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Spurned by Labour, a working class councillor tries to mount his comeback
One of Greater Manchester's tightest elections will play out against a backdrop of left-on-left infighting
By Jack Dulhanty
“I didn’t leave the Labour party, the Labour party left me,” says Matt Wynne, with an ease that suggests he’s practised the line, sitting in the Vine Inn pub off St Peter's Square. It’s a bright January day but the Vine has a perennially dark, musty aspect, as if the windows refuse to open for fear of letting the modern world in.
Wynne, 31, is drinking a pint of Timothy Taylor’s Landlord, and holds what he describes as old school Labour values: a general bent towards the common good, community spirit and working-class pride. His vibe is blokey in an old-fashioned kind of way. He declines my idea to meet in a coffee shop — too loud — and at one point recalls being at a political meeting and thinking: “I’m giving up bowls on a Wednesday night for this”. “Maybe I act older than I am,” he says. “I like spending time in pubs and my values are quite traditional.”
Recently, he has become a symbol of the problems that are afflicting the Labour party in Stockport. An ambitious councillor seemingly respected by many residents in the Edgeley and Cheadle Heath ward, he was stopped from standing as a Labour candidate in next month’s local election by what he describes as a hard-left “cult” that has taken over the local party and disenfranchised moderate voters. The group’s leader, Elise Wilson, will stand down in May, and more Labour councillors have resigned to run as independents, with some calling on the national party to investigate claims of alleged bullying.
I first wrote about Wynne last September, weeks after he found out he was being deselected. The general gist is this: Wynne felt he had been stitched up by a small hardcore of Corbynites led by the local MP Navendu Mishra. This group had come to control important local committees and had deselected Wynne because, he says, he didn’t align with their politics. He also claims that his enemies turned branch meetings into toxic shouting matches, an allegation supported by an email I received from a Mill reader who lives locally. They wrote:
Branch meetings are dominated by the same hard-left members who seem to revel in opaque bureaucracy and needless pedantry re the Party rulebook or worse shout down others who voice disagreement. It can be a fairly hostile atmosphere and has put off many new members from attending, including myself. Frankly I don't have the time or energy after a day of work.
When I first met Wynne in September, he seemed deflated. “It’s like 1984 stuff,” he said. “Like…” Then he just let go a long sigh. When I asked him if he’d run as an independent, he said: “I’m still weighing it up in my head.”
The next month, I watched him resign from the Labour party beneath the domed ceiling of the Stockport Council chamber: “By January, you will see more independent councillors from the Labour branch, as this purge continues,” he said. He was off by a month: Andy Sorton and Amanda Peers, councillors for Brinnington and Central, resigned in February. Sorton told the chamber: "I genuinely believe, with all my heart, that the Labour party in Stockport is becoming unsafe.”
What Sorton was talking about specifically was a leaked WhatsApp message that insulted a local member, who is disabled, comparing them to “Jabba the Hut”. Sorton and Peers say they were barred from standing in May because they spoke out against that insult and the culture it seemed to represent, similar to what happened to Wynne. So, they both resigned from the party. “I could not go out and campaign and canvas and tell people — my neighbours and friends, because some of these were from Manor, where I live,” Sorton told me, “That these were decent people to elect.”
Why does any of this matter? Right now, Stockport is on a political knife edge. The Lib Dems are edging Labour out by three seats, thanks to their power base in leafier areas like Bramhall and Hazel Grove. The Greens are beginning to develop a presence in the borough while the Conservatives continue to lose seats year after year. Labour is mostly present in more urban areas that have voted them in for decades, something many feel has made the party complacent.
Next month’s elections in Stockport represent an opportunity for Labour to take the council back, capitalising on large leads in the national polls. But the local party has recently descended into rancour. "There's something fundamentally wrong in Stockport Labour,” Sorton says. “They're not putting the residents first, and that's not the whole group, that's a core that seems to be controlling the Labour group in Stockport."
Stockport will also be an important battleground at the next general election, which is expected to take place next year. The Lib Dems see an opportunity to take the remaining two seats in the borough of Stockport currently held by the Tories: Hazel Grove and Cheadle. William Wragg, the Conservative MP for Hazel Grove, has already announced he’ll be standing down, and Mary Robinson in Cheadle only won that seat with a majority of 2,336 in 2019.
The story of Matt Wynne illustrates a fight that’s happening in many local Labour branches at the moment, as more left-wing elements who supported Jeremy Corbyn try to hold on to power while the national party moves right under Sir Keir Starmer. For Wynne, it’s about a different kind of activist emerging as Labour becomes more middle class and becomes a party most strongly identified with university graduates in cities like London and Manchester. “As I've got older I've come face-to-face with this city, liberal, urban progressive Labour politics, which is where there's this schism,” says Wynne.
