MIXED MESSAGES LIKELY IN NORTH ELECTIONS

 

THE POLITICS.

What will people make of the last year in politics when they cast their votes in local council elections across the North next Thursday?

Labour are already in a very strong position as you’d expect having been out of power at Westminster for eight years. However they should be miles ahead in the opinion polls one year after a General Election. The fact that they are just in front suggests continuing doubts about the direction Jeremy Corbyn is taking the party in. The recent meltdown over anti-Semitism will affect local contests in London and Bury.

Being in government nationally since 2010 has taken its toll on Tory representation in our Town Halls. Of the councils up for election this time only Trafford is still in Conservative hands. So, there are no easy targets for Labour. Indeed, in some places voters might want to reward the Prime Minister for an improving economy and her skilful handling of her party in respect of Brexit. However, there are headwinds for the Tories. Some councils are running out of reserves having been squeezed between years of austerity and the remorseless rise in care for the elderly. The years of cuts are now having dramatic effect. Our roads have never been riddled with so many potholes.

The Windrush row has come at just the wrong time for Mrs May. She identified her own party once as “the nasty party”. That’s how it is being seen over Windrush, although the tougher line on immigration certainly began under Labour.

Most of the seats coming up for election this year were last fought in 2014 when the political scene looked very different. The Lib Dems were still part of the Coalition government and were suffering their fourth year of punishment. UKIP were on the march taking 160 seats in places like Bolton and Oldham. Now they are a joke.

THE BATTLE GROUNDS.

CONSERVATIVES.

As is often the case, all eyes will be on Trafford where the Conservatives hold a slim three seat majority. Jeremy Corbyn launched his national campaign there and will face criticism if 14 years of Tory rule isn’t ended with a council in no overall control. But the Conservative leader of Trafford Sean Anstee has gained considerable stature from his work on the Greater Manchester devolution deal and is standing on a platform of low taxes and defending the grammar schools. It’s worked in the past.

The other hope for the Tories is Pendle Council where they are the largest party but in opposition to Labour who are supported by the Lib Dems under the leadership of Tony Greaves. This veteran of five decades of Pennine politics has lost none of his campaigning zeal as he attempts to stop the blue flag from flying in the Nelson and Colne area.

LABOUR.

Labour control virtually all the councils up for election, and many with massive majorities. But are we seeing signs of decay and infighting from within when the opposition is so weak?

Every seat is up for grabs in Blackburn with Darwen and Manchester where, going into these elections, a solitary Lib Dem faced 93 Labour councillors. But are there signs of growing unrest over issues like housing policy as Sir Richard Leese completes 22 years of leadership? There are rumblings that the city needs more affordable homes not luxury flats.

In Rochdale one Labour leader (Richard Farnell) has resigned after being called a liar over his handling of child abuse in the borough. Now his successor, Allen Brett, is in trouble for implying a vote against Labour would mean your potholes wouldn’t be filled in. The Lib Dems could be on the way back after all this.

St Helens has also seen Labour leadership turmoil with Barrie Grunewald standing aside after a period of infighting in the group.

LIB DEMS.

For Lib Dem leader Vince Cable, the question is has his party turned the corner after eight years of punishment at the hands of the voters over tuition fees and getting into bed with the Tories in the Coalition?

Possibly not, the only council under their control, South Lakeland is having an all-out election. Such fluidity might threaten their 12 years in power. The local MP, Tim Farron, saw his majority reduced to 1.5% last year.

On a more optimistic note, the Lib Dems are hoping to restore their leadership of Stockport Council where Labour are currently in minority control.

In conclusion, the focus will be on the London borough elections, but the north will still provide some interesting contests next Thursday.

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WHERE IS THE BRITISH MACRON?

 

THE EU STRENGTHENED.

The French people have turned the tide on the 2016 populist surge which led to reckless Brexit and reckless Trump in the White House.

Opponents of the European Union were forecasting it would break up following populist success in Hungary, Holland and France. All three countries have rejected a return to a nationalist Europe with all the potential consequences that could bring. With the UKIP style implosion of the Alternative for Deutschland Party in Germany I predict a victory for Angela Merkel this autumn. Then we will see how strong and stable Mrs May will be when faced with France, Germany and the other 25 European countries insisting that if you are out of a club you must have a worse deal than if you are in.

I saw a report this week on a Shropshire company that makes engine blocks. They must cross 5 European borders in ten days and time is vital. They are desperately worried about how they are going to operate outside the EU. That’s the reality facing business. Let’s hope Jeremy Corbyn’s refusal to rule out staying in the EU wasn’t just another blunder, although the Lib Dems offer the clearest policy on a second referendum.

