Many column inches have already been spent contesting and ridiculing the image of the signing of the DevoManc agreement; the infamous pale, stale and male scene. It may be suggested that you can read too much into one image. But images are an important part of the story and the fact is that it did happen and those who were there obviously thought it was acceptable, or worse didn’t even think about it at all as an issue.
Well that was nearly two years ago and the plurality of voices and images surrounding the devolution does not appear to me to have improved much. #DivaManc was a starting point to see how we could begin to address this by listening to the voices of each other and have more diverse conversations about what Greater Manchester means to us and what we want for it’s future.
We were asked to consider, “what is important to us about Greater Manchester?” Following a discussion I had written on my label, “civic pride”. I’m not sure the term fully expressed my feelings or understanding of that pride; too-often in a corporate and capitalist dominated vision, obsessed with the idea of the north rejuvenating along the lines of the ‘industrial powerhouse’ of the past the elements of that pride in the radical, challenging and innovative social and political movements of Manchester, and all northern cities and towns are too easily forgotten.
All these experiences matter to our identities as northerners, the connection with the past and tradition has to be part of our future (a connection Melvin Bragg has been talking about much more eloquently on Radio 4 recently). And when we go ‘forgetting’ parts of our history and identities there’s a common strand that occurs: we silence women’s voices and stories. Greater Manchester has always been home to pioneering women, the Pankhursts, Elizabeth Gaskell, Marie Stopes and home to the experiences and lives of the masses of every-day women of the North.
I fear once again those with power are ‘forgetting’ about the voices, experiences and contributions of women and thinking about building the next phase of the ‘North’ without listening and understanding the many and varied visions of a significant portion of the population. And not just women there are a host of other voices that also don’t appear to be included in the debate.
Another image was instructive for me at the #DivaManc event about the risk of not hearing more voices. One of the organisers described a visceral image of what they saw when presented with DevoManc: the ubiquitous image of a man, standing rigid in high-vis vest and hard hat, arm raised and pointing triumphantly into the middle distance, flanked by shiny skyscrapers. The standard shorthand for, “economic progress and growth”.
Is this the progress we all want for Greater Manchester? I don’t doubt that we need jobs and opportunities, but who gets to share in the wealth that is created and how? How will devolution create better lives for all the communities of Greater Manchester? Where’s the sustainability for our communities and our planet in the ‘shiny skyscraper building’ version of growth? How will we ensure that our fabulous cities don’t end up looking like every other identikit ‘modern metropolitan city’?
As a practical and immediate example we discussed how can we have responsibility for planning employment and skills for the region and, as we understand it not childcare? In very practical terms if there had been more women at that table in 2014 would we have wide-ranging powers to revolutionise childcare – a very practical step to realising full engagement in the economic opportunities that devolution can offer.
I’m going to leave it to the organisers to summarise what the more than 50 women at that first #DivaManc meeting said. And it will be a plurality of things, because there is not one view on devolution and what it means for women, and this one event did not capture all that women will have to say. I hope though it has raised the need for more participation and that is heard by those currently seen to be wielding the power in this devolution debate.
And as for me and why I consider I have a stake. I identify as a ‘northerner’, it’s one very important part of who I am. I’m not a dyed in the wool Mancunian; born in West Yorkshire, I spent most of my childhood in Whalley Range and Chorlton, and now living in East Cheshire after 15 years in the South West. I’m a Diva because I want to help women’s voices to be heard and I want the ‘north’ to be a great place that addresses inequalities, that does things differently and I know that the evidence says we have to design that in – it’s not going to happen by accident.