If George Osborne wants to support the Northern Powerhouse, he should run for mayor of Manchester

Well, that worked out well: George Osborne in Manchester, January 2015. Image: Getty.

Manufacturers of high viz jackets and other personal protective equipment, rejoice: George Osborne is back – and he's worried.

Two months after the former chancellor was unceremoniously – one might almost say gleefully – fired by Theresa May, Osborne popped up on this morning's Today Programme to fret about his beloved Northern Powerhouse. Speaking in code so obscure it could defeat the Enigma machine, he said there had been a "little bit of a wobble" about whether May's government was "still committed to the concept".

Luckily, though, George is on hand to sort things out. He's launching a new think tank, the "Northern Powerhouse Partnership", which he has generously agreed to chair. The body will bring together political and business leaders from across the north, and campaign for greater devolution and improve transport links. It will do, in other words, most of the things Osborne wanted the Northern Powerhouse to do when in government, with the one minor difference that he’s now outside it.

The left has often questioned Osborne's commitment to the north. His austerity budgets, by an odd coincidence, tended to fall disproportionately heavily on regions that voted Labour, a group including almost all the northern cities. And some in the opposition have campaigned against devolution, on the grounds it was just a way of putting Labour councils on the hook for Tory cuts.

For some, the cynicism runs yet deeper. Many on the left have sneered at the idea a Conservative could even care about a region of the country his party had effectively left to rot in the eighties. Osborne loved Thatcher; Thatcher hated the north; ergo, Osborne must hate the north, too.


I've never quite bought this. It always seemed to me that there was a very good reason why an ambitious Tory would want to revive the northern economy: rich constituencies are less likely to vote Labour. It’s not a contradiction for Osborne to be sincere about the Northern Powerhouse, yet be cynically trying to undermine Labour, both at the same time.

Now he's out of power, and what do you know, his own political self-interest is aligned with the right thing to do once again. Heading up his new think tank will allow Osborne to keep banging the drum for the north, while also giving him a new powerbase and continued political relevance.

But there’s a danger that this looks a bit, well, half-hearted. Exactly what the Northern Powerhouse Partnership will do is difficult to work out, because it doesn't exist yet – but Britain is not short of think tanks, and why this will be any different remains to be seen.

If Osborne really wants to build his powerhouse, he should stop mucking around and go for the big job: mayor of Greater Manchester.

The king in the north

The Tories are not over flowing with potential candidates in Greater Manchester. Of its 10 boroughs, only one (Trafford) is held by the Tories; just five of the region's 27 MPs are Conservative, and none of them is a household names.

Osborne's constituency (Tatton, in Cheshire) isn't in Greater Manchester – but it does border it, and consist of places well within its orbit. He has as good a claim to the party's nomination as anyone.

More to the point, though, this is his baby. The Northern Powerhouse, city regions, metro mayors – all were Osborne's idea. If he wants to show that he was serious, that this was more than an attempt to wrong-foot Labour, well, here's his chance.

Labour's mayoral candidate Andy Burnham, a man who has never been accused of being overly tactical in his positioning. Image: Getty.

In its early days, the London mayoralty was not taken seriously, and struggled to attract top-flight candidates. But a Manchester mayoral election in which a former chancellor faced off against a former Labour health secretary would show, from the start, that this is a big job for serious people. If Osborne wants the new mayors to be taken seriously, he could do worse than run for the job himself.

I don't believe for a second that Osborne will do this, for the very good reason that he will probably lose: Manchester is a Labour city, and Osborne is not exactly electoral cat nip. (Last March, a YouGov poll found that, after six years as chancellor, just 8 per cent of the British electorate thought he'd be "up to the job of Prime Minister".)

But another hit against Osborne has always been that he treats politics as one big chess game: that he is a man without principal, concerned only with tactical advantage. Fighting a quixotic campaign that he is highly likely to lose might, paradoxically, boost his reputation.

Oh, and he'd probably get to wear a lot of high viz gear on the campaign trail, too.

