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Bev Craig: “For the vast majority, the economy simply isn’t good enough”

The council leader on the “Manchester Model” and Labour’s national missions.

By Jonny Ball

At the height of the industrial revolution a new word entered the English lexicon: Manchesterism. Nestled into the edge of the Pennines in England’s north-west, Manchester had become synonymous with the new mode of mass production that was changing the world. With proximity to fast-flowing rivers and access to northern coalfields, the city was fast becoming the world’s primary manufacturing hub, nicknamed “Cottonopolis”. Its famed textile merchants, the self-made industrialists and sturdy so-called “Manchester men”, campaigned for free trade and repeal of the Corn Laws, which favoured wealthy landowners over workers in the new economy.

Today, the place Manchester occupies in the national psyche is very different, though it remains an important commercial centre, with the largest city region economy outside of London. Far from being a symbol of liberal, laissez-faire capitalism, Manchester and its local leaders, like “King of the North” Andy Burnham, paint themselves as defenders of devolution, left-leaning sensibilities and independence from Westminster.

Bev Craig took over as head of Manchester City Council at the end of 2021. Her predecessor, Richard Leese, a towering figure in the city’s politics, led the council for a quarter of a century from the mid-1990s. His predecessor, Graham Stringer, was head of the metropolitan authority for twelve years before entering parliament in 1997, where he still sits.

When Leese stepped down, the Mill, an independent Manchester journal, described him as “one of Britain’s most influential politicians this century”, despite the fact that few outside Manchester had heard of him. “It’s hard to think,” the journal said, perhaps hyberbolically, “of a leader in the Western world who has overseen more dramatic changes in a modern city.”

[See also: Labour must escape the death grip of technocracy]

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In any case, Craig had big boots to fill. “People are always curious about what comes after somebody that’s been doing it for 25 years,” she says when we meet in her office in the Town Hall in St Peter’s Square. “People are looking for direction and tone, but also the ability and style to bring calm, long-term vision and stability as you’re trying to see through the transition.”

Craig, 37, grew up on a working-class estate in Greenisland, just outside of Belfast. On Google Maps you can see that some of the streets have lines of union flags, the red hand of Ulster, and red, white and blue bunting. “I grew up on an estate where nobody works,” Craig tells me, in an accent that blends her Northern Irish roots with a Mancunian drawl. “I remember thinking that my uncle was dead posh, that he must be a millionaire, but he wasn’t – he was a manager in a shoe shop. It was a very staunchly Protestant, loyalist environment.” Not the kind of place you’d imagine was a hotbed of labour movement activity.

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But as a young, gay teenager, Craig became immune to sectarian politics. “Coming out quite early, I was introduced to a lot of social progressivism,” she says, “and a lot of those campaigns came through nationalist, Catholic communities. Probably from the age of 14 or 15, for the first time in my life, I was experiencing the opposite of all those misconceptions that you’re taught.” Craig recalls working on an anti-bullying campaign in her teens, and the only political party that would engage with her group was Sinn Fein. “And so that has influenced my politics, in the sense that there is a dose of pragmatism that probably comes from a history of not making assumptions, about building alliances.” When she finished school Craig moved to Manchester to study politics and modern history and has stayed in the north-west ever since. She went on to do a master’s in local government management and a PhD exploring class and diversity in politics. She has represented the ward of Burnage for twelve years, and also spent time working for the Unison trade union.

Craig’s election as leader of the ruling Labour group at the end of 2021 represented what she calls a “generational evolution” of the city. After Leese stepped down she won the support of her colleagues in a selection battle against Luthfur Rahman to lead the Labour group. Rahman now serves as her deputy. Unlike some of its neighbouring cities, Manchester has long had the reputation of being run by practical politicians – serious pragmatists, not rabble-rousers, the type of local Labour leaders that Rishi Sunak could more than happily have lunch with. Craig seems set to continue in that tradition.

“There are things I fundamentally agree and disagree with. That’s why I’m in one particular political party”, Craig says. “But I think the responsibility of leading a city like Manchester, with a population of 600,000 people, means there are times when you just have to get the best deal for the city.”

There’s a fine line to tread between principle and pragmatism, she says, but Craig is happy to work with anyone, as long as it achieves the desired result. She cites the example of HS2, an infrastructure project that inspires great passion in all northern leaders. “We’re working in an alliance with businesses, of course. But it also involves me working with key Conservative politicians. We’re talking about a ninety-six billion quid investment project that, if done right, gives us the connections to capital that most modern European cities have but, if done wrong, arrives in the city about a mile out and enters on fifteen-metre high concrete stilts that run roughshod through a community.”

