PODCAST: Still leading from the front line

By Heather Jameson | 10 May 2017
  • Heather Jameson

Jim McMahon is a rare thing – a Westminster Politician who is passionate about local government. It’s hardly surprising, since until the by-election that saw him win his Oldham and West Royton seat, he was the leader of Oldham MBC and leader of the Labour group at the Local Government Association.

Since arriving in Parliament, his rise through the ranks has been rapid. He served as parliamentary private secretary of the deputy leader of the Labour Party before he was appointed as shadow local government minister.

Born in Manchester in 1980, Mr McMahon’s family was not overly political, but it was always Labour. Speaking in the latest Public Intelligence/The MJ podcast, he says his political engagement was entirely rooted in the community.

‘I originally became interested in politics for quite selfish reasons,’ he says. When he was young, he had a very short-term attitude to life. But when his first son, Jack, was born 15 years ago, ‘it made me look at the world in a different way.’

The house he bought was in an area with a strong community spirit, but it needed to be improved. He rolled his sleeves up, and got on with it.

Mr McMahon suggests stepping down from Oldham MBC – first as leader and then as a councillor – was a tough choice. ‘I love the place and I love the people – and I still do.’ As a councillor, he says the difference you can make to people’s lives, both through big improvements to the area and basic things for individuals, is huge. But there are things he wants to do at a national level.

‘The powerhouse that is being talked about isn’t really being felt in Oldham. And I think I can really add value to the Labour Party in establishing our vision for devolution and using local government as a vehicle for that.’

‘Rolling his sleeves up and getting on with it’ is very much part of what Mr McMahon does. When Oldham entered Britain in Bloom he bought an old black cab and spent nine months renovating it and covering it with artificial grass with his sons. Oldham won the contest.

‘Hundreds of council staff worked really hard on it [Britain in Bloom], but rather than be the council leader that turned up for the photograph, I wanted to feel that I was connected to it. That it was partly my effort.’

He jokes about the grass car claiming: ‘If you work for Oldham council you would know that was one of my less bonkers ideas.’ Bonkers or not, it shows a leadership style which is grounded in leading from the front – as well as his passion for the community.

His background in local government has clearly shaped his views on where central government and the Labour party should go next – and on how the parties can escape the current era of political turmoil. For politics to survive, he says it needs to be ‘grassroots, community organised and about places and people’.

Local government, according to Mr McMahon, has already got it. They are doing more than just managing decline, they are improving services and building growth ‘with one hand tied behind their back’, while the Government takes the lion’s share of taxes raised in the local area.

He argues councils need to be properly resourced and empowered to get on with the job. ‘What I want to see is far more retention of local money that is raised to spend on things that are important in that area.’

Despite rising council tax, people on the ground still believe the taxes just pay for bins – and they are being collected less often. ‘I really worry that public support for local government, for council tax in particular, will be non-existent by the time we see this parliament through, unless this government wakes up and does something fundamentally different.’

While Brexit showed people were demanding to ‘take back control’, he claims it was a manifestation of frustration over the lack of housing, jobs and prospects. Just leaving Europe will not solve those frustrations.

He says there has to be ‘a genuine reframing of the relationship between our communities, our people and the government that is there to serve them’.

‘If mainstream politicians don’t wake up and recognise that people have had enough of being told what to do and not being able to affect real change over their own lives, we are going to get a backlash.

‘Brexit will take place and people will feel no more empowered than they did before. People will not believe it’s because it wasn’t really the European Union that was at fault. They will believe that we have stitched them up and we set them up to fail.’

He wants to see communities at the table on Brexit talks – not just regions – and a real commitment to handing power from Brussels back down to local government and the communities they serve.

He says the Blair government may have talked about communities, but councillors were marginalised in that debate. ‘I felt that we were being by-passed and we weren’t being included and empowered.

‘What I would like to see done in a future Labour government is when we talk about community, we recognise that our councillors are the legitimate route to community. They are the voice.’

He calls for constitutional rights and protection from interference from central government – although he admits central government has the ‘legitimate right’ to set a vision for Britain, it is down to local government to get on with it.

Of his time in local government he says: ‘I left Oldham council…feeling there was more I could have done. I think there is something in my personality where it will never be quite enough.’

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