THE CHANCELLOR IN THE IRON MAIDEN

 

LABOUR’S DILEMMA.

The Chancellor’s economic bondage fetish continues! During the election he bound himself in pledges not to increase income tax, national insurance and VAT by law. Last night at the Mansion House he pledged a new fiscal framework to achieve permanent budget surpluses.

This is a major development in the finances of the nation. In only seven of the last fifty years have governments run a budget surplus. George Osborne is convening the first meeting in 150 years of the commissioners for the reduction of the national debt.

Business is likely to welcome this determination to tackle the national debt but its political implications are profound. Labour has always believed in the need to run deficits during difficult times to boost the economy and support public services. How will they respond to this? If they support it, the prospect of a Labour Party coming to power with ambitious visions for the NHS, housing and social care will be almost impossible. If Labour oppose Osborne, he will say it is evidence Labour are committed to running deficits and never tackling the National Debt currently running at 80% of GDP.

This move shows the Tories are determined to press home their advantage at a time when Labour is engaged in a tepid leadership election to which I will return in later blogs.

EURO HONEYMOON OVER.

It is a good job the Chancellor is able to divert attention from Tory divisions on Europe. I thought the “better off out” brigade now disguised as Conservatives for Britain might have come to have a little more respect for David Cameron after his election victory. Not a bit of it. We are back to the nineties with these Tory backbenchers making impossible demands on banning freedom of movement in the EU so that they can campaign to get Britain out.

MANDELSON ON NORTHERN DEVOLUTION.

Peter Mandelson is hoping to be elected Chancellor of Manchester University shortly and wants that institution to play its part in the Northern Powerhouse.

During the campaign he has made some painful observations about how Labour was completely outflanked on devolution during the last few years.

Labour council leaders across the North were left with no alternative but to go along with the Northern Powerhouse because of a complete absence of an alternative by Labour. They were reluctant to promise to abolish the Local Enterprise Partnerships but their vision of how the North South divide would be narrowed remained opaque. They should have returned to John Prescott’s vision of regional assemblies holding recreated Regional Development Agencies to account. Only this time they should have given them real powers, like Osborne is giving Greater Manchester.

Mandelson says he was hugely frustrated by seeing the Tories seizing the devolution agenda whilst Labour stood back. The former cabinet minister says Labour had the language but not the policies to rebalance the UK economy.

Labour got this wrong but the Tory plan to allow groups of councils to come together, each with a different model isn’t the answer either to the really big question of how England responds to the call for a federal UK.

 

MILIBAND RIGHT ON ONE THING-DEVOLUTION.

 

 

HANG ON MANCHESTER!

 

It has been a significant week for the future governance of the North of England. Exactly ten years after the people of the North East rejected the weak elected assembly on offer at the time, we now have the two major parties vying with each other to devolve real power to parts of the North

 

The Chancellor has promised major powers to Greater Manchester. Meanwhile the Labour leader, Ed Miliband, has set out a more measured approach offering powers to the whole of the north of England and House of Lords reform to address our current under representation in the upper chamber.

 

My sources in Manchester tell me they have become exasperated by Ed Miliband’s approach of awaiting a constitutional convention. Although Manchester is a Labour authority it finds it easier to deal with the fast moving Tory George Osborne. However the Manchester leadership needs to recognise that city regions aren’t the whole north, that the Tories may not be in a position to deliver their promises come May and a convention with everyone having their say is the right approach.

 

It has always been a weakness of the city regionalists that they don’t see the need for democratic accountability. They have been dragged into accepting an elected conurbation mayor in 2017 if the Tories get back. Sir Richard Leese is the favourite to take this role but I don’t think that will happen. The Greater Manchester Police and Crime Commissioner Tony Lloyd (who’s post will be taken over by the mayor) is a possible contender or possibly Jim McMahon, the leader of Oldham.

 

ED’S FULL CONSTITUTIONAL SOLUTION.

 

Some weeks ago I suggested a considered approach to the many constitutional issues that have arisen in England since the Scottish referendum vote. Ed Miliband’s plan provides for this.

 

He is looking at the wider picture- not just the city regions. He wants an English regions cabinet committee so that our problems are put at the heart of government and not forgotten by Whitehall civil servants. He also wants to address reform of the House of Lords once and for all by bringing the regions into the process. There is a crying need for this. It should be called the House of the South East at the moment. 31% of peers have their main residence in London and 23% in the South East. Just 5% of peers list their main residence in the North West and 4% in the North East. Miliband wants to create an elected Senate with representatives drawn from the nations, regions and cities of the United Kingdom.

 

At a time when the alienation of the people from politics is reaching dangerous proportions, this might be a way of turning things round. There are many misgivings about Ed Miliband and his leadership qualities but on this subject he has adopted a comprehensive approach to constitutional reform.

 

TORIES’ PIECEMEAL APPROACH.

 

Greater Manchester has been well run in the last few years. Its Combined Authority has been an exemplar of how councils with different political colours or aspirations can work together. One can understand the Chancellor’s wish to reward such progress, but he needs to look at the wider picture. The other city regions like West Yorkshire and Liverpool are promised powers, although not necessarily the same powers and on a different time scale. Then there is the suburban and rural North not covered by this. In other words if the Tories get back we will have a hotchpotch. This is intentional. The one size fits all approach is openly criticised but the Osborne way could also be a recipe for confusion and debilitating rivalry.

 

So if the Tories win we will have disparate devolution to some city regions, English votes for English laws and no reform of the House of Lords.

 

Labour’s constitutional convention approach should be supported.

 

 

 

 

 

RAIL IN THE NORTH:WHAT DO THE PEOPLE WANT?