Even as a city council long led by Labour, Manchester has sometimes earned the ire of sections of the left for its its embrace of the private sector to boost growth, and its so-called “urban entrepreneurialism” in the search for inward investment. The purported trajectory towards “neoliberal urbanism” is made all the more egregious because of what came before it. In the 1980s, the city was a hotbed of the socialist, municipal New Left. As a young council leader Stringer engaged with feminist, anti-racist and community groups for the first time as part of “rainbow alliance” initiatives, and confronted the Thatcher government in epic battles over the budget. In 1987, a turning point for the city, his council changed tack, pivoting from ideological confrontation to practical partnership and conciliation.

[See also: The myths of “the north”]

Alongside long periods of stable, hard-nosed leadership, Manchester has undergone huge revolutions in public policy over the last three decades. The city is the posterchild of the all-but-defunct Northern Powerhouse project and George Osborne’s devolution agenda. In levelling up, Manchester also found a policy to champion, and new language to use to browbeat central government about missed targets and failed commitments.

But, like many, Craig is more than a little sceptical. “Intellectually, there’s nothing to disagree with about any of it,” she says. “We’ve been through Northern Powerhouse, local industrial strategy, levelling up and whatever it is that inevitably comes next. If you want to talk about rebalancing regional economies to deal with inequality then brilliant – that’s what we’re about as a city. The problem is that sometimes the narrative doesn’t always seem to deliver.”

That hasn’t stopped the emergence of a school of urban governance identifying the so-called “Manchester model” as its archetype. This refers to the city-regional partnership between multiple neighbouring local authorities that together make up “functional economic areas” like the Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA). Under this system, combined authorities are led by directly elected mayoral tribunes like Andy Burnham, who Craig works with closely on the GMCA along with nine other Greater Manchester council leaders. The model is based on the economics of agglomeration – the idea that geographic proximity will increase productivity by creating metropolitan clusters of industries that share knowledge, skills, capital, transport networks and labour pools.

But the concept has come under fire for putting too much focus on larger urban hubs while neglecting the regeneration of smaller towns and villages. Craig shares some of those doubts. “I prefer to think simply about people having better connections, rather than talking about agglomeration,” she insists. “That model that focuses on high-skilled jobs and raising productivity hasn’t delivered for low and middle earners.” Rather than pursuing growth as an end in itself, she wants growth to be “inclusive”. Pushing your GDP and Gross Value Added figures up is a laudable aim, “but you have to accept that for the vast majority of people, the economy isn’t good enough”.

Celebrating and trying to build the high-skilled sectors of the fourth industrial revolution is all well and good, but Craig wants to see a shift in emphasis to the lower-paid end of the labour market, “whether you call it the ‘foundational economy’ or the everyday economy, those very basic standards need to be increased in a way that keeps up with the cost of living as well”.

After we met Keir Starmer set out his five “national missions” for the country, and increasing growth is top of the list. The Labour leader is keen to emphasise that he wants growth “in every part of the country”, without London “racing ahead”. Devolution of powers away from Westminster would be a core focus of his government, he claims, which would give local leaders like Craig the tools they need to boost economic development in their areas. Authorities such as those in Greater Manchester are held up by the leadership as key examples of what Labour can do in power, using devolution deals to campaign for their areas and initiate policies like bus franchising, which is under way across the GMCA. I go back to Craig to ask what she made of Starmer’s proposals. “The country desperately needs a long-term plan to make people’s lives better,” she says, and she of course welcomes the recognition that local leaders should be given more powers. “Manchester is really excited by the prospect of a Labour government.”

Craig’s council is near enough a one-party state. Labour holds 91 of 96 seats (the Greens have three and the Lib Dems two), and in individual wards they tend to win majorities that would make any authoritarian strongman blush. “People have made a big deal about me being the first woman,” Craig tells me. “But actually behind that, only two people have led the city for as long as I’ve been alive, and I think there’s stability that comes with that, but then there’s also a natural kind of cyclical change that happens.”

When she took over the reins at the Town Hall it was reported that she was “more left-wing than Leese”, and that in the Jeremy Corbyn era she was rumoured to be a member of Manchester Momentum. When asked if Corbyn should be allowed to stand as a Labour candidate at the next general election she equivocates: “There’s a disciplinary process there, and I’m not going to give a view outside of that disciplinary process.” As a co-chair of Open Labour, it’s likely Craig identifies more with the party’s soft left, rather than being an old-fashioned Bennite.

The days of Manchesterism and the Cottonopolis are long gone, but the Mancunian self-image is still grounded in an ethos of industry, practicality and collective endeavour – its 150-year-old symbol, a bee, is still ubiquitous. The city’s leaders have often embodied the spirit of the age, from the “Manchester men” of the industrial revolution, to flirtations with New Left radicalism, through to a Third Way partnership model that oversaw the transition to a modern, post-industrial city under Leese. Craig is the latest leading subject in Manchester’s evolution. She brings with her all the concerns and ambitions of her generation – but the pragmatic, practical traditions of her adopted home will remain.

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