Hancock’s Half Page



Labour’s conference is starting this weekend in Liverpool, just across the water from the Wirral where the party is in turmoil and the Birkenhead MP Frank Field has resigned the whip. We will see if party managers can deliver a united front on the conference floor. On the fringes tensions over anti-Semitism and deselection of MPs will be harder to suppress.

However there are straws in the wind that the swing to the left may have reached its peak. Major unions, which in the past have curbed militants, raised their voices at Wednesday’s National Executive meeting (see below). There are also suggestions that John McDonnell has had enough of the anti-Semitism row and wants to reign in the ultra left.

On the policy front things don’t look much easier for Jeremy Corbyn. He is coming under increasing pressure to back a people’s vote on Brexit. He will want to resist it because he has been against the EU since we joined. He sees it as getting in the way of a socialist programme which includes supporting employment in ways that the EU’s State Aid rules don’t allow. But frustration is building, significantly within some trade unions who see their members jobs under threat from a chaotic Brexit. Some party members think Labour could get ahead in the polls by striking out in a Remain direction. But the party is in a bind as complex as the Tories over Brexit.

In the North especially, the Labour Leave vote was strong, and the fear is that a clear move towards a second vote or remaining in the EU might lose the party seats in the smaller northern towns.

This is the second round of conferences since the General Election and the main opposition party is normally miles ahead of the government in the polls. That is not the position this time. Jeremy Corbyn will make his leader’s speech with the party neck and neck with the Conservatives or even behind. Level pegging with a party tearing itself apart over Brexit and presiding over a country where social problems continue to mount! Unemployment may be at a record low but there are massive problems with housing, elderly care, prisons and transport.

Corbyn is right that these issues need to be addressed, even in a radical way. The problem is that many people do not believe he would be an effective Prime Minister quite apart from the baggage he brings with him from his past and present.

For instance, when even the left dominated National Executive Committee was trying to settle the anti-Semitism row earlier this month, the leader of the party had to be defeated on an unhelpful amendment.

The party’s National Executive will meet again on the eve of conference to discuss  the idea an open selection system for MPs. Supporters of change argue that the current “trigger ballot” system forces members to vote against their sitting Labour MP in a negative way to get a contest. An open selection would allow people to vote positively for the candidate of their choice. The sitting Labour MP would be one of them. The problem is they would potentially be very vulnerable to Momentum activists keen to oust opponents of Corbyn.

Another flashpoint that has been avoided for now is the influence of party members over Labour councillors. This was a huge issue in the early 1980s and is back under discussion again, but decisions have been put back to a review next year.

So, with internal splits, anti-Semitism and Brexit it looks like a tough conference ahead for Labour.

Watch John McDonnell, the Shadow Chancellor is a hard leftist, but he also wants the party to break out of the morass and offer a credible alternative to the discredited Tories. He may be leader before long although without the cries “Oh John McDonnell”.

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The days of John Prescott thumping the table and demanding power for the North are long gone according to the people now in charge of devolution. Instead of the Hull bruiser we have the softly spoken Nick Forbes, the leader of Newcastle Council and his friend with the money, Nigel Wilson. He’s North East born Nigel Wilson, Chief Executive of Legal and General.

These gents were the keynote speakers at the first Convention of the North held in Gateshead last week. They were full of optimism with Forbes keen to stress that we can do a lot of things for ourselves without being reliant on central government. Wilson claimed there was plenty of private sector money waiting to be invested in projects in the North.

When I questioned these speakers, I ended up feeling a bit Eeyoreish because my view was that this Convention was being held at a difficult time for devolution and the Northern Powerhouse (NP).

Most people in the North voted to leave the EU. This wasn’t just an expression of disillusion with Brussels, but Westminster too. But convincing people to have faith in northern powerhouses and conventions is proving difficult. People take little interest in the structures of government. This perhaps explains why the, once a year Convention, has not put in place a representative assembly as suggested by some.

But the other reason why devolution has a bad name at the moment is the sclerotic rail and road system in the North. Over three years ago connectivity was identified as the top priority for the NP, linking up the major cities of the north that enjoyed proximity but were poorly connected. The dreadful experience of people this summer on the trains has left many people asking if northern devolution means anything.

The Convention for the North aims to give a voice to the whole area from the Scottish Border to the Humber and Mersey. The NP tended to focus on the cities only. Civic leaders, and representatives of business, the unions and civil society stakeholders came to Gateshead for this purpose.

But the approach is to be cautious. Cllr Forbes told me the Convention would not be a vehicle for whingeing to the government about how bad things are in the north. “We can do it for ourselves” the leader of Newcastle told me.

But can they? The conference documents were littered with reform the Convention wants and only the government can grant. Reform of the Apprenticeship Levy, sharing regional funds that currently come from the EU and more transport powers to name but a few.

It is true that Sir Howard Bernstein and Sir Richard Leese gained many powers for Greater Manchester by a cooperative approach to Whitehall. But crucially they had a sympathetic person at the highest level of government sitting across the table in the shape of Chancellor George Osborne.

Cllr Forbes and his colleagues are facing a government distracted by Brexit and, if anything, prioritising the Midlands Engine.

However, the Convention of the North is in place. Let us hope the private sector step up to the plate with investment that used to come from London and let us also hope that promises made in Gateshead to make all this relevant to ordinary people are fulfilled.

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With Brexit extremists undermining their Prime Minister and Labour proving they are unelectable, it seems hardly credible that the forthcoming Liberal Democrat conference is almost irrelevant.

