As Richard Leese steps down and another councillor is suspended, what is going in Manchester Labour?

As Richard Leese serves out his last day as Leader of Manchester City Council and prepares to hand over the baton to new Leader Bev Craig, the ruling Labour Party Group is starting to reveal intra-party tensions.

Cllr Marcia Hutchinson of Ancoats and Beswick ward has today (30 November) published her resignation letter in which she says she endured "more racism and bullying in my five years in the Labour Party than the rest of my life combined." The councillor gives examples of derogatory comments written on ballot papers, emails ignored and Race Awareness training cancelled and never reinstated.

The Labour Group dominate Manchester City Council with (until now) 94 out of 96 councillors being Labour. The remaining councillors are one Green and one Liberal Democrat.

Manchester will be a better city when councillors can engage in genuine debate without fear of retribution from the Leader

Cllr Hutchinson also shares a snippet of an email from Sir Richard Leese which reads: “I have never experienced one member causing so much anger in the group and I want them to know that something is being done about it. Marcia is one of a small number that complains about a toxic atmosphere in the group. I'm inclined to agree with her, but it wasn't like that before they 'joined' us,”.

Previous tensions in the CLP

After Sir Richard announced his resignation Cllr Hutchinson wrote a piece arguing that the party whip system ought to be reformed. She was concerned that the system gave whips too much power, that rules were not written down and councillors could make accusations against each other anonymously, which lead to people using the system to settle scores and oust rivals.

Cllr Hutchinson said Bev Craig had "kindly reached out". She closed her letter by saying she was proud of the work she had achieved with the Pipeline Project, which had increased the number of Black councillors, and stated: "Manchester will be a better city when councillors can engage in genuine debate without fear of retribution from the Leader."

Marcia Hutchinson Councillor For Ancoats And Beswick Credit Marcia
Cllr Marcia Hutchinson who has resigned her post at Manchester City Council Image: Marcia Hutchinson

The resignation comes after reports that Cllr Rabnawaz Akbar of Rusholme has been administratively suspended from the Labour Party, pending investigation, and questioned by police regarding accusations of homophobic comments and a disturbance. The story was first reported in The Mill on 29 November. Cllr Akbar was not arrested or charged. The councillor is said to be strenuously denying the allegation, and a source described it to The Mill as “vexatious and politically motivated”.

Councillor Akbar - who holds the executive portfolio for neighbourhoods - remains a councillor until the Labour Party inform the council of the suspension. The incident in question is said to have happened on 7 October.

Councillor Bev Craig Leadership Race To Replace Sir Richard Leese As Leader Of Manchester City Council
Bev Craig is the incoming Leader of Manchester City Council Image: Manchester City Council

Deselection in Burnage

The two recent developments come on top of the story of Ben Clay, previously a councillor for Burnage in South Manchester (the same ward as new leader Bev Craig). Clay, a self-described "social justice warrior", was deselected later on in October. He is understood to be a supporter of Bev Craig and posted his congratulations when she was elected Leader. At the time, Manchester Momentum tweeted: "We condemn the actions of former committee member Murtaza Iqbal, who tonight in alliance with the Labour Right, instigated the deselection of Burnage Councillor and Tenant organiser Ben Clay."

Carl Austin-Behan, who was previously a councillor for Burnage, tweeted "As you said to me in 2017 - it’s called democracy - the members have voted x", referring to his own deselection before Ben Clay became councillor.

In an interview with Confidentials, Manchester's only Green Councillor Rob Nunney described Richard Leese as "hostile" and said: "The general response was very hostile and I was taken off guard because I didn't know I would get that kind of response. Now, that has set the tone. I know what to expect in future, but it's a real shame."

We have reproduced Marcia Hutchinson's resignation letter below. It was originally published online on 30 November linked to her Instagram account. Confidentials has reached out to Manchester City Council and the Manchester Labour Group for comment and will update when we receive a statement.

The Council has confirmed it received an official resignation letter and that this will trigger a by-election - the date of which will be confirmed in due course.