So, come on George. You want to show you believe in the north and its powerhouse. You want the new metro mayors to be serious political figures. And you want a platform from which you can rebuild your reputation and, what the hell, throw a few rocks at the people who fired you.

How about it?

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @jonnelledge.

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.

 
 
 
 

The smartphone app placing virtual statues of women on the map

A virtual Edith Wharton in Central Park, New York City. Image: The Whole Story Project.

If you’re a woman, then in order for you to be immortalised in stone, bronze or whatever once you’ve shuffled off this mortal coil, you should either have royal blood or be willing to be sculpted naked. That is the rule of thumb.

A statue that actually celebrates a woman’s achievements is a rare sight. Writing in the New Statesman last year, equality campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez found that out of 925 statues in Britain, as listed by the Public Monuments and Sculpture Association, only 158 are of solo women. Of these, 46 are of royalty, including 29 of Queen Victoria. Fourteen depict the Virgin Mary.

There are signs of change, albeit slow. The suffragist Millicent Fawcett is set to be honoured with a statue in Parliament Square, where currently all 11 of the statues are of men. (They include Nelson Mandela and a nine-foot Gandhi.) The monument is to be unveiled next year to celebrate the centenary of British women receiving the right to vote.

Elsewhere, the late comedian Victoria Wood is being honoured with a statue that’ll be erected in Bury, Greater Manchester. In the Moss Side area of the city, a statue of Emmeline Pankhurst will be unveiled in 2019. Unlike the Fawcett one, neither of these is expected to receive public money, relying on crowdfunding and other sources instead.

So how many more statues of women, regardless of how they’re funded, would we need to build in order to reduce the gender gap? Well, according to Jonathan Jones, art critic at the Guardian, the magic number is: zero.

Jones’s argument, back in March, was that building statues doesn’t advance feminism, but simply traps us in the past. He wrote:

Statues don’t hold public memory. They politely bury it. These well-meaning images melt into the background scenery of our lives.

Whether this is empirically true is questionable, but it’s true that we tend not to erect them as often as we used to anyway. This is partly because there is less space available for such monuments – a noticeable disadvantage cities of the present have compared to those of the past. In order to reduce the imbalance, statues of men would probably have to be removed; many would no doubt be okay with that, but it would mean erasing history.

One partial answer to the problem is augmented reality. It can’t close the gender gap, but it could shine a spotlight on it.

To that end, an advertising agency in New York launched an app at the beginning of May. The Whole Story allows users to place virtual statues of women on a map; other uses can then view and find out more about the individuals depicted at their real-world locations, using their smartphone cameras.


Currently, users have to upload their own virtual statues using 3D-modelling software. But going forward, the project aims for an open collaboration between designers, developers and organisations, which it hopes will lead to more people getting involved.

Contributions submitted so far include a few dozen in New York, several in Washington and one of Jane Austen in Hyde Park. There are others in Italy and the Czech Republic.

Okay, it’s an app created by a marketing firm, but there are legitimate arguments for it. First, the agency’s chief creative office has herself said that it’s important to address the gender imbalance in a visual way in order to inspire current and future generations: you can’t be what you can’t see, as the saying going.

Second, if the physical presence of statues really is diminishing and they don’t hold public memory, as Jones argues, then smartphones could bridge the gap. We live our lives through our devices, capturing, snapping and storing moments, only to forget about them but then return to and share them at a later date. These memories may melt away, but they’ll always be there, backed up to the cloud even. If smartphones can be used to capture and share the message that a gender imbalance exists then that’s arguably a positive thing.  

Third, with the success of Pokemon Go, augmented reality has shown that it can encourage us to explore public spaces and heighten our appreciation for architectural landmarks. It can also prove useful as a tool for learning about historical monuments.

Of course no app will replace statues altogether. But at the very least it could highlight the fact that women’s achievements are more than just sitting on a throne or giving birth to the son of God.

Rich McEachran tweets as @richmceachran.

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.