An email seen by The Mill suggests the national Labour party are aware of the problems in Stockport. The email — sent by Labour’s national executive committee to Stockport Labour’s local government committee — concerns the number of sitting councillors in the borough who have been called in to “change of circumstances” interviews, where they are told they won’t be able to stand as candidates. The reasons given rarely relate to council work and are often about issues like campaigning and leafleting.
While the executive “supports the raising of standards with relation to campaigning”, it highlights “a number of stories in the local media that are damaging to our reputation locally and nationally”. So now, all change of circumstance interviews in Stockport have to be signed off by the national executive first.
When we approached Mishra, the local MP for Stockport, for an interview, we received no response. Last year, we called Mishra and his allies and were told they couldn’t comment on internal party matters. We have tried calling Labour councillors in Edgeley to no avail.
When I walk into the Alexandra pub on the Edgeley estate, a man at the bar looks me up and down and points to the door of the games room. “Through there.”
This is the nerve centre of the Edgeley Community Association, the new political party launched by Wynne earlier this year to lead the fightback against the forces he thinks have hijacked Labour in Stockport — and hopefully keep his seat too. It’s early February and every seat in the room is taken, with a few residents sitting on the floor. Match of the Day plays silently on one TV and another displays a PowerPoint presentation detailing the party’s mission. One slide reads: “Continue the amazing work and legacy of the late councillor Sheila Bailey.”
Bailey was a councillor in the ward for 32 years, and locals talk about Edgeley under her stewardship as if it were a kind of vanished Eden. An insider once described her to me as a “titan of Stockport politics”. In his eulogy at her funeral last year, Wynne described Bailey as his “political nana”. Bailey was respected for her pragmatism. She prioritised winning council control and helping residents over “ideological purity”, I’m told. When Wynne mentions her name at the meeting, residents nod their heads.
Wynne and his two fellow candidates, Leah Taylor — who works at the local primary school — and Asa Caton — who DJs in the pub sometimes — lay out their plans and take questions from residents. “The reason I got you here today is to say I can’t do it alone,” Wynne tells the room. This is certainly true. “With just Matt, the ECA will get vetoed left and right,” Caton says. As with all hyperlocal parties, the ECA will need to take all three seats if they want to have an impact.
Recent history shows that hyperlocal parties can certainly win council seats in Greater Manchester. Bolton is a prime example, where multiple “first” parties — Farnworth and Kearsley First, the Horwich and Blackrod First Independents — have fractured the local political landscape and made it difficult for Labour or the Conservatives to take majority control. Bury has the recently successful Radcliffe First and Mill readers might remember the key role played by the Failsworth Independent Party in ousting Oldham’s former council leader Sean Fielding.
These parties have sometimes been associated with disaffected members of UKIP or have ridden on the coattails of local conspiracy theories about council corruption or grooming gangs, but Wynne says this won’t be the case with the ECA. "People are right to fear these groups because of what has happened elsewhere," he says. “People come out of the woodwork, people from the extremities of the political spectrum. This (the ECA) is a social democratic, localised political party. It's not parochial, we're there to represent the best interests of Edgeley and the borough."
And while that sounds all well and good, Wynne knows that he faces an uphill struggle against his former comrades in Labour. "It's scary stuff, you're going up against a machine,” he tells me back in the Vine. “But it’s not the Labour party anymore, in my view. And, I expect it’s going to get to a point in a few weeks, when it becomes clear that they offer nothing, that they’ll be praying for the national polls to carry them over the line.”
Brought up in Warrington, his father worked in steel plants in Wrexham and later a food processing factory, and his mother cleaned hotel rooms. He failed his A-levels and joined the police for two years — ironically, he left because he “didn’t fancy the politics”. He put himself back through college, then a degree in social sciences at the University of Manchester, and has just completed a master’s with a law conversion. "You have to be clued up with how the world works if you're going to help people with their lives. And all that's in the law.”
He thinks his working class roots will work to his advantage in Edgeley, even as its demographic changes like the rest of Stockport’s. “The Labour party got trounced in 2019 because it lost with working class people, it stopped speaking the same language as them. I think it’s getting that back a bit now.”
Insiders I speak to say the election in Stockport is going to be a mixed bag. It was announced on Thursday that Sorton would be standing as an independent in Manor, his home ward, putting more pressure on Labour from its own ex-councillors. Labour will “stay as the second largest party or decline, mostly because of this internal split,” says one well-connected source.
Wynne has lost Labour friends who he says would rather “stick their head in the sand and hope it all goes away.” “It’s been a lonely walk, a cathartic journey,” he laughs. But he also sounds confident — he fancies his chances against the people who kicked him out; he thinks there is still room for his brand of Labourism in 2023. Everyone locally knows him, he says, adding with a trademark Wynne flourish: “We're all pissing in the same pot.”
Correction, 8 April: This article originally stated that Hazel Grove and Cheadle are Labour target seats at the next election. In fact, they are more realistic targets for the Lib Dems. Thanks to the readers for pointing this out.