Greater Manchester’s first ever mayoral election is fast approaching and Stephen Morris, candidate for English Democrats, is campaigning hard for victory.
MM met with Mr Morris in a Prestwich coffee shop. Well dressed and proudly sporting badges from the Workers of England Trade Union on his lapel, Morris was generous with his time, speaking with passion evidently gained from experience on picket lines.
Morris moved into politics from his self-described “driving-force” background of trade unionism, finding himself on the left of his party.
After a brief “eye-opening” spell in the Bury branch of the Conservative party he joined the English Democrats.
“They were the only party campaigning for an independent English Parliament,” he said.
Morris also disapproved of the pigeon-holing of members, along lines such as ethnicity and gender, he perceived as rampant within trade unions and political parties.
He has been active with the party ever since, currently serving as communications director, and running for several political offices, including unsuccessfully for MP for Oldham-East and Saddleworth in a 2011 by-election.
The English Democrats define themselves ambiguously as “Not Left, Not Right, Just English” – Morris describes this as a cherry-picking of the best policies, in English interests, from all political parties.
The party hit controversy several years ago when it recruited a number of former BNP members: a dubious and fringe credential they have struggled to shrug off.
It might strike one as strange that the English Democrats, despite having a national platform and their fundamental policy being for an independent England, are running a mayoral candidate.
So why does Morris believe the people of Greater Manchester should vote for him?
“I am under no illusion about the problems that Greater Manchester faces,” he said.
“I know what we need to do,” he added describing himself as the candidate “actually in touch” with the people.
“I am not afraid to go on the front line and I’m not afraid of getting behind the microphone and campaigning.
“Together we can actually move Greater Manchester into a new, post-Brexit, 21st century.
“Although we want an English parliament we want power devolved down to the lowest common denominator, which is down to councils, down to local town halls, parish councils.
“It’s the people from these areas who have to decide what is best for their areas.
“We are here to represent Greater Manchester and put our case forward.”
— Stephen Morris (@SteMorris) January 31, 2017
Morris has placed environmental issues, particularly opposition to the Greater Manchester Spatial Framework (GMSF), at the heart of his campaign – even if the GMSF system was purposely designed by council leaders to prevent a mayor from overruling them.
He is against building on greenbelt land and has argued that building down as well as up is essential: proposing that residential properties and industrial units should have underground car-parking to maximise space.
“I also would introduce all new planning applications which have to include solar panels on residential property and industrial units,” he added.
This forms part of Morris’ plan to bring the urbanised and more rural areas of Greater Manchester together, ensuring each are doing their bit towards environmental responsibility and producing renewable energy.
Technology is also an ambitious component of Morris’ scheme for Greater Manchester, as he hopes to move away from the region’s heavy industrial past.
“I want us to be pushing the way on electric vehicles, on the future technology,” he said.
“I want us to be the place.
“When people talk about Greater Manchester I want them to say it is the hub of new technology. I want them to use it in the same way that they talked about California and Silicon Valley.”
Greater Manchester’s Air pollution is a side issue; it’s far more important to help Greater Manchester’s economy,… https://t.co/0QmzkWhWHd
— Stephen Morris (@SteMorris) February 18, 2017
Morris also has a strong vision for Greater Manchester’s public transport, wanting to make it very similar to London complete with an equivalent to the capital’s Oyster card while bringing it under “one big umbrella, with one scheme that covers the whole system.”
Furthermore he hopes to entice people out of their cars, making them virtually obsolete by ensuring frequent buses and publicising the “financial and health benefits” of public transport.
However, this may prove difficult, as the Greater Manchester Mayoral powers over transport are dependent on the passage of legislation through parliament.
Morris is also against a proposed congestion charge, damning it as a “tax raising initiative” which he argues will be bad for business.
With poverty and homelessness reaching astonishing levels in Greater Manchester, Morris said as Mayor, it is a social responsibility to confront these issues.
Proposing, during his first months in office, to provide a number of facilities paid for by local businesses and where voluntary groups would dispense food, he wants to encourage as many homeless off the streets as possible.
— Stephen Morris (@SteMorris) February 27, 2017
But how the mayor might non-forcibly encourage people to move from the streets to the facilities is an ethical consideration Morris is concerned about.
With a rise in hate and anti-Semitic crimes, Morris favours a zero-tolerance policy.
“We don’t tolerate hate-crimes from any sector,” he said.
“I’ll be keeping a check on it. I’m not going to say to the police go away, report it and that’s the end of my responsibility.
“No, I’d want to see reports from the police. We would be looking at the police to stamp on it straight away.”
Morris also fundamentally opposes hospital car-parking charges.
“We already pay for hospitals with our taxes. Parking charges are an attack on the sick, injured and vulnerable and we can’t have it.”
He is calling for increased regional development under the Government’s ‘Northern Powerhouse’ scheme, arguing for funding parity with Scotland.
“If Greater Manchester had the same level of funding per head as Scotland does, we would have an extra £3bn a year to spend,” Morris said.
Morris says the other candidates are missing the point in this election, or “living in their own little bubble” in his words.
He has heavily criticised Labour for “not always speaking for the people of Greater Manchester,” and Andy Burnham for his pro-Remain, Blairite past, and parliamentary voting record.
Labour and Andy Burnham’s Great PFI Swindle. https://t.co/BzSNFDiugZ
— Stephen Morris (@SteMorris) April 6, 2017
Morris says Burnham is “opposed to transparency and openness” while Sean Anstee, the Conservative candidate, is in a catch 22 after supporting the GMSF.
Then the Liberal Democrats are a single issue party whose Mayoral candidate’s position on the GMSF is “unworkable”, Morris claimed.
He dismissed UKIP as “all over the place” and contentiously declared that he has an “issue” with their Orthodox Jewish candidate because “he won’t shake hands with women.”
He admitted that he knew little about the Communist League’s candidate and as for said the Greens’, Morris argued they are not as environmentally friendly party as they make out because of their “open-border policy” promotion.
“When you look at my track record and what I have campaigned on it is the same as what GM has voted on,” Morris claimed.
“I feel as a person who is born and bred and has lived their whole life in Greater Manchester, I am in touch with more people than anybody.”
With the world seemingly caught in a tide of populist sentiment, Morris and the English Democrats are likely hoping to capitalise on this rejection of the political status quo to lead them to victory in the Greater Manchester Mayoral election.
Whether these sympathies exist and will materialise in Manchester remains to be seen.