Hancock’s Half Page

STATE OF THE NORTH PART 1.

POWERHOUSE OFF THE RAILS

Early next month the movers and shakers of the Northern Powerhouse (NP) will meet in Gateshead for the first Northern Convention. Its aim will be to inject some impetus into the badly stalled project.

The loss of its champion, George Osborne, at the highest level of government, the distractions of Brexit, the rise of the Midlands Engine have all contributed to a sense that NP amounts to lots of fine words and little action to help people and business.

Connecting the close, but isolated, northern cities was at the heart of the NP vision. Transport for the North has been created and is doing good work. However, any good news from that area has been completely overwhelmed by the awful experiences of train passengers this summer on the northern networks. It is not just rail. Having been stationary on the M6 last week for two hours, my impression is that our motorways are getting worse not better.

Next month’s Northern Convention has a big job to do to address the cynicism that surrounds devolution after the rail debacle. Its vision is wider than the Northern Powerhouse which has tended to focus on the urban strip from Liverpool to Hull. It wants to speak for the whole of the North, including Tyne and Wearside, with a clear message to London that much more needs to be done to redress the imbalances in the English economy.

This week and next I’m going to take a look at the State of the North. I’ll begin with an area that is sometimes overlooked, but not by Downtown in Business which has recently set up a new network in Chester.

According to the Cheshire and Warrington Local Enterprise Partnership, the sub region has a £29bn economy. It has the second highest Gross Value Added outside London. It has 25% of the North West’s manufacturing output and more graduate level jobs than anywhere in the North.

There is a belief that Cheshire is a dormitory for Manchester and Liverpool. In fact, according to the LEP, more people travel to work in Cheshire and Warrington than go to the cities. The sub region is strong in manufacturing, life sciences, energy, chemicals, business services and (particularly in Warrington), distribution.

There are challenges. A lack of the right skills, congestion and lack of housing at the right price. There are plans for 127,000 new homes.

The three major conurbations are all faced with the challenges of the retail revolution but have business plans for the future. In the case of Crewe, they will play a central role in the Constellation Project which is focussed around the arrival of HS2. Warrington has its New City plans and Chester’s £300 million Northgate scheme will deliver a mix of retail, restaurant and leisure facilities.

There is still no sign of a Combined Authority for this sub region. There have been issues around an elected mayor and the politics are difficult. Cheshire East is a solidly Conservative council recently wracked by officer turmoil. Cheshire West and Chester is finely balanced with Labour in control at the moment. Labour chiefs in Warrington say they can see the benefits of a Combined Authority but remain confident they can progress without one.

So that’s the picture in the south west corner of the Northern Powerhouse. Next week I’ll look at the rest.

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LESSONS FROM 2017 GENERAL ELECTION

 

The latest YouGov opinion poll puts Labour at its lowest level of support since the 2017 General Election. The Conservatives are on 39% with Labour on 35%. In the approval stakes Mrs May is well ahead of Jeremy Corbyn, 36% to the Labour leader’s 22%. 39% aren’t sure, a significant comment on the quality of our political leadership at the moment I would say.

We need to put in the caveats that this is one poll and the fieldwork was done before the Boris Johnson burka furore, although I doubt it will have damaged the Tories as much as Labour’s antisemitism row has hurt that party.

That’s the up to date position in British politics. Despite a poorly performing Conservative government, Labour look a long way from winning power.

So, what have the two main parties learnt from last year’s General Election where, to some extent, we saw a return to a position where Labour and the Conservatives dominate. Perhaps that needs to be qualified. Whilst it is true the Lib Dems have disappeared as an effective force in parliament the strength of the Scottish Nationalists, Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionists strength means that we are nowhere near the position of 1966 where the two main parties shared 90% of the vote. Indeed, the Democratic Unionists have given formal support to Mrs May.

The decline of the Lib Dems might be an advantage for Labour in the sense that they are the only show in town on the left. But there were troubling underlying trends for Jeremy Corbyn to consider amidst the euphoria caused by doing less badly than he expected. Tory victories in places like Stoke South and Mansfield following the ousting of Ed Balls in Morley and Outwood two years earlier may be harbingers of an historic change in the English political map. It might suggest the north is becoming more Conservative while the South, particularly London, is becoming more radical.

The loss of heavy industry and mass trade unionism may at last be having an effect on politics, particularly in northern towns as opposed to cities. In these communities, small ‘c’ conservative values are growing and gained expression in the strong Leave vote. In the south, where people are generally more prosperous, there may be a trend to embracing leftish causes.

