How voters rejecting mainstream politics are changing Greater Manchester

Oldham and Manchester.
Labour lost control of Oldham council on May 2. -Credit:Sean Hansford / MEN

As the local election results rolled in last week, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer declared that his party is "ready to govern."

It was a victory call off the back of a huge lead in the national polls, with some claiming a Labour landslide is all but inevitable when the general election is called.

And after winning more than 180 council seats around the country on May 2, who could argue with that?

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But in Greater Manchester, it was a different story.

A swing to independent candidates in Greater Manchester has left three councils - Bolton, Oldham, and Stockport - under no overall control, after Labour lost seats in all three boroughs.

The reasons behind the losses were varied, but independents say that voters have had enough of mainstream parties and are demanding something different.

Labour loses Oldham council

Arooj Shah.
Oldham Labour leader Arooj Shah lost overall control of the council. -Credit:LDRS.

In Oldham, Labour ended up five councillors down and lost overall control of the council, with independents gaining eight seats in total.

The ongoing conflict in Palestine was a key issue locally, with independents in the borough running ‘boycott Labour’ campaigns, in a bid to hurt the party over its stance on the war.

Arooj Shah, the leader of Oldham Labour, explained the result to the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) by claiming that people feel mainstream political parties "aren't for them" anymore.

Kamran Ghafoor, 35, a councillor in Oldham and leader of the Oldham Group, explained the result by claiming that the local Labour Party doesn't know what voters want.

He told the LDRS that mainstream parties are struggling to get things done in the towns they represent, and bread and butter council issues such as pot holes are piling up without being sorted quickly enough.

The situation has left the Labour Party in Oldham facing a plot from independents and opposition parties to take over the council.

If it succeeds, it would signal a dramatic turnaround of Labour's fortunes in the area, despite the progress the party has made nationally.

People with Palestine flags in Oldham, next to a police officer.
Palestine became a key topic in Oldham's local elections this year -Credit:Sean Hansford / MEN

Mr Ghafoor said: "The Labour Party in Oldham is out of touch with the people here. They don't know what the people of Oldham want.

"People here have rejected the Labour Party, they've got no new ideas. The Labour leader was so out of touch on Gaza and Palestine, they didn't even stand up and speak on what was going on.

"The public are so fed up with the same old routine, but we're different because we're not relying on a big political party, so we can say what we want.

"We will not work with Labour, but we could take control of the council with the other groups."

Coun Shah was unanimously re-elected as leader of Oldham Labour, despite the result in the local elections.

In a statement, she said her party are working to "establish the stable and sustainable council administration the town needs", in a sign that a complicated tussle for control of Oldham council could be about to begin - with independents at the heart of it.

Coun Shah added: "We can not succumb to those who wish to divide us or talk our town down."

Independents win seats in Stockport's former Labour heartlands

Shoppers at Merseyway in Stockport.
Labour lost two council seats in Stockport this year. -Credit:Sean Hansford / MEN

Stockport is another area of Greater Manchester where Labour suffered setbacks in the local elections.

The group lost two council seats on May 2, leaving the Lib Dems just one councillor away from taking control of the town hall, a feat not achieved by any party since 2011.

The last few years have seen a rise of independents, in wards such as Edgeley which were previously Labour strongholds.

A falling out between councillor Matt Wynne and Stockport Labour led to the creation of the Edgeley Community Association (ECA), and the group now holds all three seats in the Edgeley ward.

Mr Wynne - who left Labour after the row - said Edgeley residents are "fed up" with established parties, who he claims are using the area to benefit themselves in national elections, rather than focusing on local issues.

He claims the Lib Dems are too focused on winning the parliamentary seats of Cheadle and Hazel Grove, and that Labour are distracted by internal bickering.

At this year's local elections, ECA candidate Asa Caton faced re-election against Labour and other parties standing in the seat.

Labour's chances in the area were not helped by a late change in candidates, a move which Mr Caton said wasn't explained and "didn't sit well" with voters in Edgeley.

Stockport Labour said the switch was needed, adding that the party had "fundamentally changed" under Keir Starmer, without going into detail about what happened.

Terraced houses in Edgeley, Stockport.
Labour has fallen out of favour with voters in communities such as Edgeley. -Credit:LDRS

On May 2, voters comfortably re-elected Mr Caton, in a sign that the move away from Labour in the area is not just a short-term trend.

The result left Labour with 22 council seats in Stockport, down two, and the Lib Dems up to 31, just short of the 32 needed for full control.

And since being on Stockport council, the ECA have campaigned on issues such as calling for a review of Stockport Homes - the company managing the council's housing stock - and winning support for a motion calling for a new express bus service from Stockport to Manchester airport, among other matters.

Work like this is why voters keep coming back to the ECA, leader Matt Wynne believes.

He said: "I’m meeting more and more people who are not willing to tolerate that their community is just a bum on a seat in the council chamber.

"They want their voice heard loud and clear on the basic issues and a plan of action and more for their community.

"The ECA is this bread and butter. We got returned again on this on a coalition of voter support.

"Having community parties allows you to dig in on long term issues facing your Ward and Borough instead of tiptoeing around and being made to keep your head down like you do in large political parties.

"Having more modern, positive and progressive independent parties such as ourselves is only a good thing for local democracy. Our constitution says we are social democratic in nature.

"We will see more of it in the future, and more of a continental model of different parties representing councils across the country, more so in urban areas."

The Rochdale independent who ran to become town's MP

David Tully.
Rochdale business man David Tully came second in a race to become the town's MP. -Credit:Jason Roberts / MEN

In February, there was national coverage of the Rochdale by-election, after the death of Labour MP Tony Lloyd.

The election was dubbed a landslide victory for George Galloway, who won the race standing for the Workers Party of Britain, declaring to Labour leader Keir Starmer that the result was "for Gaza."

The party has since progressed, and recently unseated Manchester City Council's deputy leader - a Labour councillor - when Workers Party candidate Shahbaz Sarwar won in the Longsight ward.

But during the Rochdale by-election, it was independent candidate David Tully who finished second behind Mr Galloway, beating both Labour and the Conservatives.

Speaking to the LDRS after the election, he said he had "no intention of joining another party."

He added: “I think I would lose the identity of what I stood for, which is basically mainstream parties doing what they do and losing touch with the community.

"I can only stand again as an independent and as David Tully."

The independent councillors who spoke to the LDRS all said they believe independent politics is set to grow in Greater Manchester, as residents turn away from the mainstream parties.

If that proves to be correct, it could see more dramatic changes to how councils are run in the region - and have big consequences for the whole of Greater Manchester.