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By Amina Lone
If the ghost of Christmas past has his way, Liberal Democrat nightmares in Manchester could be realised today. A year after their dangerous liaison with those blue-blooded Tories, the chickens are coming home to roost, just in time for polling day. Today’s election results where the Lib Dems are contesting 33 seats – including the seat which is held by the leader of their party in Gorton South – could be the final nail in their collective coffin. This is the same leader, Simon Ashley, who stated ‘Manchester has received a fair settlement’ when his coalition government announced in December that Manchester’s new financial settlement would include a 23.3%, £8m cut to Sure Start and a 35%, £12.6m cut to the Supporting People Grant, leading to an incredible 25% cut in council spending by next year.
The subsequent realisation that this would severely impact on Manchester’s City Council’s ability to continue to fund all its services will haunt me as the most difficult and the most defining moment I have experienced in politics. The harsh reality meant we had to set a budget that had service cuts of £109m in March of this year, rising to £170m next year. The decisions taken were agonising and not what any of us entered politics for. Most politicians, myself included, came into politics to make the world a better place in whichever manner we are able to. None of us anticipated we would have to implement a budget in March of this year which would seriously reduce services that many of us hold dear. The worst aspect of this unholy mess was knowing that this was a purposely unbalanced and unfair settlement set by the coalition government to punish urban cities like Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham and Newcastle whilst at the same time increasing settlements in Tory heartlands such as Devon. This is clearly an ideological battle that the Tories, fully supported by the Lib-Dems, are waging and seems to be tantamount to a war on the poor, shifting money from the most vulnerable communities in our society to some of the most affluent.
It is within this context that the Lib Dems will be judged today.
This is the single issue that will decide the vote in Manchester’s local council elections and the wind is certainly not blowing in the a Lib Dem direction. A total of 33 seats are being contested in Manchester with Labour and the Lib-Dems standing 33 candidates each. Of these, 20 are sitting Labour councillors and 11 sitting Lib-Dems councillors. One independent seat following a Lib Dem resignation and one Tory seat following another Lib Dem switch completes the picture. That leaves 13 seats up for grabs following another Lib Dem resignation in the Burnage ward which means there will be a by-election in Burnage too. A prudent estimate would show Labour holding all its seats and winning 6 seats. An optimistic estimate would put Labour winning 9 seats.
If the second scenario is played out, the Lib Dems will be a political non-entity in Manchester politics for at least ten years, if not longer, as their activists’ base for future elections is decimated. And the evidence is already there. Two local by-elections in the last six months in Manchester resulted in 152 Lib Dem votes in the Hulme by-election in November and 52 Lib Dem votes in the Baguley by-election in January 2011. In May 2010, the Lib Dem votes were 1229 and 1178 respectively and in 2008, the Lib Dem votes in the same wards were 190 and 243. The by-elections results are an eye-watering defeat to a party that a year ago was seen as the third way.
This spells catastrophic disaster for the Lib Dems. They have long regarded their local councilors as their vanguard – the grass-root connections that bind them to local communities. Losing their leader’s seat in Gorton South will not just leave the Lib Dems with an internal management problem but will devastate their morale, their blind allegiance to a very unpopular coalition within their ranks and most importantly as a credible opposition party in Manchester.
Knocking on the doors throughout Manchester, Labour’s returns are demonstrating that the Lib Dems are hemorrhaging support. Local people are angry, disappointed, feel betrayed and have repeatedly said they will never vote Lib Dem again.
My prediction is that Labour will comfortably take 7 seats. If it’s a really good day Labour will win 11 seats from the Lib Dems. That will be one message Nick Clegg will be unable to avoid.