First published on the Times Redbox
“Labour’s recovery will come through local government,” remarked Liam Byrne in his speech to Policy Network on Tuesday, predicting a 1930s return to “municipal socialism” and the days when Herbert Morrison clawed Labour back to credibility as leader of the London county council.
For those despondent about a Labour recovery, there is good news. We do not need to wait. Since Labour left the Whitehall stage, a generation of exceptional local government leaders have come to the fore. They are dynamic, innovative and charting an exceptional path for Labour. In the most challenging fiscal environment they are creating jobs, transforming services and winning powers from central government. However, the parliamentary party has yet to find a way to harness this energy.
Step forward Jim McMahon. The 35-year-old leader of Oldham council was chosen last night for his home seat of Oldham West & Royton to fight the by-election caused by the passing of Michael Meacher.
If it is not impressive enough that he has created an energy co-operative, invested £100million in town centre regeneration and introduced the flagship Oldham Youth Guarantee, McMahon – a committed moderniser – won a selection in Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party. Local he may be, but the Corbynista machine made clear that Chris Williamson, who lost his Derby North seat to the Tories in May, was their clear choice.
Having voted for Liz Kendall, McMahon has been quick to show how broad the moderate coalition now is. Yesterday he was endorsed by the Cooperative party, the GMB union and the Communication Workers union – who just months ago called non-Corbyn supporters a “virus”. But last night’s result will mean more than a chalked-up victory for the modernising wing of the Labour party. McMahon is a man to watch.
A successful result on December 3 will see him back in league with his fellow founder of the Cooperative Councils Innovation Network, Steve Reed, MP for Croydon North and former Lambeth council leader. Together they have charted a route for the centre-left to win and govern with real purpose. In McMahon’s own words, “Labour local government has admirably led the way over the past five years in demonstrating what it can achieve even in a cold financial and political climate.”
Those making the hard choices of governing under austerity have received little solidarity from the top of the party. The current and former leaders are hardly people to whom our city leaders can turn for advice on cutting the next million from their budget or transforming a vital service. Clearly frustrated with the way local government was being ignored, back in 2013 McMahon challenged “every shadow cabinet member [to] spend a week shadowing a Labour leader in local government” to learn how to govern under austerity. Did any take up the challenge? Not one!
When McMahon first spoke at a Progress event – the Labour modernisers group I lead – he shared his central insight as a leader: he would not let Oldham become a victim to David Cameron in the way my predecessors let it be to Margaret Thatcher. He later wrote: “We can’t wait for someone to sort this out for us. We can’t sit here in the hope that the UK economy will recover and the Oldham simply gets its share. If we do that, we will fail again.”
Oldham still bears many of the scars of the 1980s. As Labour repeats the same era, McMahon might just be the man to point both his city and party to a better future.