 

 

BACK IN THE DRIVER’S SEAT.

Geoff Driver is the great survivor of Lancashire politics. After a controversial reign as Chief Executive of Preston Council, he made a successful change to politics leading the Conservatives to victory in the county in 2009. Thrown out of office in 2013, he survived a leadership challenge, police dropped an investigation into him over the One Connect Ltd issue and last Friday I was in County Hall for his return to office.

He faces big challenges to soften the cuts that Labour reluctantly made. Driver insists there will be no sweetheart deals with his government. A final word on this. Jeni Mein, the outgoing Labour leader was one of the most decent hard working politicians I had the pleasure to meet. Good luck to her successor, Nelson councillor Azhar Ali. He will prove a lively opponent for Geoff Driver.

MAYORS.

After snubbing Jeremy Corbin at a victory celebration, Andy Burnham was quickly down to work making two good deputy appointments. Sir Richard Leese is taking on the business portfolio. Does this show Leese is preparing to end his long tenure as leader of Manchester? Anyway, from Burnham’s point of view…..(fill in the tent and urination metaphor here). The other key appointment is Bev Hughes to look after crime and the police. The former Stretford and Urmston MP will be taking over from the ex-Police Commissioner Tony Lloyd who hopes to win the Rochdale seat.

That choice by a panel of Labour’s National Executive has been welcomed by the constituency whereas in Liverpool Walton the choice of a Unite placeman, Daniel Carden, at the expense of Liverpool mayor Joe Anderson has caused outrage. These panels should have the constituency chair as a member and certainly should not have a Unite member as was the case with Walton. But if a party is so dependent on one source of funding, this is what you get.

Joe heading for Westminster was a neat way of solving a

 potential conflict between him and newly elected City

 Region Mayor, Steve Rotheram. We’ll have to see if grown

 up behaviour prevails to the advantage of the city region.

 

GENERAL ELECTION POINTERS.

 

The local elections showed Labour’s fragility in the North

outside its urban heartland. A spectacular defeat to the

Tories in Derbyshire was followed by the loss of

Lancashire and largest party status in Cumbria. There are many marginal seats in these areas for the Conservatives to target.

 

The Lib Dems had a standstill election and will be hoping

for more support when the Brexit issue comes centre

stage in the General Election. UKIP had to rely on a

popular taxi driver in Padiham for their only council

success. They should have developed policies on non-EU

issues to offer a real alternative for blue collar Labour

voters in the North. Instead they squabbled over who

should be leader.

 

In Scotland, the Tories have become the rallying point for

opponents of a second independence referendum, and

even though the fall off in support for the SNP was slight,

that irresistible tide has peaked.

 

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WHO WILL BE IN LANCASHIRE DRIVER SEAT?

 

 

NOT ABOUT BREXIT.

Brexit has overshadowed every other political activity in the last 12 months, but in three weeks time a series of important elections in the North will remind us there are other things to concentrate on apart from Europe.

City Region mayors will be elected in the Liverpool City and Greater Manchester regions, there is a parliamentary by election in Gorton and full council elections in North Yorkshire, Cumbria, Derbyshire and the key contest for Lancashire.

BATTLE FOR THE RED ROSE COUNTY.

Lancashire had been a Labour fiefdom for 28 years until 2009 when the growing unpopularity of Labour under Gordon Brown saw the Conservatives take control under the colourful leadership of Geoff Driver. The former Preston Council Chief Executive enjoyed four years in office before narrowly losing out to Labour, supported by the Lib Dems in 2013.

Many expected Driver to be deposed as Tory group leader but resilience is in this politician’s DNA. Back in the 1990s as Chief Executive of Preston he had a bitter clash with the then leader of the council Valerie Wise. After losing out to Labour in 2013, Driver was subject to a two year investigation by Lancashire police into the council’s One Connect venture with BT. The investigation into his role was eventually dropped, he had a complaint to the Independent Police Complaints Commission upheld and is now calling for the “removal” of Lancashire Chief Constable Steve Finnigan as the cost of the probe nears £2m.

In the campaign, Lancashire Conservatives are attacking Labour for their cuts in services as being too harsh. This has attracted a sharp response from the ruling party leader Jeni Mein who points to the massive cut in government grant over the last few years.

