The inside story of a dramatic week in Manchester politics

The Liberal Democrats' candidate, Alan Good, has won the by-election for Ancoats and Beswick, in an upset result. Alan campaigned hard on issues such as litter and fly tipping, parking and green spaces. He also called attention to what he said was a feeling among residents that "Labour ignores them".

The Liberal Democrats gained 53.2% of the vote as compared to Labour's 37.9%, representing a 30% swing to the Lib Dems overall.

Party | Vote | Vote Share

Liberal Democrats | 1,113 | 53.2% (+31%)

Labour | 793 | 37.9% (-20.6%)

Green |119 | 5.7% (-5.3%)

Conservative | 66 | 3.2% (-5.2%)

Polling day

At the Victoria Square polling station in Ancoats, all is quiet. I ask the lone couple exiting the polling hall how they have found the campaigns in this hotly contested election. They look at each other bewildered. “No one has knocked on our door,” they shrug. At 9am the trickle of voters has almost stopped completely. Instead, I chat to a friendly volunteer teller who, for someone who has been wielding his clipboard since nigh-on 6am, is exuding good-natured patience.

The calm belies a by-election campaign that has on occasion descended into outright bitterness. Local politics has never been all rainbows and kittens, but the national mood of resentment and distrust seems to have trickled down, infecting a process that already had the most inauspicious of starts.

Finally, I managed to snag a voter who says that, while he had a knock at the door from campaigners, his flatmate answered and "he wasn’t registered to vote". I wonder if he has been following the local drama? “People who I’ve talked to are more focused on the national issues than what been going on locally,” he says.

While the antics of Boris Johnson and his chums might be pulling attention from a humble by-election in Ancoats and Beswick, there has certainly been enough chatter to fill a Sue Gray-esque report or two.

Marcia Hutchinson Councillor For Ancoats And Beswick Credit Marcia
Former councillor Marcia Hutchinson Image: Marcia Hutchinson

'Racism and bullying' in Manchester Labour

The Ancoats and Beswick by-election is potentially just the start of a loosening of the iron grip Labour has on the city-centre wards. To understand why it has been such a landmark vote, at least for Manchester, we need to go back to why the election was called in the first place. 

Back in November, we reported that Marcia Hutchinson had resigned from her post as councillor for Ancoats and Beswick, alleging that she suffered from “racism and bullying” at the hands of the Manchester Labour Group, of which she was a member. Ms Hutchinson published her resignation letter online, in which she said she had endured "more racism and bullying in [her] five years in the Labour Party than the rest of [her] life combined." The then-councillor gave examples of derogatory comments written on ballot papers, emails ignored and Race Awareness training cancelled and never reinstated. 

The letter triggered a by-election which was confirmed for 3 February 2022. A spokesperson for the Labour group said at the time that all allegations had been “thoroughly investigated” by the local whips' office and were found to be untrue.

The story took another twist during the selection process when Ms Hutchinson published another letter alleging that “rules were changed” in order to manipulate the candidate shortlist. While the Labour group have not officially commented, a source says that her statement contained inaccuracies over the number of participants in the meeting and the rules on all-women shortlists. 

Nevertheless, the situation had overtones of the controversy that surrounded Anna Rothery in Liverpool, who called changes to the shortlist in her case an "undemocratic failure of process". Add to this the fact that a couple of years ago another Ancoats and Beswick councillor, Majid Dar, was in trouble for anti-Semitic remarks posted to his Facebook page (the comments were written by other people). Dar was suspended during an internal investigation and then reinstated, but it lefts an unpleasant residue for voters when trying to decide who they will endorse.

A week before the election

Confidentials grabbed a few minutes of the Labour candidate's time to ask him about this and more. Gareth Worthington is clearly a doer. As we walked down a street talking, he whipped out his phone to make a call. He had noticed a delivery left outside a restaurant and was worried about both the street obstruction and the possibility of the restaurant's equipment getting nicked. Within seconds the manager was on the line and sending someone to sort it out while Gareth stood guard.

Gareth is well-known among the bars and restaurants of Manchester, having worked in hospitality for many years (he was a manager at Dry Bar). He is a natural-born organiser, creating networks among bar owners and staff, and eventually parlaying this work into a job for CityCo. Over lockdown, he designed road closures that allowed bars and pubs to make use of the outdoor space as they tentatively reopened. He is also currently working with Figen Murray on Martyn's Law, the counter-terrorism measures being rolled out among hospitality venues.

A week or so before the election, I asked Gareth if he felt that if elected, would he be able to stand up to the party whipping system? He was confident that he could, citing a recent campaign with Royal Mills residents to object to a nearby development. This has clearly become a bit of a passion, and he spoke eloquently on the subject of enforcing Section 106 requirements (which requires developers to provide affordable housing). Away from the trendy bars of Ancoats, Beswick is due a major overhaul as and Gareth says there is a need for "proper transport, proper infrastructure, proper cleaning, everything really."

I pressed him on the general tone the campaign seems to have taken since Christmas. He says, "The people of Ancoats and Beswick don’t deserve it, really. All the party political screaming and shouting about the internal politics. They want the bins empty." 

