More than a decade since his death, the spectre of Tony Wilson — Manchester and Salford’s most famous cultural magnate — continues to loom over both banks of the River Irwell. It was Wilson who, in a characteristic outburst of civic chauvinism, once said that while Manchester had given the world the Communist Manifesto, suffragism, modern trade unionism, and even the computer, the best London had managed was Chas & Dave.
Tongue-in-cheek though it was, Wilson’s remark encapsulated something about the spirit of these twin cities: not just a provincial prickliness, but a great pride in their cultural pedigree and radical political heritage. But towards the end of his life Wilson must have felt some quiet ambivalence about his own legacy. The Haçienda, which had helped usher in acid house and the Madchester era, was levelled in 2002 to make way for expensive flats; a demonstration of how the nostalgia industry surrounding Factory Records became bound up with Manchester’s post-industrial rebranding as a lodestar of neoliberalism, ‘open for business’ to any passing property developers looking to make a quick buck.
Thankfully, something much more in keeping with that radical political and cultural heritage is stirring. In Wilson’s birthplace of Salford, the council is attracting attention as one of only a few Labour councils led by the party’s left. There are also signs that a broader political, cultural, and intellectual renewal is brewing in both Salford and Manchester.
As with so much else, media discussion of the housing crisis is preoccupied with its implications for London and the South East. The rapidly changing Manchester skyline makes clear, however, that the same processes of property parasitism are at work in the North West. As journalist Anna Minton highlights in her 2017 book Big Capital: Who Is London For?, economic stagnation and a dearth of otherwise productive investment opportunities have driven speculators to property, which offers potentially massive returns. Many British councils have been only too happy to oblige. The heavy human cost — seen in the rocketing homelessness, up tenfold in Manchester since 2010 — is as visible as new skyscrapers. It only takes a short trip up Rochdale Road and into nearby Collyhurst to see Manchester’s housing and social inequality up close, while next door Ancoats, once notorious for its appalling living conditions, is in the grip of a breakneck property boom.
This burgeoning housing crisis has come to dominate local politics. In May 2017, Andy Burnham was elected as the mayor of Greater Manchester, pledging to end rough sleeping in the city region by 2020 and calling for safe housing to be declared a basic human right. In Salford, the council is building its first council housing in thirty years, and left-wing mayor Paul Dennett has made the case that only direct public intervention can resolve the crisis.
Of course, even where local authorities harbour the political will to intervene they are still forced to operate within the parameters of a system rigged to suit developers. Those looking to evade already inadequate affordable housing requirements have little difficulty doing so: in Salford as elsewhere, and despite the council’s efforts they have been able to avoid paying millions of pounds in section 106 fees.
As the area’s most pressing social grievance, much of left activism in Greater Manchester revolves around housing. Two campaigning groups in particular are leading the fightback: Greater Manchester Housing Action (GMHA) and the newly formed Acorn Manchester. GMHA and Acorn Manchester have developed a close partnership, organising (along with other groups including Tenants Union UK and Unite Community) the first Renters’ Forum in March, at which tenants from across the city had the opportunity to put their concerns directly to Andy Burnham.
GMHA has been increasingly influential in local housing debates since its founding in November 2015. While the organisation’s immediate focus is on pursuing ‘radical left-wing solutions to the housing crisis’, its ambitions for social change go further. It sees itself as working to develop an opposition that extends beyond the established activist milieu. This recognition that housing justice is inextricably linked to the need for wholesale social transformation is something that both GMHA and Acorn share. The growing Acorn network, across British cities, is building ‘a community-based union of working-class people’, encouraging greater self-confidence and developing new collective capacities.
As the sociologist Armand Mattelart once put it: ‘Acquiring and developing class consciousness does not mean obligatory boredom.’ This is something the new left in Salford and Manchester has taken to heart: as leading local activist Beth Redmond emphasised in a recent article, ‘making politics fun’ is vital to drawing people in and keeping them engaged. With radical social and cultural spaces like Partisan Collective and Moston Miners, and independent media such as The Meteor providing the local left with focal points, a number of campaigns and organisations across the two cities are building a vibrant cultural presence.
