Updated: Saturday, 21st April 2018 @ 7:18am

Lib Dems' local election hopes: MM chats to John Leech about May's battle at the ballot box

Lib Dems' local election hopes: MM chats to John Leech about May's battle at the ballot box

| By Fraser Smith

The date 3rd of May 2018 will be historic for the Liberal Democrats; it could be their Domesday or the event which kick-starts a political awakening.

After weeks of canvassing, local councillors will find out their destiny as the general public go to the ballot box.

Historically the local elections are a good way to understand the mood of the population and with a two-tier voting system it has given rise to “smaller parties”.

The last time the seats were up for grabs was in 2014 when the Lib Dems lost both 310 councillors and two councils which in effect signposted the catastrophic 2015 election.

However, with their relatively new leader Vince Cable they are looking to turn the tide and will see the local elections as ample opportunity to see where people place their policies.

Despite local councils often being about local issues, their clearly defined Brexit policy is sure to be a plea to European nationals who now have a chance to vote locally.

Their policy may be slowly working - if November last year is anything to go by, where they won seven council seats, they may well be in for electoral gains in May.

Cable will also be looking to his small pool of current councillors and will certainly be using John Leech’s shock 2016 win in Didsbury West as inspiration.

He secured an overwhelming majority of 702 vote to wrestle away a seat from Labour and be the sole opposition councillor.

Leech’s victory was lauded by then-Lib Dem leader Tim Farron, where he said: “Nobody fought harder this year and nobody deserves to celebrate more today than John Leech and his team.”

However, his hard work had only just begun and he proved to be a thorn in Labour policy-making – a small yellow glimmer in the huge tide of red.

Speaking to Mancunian Matters, Leech did not shy away from claiming the importance of providing effective debate to a Labour dominated council: “At the moment I am only one opposition councillor out of 96.

“I don’t think even the most ardent of Labour voters can think that is possibly good for democracy.

“Manchester needs an opposition that is prepared to ask the tough questions, support the council when it gets it right, oppose the council and challenge the council where it is getting it wrong.”

One policy which he believes will be crucial to his re-election is the issue over affordable housing.

Media organisations such as The Guardian and the Manchester Evening News have recently reported that 15,000 houses have been built in Manchester City Centre and none of them have been deemed ‘affordable’.

Leech claims that his re-election can help to reduce social cleansing in the area: “I have been very critical in my two years back on the council of Labour’s policy in relation to affordable housing.

“The article in The Guardian rightly highlighted that in the city centre the council’s policy of allowing developers not to put affordable housing in developments in the city centre instead of taking money off the developer and spending it elsewhere is creating social cleansing in certain part of the cities.”

As the opposition member, he has also branded the council as the most “right-wing” in the country and has tried to disassociate himself with policies which he has disagreed with.

He in particular was at odds over the homelessness crisis with disagreements sometimes going so far that Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham had to step in.

Despite being a key policy of the mayoral office Leech believes the crucial work which is being done by both himself and Andy Burnham is being undermined by the rest of the council.

“The interesting dynamic of course is that you then had a labour mayor at odds with Labour councils who perhaps had been less sympathetic to the plight of some homeless people,” Leech said.

“I have been very critical of the council’s definition of who is in need because I have used these examples on many occasions.

“I think the council fundamentally needs to change its definition of who is vulnerable.”

Leech who is known for his hard-working attitude - he completed 111,000 pieces of casework during his ten years in parliament - and is not complacent over his position going into the elections in May.

He is arriving in hope rather than expectation that he and his party can pull off a huge turnaround and recapture some of the momentum which led to them being the up-and-coming popular third party in 2010.

At that time they had 57 seats but he knows if they can make any inroads locally that will be a positive sign going forward for the party.

“Every single seat is up for election I think we have every chance of winning more seats in Didsbury West and taking some other seats in other wards too," he said. 

“It’s always a bit of the unknown when you have all-out elections.

“I would be very disappointed, exceptionally disappointed if we didn’t make progress in the local elections.”