Hancock’s Half Page

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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ELECTED MAYORS: FIRST YEAR REPORT

 

THE LOCAL CHAMPIONS.

Last May the city regions of Manchester and Liverpool underwent the biggest change in local government since the Metro counties were abolished over thirty years ago.

Andy Burnham and Steve Rotheram were elected to give a voice to these conurbations and were given powers over strategic functions. Whatever criticisms there may be of what they have done so far, they have got on with it while other areas of the north have lacked the desire and vision to bring about similar devolution deals.

As they say at award ceremonies “let’s look at their work.”

ANDY BURNHAM UP FRONT

As a former Cabinet Minister Andy Burnham has grasped the essential point of this elected mayor business. It is to be a visible voice for a big city and nine smaller communities to government.

We saw this in action in the most awful of circumstances soon after Burnham took office. In the early days he spoke for all in saying Greater Manchester was “grieving and strong”, he held the government to their pledge on special funds and crucially set up a review which revealed shortcomings in the organisation of the blue light response to the outrage.

He has been high profile on a range of issues attracting the advice that he should sometimes get off the television screen and get on with the day job.

There are indeed a couple of thorny issues to be addressed that could bring him into conflict with Manchester City Council. The arrival of Mr Burnham has not been met with unalloyed pleasure. The city always has a difficult relationship with bodies it sees as challenging its position like the old Greater Manchester Council and more recently the North West Development Agency.

The first of these issues is the homeless. Burnham has made this one of his highest priorities but there are complaints that his stance on the issue has made the city centre a magnet for desperate people threatening to overwhelm support services.

The other issue is housing policy. There is growing unrest amongst Labour councillors in the city about the amount of luxury flat development and the lack of provision of affordable homes. One of Mayor Burnham’s first acts was to send the conurbation’s spatial planning strategy back to the drawing board calling it “developer driven”. The revised spatial strategy could see Burnham posing as the champion of affordable homes, leaving Manchester Council leader Sir Richard Leese with some uncomfortable questions to answer.

 

GIVE ME TIME: ROTHERAM.

 

Steve Rotheram did not take kindly to a recent article in the Liverpool Echo suggesting he hadn’t done much in his first few months in charge.

He reasonably makes the general point that his post requires him to deal with strategic issues from Southport to Runcorn and changes don’t come quickly. The other thing that needs saying is that he started from scratch and had to deal with an elected mayor in the city of Liverpool who was not in a mood to make life easy for his old friend. Some of those tensions have eased now and Rotheram is using his great personal skills to good effect. Only last week I met up with him in Runcorn at an event championing green energy. Rotheram sees the opportunity for hi tech, well paid jobs for the future in that sector. He is building a business case for a Mersey barrage

He has also unveiled plans for a range of initiatives from cheaper Fast Tags on the Mersey tunnels, a brownfield register for housing and a target of building 25,000 affordable homes.

However, like Burnham, the Liverpool City Region mayor wants more powers but in polls people seem unconvinced that he should have them.

The task of both men in the next year is to start delivering tangible results and convince the government to grant the full devolution powers that elected mayors need to succeed.

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IRRITATING AGONISING

 

DANGEROUS DITHERING.

Two areas of current debate are irritating me. One is what to do about Syria, the other what to do about representing the centre ground in British politics.

The issues are totally different, but they have this in common; futile, even dishonest, hand ringing by politicians.

SYRIA: ASSAD WILL WIN.

It gives me no pleasure to write that sub heading. Syria is ill served by the butcher Bashar-al-Assad. He is the main survivor from this century’s turmoil in the Middle East that saw the removal of many of the region’s dictators. In the brutal world of Middle East politics, it was a mistake to depose these dictators who, at least, ensured stability in their countries.

The West was heavily involved in Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan in the early years of this century motivated by securing oil supplies, fighting terrorism or introducing western style democracy depending on your point of view. The result was bloody chaos and the rise of the so called Islamic State.

