Where are they now?

Many of the individuals we identified a decade ago as being the region’s most powerful have disappeared from view. Michael Taylor assesses their changing fortunes

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Ten years ago Big Issue North published its first list of the 50 most influential Northerners. Reading it now, it feels like a piece of history of a different country, where they do things very differently. We had a coalition government, a country and a region on the cusp of change, and a mix of cultural, business and political figures sitting astride a diverse North, with interwoven stories, connections and power bases. There was a sense that a strong economy supported quality public services, especially a cherished and much loved NHS, but that maybe the balance had swung too far towards a bloated public sector and that the financial crash of 2008 required prudence and that we were still all in it together.

If the way you wield power is the ability to influence lives, then how the gods must laugh at such plans now

I was one of the selection panel back in 2010 and I can only look back and laugh now at some of the choices we made back then. Not because we were wrong, but because the whole premise was built on the primacy of big money and raw power having lasting influence. We said that influence was a broad term, covering economic clout, political power, cultural impact and more. And if the way in which you wield that power is the ability to make change and influence lives, then how the gods must laugh at such plans now. Our list, made up mostly of white blokes, was not of superior beings who have shaped our destiny since then, but of the modestly successful and wealthy, the humbled, and ultimately the powerless and uninfluential – as they have been utterly impotent to arrest the meta trends that have shaped the last decade, for better or for worse.

When we pulled the list together we tried to compute the big influential themes of the day – urban regeneration, cultural trends, who we talked about, who was in the media. By media of course we still meant newspapers and the TV. But the North had a basic unified sense of place and purpose, if it was a little grumpy and impatient about centralised power. But just have a think about the themes you’d be factoring in now were you to sit down and have a crack at a list today: Brexit, Covid-19, metro mayors, the Red Wall and the post-Corbyn Labour Party. That’s before you get to climate action, the Northern Powerhouse (remember that?), Scottish and Welsh nationalism, Windrush and Black Lives Matter. They’ve all forced a big shift in how we trust those with power. Others contributed to its slow erosion: phone hacking, MPs expenses, £9,000 a year university tuition fees and the policy failures that have led to thousands of people sleeping rough on our streets.

But we also had an eye on trends back then that have accelerated now – online shopping, online gambling, live music and sports stars as activists (it appears Rio Ferdinand was just a foretaste for the faster, brighter Marcus Rashford). And then there’s the surge in usage of social media and the rise of online influencers. Here are some things that barely existed in October 2010 – Spotify, Netflix, WhatsApp, Instagram, Snapchat, Tinder and TikTok. Depending on your preferences, try having influence now without a presence on one or all of them. There is now literally a term for it, the rise of the influencer, and not a single person on our list influenced it.

There’s something else that cuts across all of those themes and events and people and it’s the very essence of power and influence – the presence of an elite in society that holds disproportionate sway over our lives and the choices we make. But who is in that elite and how we view it has changed utterly in the last decade. And partly it’s because of something else we didn’t really have back then – a culture war.

Power can come from using fear and violence, it can come from creating economic dependence. There’s an assumption that democratic power stems from the covenant that a citizen has with the state – that whoever is in power won an election fairly and acts with support, albeit grudging. Can we honestly say that’s the case now for people who voted anything other than Conservative in 2019? Recent headlines declaring opponents as enemies and the bellicose dismissal of supporters of Brexit as racist gammon from many on the remain side may only have deepened divisions and opened wounds.

History will not be kind on the abilities of our list to have prepared us for all our current shocks. If you take each one, they appear to have been the product of a rotten society just waiting for these problems to come to the surface, be they the effects of police corruption, grooming gangs, terror attacks, racial tensions, and the rise and fall of political movements that you didn’t see coming, nor expect their descent – be they Ukip and the English Defence League, or Momentum and the Labour left.