The full resignation letter from Marcia Hutchinson

I am stepping down after barely six months as a local councillor. Why? Because I have endured more racism and bullying in my five years in the Labour Party than the rest of my life combined. There is no point in staying if I can’t make a difference.

I spent almost twenty years running a multicultural educational publishing company working with schools all over the UK, for which I was awarded an MBE in 2010; I am an expert on racism both through lived experience and through my work.

I stood as a councillor to address the serious under-representation of African Heritage people in Manchester. (I am the only African Caribbean cllr in Manchester), to advocate for the Windrush Generation, to increase green spaces and to try to ensure that council policies on social and affordable housing are actually implemented. I also trained as a planning solicitor so felt I could be a useful member of the Planning Committee.

In 2017 there was only one visibly African Heritage councillor on Manchester City Council (two others also identified as Black). This, in a city where black people make up over 10% of the community. So I started the Pipeline Project. With support from MP’s, Afzal Khan and Lucy Powell, a number of other councillors and funding from the National Labour Party, our aim was to provide training, support and mentoring to African Heritage people who want to become local councillors.

Three of the first six Pipeline students (myself included) were elected in May 2021. Two African heritage people have also been selected for safe Labour seats for 2022; Erinma Bell MBE in Moss Side and Oluseguno Bambo in Higher Blackley. Oluseguno received support from the Pipeline Project in 2018.

This work was not welcomed by some in Labour Party Leadership positions. I have been informed on more than one occasion that I am racist and engaging in Identity Politics. I was even told that I must apologize for my racism in order to be supported by certain sections of the Labour Party.

In 2019 I was elected as Women’s Officer for the Local Campaign Forum which covers the five Manchester Labour Constituencies. The only two shortlisted candidates were myself and another black woman, Ekua Bayunu.

Despite the fact that delegates could abstain, eight out of 53 chose instead to write derogatory comments on their ballot papers. (Eg - “they’re both shite”). They only did this when both candidates were black. To sit in a room knowing that almost 15% of those also present are willing to write such things is traumatising. I am eternally grateful to over 100 comrades who found this behaviour vile enough to organise and sign a letter of protest.

Council Leader Richard Leese was present at this meeting which took place in the Town Hall, but, to my knowledge, did nothing to condemn the behaviour and no attempts were made to identify the authors of the comments.

After a Regional and National investigation, Manchester Labour finally agreed to implement Race Awareness training. But this was hastily cancelled as soon as lockdown was announced and, unlike all other training, it has never been rescheduled.

As a new councillor, I entered a culture where councillors who do not toe the Leadership line are ruthlessly bullied. Criticism is simply not tolerated. Any objections to policies which the Leader has decided to implement are dismissed as coming from the ‘sectarian left’. More often than not, the Whips Office is the tool used to carry out the bullying but the culture came from the top.

When, for instance, I pointed out, in the aftermath of the Sarah Everard murder that more tolerence is given to male councillors who have engaged in violence against women (including Richard Leese himself) than feamle councillors who protest against it; Cllr Leese sent a letter to all 94 councillors as well senior council officers stating among other things that :-

“I have never experienced one member causing so much anger in the group and I want them to know that something is being done about it. Marcia is one of a small number that complains about a toxic atmosphere in the group. I'm inclined to agree with her, but it wasn't like that before they 'joined' us,”

After Richard Leese announced his resignation in September, I wrote a piece arguing that changes needed to be made by the new Leader to improve the working of the Labour Group (94 out of 96 Manchester Councillors are Labour). Action is often taken for political rather than disciplinary reasons and that those disciplined are not told who has complained about them or often the exact nature of the complaints; a system ripe for abuse.

I was threatened with disciplinary action by the Whips Office for tweeting support for Pipeline Project Alumni who were shortlisted for council seats. Apparently there is an unwritten rule that forbids support for candidates who are standing against sitting councillors. I say ‘unwritten’ because I checked the Labour Party rulebook and I broke no rules. I did not campaign against any councillor, I simply tweeted in support of all shortlisted Pipeline Alumni. But to those who think being a councillor is a job for life; the two things are synonymous.

