Northern devolution should learn from Wales, not Scotland

Andy Burnham discusses trains with his counterpart in Liverpool, Steve Rotheram. Image: Getty.

Labour's Andy Burnham launched the manifesto for his campaign to become mayor of Greater Manchester this morning. Here, in a piece originally published on the Staggers, he discusses his policy priorities.

Following the recent by-elections, there have been screeds of analysis on where next for Labour in the North. Most if not all of the commentary has missed the big solution staring us in the face

The start of devolution proper in England in two months time presents an unmissable opportunity for Labour to get closer to those communities which feel left behind and to reinvigorate itself in its heartlands. But if that is to happen, we must first fully take on board the lessons from Labour's mixed handling of devolution in the past.

Compare what happened in Wales and Scotland. In the former, Carwyn Jones pioneered a distinctive, patriotic brand of 'red-shirt Labour' dressed in the national rugby colours. In the latter, following the death of Donald Dewar, no high-profile Labour figure arrived to pick up the devolution torch and a large hole was left for others to fill

In England, it is essential that we follow the Welsh example and enthusiastically embrace devolution from the start. People must put aside any lingering cynicism about George Osborne's pet project providing a convenient cover for Tory cuts. While there may be some truth in that, and while I will continue to demand a fair deal for a Greater Manchester, focusing on the negative would be to spurn an historic opportunity for the reinvention of the People's Party.

At the launch of my campaign, I pledged to help Manchester do what it likes doing best and that is to shake up the establishment and do things very differently. To this end, we set the goal of developing a manifesto for Greater Manchester written by its people. Over the last few months, a huge number of events have been held in all parts of Greater Manchester and a large number of policy ideas gathered.

When "Our Manifesto" is published this week, it will unapologetically give birth to a new, distinctive political identity: Northern Labour. It will do this by proposing new solutions on issues that the public here have told us matter greatly to them but which have been long neglected by Westminster.

For instance, it will signal a new drive to raise the status of technical education. When traditional industry left in the 80s and 90s, so did the quality trainee schemes that had provided a ladder for working-class young people. But, sadly, the English education system did not respond to this seismic change. Instead, for decades, national education policy obsessed on the university route and left young people wanting technical skills feeling distinctly second-class.

As Germany knows better than anywhere, you can't build a modern economy on this basis. So our goal will be to provide the same clarity for young people who want technical qualifications as those on the university route by establishing a UCAS-style system for apprenticeships across Greater Manchester.

"Our Manifesto" will confront another issue invisible to Westminster but the scourge of the North: absent private landlords.

Since the late 80s, large parts of many Northern towns have been owned by anonymous speculators. They have rarely, if ever, visited those communities and have no real regard for them.

The rise of the absent private landlord was a product of the collapse of property prices following the collapse of traditional industry and the introduction of Right-to-Buy. These people have been allowed to rake in the Housing Benefit cheques without having to reinvest any of the proceeds in the upkeep of their properties. As a result, they have dragged communities down and damaged the property prices of those around them


While the powers of the mayor are limited in this regard, that won't stop me taking action on this critical issue if I am elected. My intention is to launch a Greater Manchester-wide 'Good Landlords' registration scheme which will set out the basic standards Greater Manchester expects from decent landlords. Those who refuse to join will then be aggressively targeted, including the threat of compulsory purchase. They will be given a simple choice: respect our communities or get out of Greater Manchester.

There is a third disastrous policy that was actively inflicted on the North by Westminster that we will seek to correct: bus deregulation.

When this was introduced by Margaret Thatcher in the mid-1980s, there were claims that the free market would improve services and bring down prices. The reality is the complete opposite. In fact, bus deregulation stands of an exemplar of the failure of Tory ideology. And what makes it all the more galling is that it was an experiment from which London was exempted.

For the last 30 years, the public of Greater Manchester have been badly served by the bus companies and suffered a bus service run in the private rather than public interest. Busy, lucrative routes like Oxford Road see buses of varying standards nose to tail. Other more isolated estates receive no service at all. There is no Oyster scheme because no common standards can be imposed on the operators. Single journeys can cost £3 or more : double the £1.50 cost in London.

