Poet beats Peter Mandelson in race to be Manchester University chancellor

Lord Peter Mandelson

The Labour grandee Peter Mandelson has failed in his bid to become chancellor of Manchester University despite a concerted lobbying campaign, losing out to a poet from Wigan.

Lemn Sissay, a poet, broadcaster and playwright who grew up in care, was elected in an electronic vote by the university alumni with 7,131 votes. Afterwards, one of Sissay’s most vocal supporters described him as an “inspirer”, while Mandelson was a “conspirer”.

The electorate of 150,000 – comprising university staff, registered alumni and members of the general assembly – chose the award-winning poet from a shortlist of three.

Sir Mark Elder, music director of Manchester’s Hallé Orchestra, came second on 5,483. Mandelson, former EU trade commissioner and a key figure in Tony Blair’s government – nicknamed “the prince of darkness” for his political talents – came last on 5,269.

The Guardian understands Mandelson will be offered another lofty position at the university as a consolation prize – most likely honorary chair.

Despite denying to the Guardian back in March that he fancied becoming chancellor, Mandelson was already busy talking to key movers and shakers in Manchester to corral support.

His interest in the position was seen as further evidence of Manchester’s ascendance, the centre of what the other chancellor (George Osborne) calls his “northern powerhouse”.

After the general election, Mandelson gave a lecture at the university’s politics department and filmed a short video in which he said he wanted to be part of the university’s “success story”.

Sissay produced a rival video in which he performed a poem called Mercurial Graphene, a celebration of Manchester and the wonder substance discovered by scientists at the university.

After the poet’s victory was announced, Manchester author and DJ Dave Haslam, who was a vocal campaigner against Mandelson on social media, tweeted:

Team Mandelson insisted it did not “campaign” as much as give him a few introductions, but noted that there was a concerted anti-Mandelson campaign on social media run by “people in the shadows”.

“There’s something archly ironic for someone working on a campaign with Peter Mandelson to complain about others working in the shadows, but there you go. Not that I’m complaining,” said one of Mandelson’s supporters.

The election of a new ceremonial figurehead for the university followed the completion of the seven-year tenure of current chancellor, Tom Bloxham, the founder of the Manchester-based property development company Urban Splash. Sissay will take up his new role on 1 August and an installation ceremony will take place at the university in October.

Sissay is an associate artist at the Southbank Centre, patron of the Letterbox Club – which provides educational support for looked-after children - and fellow of the Foundling Museum. He is also the author of a series of books of poetry, alongside articles, records, radio documentaries, public art, and plays.

Brought up in Atherton, near Wigan, earlier this year Sissay made a series of programmes for BBC Manchester in which he claimed he was physically abused at a children’s home which is under investigation by police.

His allegations are among more than 40 complaints of historical sexual and physical abuse at the former Wood End assessment centre in Atherton. Hundreds of boys were sent there between the 1970s and the 1990s.

In 2012 one of Sissay’s poems was painted on the side of one of the university’s buildings on Oxford Road.

The university’s president and vice-chancellor, Professor Dame Nancy Rothwell, said: “The chancellor of the university, while a ceremonial office, brings with it significant ambassadorial responsibilities in helping to promote the university’s achievements worldwide, which Tom has done with enthusiasm and dedication throughout his time in office.

She added: “Each one of the nominees had excellent credentials and would have made a fine ambassador for the university.

“My warm and sincere congratulations go to Lemn on his election to be our next chancellor. I look forward to welcoming him to the university community and working with him to promote our ambitious plans over the coming years.”

Sissay said: “Reach for the top of the tree and you may get to the first branch, but reach for the stars and you’ll get to the top of the tree. My primary aim is to inspire and be inspired.

“I am proud to be chancellor of this fantastic university and extremely grateful to everyone who voted for me.”

Rothwell said she would be exploring with both Mandelson and Elder “other ways in which they may play a constructive role in supporting the university’s agenda going forward.”

Michael Taylor, a Manchester-based entrepreneur and member of the university’s alumni association who helped on Mandelson’s campaign, said: “I take some comfort from Nancy’s statement that a role for Peter on Team Manchester is in her thoughts and plans. It remains a truth acknowledged where it matters that Peter has much to contribute to Manchester.

“For all of us, that would be wonderful and I hope he has felt sufficiently encouraged and inspired to pursue that.”

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Helen Pidd Northern editor, for The Guardian on Monday 22nd June 2015 14.29 Europe/London

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