Council Leader Bev Craig tells us exactly where's she's coming from
8 minute read
Manchester City Council Leader Bev Craig is on top form. She's at an event for the Forum for the Built Environment (FBE), chaired by architect Ged Couser, the chair of FBE.
Ged Couser asks how difficult it was for Bev Craig to fill the boots of Sir Richard Leese who was council leader for 25 years when she took over on 1 December 2021.
I’m an incrementalist rather than a revolutionary
“It is about controlling expectations,” Bev Craig replies. “There were some people who thought I might not be up to the job. One man at a meeting asked if I was going to be the David Moyes of council leadership.”
Bev Craig, who is a United fan, is referring to the resignation of the hyper successful long term Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson in 2013. He was replaced by the hyper unsuccessful short term Manchester United manager David Moyes.
Bev Craig continues with: “I said to the man, how do you know that Richard Leese wasn’t Ron Atkinson and I’m going to be Sir Alex?”
It's getting convoluted this football analogy but Bev Craig is implying she might, over time, prove to be a more effective leader than Leese just as Ferguson was with his predecessor, Atkinson. It was an effective way of dealing with a silly and aggressive question.
Bev Craig has grown into the job of council leader in the last year, she looks and feels the part. At the FBE event she is the very measure of calm authority, taking time over replies, choosing her words carefully. Her voice has a mesmerising quality to it. She was born and raised in Northern Ireland but there is hardly anything of that potent accent in her speech, rather she speaks with a voice rich with the gentle burr of Lancashire.
The event has a shaky start as it's hard to focus on the speakers due to a vast photo-montage sliding behind the guests on a cinema screen at host venue, HOME. Everybody is relieved when the dizzying photo-montage is halted on a fetching view of the city from Deansgate Square. Part of the montage included an image of a cyclist's arse at around two metres in height. It was starting to imprint itself on the back of the audience's retinas.
National politics and devolution
Ged Couser, asks would Bev Craig consider national politics. She shakes her head.
"Politics is transactional, often far too short-term. There is something within me which wants to understand how you can take a strategic plan and make it work over time," she says. "I can try and make that happen, make a difference, in Manchester where I get to run a city of 600,000 people and a budget of 1.5bn. Why give that up for a backbench role in the House of Commons?"
Bev Craig is keen for more say in running the city. She wants more devolved powers for Greater Manchester. While she will work with any national government, pragmatism being key, she's looking forward to a moment when her own party, Labour, might succeed the Conservatives.
“I’ve been having a chat with the national Labour Party," she says. "I've asked how would they feel after the next general election, should they get into power after so long out of it, if people like me keep asking them to give some of that power away. Give it back to the cities.
"I've been asking how will the Labour Party feel about decentralising? We have in Greater Manchester a working model of the classic devolution case with strong local government knowing its area and what it needs. We need to be looking at greater devolution so we are in control. Cities can lead this, I am a massive advocate for the role of cities if the UK is going to get out of the sluggish loop its stuck in at the minute."
Reshuffles and letters
The merry-go-round at the top of the Conservative Party has been bewildering with prime ministers coming and going and myriad cabinet reshuffles. How has Bev Craig coped, asks Ged Couser.
"When I came into this job," says Bev Craig, "courtesy dictated I send a letter to introduce myself to ministers and their departments saying Manchester's got a history of putting the city first, putting the city before politics, let's work together."
She pauses and smiles.
"I didn't realise you had to send a letter to every single one of them every time they changed jobs. There'd be a reshuffle and you had to send another letter. It was the modern equivalent of Tipp-ex. It was just letter after letter, then one chap, bless him, replied back to me with thank you, it's come to my attention I'm not going to be in this job tomorrow, shall I just forward the letter on?'
"Seriously though, there's something more fundamental here," Bev Craig continues. "It's about ideas. This is not necessarily a political point but it's very difficult to find a landing point with this government to talk about serious long-term issues because we're in short-term territory. They are thinking about the next general election and that's no good when it comes to planning ahead."
Optimism and authenticity
Bev Craig moves on to describing a balance between optimism and being genuine.
“Manchester has a real sense of civic pride," she says. "Even though people might be having a difficult time in the city they wouldn’t thank us for going out into the world and not bigging-up Manchester and putting it on a great platform. It’s not in the mentality of the city to say it’s crap. You don’t build a city up by talking it down.
"But there has to be authenticity to what you say. If as the leader of the council I’m talking about all the brilliant things we’re doing yet 42% of our kids are living in poverty and we’re still in the top ten deprived local authority areas in the country, then that could sound empty.
"You have to find a way in that what we are talking about creates hope and optimism and also demonstrates that it is rooted in something. So in refreshing our economic strategy for the city, we’re asking what it means for inclusive growth, how that permeates into our skill system, what work are we doing with our schools (which have improved dramatically) and how do we connect businesses and schools together to seize opportunities."
Bev Craig gathers her thoughts for a minute before continuing.
“Manchester’s success will come from two things. In the short-term it will come from attracting global talent that chooses to move to Manchester as businesses relocate and people settle after university but over the longer-term it’s for Mancunians to be involved as well.
"I’m not implying people who come to the city don’t adopt a Mancunian identity. We speak 142 languages and 30% of the population has been born outside the city but they are Mancunian. The question is how do we create a system in which kids from say, Moston or Moss Side have as much opportunity to access the top jobs of global players and government agencies relocating to the city. There are lots of different ways we can do that but inclusive growth is what we are trying to do - accessing Manchester talent both in terms of diversity of thought and diversity of demographics. We'll see if it works."
The Modern Socialist
Ged Couser notes that he's read somewhere that Manchester's City Council Leader has described herself as a 'modern socialist'. He wonders what that means and wonders if he can sign up.
“That phrase came out when the Labour Party was having a bit of a conversation with itself," says Bev Craig with a smile referring to the civil war in the party during the Corbyn years. "I’m an incrementalist rather than a revolutionary by nature. I didn’t grow up in the Labour Party and studied every intellectual argument in its history. I think there's something about how you can connect social justice into a world view in a way that’s not loaded.
"Most people don’t understand the difference between a ‘social democrat’ or a ‘democratic socialist’ or any of the other little labels The Labour Party gives itself. I think you can have a pragmatic left-wing view of the world putting social justice at the top. I’m certainly not getting into a cult, I'm never going to wear a t-shirt with a man’s face on it. I was never going to wear a Corbyn t-shirt, I’m not going to wear a Starmer t-shirt."
She pauses again and then says firmly.
"It has to be about collectivism of course, but you can’t just follow a person blindly, you have to have independent thought."
It's a good way to end the event.
Independent thought within collectivism focused on social justice sounds just right for Manchester. It echoes, no doubt unconsciously, Robert Blatchford who in 1891 set up The Clarion newspaper in the city. He wrote: "English Socialism depends upon humanity and common sense.”
If Bev Craig's modern socialism is to work, it needs humanity, common sense and delivery to lift that 42% of kids out of poverty and push Manchester out of its unhappy top ten position among the country's deprived boroughs. Bev Craig seems very clear-eyed about the role she has taken on while also retaining enough perspective to see its less serious side. Of course, politics is a results-based business so we'll have to see whether the strategic and long-term vision Bev Craig wants to give the city bears fruit.
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