The Bus Services Bill, and the power to re-regulate our bus services, was demanded by the council leaders of Greater Manchester as an essential component of any devolution deal. The fact that it is being brought forward by the government represents a real win for the Labour Party and should be celebrated as such. If elected, I will use the new powers it provides to bring down the cost of travel and improve the quality and coverage of services provided.

When people debate Labour's challenge in the North, there is a tendency to over-complicate it. From my point of view, it's not complicated at all. By giving the public better ­answers on bread-and-butter issues like bus services, housing and education, we can win people back.

But new policies are their own are not enough. We have also got to show a willingness to do politics very differently. At present, devolution feels like a top-down, imposed project. Instead, we have got to open it up to a much wider range of voices and allow people to own it and shape it.

One issue that matters greatly to many in Greater Manchester is the rising number of rough sleepers on our streets caused by the government's harsh austerity drive and the cumulative effect of cuts to a range of crucial services. People here have never been ones to walk on by on the other side. They want to do something to help. Devolution will truly fly if it can open up decision-making to a wider group people in decisions and allow them to make a direct difference.

To this end, I am establishing a Homelessness Action Network with the goal of ending rough sleeping in Greater Manchester by 2020 under the leadership of Ivan Lewis MP and Councillor Beth Knowles. Any individual or organisation who wants to contribute to that campaign will be invited to join. It will be supported by a voluntary fund which will I start with a donation from my mayoral salary. Already, typical of people in Greater Manchester, there have been numerous offers to match it.

The power of an initiative like this is that it can show how Greater Manchester can solve problems for ourselves and do politics differently. Rather than the cynicism that the public feel when politicians throw around public money at their own pet priorities, or simply shouting at the government about them, we will show a different and better way of supporting people and helping them off our cold and wet streets.

In this way, Northern Labour will be a powerful, practical force that allows our people to put their values into practice. My hope is that, in time, it will build Greater Manchester into a beacon of social justice, inspiring others with a better way than the Tory way. And that is how, from the rubble of today's political earthquakes, the Labour movement will rise again.

Andy Burnham is the Labour candidate for Manchester mayor.

 
 
 
 

A nation that doesn’t officially exist: on Somaliland’s campaign to build a national library in Hargeisa

The Somaliland National Library, Hargeisa. Image: Ahmed Elmi.

For seven years now, there’s been a fundraising campaign underway to build a new national library in a nation that doesn’t officially exist. 

Since 2010, the Somali diaspora have been sending money, to pay for construction of the new building in the capital, Hargeisa. In a video promoting the project, the British journalist Rageeh Omar, who was born in Mogadishu to a Hargeisa family, said it would be... 

“...one of the most important institutions and reference points for all Somalilanders. I hope it sets a benchmark in terms of when a country decides to do something for itself, for the greater good, for learning and for progress – that anything can be achieved.”

Now the first storey of the Somaliland National Library is largely complete. The next step is to fill it with books. The diaspora has been sending those, too.

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Some background is necessary here to explain the “country that doesn’t exist” part. During the Scramble for Africa of the 1880s, at the height of European imperialism, several different empires established protectorates in the Somali territories on the Horn of Africa. In 1883, the French took the port of Djibouti; the following year, the British grabbed the north coast, which looks out onto the Gulf of Aden. Five years after that, the Italians took the east coast, which faces the Indian Ocean.

And, excepting some uproar during World War II, so things remained for the next 70 years or so.

The Somali territories in 1890. Image: Ingoman/Wikimedia Commons.

When the winds of change arrived in 1960, the British and Italian portions agreed to unite as the Somali Republic: a hair-pin shaped territory, hugging the coast and surrounding Ethiopia on two sides. But British Somaliland gained its independence first: for just five days, at the end of June 1960, it was effectively an independent country. This will become important later.

(In case you are wondering what happened to the French bit, it voted to remain with France in a distinctly dodgy referendum. It later became independent as Djibouti in 1977.)

