Well, well, well. What on earth is going on? It feels like years since we were told to ‘Stay Home. Protect the NHS. Save Lives.’ – and even though it’s been around seven months since Lockdown One, there doesn’t seem to be an endpoint in sight. In fact, what is in sight right now is something rather more disturbing than an ever-extending Covid tunnel. It’s a multi-headed beast of hypocrisy, mismanagement, corruption and greed… and it’s taking us down a path I’m not sure any of us will particularly enjoy. The actions of the current Government with regards to COVID-19 have been equal parts crucial, life-saving, and disastrous. Don’t get me wrong, the people in No.10 have had a hard job to do – and they’ve done it to some extent – but there have been some serious mishaps. From Boris Johnson’s non-attendance at COBRA meetings to a locking of horns with newly-appointed ‘King of The North’ Andy Burnham – via a Dominic Cummings eyesight test-drive and a laughable £12 Billion test and trace system – it’s safe to say that feelings toward the Tories up here in the North of England aren’t particularly warm right now.
For the avoidance of doubt, let me say that the pandemic is a terrible tragedy. We all have our opinions on how it has affected our lives, but at the end of the day too many of us have lost family and friends to an invisible enemy, and nothing will make that okay. However, despite the sadness of the situation, something still had to be done by the people in charge – and we can acknowledge the gravity of loss whilst still being angry and self-interested about the fact that the people who govern us have fucked up. Big time.
We only need to look at countries such as New Zealand, Taiwan and Vietnam to see where we went wrong – it’s about swift, decisive action which may not always be popular, but it saves lives. New Zealand is the scapegoat in this argument it seems, as many suggest that – as is the case here in the UK – a bigger population will inevitably mean more cases and deaths. The population of Vietnam is roughly 97 million. Their death toll so far? Thirty five. But I digress, my point is that through a combination of slow action, egotism and a general lack of decency, we’ve been screwed. Fast forward a few months, and the picture here in Manchester isn’t a pretty one – as the Tier 3-scented dust settles and we adapt to the latest ‘new normal’ thrust upon us.
An overwhelming majority of people in Manchester feel they’re being treated unfairly compared to their counterparts in the South. There’s a growing sentiment that we’re simply being used as a petri dish, a sound stage where Johnson and Co. can practice their latest policies to their hearts’ content – and it’s hard to disagree. People in Manchester feel unseen, unheard, and uncared for – by virtue of a lack of serious financial support , and what seems like a rushed inclusion into an unscientific and performative tier system. Many in the area believe that if, in theory, London had similar figures to ours in Manchester, a local circuit-breaker lockdown would’ve been put into effect almost immediately. We feel like the historical preconception that ‘it’s grim up North’ might be being taken a bit too seriously by one or two members of our parliament, causing them to act with more than a little disdain toward our general wellbeing outside of the covidsphere – and is it too much of a stretch to believe we’re right?
The overall sentiment was one of dejection, anger and despair at the fact that we didn’t have anyone in charge we could truly relate to – someone who’s actually looking out for the people of Greater Manchester, and not just their own bottom line. But that all changed only a few weeks ago.
The Right Honourable Andrew Murray Burnham – Northern brits will know him simply as Andy – has been Mayor of Greater Manchester since 2017. An ‘aspirational socialist’ as he puts it, Burnham is one of the good guys – he cares deeply about the people he represents, and even those he doesn’t. He supports the renationalisation of the railways, workers’ rights such as a higher minimum wage and a ban on zero-hours contracts, and integrating care services into the NHS – I know, right… what a monster. Crucially, Andy Burnham seems to represent everything a politician should be. Regardless of whether or not you support his policies and ideologies, you can’t deny the fact that he fights tooth and nail for what he believes is right – and he’s not afraid of ruffling a few feathers in the process.
At the start of October, when reports were coming out that Greater Manchester would be placed into the mysterious void that is Tier 3, Burnham decided to take a stand. Instead of rolling over and accepting a tier system that’s been described as ‘rushed, careless and inconsistent’ and ‘confusing, misleading and nowhere near enforceable’ by Greater Manchester residents in my own research – Andy Burnham, along with the majority of Greater Manchester’s MPs and Night Time Economy Adviser Sacha Lord, challenged the government over the support package we’d receive and whether or not it was scientifically justifiable to shut down hospitality venues and gyms (hint: it isn’t).
What followed was a couple of weeks of negotiations between the North and the South – Burnham vs. Boris, and in what seems to be a more important point upon further reflection, Labour vs. Conservative – which culminated in Greater Manchester receiving just £22 million in financial support from the Government, as hundreds of companies stared down the barrel of irreparable damage and, inevitably, closure. The vast majority of people in the area applauded Burnham for his efforts – as he made a stand for the ‘people on the lowest incomes, people who are self-employed [and] the freelancers in this city’. However, in dragging out tier talks with the Government, he was also accused of party politics and gambling with peoples’ lives – so which was it?
If nothing else, the Mayor’s actions have shown people across the country that there is an alternative to Westminster Rule – if only in theory. Whilst watching him speak up for the residents of Greater Manchester, I saw a man who represented me. Not the impact I could have on the economy if I got a good education and worked hard, not my value as a member of the workforce, not a number on a screen representing people who haven’t yet caught Covid – me.
Here was someone who actually cared about my problems and those of the people I hold closest, and as a Manchester resident who I spoke to put it, “Burnham makes me feel like a politician is fighting for me and my home, a first in a very long time”. It’s clear to me that many people in Manchester are tired of being pushed around by a Tory government who seem like they couldn’t care less about us – and through the despair of recent events came a new feeling, one of hope. Hope that one day we’ll be represented by people who inspire us to do as they do, not as they say.
The North-South Divide is hardly a new phenomenon – in fact, it’s something more akin to a way of life for many in underdeveloped and largely forgotten about Northern towns. Having grown up in Bolton, and gone to uni in Newcastle, I’ve seen that there’s a palpable Northern pride when you venture north of somewhere around Sheffield. In sections of the country historically considered to be Labour strongholds, despite the party’s inability to keep hold of them in the latest election following decades of neglect, it’s always been abundantly clear that the Tories were bad news – no doubt a by-product of Thatcherism and the many subsequent let downs we’ve been subjected to since then. It’s a feeling of anti-establishmentarianism that’s almost ingrained intrinsically into a Northern upbringing – and for me, it’s never felt stronger than it does right now. Calls to ‘End London Rule’ and for a ‘Northern Republic’ have been heard and seen across socials in the days and weeks since the Tier 3 announcements – and if Mr. Burnham gets his devolution wish, they might just become reality.
In writing this article, I managed to get a sense of the gloom and hopelessness felt by many in Manchester. But what I didn’t expect to find quite so much of was optimism. The feeling towards the Government and their handling of the pandemic is undoubtedly and justifiably dire – but in talking to the people of this great city and its surrounding areas, I’ve seen how it’s the people around us, not the people in charge, who’ll help us get through. I’ve heard stories of high-risk parents being treated with ‘overwhelming kindness and consideration’ by colleagues in the NHS, reports of a newly ignited passion for local politics among younger people, and I’m sensing a genuine feeling that the North – with all its confidence, swagger and bravado – will not be held down for long.