Mein has done a sound job in very difficult circumstances and in the mid-term of a Tory government should be looking to gain an overall majority for Labour. “Should” is the operative word because Mein is being constantly let down by party infighting at Westminster. A row over Ken Livingstone’s alleged anti-Semitism is just what you need when you are trying to win the marginal wards that litter the county.

Mein might be helped by an anticipated revival of the Liberal Democrats in local government this time around. Their distinctive stand on a second EU referendum and fading memories of their involvement in the Coalition could make them significant players when the votes are counted at County Hall on May 5th. That said the Conservatives lost votes to UKIP in 2013 and UKIP’s support is set to fade at these elections.

LABOUR WOES.

Labour has been trying to focus voters’ attention on their policies in recent days but one leading pollster is forecasting the worst performance by an opposition party since 1985, excluding General Election years. Apart from Lancashire, Jeremy Corbyn’s performance in Cumbria where there is a Lab/Lib Dem coalition and Derbyshire will be watched closely.

Anything other than a Labour victory in the Gorton by election would be a total disaster, although it is worth recalling that in the depths of Harold Wilson’s unpopularity in 1967, the Conservatives reduced Labour’s majority to 557.

 

2014 DIDN’T ANSWER THE UK QUESTION.

 

 

The Scottish independence vote and immigration into the UK were dominant themes in 2014, but for all the talk little has been resolved. The Scots voted no but the Scottish National Party could soon be holding the whip hand over a weak minority government at Westminster.

 

Then there’s the issue of our national identity. It is becoming clear that we are not going to be able to stop free movement of labour within the EU. So do we feel so passionately about immigration that we want to risk our economic future outside the EU?

 

Both these questions remain unresolved at the end of a year which has seen much debate on how we should be governed both nationally and in the North. Even before the Scottish vote Chancellor George Osborne had launched his northern powerhouse concept. It was the beginning of a period of extraordinary activity by Osborne on this subject. There can be few hi tech or manufacturing plants in the north of England that has not had a visit from George. It culminated in the devolution deal done with Greater Manchester and his insistence on imposing a mayor for the conurbation to be elected in 2017. Similar deals for Leeds, Sheffield and Liverpool have not been concluded as wrangling continues about elected mayors and leadership.

 

The prospect of a powerful Scotland to our north has stimulated debate on what happens outside the city regions. There are signs that Lancashire’s fourteen councils may be getting their act together to bid for a county region and a Yorkshire Party has been formed. I remain of the view that a council of the whole north is the answer. It is already in embryonic form in organisations like Rail North and One North but it should have powers beyond transport.

 

The economy has continued to recover with unemployment falling along with inflation to the point where people are asking if a 1% inflation rate is a bad thing. Strange days indeed for those of us who lived through the roaring inflation of the 1970’s. But issues like low wages, the budget deficit, low growth in Europe, China and Russia remain dark clouds on the horizon.

 

Politically the year has been dominated by the rise of UKIP. In the North West and Yorkshire they secured six MEPs in the European elections, ending the long European career of Lib Dem Chris Davies in the North West. Tory Sir Robert Atkins also left the stage whilst Labour have a completely new team in the region, although little has been heard from them so far. In Yorkshire two stalwarts Richard Corbett (Labour) and Tim Kirkhope (Conservative) survived the UKIP surge.

 

Labour held its two by elections in the North West (Wythenshawe and Heywood) but UKIP’s John Bickley stood in both and came second, indeed he nearly won in Heywood and Middleton. UKIP also got councillors elected, spectacularly so in Rotherham. People keep asking if they have peaked. Not yet it seems.

 

So where do the parties stand at year end. The Conservatives have had a better year because of the economic recovery but still show no sign of getting enough support to win outright in 2015. David Cameron remains unloved by many of his backbenchers.

 

Ed Miliband has had a poor year as Labour leader, but may have picked on a gem of an idea in suggesting the Tories want to make deep cuts for ideological reasons to create a smaller state. However the people’s minds are largely made up against him and the party will have to try and win despite him.

 

There has been little comfort for the Lib Dems in the north. They did hold on to their councillors in places like South Lakes, Southport and Stockport but look set for the day of reckoning nationally in May. The Greens have begun to benefit by attracting disillusioned Labour and Lib Dem supporters particularly on the issue of fracking.

We marked the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War this year. Our horrors are on a smaller scale than theirs but ISIS and the Taliban remind us that we live in a world where we can land a probe on a distant comet but still resolve our differences in ways little changed from the Dark Ages.

 

Have a peaceful Christmas.