; secondly because there were good reasons for previously taking the decision about proportionality; and thirdly (and probably most importantly) it was an opportunity to inflict a defeat on the Left on an issue without great political significance.

The Manchester Evening News made this front page news that day with the headline ‘Saved! The Lord Mayor. Tucker’s Luck Defeats Labour Left.’ It went on to report that the 150-year old tradition had been preserved by a two vote majority. In the following day’s paper, the Editorial comment reported this as a ‘People’s victory’, saying that, “the voice of the people has been heeded”, and forecasting an interesting year since, “soon after electing him, the Labour moderates returned to the fold to approve the Manifesto drawn up by their left-wing colleagues.” The Editor ended with a speculation on what might happen if the ‘moderates’ did vote against the Left in the future – “will they be stripped of their powers like the hard left rebels were?”

At the Policy & Resources Committee on 13th December 1984, it was resolved that the living-in arrangements for the Lord Mayor would end. When this proposal came to Council in May 1985, the Tories moved an amendment opposing this and 15 of the Labour Right voted with the Tories, but it wasn’t enough to carry the amendment (33 votes to 45 against). It wasn’t possible to do anything about the living-in arrangements until after Tucker’s term of office expired.

The ‘Piece of Furniture’ title
Prior to the Council’s annual meeting in May 1985, a decision was taken to bring the meeting forward by six days. This was so that it could be held on the same day as another meeting and thereby, according to Graham Stringer, “save ratepayers money”. During the three years out of four when there was a local election on the first Thursday of May, the annual meeting of the Council couldn’t be held until towards the end of May, but as there were no local elections in 1985, the Annual meeting could be held earlier in May.

The Manchester Evening News made this the lead story on the front page on 10th May claiming that Tucker’s term of office was being shortened by six days and he was thereby being robbed of the chance of attending the FA cup final (at which Manchester United were due to play Everton).

Despite the MEN’s obsession with the Lord Mayoralty and its antagonism to any changes, the Left was determined to pursue the issue. In the MEN’s Mr Manchester’s Diary, on 15th May 1985, there were snide comments about the term Chair of the Council likening a human being to a ‘piece of furniture’ and claims of politicisation of the Lord Mayoralty. [5]

Nevertheless, at the Annual Council Meeting on 16th May 1985, Ken Strath was elected as Chair of the Council with Margaret Ainsworth as his deputy, and he declined to wear the chain of office. It was calmly declared that he would not be Lord Mayor and there would be a reduction in the pomp and ceremony surrounding the position. The living-in arrangements were ended and the lavish Lord Mayor’s apartments were to be turned into working offices and meeting rooms.

The MEN’s front page lead story on that day was headed ‘Chaired in with a row’. It went on to say:

“93 year tradition consigned to history books… Lounge-suited ‘no frills’ Chairman of Council took over as first citizen. Living-in arrangements ended and (8-roomed) apartment to be opened up to the public”.

Ken Strath was quoted as saying, “Today should not be viewed as the end of a tradition, but the beginning of a new chapter in the history of our city.” He planned to focus on homeless people during his year in office and would lead the Manchester Parade on foot, with disabled people.

Bill Egerton was also quoted – “We (the so-called moderates) spontaneously decided to stay out of the council chamber in protest”. The Left apparently declined to offer the traditional vote of thanks to the outgoing Lord Mayor, Harold Tucker, and it was left to the Tory leader – Bill Aikman – to do the honours.

In the later editions of the paper, the lead story headline was changed to ‘Parting insult by left’. The editorial comment column referred to “Eastern European-style Chair… Swapping red carpet for red flag” and predicted that the Lord Mayor would come back.

On 18th May, the MEN reported that Ken Strath went to Wembley for the FA cup final with his 16-year old son with the two free tickets traditionally given to the Lord Mayor. The Left had originally planned for a ‘deserving’ youngster to be taken with Ken, but it was apparently too short notice to do fair selection process.

Manchester United won the cup and the players were welcomed back to the city as heroes. They were met by Ken wearing the chain of office. The MEN on 20th May made this the lead story on the front page of the final edition headlined – ‘Call me Lord Mayor’ and were very scathing about his decision to wear the chain of office when he hadn’t done for the investiture. The Editorial comment the following day described this as a ‘bad start’ for his first official engagement.

On the same day, there was an article about the Liberals attempt to undermine him. Keith Whitmore (leader of the ten-strong Liberal group) said that Ken wasn’t a suitable person to welcome Princess Alexandra to the city (due to happen on 3rd June) and that he (Keith Whitmore) was asking the nine other mayors of Greater Manchester not to invite him to events.

On 24th May the MEN put on the front page of all its editions, a photo of Ken with a loud hailer on a picket line. Ken was joining the Social Security Officers (CPSA) at the Rusholme Benefit Office who had walked out in protest at a DHSS ‘snooper’ squad.

