Hancock’s Half Page

WILL TOWNS BE THE GOVERNMENT’S PRIOITY?

First it was regions, then cities; now could towns be the focus of government support to help close the North South divide?

The last Labour government, rightly in my opinion, put its faith in regions to revive the North. The Regional Development Agencies, Northern Way and Government Offices in Manchester, Newcastle and Leeds were visible signs that Whitehall didn’t control everything. It was intended that these organisations would be made democratically accountable by elected assemblies. That idea was defeated by the first stirrings of populism that is now rampant. Their cry was against “too much government”, ignoring the fact that, alongside assemblies, the plan was to abolish hundreds of politicians by scrapping 2 tier local government.

In 2010 the Coalition government abolished all regional structures sending a clear message to “left behind” communities in the North

By 2015 the Chancellor, George Osborne, had repented somewhat and set up the Northern Powerhouse. It was aimed at linking up the cities of the North. Manchester Council developed an unlikely bond with the Tory Chancellor, emphasising the city focus of the Northern Powerhouse.

But in 2016 many of the towns surrounding northern cities voted to leave the European Union. It was as much a protest at the way the cities were prospering while the towns were dying, as anything to do with the EU whose regional funds tried to spread benefits.

Lisa Nandy was one of the first politicians to take up the cause of towns, a policy the Wigan MP is pursuing in her Labour leadership campaign.

Meanwhile the Chief Executive of her local authority, Alison McKenzie-Folan spoke at a Downtown event this week and inspired our guests with her vision for the town. She has no problem with Wigan being a town, she believes such communities have an important and different proposition to put compared to cities. Wigan Council aims to be everywhere in the borough supporting businesses, backing culture, emphasising good transport links and preparing the community for the challenges of a decade ahead. The famous Wigan Pier is due to reopen soon.

The business support consists of access to training, planning assistance, networking and skills. As a result, relations with most businesses are good, but one detected a feeling that Wigan’s biggest employer, Heinz, could be more engaged with community. Low paid, low skilled jobs are a problem along with the need to retain young people once they have qualified.

The CEO addressed the political shock of Leigh voting in a Conservative MP for the first time in a century. McKenzie-Folan hinted that the new political trend might also show up in the local elections. In the past Leigh has felt the poor relation of Wigan, but the council had initiated a drive to reach out to all eleven communities that make up the borough.

Wigan is part of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority which is currently struggling with its strategy for new housing. The CEO acknowledged the tension between the public’s agreement that more houses were needed whilst objecting if the development was anywhere near them.

Downtown members were left with the impression that if the government are looking for town partners to deliver their devolution strategy, then Wigan is right up there.

RAISE YOUR GAME LISA !

THE NUMBER TEN TEST

Lisa Nandy will be taking part in a Labour leader hustings in Liverpool on Saturday that will be vital for her leadership hopes. Merseyside remained loyal to the party when seats across the rest of the North fell to the Tories for the first time in a century. Some of the area’s new MPs and many members give Corbyn ten out of ten.

Let’s hope they give the Wigan MP a hearing because Nandy’s analysis about what is making Labour unelectable is spot on. Her call for an end to the poisonous factionalism in the party to be replaced by team working is right.

She currently seems to be behind Keir Starmer and Rebecca Long-Bailey and needs to be able to answer the vital question for disillusioned ex Labour voters, can you see her walking into No 10 as Prime Minister? There is a lot of goodwill for her, but she needs to convince she could cope with national and international issues beyond Wigan.

Keir Starmer passes the test. He looks the part. He is staying close to the radical policies of Corbyn for now, but hopefully would move to the sensible centre if he won. However, I hope Lisa Nandy beats him because Labour needs a woman leader and someone who isn’t from North London.

There are two other formidable women candidates. Rebecca Long-Bailey gave Corbyn ten out of ten which tells you all you need to know. Many Labour members have told me her election would signal that the party has learnt nothing from its defeat, and they will quit.

Then we have Jess Phillips from Birmingham. Her big asset is her frankness and cheerfulness. The Labour Party has presented a grim image in recent years and an outward going personality did Boris Johnson no harm. However, she could be flaky on policy. A major early blunder was to suggest that Labour could campaign to return to the EU in 2024. She quickly backtracked.

I will waste little time on Emily Thornberry. Another North Londoner, her track record on Brexit and her personality means she hasn’t a prayer of rebuilding the northern red wall.

So, its Lisa Nandy for me but she needs a big union like the GMB to back her crusade to help the towns rather than the cities.

FLY ME TO THE CASH.

The government was right to bail out Flybe, although it could set a precedent. I am originally from the South West. Its 3 million people are frequently cut off by rail when King Neptune swamps the track at Dawlish. The road links are long and so Flybe’s services are essential.

People in the South West are nervous of the Northern Powerhouse, fearing they will be left on the side-lines with transport investment. So, the government took the right action which must be followed by the promised money being put into trains and buses in the North.

IT MAY BE YEAR OF THE NORTH

.