This led to a complete volte face by the West as people in America and Britain understandably questioned why blood and treasure was being wasted on hopeless causes.

When opponents of Assad in Syria rose up and called on the West to help, we did little. As the slaughter became more widespread, President Barack Obama warned Assad not to cross the “red line” by using chemical weapons. They were used, and the USA did nothing. The UK Parliament voted in 2013 against air strikes in Syria.

So, intervention doesn’t work, and the current cautious policy of the West has been an invitation to Russia and Iran to fill the vacuum in Syria.

The sporadic threats and interventions of President Trump are too late, incoherent, will prolong the conflict and could lead to a global confrontation with Russia and Iran. With John Bolton as the new American National Security advisor anything is possible.

Of course, there should be peace talks but, Assad is going to win, so the earlier the violence ends the better. Meanwhile the West needs to decide what its real red lines are in relation to Russia, China and Iran.

And by the way the collapse of the EU, as forecast by an academic this week, would not help with stability.

THE CENTRE PARTY CHIMERA.

Tony Blair is never off the airwaves these days. I find his interviews frustrating. They start with an excellent analysis of the polarised state of British politics with the vast centre ground unrepresented.

Then he is asked to take the logical step of helping to form a new party and he goes all coy concluding that he is staying with Labour.

He is not alone. Many centrist politicians are happy to brief the media about £50m being available for a new party and how important it is that voters have a choice other than Brexit Tory or Statist Corbyn. But you never see names attached to these stories.

So, my message to Tony and his friends is either stop this self-indulgent chatter, get on with forming a new party or work with the Lib Dems with whom you have few real differences.

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CHANNEL 4 NATIONAL BASE IN LIVERPOOL?

 

MERSEY CHANNEL.

Channel 4’s new “national base” should be in Liverpool. The city has a great cultural tradition and potential location sites that would surely be attractive to staff currently working in their cramped Horseferry Road headquarters.

It would have the full support of the Liverpool City Region mayor, Steve Rotheram, who has recently launched a major cultural initiative. It would also help to balance the growth of media related industries in the North West following the huge investment that has followed the BBC’s move to MediaCity in Salford.

The chance for Liverpool to welcome Channel 4 comes after a major wrangle between the TV company and the government. Ministers are determined to end the hugely disproportionate location of media jobs and editorial decision making in London. Channel 4 did not want to move hence a messy compromise whereby they will have a national headquarters outside London but will still retain their base on Horseferry Road. Although they are pledged to locate executives in their out of town “national” base, constant vigilance will be required to stop them slipping back.

I remember the era when the BBC was located in Oxford Road Manchester when departments that were formally located in the city and executives fleeing back to London on Friday afternoons.

Liverpool will face competition from the likes of Birmingham. We have already seen from the choice of the Midlands for the 2022 Commonwealth Games, over Liverpool’s bid that the presence of a Conservative mayor there is doing them no harm.

OTHER MEDIA MATTERS.

The media is increasingly important providing hi tech and creative jobs in the northern economy. It is also at the centre of the current debate around fake news and data mining.

To keep up to date with developments I recently attended a major media conference in Oxford where the first subject on the agenda was a very old one; the future of the BBC. I think we can put that on the backburner following remarks by the Culture Secretary Matt Hancock. He pointed out that licence fee funding had just been agreed for the new charter and what’s more there is overwhelming public support for it. Nevertheless, in the longer term one fears for that method of funding one of our great institutions.

Fake news inevitably came up and in a way that horrified me. Apparently on the night of the Manchester Arena terrorist outrage, a fake story was put out that Oldham hospital had also been targeted. The more sensational the story, the more clicks it gets. That’s the pernicious economic cycle that must be broken as Google and Facebook hopefully move from adolescence to maturity.

200 local papers have closed in recent years and there was a session on the issue of who is now reporting our courts and councils? Some good community sites have sprung up, but they are no substitute for professional and regular coverage by journalists. And into the vacuum come the angry, the ill informed and people with agendas.

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