Manchester Momentum is playing a leading role in this regard. Its eclectic and freewheeling cultural programme has included club nights (featuring Italo disco and Northern Soul), an ‘Unsociable Hours’ film club for those working irregular hours or shift work, quiz nights and bingo, as well as talks, debates, and political education. In April, it organised a re-enactment of the 1932 mass trespass of Kinder Scout in Derbyshire, a landmark in local labour movement history memorialised in Ewan MacColl’s The Manchester Rambler.
Similarly steeped in labour history is Salford Community Theatre (SCT), which since 2014 has been taking community plays into the city’s working-class districts. In 2016, with backing from the local council and Salford TUC, SCT staged its first production, an adaptation of local novelist Walter Greenwood’s seminal Love on the Dole. The play saw SCT take to the city’s streets to recreate the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement’s October 1931 march on the old town hall at Bexley Square, later dramatised in Greenwood’s novel. That original demonstration of over 10,000 unemployed workers culminated in the infamous Battle of Bexley Square, which saw mounted police charge into the throng of marchers.
SCT is following in a similar vein with its current project, The Salford Docker, set to be staged next year. This new play explores the long-term local impact of deindustrialisation by tracing the history of the Salford docks from their 1950s heyday to their final decline, and subsequent afterlife as Salford Quays. SCT’s Sarah Weston and Isaac Rose have elaborated on how their work, inspired by Salford’s ‘radical past’, is intended ‘to draw attention to ongoing political struggle, and to strengthen a burgeoning cultural movement on the left.’ Salford has been fortunate in that other local institutions, among them the Working Class Movement Library, served as standard-bearers for this radical history during dark times for the socialist movement. Salford’s Unemployed and Community Resource Centre, founded at the outset of Thatcherism, also continues to play a valuable part in upholding values of solidarity and community, as well as providing practical advice to residents shouldering the burdens of unemployment, poverty, and social isolation.
The significance of a radical cultural presence in everyday life is well understood by Manchester and Salford activists. 0161 Community, a spin-off from 0161 Festival, is taking anti-fascism into the community by organising a variety of grassroots events, including family fun days and five-a-side football tournaments. Chorlton Socialist Club (CSC) — established in the south Manchester suburb to harness the energies generated during last summer’s general election campaign — has held debates, gigs and film nights, while also involving itself in local causes including the successful Save Turn Moss campaign in neighbouring Stretford. CSC activist Sean Cummins has written about the necessity of turning the local Labour Party into ‘a more inclusive and participatory community hub of culture, activism, solidarity work, education, and discussion.’ This is precisely the kind of change needed nationwide.
While the emerging new left in the twin cities is local, it’s by no means parochial. In June, Acorn Manchester organised a discussion with Barcelona en Comú, which has been governing Barcelona in coalition since 2015. As Hettie O’Brien recently pointed out in a New Socialist article, Barcelona en Comú deliberately eschews the label of political party, instead seeking to serve as a ‘citizen platform’ able to ally itself closely with social movements and campaigns.
This talk of citizen platforms and social movements is enough to bring a certain type of Labour councillor out in hives. In local as in national government, Labour has generally functioned in a top-down and closed-off manner, rarely amenable to close collaboration with campaigns and organisations beyond the official labour movement. Even some of its left-led councils have historically tended to operate in this mould. There are reasons for optimism about Corbynism’s ability to break with it, not least the fact that it has drawn so many activists from the pre-2015 anti-cuts and student movements into the Labour Party. The task facing them now is to transform the party so that it can work in good faith with groups beyond its bounds.
Local government remains a stronghold of the Labour right and centre, but in time more Labour councils will have to reflect the party’s general political direction. Party members will demand it. But there is more to achieve than simply replacing right-wing Labour councils with left-wing ones. As well as being given greater policy-making powers in their particular area, local parties need to open Labour councils up to those they aspire to serve, changing the way these councils interact with the wider community.
While the process of socialist renewal in local government has yet to take hold, with little more than political commitment and determination, the new left in Salford and Manchester is building a promising prototype. Our Labour Party should encourage and support it.