The new country, informally known as Somalia, had a difficult history: nine years of democracy ended in a coup, and were followed by the 22 year military dictatorship under the presidency of General Siad Barre. In 1991, under pressure from rebel groups including the Hargeisa-based Somali National Movement (SNM), Barre fled, and his government finally collapsed. So, in effect, did the country.

For one thing, it split in two, along the old colonial boundaries: the local authorities in the British portion, backed by the SNM, made a unilateral declaration of independence. In the formerly Italian south, though, things collapsed in a rather more literal sense: the territory centred on Mogadishu was devastated by the Somali civil war, which has killed around 500,000, displaced more than twice that, and is still officially going on.

Somalia (blue) and Somaliland (yellow) in 2016. Image: Nicolay Sidorov/Wikimedia Commons.

The north, meanwhile, got off relatively lightly: today it’s the democratic and moderately prosperous Republic of Somaliland. It claims to be the successor to the independent state of Somaliland, which existed for those five days in June 1960.

This hasn’t persuaded anybody, though, and today it’s the only de facto sovereign state that has never been recognised by a single UN member. Reading about it, one gets the distinct sense that this is because it’s basically doing okay, so its lack of diplomatic recognition has never risen up anyone’s priority list.

Neither has its library.

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Rageeh Omar described the site of the new library in his fundraising video. It occupies 6,000m2 in the middle of Hargeisa, two minutes from the city’s main hospital, 10 from the presidential palace. In one sequence he stands on the half-completed building’s roof and points out the neighbours: the city’s main high street, with the country’s largest shopping mall; the Ministry of Telecoms that lies right next door.

This spiel, in a video produced by the project’s promoters, suggests something about the new library: that part of its job is to be another in this list of landmarks, more evidence that Hargeisa, a city of 1.5m, should be recognised as the proper capital of a real country.

But it isn’t just that: the description of the library’s function, in the government’s Strategic Plan 2013-2023, makes clear it’s also meant to be a real educational facility. NGOS, the report notes, have focused their resources on primary schools first, secondary schools second and other educational facilities not at all. (This makes sense, given that they want most bang for their buck.)

And so, the new building will provide “the normal functions of public library, but also... additional services that are intentionally aimed at solving the unique education problems of a post conflict society”. It’ll provide books for a network of library trucks, providing “book services” to the regions outside Hargeisa, and a “book dispersal and exchange system”, to provide books for schools and other educational facilities. There’ll even be a “Camel Library Caravan that will specifically aim at accessing the nomadic pastoralists in remote areas”.

All this, it’s hoped, will raise literacy levels, in English as well as the local languages of Arabic and Somali, and so boost the economy too.

As described. Image courtesy of Nimko Ali.

Ahmed Elmi, the London-based Somali who’s founder and director of the library campaign, says that the Somaliland government has invested $192,000 in the library. A further $97,000 came from individual and business donors in both Hargeisa and in the disaspora. “We had higher ambitions,” Elmi tells me, “but we had to humble our approach, since the last three years the country has been suffering from a large drought.”

Now the scheme is moving to its second phase: books, computers and printers, plus landscaping the gardens. This will cost another $175,000. “We are also open to donations of books, furniture and technology,” Emli says. “Or even someone with technical expertise who can help up set-up the librarian system instead of a contemporary donation of a cash sum.” The Czech government, in fact, has helped with the latter: it’s not offered financial support, but has offered to spend four weeks training two librarians.  

Inside the library.

On internet forums frequented by the Somali diaspora, a number of people have left comments about the best way to do this. One said he’d “donated all my old science and maths schoolbooks last year”. And then there’s this:

“At least 16 thousand landers get back to home every year, if everyone bring one book our children will have plenty of books to read. But we should make sure to not bring useless books such celebrity biography books or romantic novels. the kids should have plenty of science,maths and vocational books.”

Which is good advice for all of us, really.


Perhaps the pithiest description of the project comes from its Facebook page: “Africa always suffers food shortage, diseases, civil wars, corruption etc. – but the Somaliland people need a modern library to build a better place for the generations to come.”

The building doesn’t look like much: a squat concrete block, one storey-high. But there’s something about the idea of a country coming together like this to build something that’s rather moving. Books are better than sovereignty anyway.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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