Who will win the Manchester Gorton By-Election?
There’s more going on in the by-election in one of Labour’s safest seats than meets the eye.
So, there’s to be a by-election in my consistency, Gorton, following the death of Sir Gerald Kaufman. Kaufman, one of the longest-serving MPs in Labour’s history, was first elected in 1970 and won in 2015 with an increased majority of 24,079. It may be considered distasteful to talk about a successor while the ink is still wet on the predecessor’s obituaries but Momentum have already begun lobbying for their man to have a place in parliament. With Gorton being one of the safest seats for Labour, I suspect many other factions will soon join them. So, as someone who lives and campaigns in the constituency, here’s my take.
Two names which I saw mentioned in the New Statesman yesterday as potential contenders are Julie Reid and Afzal Khan. Reid, a councillor for Gorton South, may well fancy her chances. She reportedly threw her hat into the ring for the 2015 Oldham West by-election but didn’t make it onto the shortlist, but as a working class female councillor who has been a vocal and consistent supporter of Corbyn, she may find she now ticks a lot of the right boxes and definitely has the self-confidence. However her tendency to become combative and hostile to criticism very easily hasn’t gone unnoticed. A neat example of this took place at the weekend where Julie went to a campaigning meeting with Andy Burnham and Gorton/Levenshulme Labour activists although she had given the impression to a separate group of locals that she would instead attend their meeting to discuss a planned new school which scheduled for construction on Nutsford Vale, one of the area’s few decent-sized green areas. When the dozen or so locals from the school group got in touch on Facebook to ask where she was (posting a photograph of them all looking abandoned and miserable in the rain) Julie denied all knowledge and refused to apologise, which lead to a long, publicly visible thread of comments denouncing Julie and airing long-nurtured grievances, something which has happened a couple of times already this year. A brief Google yields such headlines as ‘Fined councillor: My dog roams streets because she has Alzheimer’s’, a report in the MEN which claims that she had been ‘warned by Manchester’s leadership not to get into Facebook spats about Jeremy Corbyn’, and coverage of a rally where she spoke, ushering into the world my favourite argument in favour of backing Corbyn: ‘Jeremy has made it quite clear he doesn’t want to be prime minister, and nor does he think he will be’. Whether any of this sort of stuff— minor for a local councillor, potentially major gaffes for an MP — are considered obstacles to attaining high office in Labour in its current state remains to be seen.
On the other hand I’m told Afzal Khan, an MEP and former Cheetham councillor, who was also at the Burnham meeting, was keen to arrange a meeting with the school group, something which isn’t exactly in his remit. As this slyly indicates, Afzal himself is seen as a bit of a chancer locally (he’s been much more visible in the area since Gerald went into hospital) but is also charismatic, has ample political experience and knows the area well. He would also have the distinct advantage, as an MEP, of bringing pro-Remain credentials to a strongly pro-Remain area. Again, the worth of attributes such as these in the upper echelons of Corbyn’s Labour is something of an unknown quantity at present, but there is talk of Khan gaining union support.
A couple of other local Labour figures to keep an eye on are Kate Chappell, a councillor in Rusholme who has put in thankless hours in the MCC environment department and is precisely the kind of young, locally engaged and media-savvy figure one would imagine a Labour Party looking to win elections would be keen to put forward, and Sam Wheeler, a young activist from the Longsight area of Gorton who’s also member of the steering committee of Momentum, the left-wing grassroots group set up to support Corbyn, which has already begun lobbying for their man with supporters talking him up to the Huffington Post yesterday. Wheeler seems intelligent and much more thoughtful one might expect from the hard-left, and purportedly has the ear of a number of Parliamentary selection specialists in Westminster, but no-one I’ve spoken to locally had heard of him prior to yesterday so gaining purchase in the area might prove tricky. Ultimately, however, the decision of who gets to stand is down to the NEC, Labour’s beleaguered ruling body, which will draft a shortlist of possible contenders in the coming weeks. The NEC itself is fairly evenly split in terms of members who support and oppose Corbyn, but lobbying so soon after the passing of an MP isn’t standard practice, nor especially tasteful, and may count against Wheeler if the choice is perceived as being between him and Reid, as might his stance on grammar schools (in favour, surprisingly). Other potential contenders include Rabnawaz Akbar, a Rusholme councillor who provokes fierce loyalty among some locals, and Fallowfield councillor Mike Amesbury,a close ally of Andy Burnham currently engaged in his Manchester Mayor campaign, something which may help his chances.