I also chatted with Liberal Democrat candidate Alan Good on the phone. He was full of astute analysis but his main thrust was that Labour councillors have not been present enough in the neighbourhood and residents feel ignored and taken for granted. Alan has been a resident of the ward for a while and is visible at litter picks and clean ups, and has been vocally supportive of the Trees Not Cars campaign.

Alan is also concerned about green spaces, parking and affordable housing. He has previously posted at length about the need to control anti-social behaviour not by controversial PSPOs but by providing proper support for vulnerable people who may be using drugs. He repeated a phrase which seems to sum up his whole campaign: "Meaningful change and meaningful representation."

Ancoats Cutting Room Square
Cutting Room Square in Ancoats, scene of several lockdown parties Image: Confidentials

Problems in Ancoats and Beswick

For many residents, the most obvious problems in Ancoats and Beswick started brewing during Tier 3 and subsequent lockdown periods. Parties were held in Cutting Room Square and without the bars (and their facilities) people were urinating on the street and leaving rubbish everywhere. While the Lib Dems contend that it was then that people started to feel the Labour councillors were not visible enough, other residents say it was Gareth who initiated the clean up.

It seems ironic then that Gareth is an active and well-known figure locally, organising litter clean-ups and neighbourhood watches (the same applies to Alan). It is true that more than one resident complained about being ignored by the Labour councillor Gareth hoped to replace - one Marcia Hutchinson. In fairness to Marcia, she had been signed off from her duties due to depression which she says was caused by her treatment by the Labour whips' office. Marcia then threw her support behind Alan, who had been her direct rival at the previous election less than a year ago.

A tangled web indeed.

I asked Gareth if, despite the tension of the campaign, there are good relations between him and Alan, his main rival. “I hope so. I've organised things in Cutting Room Square with Alan. I do get on with him, we are friends with each other. We were chatting for half an hour the other day about how exhausted we are,” he said

Then a day before the election, Alan Good claimed that Gareth Worthington had removed him from the Ancoats Neighbourhood Watch Facebook group and is using it to campaign in "poor faith". It should be noted that while Gareth did set up the Ancoats Neighbourhood Watch group (and several other affiliated groups), there is no confirmation that he was or wasn't the one that removed Alan. Nevertheless, Lib Dem leader John Leech commented on Twitter: "On the one hand: This is just another petty move from Labour and we should ignore it. On the other hand: Suppressing opposition, killing alternative views and dodging scrutiny is exactly what happens when you have a Labour one-party state that takes voters for granted."

So it seems any olive branch between the candidates is firmly retracted for now.

What went wrong for Labour

Development in Ancoats - under control of the Labour council- hasn't always had the best reputation. Marcia Hutchinson campaigned hard on the need for green space, something echoed by Green candidate Chris Perriam - "It is clear from previous Council failings that the ward has been let down - there is so much potential for the area, such as the creation of a park on the site of the former Central Retail Park, and the preservation of the historic buildings that could become affordable housing for vibrant neighbourhoods."

In the post-match analysis, one resident tells me that he thinks that it was development that was the critical issue. The new Ancoats "mobility hub" is controversial and the council's battle with Trees Not Cars did not go down well. The council acquired land expensively but sold adjacent land cheaply. 

Gareth Worthington had plenty of high-profile endorsement during his campaign. GM Mayor Andy Burnham, council leader Bev Craig and Manchester city centre MP Lucy Powell have all shown their support. 

Anita Street Ancoats
Picturesque Anita Street in Ancoats Image: Confidentials

However, it seemed that this endorsement actually cost Gareth rather than helped. Alan Good told me he found a widespread dislike of Keir Starmer for instance, and that helped his case. There is also a general disillusionment with the very strength of Labour numbers at the council. He told me that residents feel they are taken for granted and that councillors only show up at election time. Alan himself felt he is made great strides among the progressive left, more prevalent in the flats of Ancoats, while there is also a new phalanx of Tory voters popping up too.

On this note I checked in with Conservative candidate Alexander Bramham who sent me a standard response: "In Manchester, we do things differently - the Conservatives are the rebel outsiders resisting lockdown and moving forwards. I pledge to fight further council tax hikes, promote consultations, protect green spaces and support local businesses. Ancoats and Beswick deserve a proud, confident opposition voice to absolute Labour control (94 of 96 seats).

"More parties means more ideas, scrutiny and co-operation - your council needs blue."

While the response might have been boilerplate, it contained a grain of truth. The domination of Labour of the last couple of decades has led to structural issues within the council. With a dominating personality such as Richard Leese at the helm, everyone was pointing in the same direction, whether they liked it or not. Now he has departed, factionalism has broken out.

While the Labour Group will no doubt be cogitating over the loss of a previously safe seat for weeks to come, Alan Good will join his Lib Dem comrade John Leech in providing opposition to Labour on the council. Add the pair to Green councillor Rob Nunney and you have three non-Labour councillors out of the 96. It's said that leader Bev Craig wants to take a more inclusive approach than her predecessor and "bring everyone in". This might not be the way she envisioned that happening. It's a tantalising insight into what might come in the May elections and beyond.

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