What does the local election race in Withington mean for its residents?
- In Withington ward the Lib Dems lost by 103 votes to Labour in 2019
- NQ reporter George Crafer looks at what we can expect this time round
Withington is going to be one of the most hotly contested wards in the upcoming election.
The ward stretches from Fallowfield Sainsburys to Fog Lane Park and is home to 13,422 people, comprised of mainly students, families and the elderly, making it as diverse a ward as any.
For the last six years it has been dominated by Labour, along with much of the rest of the city council: currently Labour control 94 of its 96 council seats.
This has not always been the case, however. In 2004, the Liberal Democrats won 38 of the 96 seats that make up the council and Withington returned three Liberal Democrat councillors.
The following year, in the 2005 General Election, Withington returned a Liberal Democrat MP, John Leech, who now sits on the council as leader of the Lib Dems.
Following their decision to abandon a pledge on tuition fees while in coalition with the Conservatives, its local support was decimated. By 2014, Withington was controlled by three Labour councillors and has remained that way ever since.
Now it appears that the Lib Dems have a chance at a comeback. In 2019, they lost to Labour by 103 votes. This year, Labour and the Lib Dems look to be neck and neck.
Chris Wills is the Labour councillor facing re-election. An employee at Manchester Metropolitan Univeristy and an ardent LGBTQ activist, he says he got into politics after seeing the impact of the coalition government’s austerity measures.
He said: “That really sparked me to try and get involved and to make a difference.
“Initially that was through helping out with door knocking, speaking to people, and helping deliver literature.”
He has now been a councillor for five years after first standing as a candidate in 2016. This is his third election campaign.
He said: “I’ve always found Withington to be really interesting and thought it would be a great place for me to represent.
“A vacancy came up to sit in Withington and I was approached to see if I wanted to stand, and I said yes.”
Chris was proud to highlight his success in securing funding from the Mayor’s office to improve road safety, and pointed to the council’s success in securing funding from the government’s levelling-up fund.
Chris says he is campaigning based on his track record of hard work and commitment to the local community.
“We are committed to the local area. People see how hard we work,” he said.
His Lib Dem contender is April Preston, an MMU graduate who first became involved in politics opposing the Iraq war.
As a care-leaver with working-class roots, April believes she transcends the perception of a Liberal Democrat, and says she is well placed to serve her community.
In 2015 she first got involved in local politics. She previously stood as a councillor in the Labour-controlled Old Moat ward, but was unsuccessful.
She claims Labour has failed to represent residents’ interests and sufficiently tackle the climate emergency.
“We see a huge number of developers controlling our local community instead of elected representatives,” she said.
“So, when you get to a planning committee, you’ll routinely see green spaces removed and the climate emergency given lip service to.
“One thing we want to do is halt the development of a local green site surrounding Hough End leisure centre.
“We’re not in the shadow of a general election, so residents are paying more attention to social issues.”
While the Liberal Democrats have criticised Labour’s record, the extent to which they can pursue their own policy agenda is limited.
At present, with only two councillors, the Liberal Democrats are unable to pursue a policy agenda, since a minimum of five councillors is needed to pass motions that are then voted on by the whole council.
If they do reach the five-councillor threshold in the upcoming election—as is very possible —they could pursue a policy agenda in the council.
However, since the Local Government Act 2000, opposition groups have had their ability to influence council decisions hamstrung.
Whereas all councillors were once active participants in the local legislative process, ‘new style’ council leaders hold disproportionate powers.
There is also little scope for cross-party collaboration. Both sides were quick to point out that the other had failed to engage.
Chris Wills claimed: “The mentality of the Manchester Liberal Democrats does not lend itself to working with us on a consensus basis.”
However, John Leech refers to the perceived “God-given right” Labour councillors feel about their dominance in the council.
April Preston is open about these limitations but insists that a stronger opposition is essential to ensure sufficient scrutiny of the council.
She said: “it would be untruthful for us to say that we would pass this motion here, because we can’t do it.
“But we have put our manifesto out there and said that these are the things we want to do with your support.”
The Liberal Democrats have partly centred their campaign around improving transparency and scrutiny within the council. They believe gains in this week’s local election would facilitate this.
However, Chris Wills insists there is scrutiny and transparency in the council, despite Labour’s dominance.
He said: “We have scrutiny. There are scrutiny committees as well as a planning and licensing committees where proposals and decisions are heavily vetted.
“Quite often there is disagreement and push for plans to be changed.
“I want to make it clear that just because this a Labour-controlled council, it doesn’t mean there’s no accountability or scrutiny—that’s absolutely not true.
Withington residents have a big decision on their hands on 6 May—and both candidates know this. There is a sense, amongst the candidates at least, that a shake-up is coming.
I asked both whether they were nervous about the upcoming election.
Chris said: “Everyone always is nervous. Even people who are candidates in safe seats. If you are a candidate, you will get nervous.”
April said: “I’m confident. The thing is, they would usually have the ability to rock 30 or 40 people on polling day. But this year they can’t do that.”
“That, and now that Corbyn is no longer leader of the Labour Party, the student vote is likely to be split with the Greens.”