Richard Leese wrote another email to all 94 Labour Group councillors which confirmed that I ‘broke no rules’ but condemned me anyway, having allegedly received a ‘large number’of complaints about me.

Labour Group secretary Cllr Pat Karney sent a series of emails to all 94 Labour Councillors stating among other things, that he has “been accused of bullying and racist behaviour which has upset me greatly.” Because, of course a white man’s feelings on being accused or racism matter more than those of the black women he is discriminating against. The combined effect of the emails from Cllrs Karney, Leese and the Whips was felt immediately as other councillors were given a green light to join the pile-on.

Cllr Tina Hewitson wrote that:- “Marcia speaks about diversity and the Group, yet she wants to remove a councillor of African origin, where is the diversity in that, to me that is uncomradely, and racist”. She did not see the irony in labelling a lifelong black anti-racist camapigner as ‘racist’. I sought legal advice which confirmed that Cllr’s Hewitson’s email is defamatory but I don’t have the funds for a legal battle.

This was not a working environment in which I could function. Colleagues stopped returning my calls and even Council Officers failed to respond to emails. If you have ever been the subject of a group bullying pile-on you will know just how stressful it is. My doctor advised me to take time off. I sent a two month sick note to the Cllr Susannah Reeves, the Chief Whip and asked to vote in the 5th October Leadership Election online.

Permission was granted, but the very next day she decided notwithstanding my sick note, that “Following your engagement with the Labour Group by virtual attendance and participation in the vote for the new leader and subsequent posts on social media my view is that we can now proceed with investigations”

I was still being subjected to disciplinary proceedings while off-sick and if I didn’t attend they would go ahead without me.

As Manchester’s only African Caribbean councillor one of my first acts was to put forward a proposal for the creation of the Role of Lead Councillor for Windrush. Despite having one of the largest Windrush affected communities in the country, Manchester City Council has done little to support them.

Over 60 councillors supported my proposal and Labour Group Officers recommended that the full Labour Group approve the post. However a decision was later made, presumably by Richard Leese, not to put the matter to the vote. What is the point of democratic structures if an autocratic leader can just tear them up when it suits him?

Sadly my experience is not the worst. Fellow new black Cllr Ekua Bayunu, has been under near constant disciplinary action from the day in May that she challenged Richard Leese for the Leadership. Cllr Bayunu’s challenge combined with a feared deselection in his home seat of Crumpsall could well have been the issues which brought home the fact that his days were numbered. Cllr Bayunu is still being disciplined by the Whips Office. Her latest crime? Sending out a copy of her Manifesto for the October Leadership election to those councillors who requested it.

They can (and probably will) keep up this bullying indefinitely and it is designed to wear us down. The fact that this treatment is being meted out to the two new black women councillors is apparently entirely coincidental. The narrative being pushed is that they are not bullying us because we are black, they are doing it because we are terrible people.

I will continue to push for new parks in my ward of Ancoats and Beswick, and support for the Manchester Windrush Generation. But I have, sadly, come to the conclusion that I can be much more effective outside the corrosive reach of the Labour Group Whips’

I would like to say a heartfelt ‘thank you’ to those of my councillor colleagues who supported the role of Windrush Lead, and those who complained about the behaviour of Cllr’s Leese, Karney and The Whips Office and those Labour Party comrades who signed protest letters.

The new leader, Councillor Bev Craig, kindly reached out to me and I hope to meet her for an ‘exit interview’ which, whilst too late for me, might make a difference for future black councillors. Manchester will be a better city when councillors can engage in genuine debate without fear of retribution from the Leader. My campaigning has not been in vain; I am proud of the work of the Pipeline Project which has, in a few short years, almost doubled the number of Black councillors in Manchester.

Marcia Hutchinson MBE

Read next: 'I can't wait to get stuck in' - Bev Craig elected Leader of Manchester City Council

Read again: Meet the women taking on Manchester City Council

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