Obviously, all of this has to be filtered through Labour’s internal politics, not only of its turbulent NEC, but also the local CLP (only very recently unsuspended), the local party itself (in special measures since 2004) and the broader pro- and anti-Corbyn membership the party as a whole finds itself with, and the seat being as impregnably safe as it is means there is always the strong possibility that Labour ends up parachuting someone into the seat who the party’s central office considers valuable but who has had little involvement in the area.
On the Lib Dem side of things I’m less informed but there’s no denying they’ll see this by-election as an opportunity. Gorton voted 61 per cent against Brexit according to NCP estimates and, prior to the collapse in their vote in the 2015 general election, the Lib Dems were very gradually narrowing the gap between themselves and Labour. The Green Party finished second in that election and the last round of council elections saw a bounce for both Greens and Labour, so the Lib Dems should be optimistic about pulling back some decent numbers now that Brexit has in turn fuelled their resurgence and contributed to Labour’s decline. With Labour’s current vote share being what it is, my guess is the Lib Dems won’t be looking for an outright win but to finish in a decent second place ready for the next general election in 2020. The expectation seems to be that John Leech, a former MP for Withington, now a councillor there, will put himself forward as the candidate and he would probably do quite well, particularly if up against a Corbynista candidate like Reid or Wheeler against whom he could reasonably contrast himself. One other local factor to look out for, one which may work against the Lib Dems is if Dave Hennigan is involved. Dave is a Lib Dem campaign bod who has worked under Cyril Smith and Paul Rowen, and has since had the misfortune to be appointed campaign manager for Jason Zadrozny and Tom Hollis. He appears to have relocated to Levenshulme and was involved in the 2014 re-election campaign for then Lib Dem councillor Jamie Hennigan which received a handful of accusations of dog-whistle xenophobia directed at Dzidra Noor, his British-Latvian Labour opponent. Dave has garnered a good deal of controversy in his time and much more serious rumours abound (Chris Paul, another Withington councillor, has a long-standing and much blogged distain for Hennigan) none of which would be a particularly big deal during a regular election, but with the glare of the nation’s media directed on the by-election, he’d be a risk for the Lib Dem candidate if involved.
As for the Greens, despite finish second in 2015 I don’t think they stand much of a chance in 2017. My sense was that their decent performance was in part a protest against a Labour councillor in the Levenshulme ward, Basat Sheikh, who appeared to have been handed his 2015 nomination at the expense of other, more engaged local Labour activists (and seemed to break the news of his selection on Facebook prior to the decision having been formally made) and a broader, more widespread sense that councillors in South Manchester on the whole weren’t pushing back against the fully Labour MCC: cuts in the area saw the local library and swimming baths threatened repeatedly with closure while planning permission for endless high street takeaways went unchecked. Since then then those issues have been superseded (the library and baths were replaced) and the voters who were attracted to the Greens in 2015 have since largely converted to the Corbyn cause and, if the national trend holds, have in many cases since become disillusioned. So while it’s highly unlikely the fledgling Green vote will collapse entirely, I imagine much of it will disperse on the day, splitting between Labour and the Lib Dems fairly evenly depending on who those parties select.
A couple of other factors. One of the aspect which I expect will become overlooked when analysts start talking about Gorton as a safe seat is Gerald Kaufman himself who was widely liked by his constituents. He was invested in the community, he showed up for local meetings, handed out flyers, knocked on doors and generally worked hard to cultivate a rock-solid reputation as an MP who worked almost exclusively for his constituents. Locally this reputation rests chiefly on his formidable ability to rely to all letters from his constituents, frequently the next day and often with an unsolicited follow-up, something which continued up until the days before his death.
Secondly, Gorton has an odd demographic mix, with a large working class population, many of whom are of Asian origin, but also with a large number of students in Fallowfield and rapidly burgeoning numbers of affluent young professionals drawn to the Levenhulme area by the house-prices and its access to central Manchester, so bracketing Gorton as either a blue-collar Labour heartland or a middle class metropolitan hinterland would be incorrect as would any sweeping extrapolations in either direction.
Both of these factors means that anyone hoping to win the seat and — crucially — hold onto it may well be required to do much more groundwork than may initially appear to be case, during and after campaigning, if they’re to convince residents that they can match their predecessor and are worthy of the kinds of thumping majorities they consistently gave to Kaufman. A failure or unwillingness on the part of whichever Labour MP Gorton ends up with to engage on this level, combined with the air of malaise around the Labour brand, could feasibly give the Lib Dems a path to a future victory.
So who will win the Gorton by-election of 2017? Almost undoubtedly Labour, but all comers will be keenly focused on positioning themselves for what awaits three years down the line.