 

 

UP THE JUNCTION

 

The travelling public of the North deserve a proper say on what they want from their rail services.

 

This week we’ve had more announcements from on high about HS2, and backing for HS3 from Manchester to Leeds. Sir David Higgins, Chairman of High Speed Two Ltd is an excellent man but who is he talking to before he makes this pronouncements? City region leaders but is that enough? Not if you look at the rows that have broken out across the North in the wake of Sir David’s announcement.

 

Why is Liverpool being left unconnected from HS2 and HS3? Where should the stations be located in Leeds and Sheffield? On the very day eyes were focused on what will be happening in 2027, there were protests about current services between Lancaster and Barrow. And fundamentally whilst one must respect the overwhelming view of city region bosses that HS2 is good for the North, there are the doubters who believe it will just make it easier to work in Borisland (the South East).

 

So how do we solve the democratic deficit? Sir David himself calls for northern cities to speak with one voice forming a new body called Transport for the North. The problem is Sir David not everybody in the north lives in the city regions. We need an elected Council of the whole North to allow the people a chance to formulate policies on rail, the economy, the environment etc.

 

CHESHIRE DYNAMO.

 

Michael Jones will be a happy man following the announcement that Crewe is to be an HS2 hub rather than Stoke. The leader of Cheshire East council takes no prisoners in his drive to bring investment and jobs to his authority. Indeed he may harbour ambitions to lead the whole of Cheshire. He recently called for a unitary authority to be restored for the county. I understand the demand did not go down well with his near namesake Cllr Mike Jones, the leader of Cheshire West and Chester and a leading figure in the Local Government Association. Conservative Party rules may have been breached.

 

It is an unfortunate spat between the Tory politicians but Cheshire is fortunate to have two leaders who, in their different ways bring good leadership to the county.

 

LABOUR PARTY CENTRALISATION.

 

The complaint by the outgoing leader of Labour in Scotland that the party treated her organisation as a branch office had me reflecting on the party’s organisation in the North.

 

When I started as a journalist in the seventies the North West Labour Party was headed up by a fearsome gent by the name of Paul Carmody. He was master of all he surveyed in the region and had no fear of Prime Ministers. He told Harold Wilson where to go when the PM objected to Carmody’s plans to change the boundaries of his Huyton constituency and berated Jim Callaghan for being late for a factory visit. Regional officials should be given back some of those powers as they know what’s going on in Lancashire and Yorkshire.

 

OUTSTANDING BROADCASTING.

 

Brave Huddersfield doctor Geraldine O’Hara is reporting every day on the Today programme about her experiences treating Ebola patients in Africa.

 

Her reporting is of the highest standard as she vividly describes her life amongst those suffering from this dreadful disease. She gives us a full picture of the tragedy but also the rare moments of joy as some patients recover.

 

Although she will not seek it, I hope her reports are acknowledged by multiple awards in due course.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ELECTED MAYOR FOR GREATER MANCHESTER?

 

 

DEVOLUTION TURMOIL.

 

Manchester has firmly resisted the government’s backing for elected mayors, but that could be about to change. Tory sources at their conference in Birmingham were suggesting that in return for extra powers for the city region, Labour would concede the concept of an elected mayor for the Combined Authority.

 

The Scottish Referendum aftermath has sparked a feverish debate about how the North of England should be governed. On Merseyside it has caused a fresh outbreak of tension between Liverpool and Wirral. The city’s mayor Joe Anderson, denied the leadership of the Combined Authority by Wirral leader Phil Davies, declared that if the government was going to decentralise powers and fiscal responsibility “it would need to know that this is not being managed by a group of part time councillors who meet every four to six weeks.”

 

The Mayor claims that the Liverpool City Region is in danger of being left behind when the government devolves extra powers because the area views things through “the short-sighted prism of local politics”.

 

Wirral Council would see things differently and is spearheading a drive to widen the debate about how the whole of the North can benefit from devolution, not just the city regions.

 

It is very much in the interests of business investment and people’s welfare, that the North’s politicians representing both city regions and the large number of towns and rural areas in between can speak with a united voice on a complete blueprint for the future government of the north. If they can’t then the winners will be a more powerful Scotland and Borisland to the south!

 

TORIES UPBEAT.

 

The Conservatives left Birmingham in upbeat mood despite polling predictions that they can’t win May’s General Election.

 

They’ve decided to take UKIP on following the latest defection. Delegates delighted in telling me how ex Tory MP Mark Reckless had been chased out of a Rochester pub along with UKIP leader Nigel Farage by Conservatives angered by their former MP’s treachery.

This must be the right approach. There is no appeasing people who want to take us out of Europe. They must be opposed and the British people warned about the prospects for UK business outside the EU.

In an otherwise excellent speech, David Cameron laid a trap for himself over Europe by promising that the free movement of immigrants would be sorted. Free movement is an integral part of the free market and he will find it very difficult to get concessions when he goes into negotiations if he wins the election.

 

At a number of fringe meetings I attended, Tory delegates were advised that if the UK goes into the talks with threats and ultimatums, it will get nowhere. The better approach would be to find allies who want change as well and work with them.

 

Many Tory representatives felt it was the first really conservative speech David Cameron had made with no mention of gay marriage or green issues but plenty on tax cuts. Just how they will be paid for whilst fulfilling much delayed promises to bring the deficit down to zero remains to be seen. Also for all the signs of recovery, it is not being felt in the pay packets of people in the north.

 

That’s a message that Ed Miliband hopes will keep Heywood and Middleton out of the clutches of UKIP in Thursday’s by election.