On 3rd June 1985, the MEN announced that it was going to continue to use the title Lord Mayor regardless of the Council’s decision.

Three Years of ‘Chair of the Council’
All the positive things being pursued by the new administration were being overshadowed by all this hostility and bad press over the Lord Mayoralty and so attempts were made to rescue the situation. Graham Stringer’s report to the City Party (25th June 1985) included the following:

“The role of the civic head has been generally misunderstood and in some cases, wilfully misunderstood. … generally, the civic head should be represented on all occasions when they are invited, but there should be a change of emphasis away from only dealing with representatives of the local elite, to dealing more with the non-statutory sector and the different ethnic groups within Manchester.”

It was accepted by the party that the term ‘Chair of the Council’ was a fairly meaningless phrase outside the Town Hall and it was agreed that on many occasions the civic head could be called Lord Mayor by external organisations. However, within the Town Hall, the title to be used would still be ‘Chair’. It was agreed to issue an explanatory press release, and that the Chair of the Council would, on future occasions, wear a medallion and ribbon, with the chain being stored away.

At the Council meeting on 26th June, the Tories put forward a motion calling for a return to a traditional Lord Mayor. But this motion was defeated. At this same meeting, there was a notice of motion from six of the Labour right-wingers. This motion was a personal attack on Ken Strath, condemning him for not attending the celebrations of the Kings Regiment. They refused to withdraw the motion, but in the event, only four of them voted for it (Collis, Lee, Taylor and Wood) and so it was easily defeated (20 for, 49 against.).

Graham Stringer issued a press release to try to counteract all the bad publicity:

“There has been a great deal of publicity about the role of the Chair of the City Council since the title was introduced last month. Many of the stories put out by news organisations have been downright unfair both to our intentions and to the holder of the office, Councillor Ken Strath.

“There have also been genuine misunderstandings and the leadership of the council has probably been at fault sometimes in not making the Labour Group’s attitude to the office of Chair/Lord Mayor clear enough. … The fact is that the office of Lord Mayor still exists but that we prefer to call the holder of that office the Chair of the City Council. This is not a meaningless whim, it is part of our determination to give this council an up-to-date image and to strip it of the antique trappings of the 19th century. We have already saved the people of Manchester a lot of money by deciding that the Chair and his family shall not live in the Town Hall and shall not have over-expensive motor cars. Nevertheless, the Chair of the Council remains the civic head and part of his duties is to represent the Council on ceremonial occasions. He also continues to link the City Council to many bodies within Manchester, including the police, the Church, and cultural organisations such as the Hallé. The difference is that the Chair will be extending his links to people at grassroots level in the community … including voluntary groups, ethnic minorities and trade unions … Within the City Council, Councillor Strath is known as the ‘Chair of the Council’. That reflects his modern image and the fact that one of his main duties is to chair meetings of the Council. Outside groups may still wish to refer to him as… Lord Mayor and this is perfectly understandable and acceptable… The Labour Group has made just one decision about the insignia which the Chair should wear outside the City Council. He will wear the Lord Mayor’s medallion as a mark of identification, but not the chain of office.”

At the City Party meeting on 12th November 1985, Margaret Roff was nominated as Lord Mayor for the following year. It was a real surprise to many on the Left that Margaret had put herself forward, since she was a sensitive and private person and the issue was still so high profile. But as the Left were not really interested in the position at all, they were happy to go along with the nomination. The following day the diary page of the MEN covered the decision with a headline – ‘Unknown steps up as city Mayor’ – and went on to say – “shock waves through the council… little known… not a front runner… full-time councillor.” The Tories also attacked the decision – ostensibly because she had only been a councillor for three years – but their real motivations, and those of the MEN editor, were suspect.

The MEN reported the issue again on 19th November and inadvertently (or deliberately) outed Margaret with a headline ‘Lesbian rights campaigner to be Lord Mayor’ and said that Winnie Smith might be deputy. This was a personally tragic situation for Margaret as her parents hadn’t known of her sexual orientation before then.[6]

At Council on 9th December 1985, the rules on proportionality were changed (again), so that the Lord Mayor would always be Labour, at least while Labour retained a majority. The MEN reported this on 11th December and made another reference to Margaret Roff taking over the position.

Despite the MEN determinedly sticking to the title ‘Lord Mayor’ and the continued opposition of the Tories to the ‘Chair of Council’ title, the Junior Chamber of Commerce (not noted for its progressive policies) decided to rename their annual parade from ‘Lord Mayor’s parade’ to the ‘Manchester Parade’. They were reported (MEN 19th December) as saying it was “old-fashioned to stick with ‘Lord Mayor’ if the City Council and the holder of the office don’t use the title any more”.

On 20th December, Graham reported again to the City Party on the Lord Mayoralty situation, although he made no reference to Margaret Roff: “we have to confront the contradiction between the trend towards ‘downgrading’ the status of the position of Lord Mayor on the one hand, and on the other, the gains to be made from a civic head who has some ‘status’ being associated with trade unionists on picket lines, etc.”