At a time when moderate politicians ought to be offering a new, properly funded, grassroots based alternative, they continue to operate in their tired tribal ways.

The resignation of the Labour whip by Frank Field last week shows the problem. It was a one off from a man who has always ploughed his own furrow at Westminster whilst ensuring a good press by courting lobby journalists. He has also had a poisonous relationship with constituency activists in two spells. In the 1980’s he was rescued from the Militants by the Neil Kinnock inspired purge. Many of the same people have returned because they feel free to resume their bullying tactics at constituency party meetings nowadays. It is not just in Birkenhead either. This summer I have heard what long standing Labour members are having to put up with elsewhere.

Field’s resignation is full of irony because he was one of the fools who nominated Jeremy Corbyn for the leadership in 2015 in the belief it would be fair to give this backbencher an opportunity to air his views prior to being defeated by someone like Andy Burnham.

Having landed the Labour Party with the unelectable Corbyn, Field now resigns alone with no vision as to how his, tough on scroungers/compassion to the needy social policy can be implemented. Would he join a new centre party? Probably not and there isn’t really one anyway.


There isn’t a centre alternative because the Liberal Democrat leader Vince Cable has failed in his year in office either to make his party relevant, or tell it the hard truth that it needs to be wound up in favour of a new centre party made up of Labour and Tory moderates, liberals, social democrats and crucially new unaligned people like Gina Miller. Miller forced the government to hold a parliamentary vote on triggering our exit from the European Union. Unfortunately, she is currently in the ranks of the pathetic centrists, saying she won’t enter formal politics, but that could change. In any case, as we saw in France, some inspiring centre leadership could bring a huge response from people who are desperate for a change from the current bitter mess.

Meanwhile the Lib Dems in Brighton are likely to spend their time arguing over Vince Cable’s idea of allowing the possibility of a non-MP becoming leader of the party. It is an odd idea because the parliamentary arena is still very important in terms of the profile of any party leader. It is also pretty insulting to deputy leader Jo Swinson and rising star Layla Moran. Cable is also toying with having registered supporters. This also has its weaknesses, ask the Labour Party. Also, I think people should be members of a party and do the hard work or not at all.

If Cable wants a broad tent to accommodate all moderate opinion, he must work with Labour and Tory moderates.


Finally, we come to Labour moderate MPs who are understandably unconvinced about joining the Lib Dems. However, for two years now they have been resigning and taking jobs in Corbyn’s shadow administration whilst hinting that something is about to happen.

The nods and winks have got to stop. If they stay they must be reconciled to impotence. The National Executive election results shows that the left will be in charge for years. Forming a rebel Labour group in parliament would be an elitist move that would see them destroyed at the next election.

They need to build a new party quickly based on union (say the GMB) and ethical business funding. They need one other thing, never mentioned by the Westminster press, a major initiative to win over Labour councillors. That would help provide a sound grassroots base and avoid the fate of the SDP in the eighties that lacked a real organisational base.

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Business people are rightly sceptical when politicians propose setting up new tiers of governance. But at a convention in Gateshead next week a Council of the North is expected to be set up comprising six combined authorities, three county councils and 10 unitary authorities.

The idea is to give a collective voice to the partial devolution that has taken place in most parts of the area stretching from the Scottish border to Crewe and Hull.

The issues to be discussed are important to business, transport, skills, health, advanced manufacturing, energy, trade and investment. It will be essential that business people are closely involved and that the Council of the North does not just become a talking shop for the usual suspects of council leaders and mayors.

Since the clear framework of Regional Development Agencies and the Northern Way was scrapped in 2010, the government has proceeded with a dog’s dinner of Local Enterprise Partnerships, elected mayors and Combined Authorities. However, this is what we have to work with now and a Council of the North will hopefully help bring some coherence to it all as it speaks to London.

There is also to be a Northern Citizens’ Assembly. It is very important that people have a sense of ownership of devolution, but the politicians must listen to them. Let us hope it is a diverse Assembly. Devolution gatherings generally attract the male and pale.


The Council of the North’s task will be complicated by the slow progress in completing Combined Authority or unitary council models across the whole area.

Warrington and Cheshire (which I looked at last week) has a thriving economy but separate councils and an LEP. Cumbria has had three failed attempts at creating one or two unitary councils. Agreement on a future model still seems some way off in Lancashire and Yorkshire but Combined Authorities are working effectively in the North East and Tees Valley.

In Greater Manchester and Merseyside, the elected mayors have established themselves but will, no doubt, be telling next week’s NorthernConvention of the North that they want more power given to Transport For The North(TfN) and more influence to them over skills.


This organisation is already operating across the area that the Council of the North seeks to cover. It will be telling delegates about the seven “corridors of opportunity” where better connectivity is vital.

But TfN will be under pressure over the recent mayhem on the existing railways and from the conurbation mayors on specific matters. Steve Rotheram (Liverpool City Region Mayor) wants proper links to HS2 and a new station as Lime Street is up to capacity. He would not tell me at a recent conference where this should be sited.

Andy Burnham (Greater Manchester) has a top priority about getting Network Rail and the Highways Agency to work together particularly over the big issue of Trans Pennine connectivity by road and rail.


So, let’s wish the Council of the North well. Let’s hope it listens to ordinary people and business. Then it might be able to get the tin ears in Whitehall to realise that a balanced economy is the only way to try and counteract the economic problems we are going to face post Brexit.

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