DQ Icon: Sir Richard Leese

In making Sir Richard Leese our DQ icon we are recognising not only the incredible strides the leader of Manchester City Council has made for his personal reputation, but for what he has achieved for his city, because uniquely in politics, that single role is what defines him over 20 years. While national politicians flit between portfolios and jobs, here is a towering figure in public life who commands universal respect across the political fault lines.

For the Conservative Chancellor George Osborne to regularly demonstrate such civility and respect towards a Labour politician, as he frequently does when he shares a stage with Leese is remarkable. That the words he often uses are pragmatism, innovation and realism makes it triply so.

Yet this isn’t out of any ideological alignment or kinship. Michael Heseltine made common cause with many Labour civic leaders, who met in the centre ground. That’s not what is happening here. Politically Leese is unashamedly on the left. Leese is prepared to work with any government to deliver for Manchester, but is equally quick to point out that while relations with central government remain cordial, the city council still faces a horrendous task to deliver savage cuts to services.

He could be identified as a Labour moderniser for embracing private sector engagement, but was never really New Labour. He certainly never liked Tony Blair, but is a close friend and ally of former Labour leader Neil Kinnock. He has never been afraid to stand up in public to put Manchester before party interests and castigated national Labour politicians, for example, Alistair Darling when he was transport secretary for scrapping the Metrolink.

That self-confidence is partly borne out of his own personal resilience but also from electoral stability where Labour is well-entrenched in Manchester’s body politic. And it is his position as a leader in local government innovation as head of the Core Cities Group of local government leaders that led to Ed Miliband asking him to chair Labour’s Local Government Innovation Taskforce, the outputs of which should find their way into Labour’s final manifesto.

This is where you start to see the important differences in what the party hierarchy see Leese as showing the lead on, and what the Conservatives see as a successful city which provides them with a number of quick wins. The Northern Powerhouse is important, but to take it a stage further Leese sees an integral link between devolution and his wider mission to tackle inequality through better governance.

As he said in the New Statesman last year: “Given that the old levers of a centralised state have reached the limits of their efficacy, a more decentralised statecraft is now a more realistic means of achieving change: in a complex world distance is a hindrance.”
Throughout the last year enormous strides have been made towards Greater Manchester achieving a new level of devolved power, culminating in the signing of an agreement with the Treasury to gain greater control over budgets in exchange for a political structure that includes a directly elected metro-Mayor for Greater Manchester. Politically, the centre of gravity continues to be Manchester Town Hall, where the council is now totally Labour. The deep thinking and all the hard negotiating is led by the chief executive Sir Howard Bernstein and by Leese, but also by an extremely capable tier of officials like Mike Emmerich and Eddie Smith and a cadre of councillors he has persistently and assiduously encouraged.

The most important part of his legacy is that Greater Manchester’s move to the Combined Authority has not been handed down from the centre, it has grown from within, it has been an evolution. The city region has grown structures that work. Leese frequently resisted all calls for a “London-style Mayor” because it would have represented a reduction in powers and failed to build on what had already been created. What he consistently argued is that the maturity of these structures required more power over the distribution of state funding and therefore a direct degree of democratic accountability.

But aside from his intelligence, his enormous capacity for detail and thoroughness, there lies within him too a politician of great personal force. He isn’t a showman, or a stand-up joker of the Boris Johnson or Nigel Farage style so beloved of political commentators today. But he has a steel about him.

If you have ever witnessed him at a debate then you will appreciate what a force he can be, especially when it matter to Manchester. He is unrelenting, sparing no quarter and he pulls no punches. He is ruthless in his destruction of the arguments of opponents, be the subject be the congestion charge or HS2 or just another party. On panels with private sector organisations he is always inclusive, stubborn and polite.

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