GET THE POWERHOUSE DONE!

The decision of thousands of Northern Labour voters to put their trust in Boris Johnson because of Brexit, may have a good side after all.

The Tories now represent places like Leigh and Heywood and, if they have any sense, those new Tory MPs will press the case for a real rebalancing of the national economy by a full implantation of the Northern Powerhouse.

The initial signs are promising. The Treasury is set to modify its criteria for backing infrastructure investment. This may seem a dry subject, but it has been crucial in denying us public investment over the years. No longer will schemes have to bring national growth. Benefit for the north will be enough. In the past nearly every investment plan for the London area met the old criteria because of the economic power and population size of the south east. It was more difficult to meet the challenge in the north. Let’s hope this opens the door for spending on transport, jobs and skills.

The Transport Secretary’s decision to get tough with train operator Northern is also welcome. He must have been listening to the Mayor of the Liverpool City Region, Steve Rotheram, who spoke for us all in his scathing criticism of this hapless train operator. The promised national shake up in the way the railways are operated mut include major devolution to the north.

2020 is going to be crucial in getting this project going. Johnson’s speech about being lent votes by lifelong Labour voters will quickly fade from memory unless ministers’ feet are held to the fire now.

THE RIGHT CLIMATE.

It is easy to argue that Brexit was the big issue of last year, but in the longer term 2019 may be seen as the year when ordinary people and some politicians really grasped what is going to be involved in preventing catastrophic climate change.

The fires in Australia and California may not convince Prime Minister Scott Morrison and President Trump that the time for denial politics is over, but the Glasgow conference later this year needs to see brave decisions taken that will cost us all money and force us to change our wasteful ways.

NOT ANOTHER ONE!

Not a General Election, Brenda from Bristol, but Americans will be going to the polls in November. The Democrats need to stop trying to remove President Trump from office this spring and concentrate on choosing a candidate who can do that job in November.

There are plenty of Democratic contenders but no obvious one to prevent Trump getting a second term on the back of a successful American economy.

Here attention will focus on mayoral elections. Merseyside will have two with Joe Anderson seeking another term in charge of the city and Steve Rotheram standing for re-election for the first time for the Liverpool City Region. In Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham is up for election.

They should all get back, but they can’t expect to benefit from the usual bounce back that a defeated General Election party gets in the next local polls.

At the moment it looks as if Labour is likely to choose another unelectable leader as it seeks to be the party of resistance to the Tories on the streets.

BREXIT.

I have not mentioned the biggest change that will take place for this country for decades. We Remainers have been roundly defeated and we must await events.

THE DESTABALISING DECADE.

When 2010 dawned Britain had had one change of government in 20 years. After four terms of Conservative majority rule, the torch was passed, without disruption to Labour. Tony Blair then won three elections handing on to Gordon Brown. He hoped that the 2010 poll would prove that New Labour had found the answer to making Labour the normal party of power.

Until Tony Blair’s hat trick, Labour had never fully established themselves in power. Two brief periods in the twenties was followed by the famous Attlee administration in 1945. Great as it was, it only lasted six years. Harold Wilson won four elections between 1964-74 but the periods of office were interrupted by a return to Conservative rule under Ted Heath.

In the 2010 election Gordon Brown wanted to ensure his party was in charge for the best part of two decades with New Labour’s magic recipe of capitalism with a conscience.

This did not happen. Instead the country was plunged into the most turbulent decade of politics for 100 years.

Labour’s 13 years in office ended with Gordon Brown threatening to go to Buckingham Palace to resign in order to force the Tories and Lib Dems to reach a coalition deal.

At the height of their influence, the Lib Dems threw in their hand with the Conservatives. After getting a taste of power for 5 years, they were decimated at the ballot box and were still being criticised in the recent lection for their complicity in austerity.

Many Tories were pessimistic about getting an overall majority in 2015, so perhaps it didn’t matter that much when Cameron made his fateful promise in 2013, that a full Conservative government would organise a “straightforward” in/out referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU if they won.

They did win, albeit with a majority small enough to allow Eurosceptics to make Cameron’s life difficult. But not to worry. With Etonian assurance Cameron decided to quickly redeem his promise. People would clearly vote to Remain, and he could get on with other things.

The Leave vote caused the biggest shock to the political establishment since the fall of France in 1940. An issue that had been a minor for most voters began to assume huge symbolic importance.

The next Prime Minister needed a bigger majority to get her approach to leaving the EU through. The voters once again hadn’t read the script. We were back to a sort of coalition, this time with the DUP.

After two hung parliaments with a brief Tory government dominated by an EU Referendum, it is easy to see how Boris Johnson was able, in the dying days of the decade, to win with a triumphant appeal to end the chaos.

IN the next decade England and Wales are likely to be ruled throughout by a Conservative government. From their immediate reaction to defeat, it appears the opposition parties are just focused on new leaders, without looking at a wide-ranging project for left cooperation.

Maybe Scotland and Northern Ireland also face ten years of Tory rule, but maybe not.