The Issa brothers owned petrol stations in 2010. They just bought Asda. Photo: Jon Super/Alamy

It points to a collapse in consent for the governing class, or the powerful, whichever narrative you subscribe to. On one hand it’s all the fault of the metropolitan liberal cultural elite that has been on a long march through our institutions, their values dominating universities, the public sector, the arts and charities, and even touching on to the agendas of business through corporate social responsibility, sustainability and the organisation Common Purpose. On the other hand, power is in the hands of a shadowy financial cabal, dominating big business, driving down competition, wages and protective legislation in order to increase its own profits.

Influence, then, is temporary, but class is permanent. Simply holding an office does not guarantee power and influence. Sir Alex Ferguson is no longer the manager of Manchester United but you couldn’t make a case that any of his successors have stepped into his shoes, or wielded anything close to his power. Possibly the only other figure to have adopted that mantle as community leader and sporting leadership icon is Jurgen Klopp.

And as successors go, has anyone in local government come close to replicating the Court of King Howard since the retirement of Sir Howard Bernstein as chief executive of Manchester City Council?

Dame Carol Ann Duffy may have completed her term as Poet Laureate, but she’s still a voice in the arts world, for what it’s worth. Guy Garvey may have moved to London since he married into the Rigg-Stirling dynasty, but he’s still a Northern voice with clout on the musical stage. And Peter Kay hasn’t performed for a few years but can still be relied upon to pull an audience with his homespun Northern turn.

The ebbs and flows of business have swept away the corporate titans who seemed unassailable and all-powerful in 2010.

Notably, John Whitaker, chairman of the Peel Group – then majority owners of the Trafford Centre and Liverpool John Lennon Airport – sat astride the list as the most influential Northerner. Who could defend that position now? Having diluted his stake to create the bigger Intu retail empire, the business has slowly drowned under a sea of debt, formally entering administration this year.

The onward march of the Co-operative Group seemed to be unstoppable in 2010, but by 2012 its chief executive Peter Marks was out and the group was in retreat as the financial crash and a governance crisis knocked his strategy for six. The Co-op is still a powerful force, but it’s telling that its most recent rebrand is about “back to being the Co-op” and stressing the local rather than wanting to break into the top ranks of UK retail.

Hardier family business owners are still there in post, and their businesses appear to be thriving at Mumtaz, Warburtons, Timpson and BetFred. Other corporate executives we rated as influencers at Greggs, Nissan, Sage and Drax have all moved on. But new forces emerge too. Locally the Hut Group was a few websites – now it’s a £4 billion-valued business based in Manchester. And while the Issa brothers from Blackburn owned a few petrol stations in 2010, last month they bought Asda.

Of the six MPs we included in 2010 only one is still in parliament, Ed Miliband – back on the opposition front bench after a bruising time as Labour leader and a backbencher, but still with very little real influence and not really identified as any kind of Northerner, other than as the MP for Doncaster. Also on the Labour side poverty campaigner Frank Field lost his Birkenhead seat after quitting the party in 2019 over anti-semitism, failing to retain the seat as an independent.

For the Conservatives, William Hague has retired and that architect of the Northern Powerhouse, George Osborne, sometime MP for the posh Cheshire seat of Tatton, has pursued a new career in the London local media. Another casualty of the decade has been the collapse in the influence of the Liberal Democrats, who started the decade as partners in a coalition government with the Conservatives. While most of their MPs were wiped out in 2015, Nick Clegg hung on until 2017, before quitting to join Facebook as a communications executive. As an indication of the Lib Dems’ waning fortunes, former coalition government minister Andrew, now Lord, Stunnell may have retired to the Lords, but his party’s successor to what was the safe seat of Hazel Grove has now lost three general elections, while Labour is now in control of his former council in Stockport.

That says a great deal about the shifting forces that shape how influence and power works. But we return to the questions we posed back in 2010: is it a bit of fun, voyeuristically pressing our noses up against the windows of the elites? Or actually, does power and influence seep up from the grassroots more than we perhaps appreciated.

Michael Taylor is the head of regional affairs at Manchester Metropolitan University and has recently completed an MSc in political science on the subject of networks and power in devolved English city regions. He still considers himself a journalist

Main image: Part of Big Issue North’s cover from 10 years ago

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