Margaret was obviously suffering from all the political attacks from the Tories (and some from the Right of the Labour party) and decided to back down.

The MEN front page lead story on 23rd December was headlined ‘Lord Mayor bid dropped’. “Gay rights campaigner will not be next Lord Mayor after all. Cllr Roff … highly controversial choice of the ruling Labour Group… 44 year old Sociology graduate… following the recent deaths of her parents… unhappy circumstances… wants to spend more time with other members of her family”.

On the following day, the MEN reported a claim from the Liberals that: “Roff [was] forced to withdraw because of hostility within the Labour Party”, but this hostility was from a very small minority of the right-wing.

Kath Robinson became the next person to fill the position of Chair for 1986 – 87, with Ken Strath as her deputy, and the furore and hostility from the MEN died down (in no small part because of her skills in diplomacy).

The following year Eileen Kelly was elected (with Jack Flanagan as her deputy), but she was the last of the Chairs of Council.

Return of the Lord Mayor
In 1988, the Left capitulated and went back to having a Lord Mayor with the robes and (some of) the pomp restored. This was part of the compromise with the right-wing over positions of responsibility (see chapter 12), but also a recognition that the Left had been damaged by the bad publicity. Pat Conquest (a Labour right-winger) had the honour of being the first to hold the restored position, with Jack Flanagan in the deputy position again.

Although the Left had no interest in the Lord Mayoralty, as they saw no political content to it and had no interest in ceremonials, they did use it politically in 1989. Yomi Mambu, the flamboyant Sierra Leonian councillor for Rusholme, was seen as a good figurehead – as a black woman – to demonstrate the Council’s commitment to Equality. However, she was very inexperienced and likely to flounder in certain situations, so Winnie Smith was instructed (together with Pat Conquest as deputy) to ensure that she didn’t make any mistakes. Apparently, Winnie was told by the Labour Group officers that she would be in trouble (‘for the high jump’) if Yomi did make mistakes.

From then on, anyone who wanted to be Lord Mayor, by and large, was allowed to stand, but this led to some public relations disasters. There were some embarrassing situations in which an inexperienced Lord Mayor had to make speeches in front of fairly influential foreign and local dignitaries. Even when speech writers were brought in, they were unable to read them well, which caused even more embarrassment.

Eventually it was realised that the position could have some influence in the city, and the person elected could perform an important role, so more thought needed to be given to who could fill the position well and do the city some good. There was also some value in a ceremonial position that had status with community groups in the city.

The issue of the Lord Mayoralty is the one most often cited as the most regrettable of all the changes pursued by the Left. It is regarded as the biggest mistake made by the new administration. The attitude of the Manchester Evening News and its front-page coverage of the issue set up a confrontation that, with hindsight, could have been avoided.

Perhaps a wiser course of action on the Mayoralty would have been to simply reduce the ceremonial expenditure and split the roles of Chair of the Council and Lord Mayor. The skills needed for the two roles are quite different and this is still not really recognised. Very few people have performed both roles with aplomb.

After 19 years of Labour-only Lord Mayors, the proportionality rule was eventually restored with the Liberal Democrats nominating their first Lord Mayor, Audrey Jones, in 2004.


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Editor’s Comments

This chapter was completed before a different standard formatting was chosen. It has been revised now to be in the same format at other chapters. The editing was minor typographical and adding sub-headings. There is a small addition in brackets and italics in the first paragraph which will not appear in the printed version. It was for clarification about the timing of the 1984 election so this chapter can be read in isolation of other chapters.


[1] The working party membership included David Black, Frances Done, John Shiers and Tim Ferguson.

[2]Sir Bob: the Autobiography of Sir Robert Thomas’, Senior Publications, Glossop, 1984

[3] Corrected from estate agent according to Pete Keenlyside

[4] Although where he got 92 years from is a mystery, since 1853 to 1984 is 131 years

[5] I find it interesting that for many years the term ‘Chair’ was consistently denigrated by the ‘furniture’ allegory whereas the use of the word ‘Cabinet’ in relation to the government’s most powerful committee was (so far as I know) never similarly denigrated.

[6] [Note added 202/10/17] According to Margaret Roff’s sister Janet, this is incorrect. She says they did not know Margaret was a lesbian. Their father died in October 1984 and mother in October 1985, so only shortly before Margaret’s nomination was put forward (14th November 1985) and before she was outed as a lesbian in the Manchester Evening News (19th November 1985). Margaret was very affected by her parents’ deaths and so presumably the pressure of attention was too much on top of her grief at that time. There is more information about Margaret Roff in this blog post http://manchester1984.uk/30th-anniversary-of-the-hotel-fire-in-nicaragua-that-killed-margaret-roff/

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