The increasing trend for elections to be fought on social media left the Tories flat footed last year. –The Conservatives are trying to address this problem, although given the age profile of their voters, it could be an awkward gear change for the party. However much both political parties put into it, the recommendation of Facebook friends will always be most effective.

Whilst on-line political discourse is on the rise, the conventional means of communicating with voters is on the decline. Few under 30’s read newspapers and less and less are watching TV. Having spent a career in the latter it pains me to write that, but it is strange that so much emphasis remains on what these traditional modes of communication are saying.

What’s trending on Facebook, Twitter (or whatever’s next) should be the question politicians ask at the next election, which won’t be until 2022 by the way.

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WOULD TORY MPs DARE TO BLOCK BORIS?

 

I am uncomfortable with women wearing the burka because to me it symbolises male oppression. Women have to cover their faces so as not to tempt men. Why can’t men be expected to behave with restraint?

Having said that I do not believe the burka should be banned because, for many, it is a religious symbol. I also get it that some younger Muslim women have taken to the burka as a statement of their identity.

Some have compared wearing the burka with wearing the crucifix. There are practical problems with this comparison. There are many situations where it is not safe or polite to have one’s face covered. We should be able to deal with all this if we are still a tolerant country. That includes open debate with no fear of political correctness. But it must be done without causing gratuitous offence.

But I am not sure we are capable of this anymore. Leading politicians on left and right are pandering to their extremes. Leading politicians like Boris Johnson. In an article where he was supporting the right to wear the burka, he made offensive comparisons which give licence to those who have racist views.

50 years ago, Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood” speech was supported by London dockers. Powell was a potential Tory leader at the time and knew what he was doing. Johnson knows what he is doing and the Prime Minister’s call for him to apologise for his “letter box” remark, plays into his hands. He offers a straight-talking alternative to the cautious wishy-washy Mrs May.

It is worth noting at this point that it is not just ambitious Tories who’ve dabbled in this dangerous area. Gordon Brown’s ambition for leadership of the Labour Party was notorious and his speech, on taking office, where he called for “British jobs for British workers”, was very ill judged.

But back to Boris who is clearly determined to keep in the limelight in case Mrs May should fall. I remain unconvinced this is going to happen soon, but if it did we need to remind ourselves of the Tory Party’s mechanism for electing a new leader.

The Conservatives have a more effective method than Labour of preventing ideological party members from choosing unelectable Prime Ministerial candidates. Tory MPs alone vote on leadership contenders until two are left. Only then does the contest go to party members across the country.

Given that some Conservative MPs are saying they would quit the party if Johnson became leader, the question arises as to whether the parliamentary party would dare to deny their activists the opportunity to vote for their hero Johnson.

That depends on how far Johnson has discredited himself. For me his buffoonery over the years, his ineffectiveness as London Mayor, his opportunism over Brexit, his demeaning of the office of Foreign Secretary and this latest bout of offensive behaviour to Muslims should be enough reasons for blocking him at the earliest opportunity.

But if enough Tories think Corbyn can be beaten with a hard line on Brexit, Muslims and immigration, then they may back Johnson.

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LABOUR AND JEWS: MANY THINGS ARE TRUE.

 

 

It is distressing to see the hurt and division caused by the anti-Semitism row that is splitting the Labour Party. Accusations are flung back and forth people, but more than one thing can be true at the same time. I would suggest that the following things have elements of truth in them.

CORBYN’S PAST.

The Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has spent his life fighting racism in its widest sense. However, he deeply believes in the creation of a Palestinian state and strongly objects to the methods used by the Israeli army to crush Palestinian dissent. In pursuit of this cause he has sometimes aligned himself with people who are rabidly anti-Semitic and want to wipe Israel off the face of the Earth.

Let’s say Corbyn was careless or naïve. That mattered because he was a member of parliament but the significance of his lack of judgement has changed dramatically since he became leader of the Labour Party and potentially Britain’s next Prime Minister.

When this row started he could have made a comprehensive statement regretting his past associations, clearly stating Labour’s position on Israel and Jews and crucially giving a high profile to the party’s action in expelling anti Semites from the party. People like the person who wielded a poster with the shocking slogan “For the Many Not the Jew”, at a pro Corbyn lobby of Westminster recently.

His failure to do these things shows his inability to manage and lead a political party.

Finally, the refusal to accept the widely agreed version of anti-Semitism is believed to be because many of his close associates would be in trouble for past breaches of that code.

ISRAEL’S BEHAVIOUR.

I hope most people in the Labour Party believe that Israel has the right to exist without being threatened by the Arab states around it or by Palestinian terrorist action.

Leaving that fundamental premise behind there is much to criticise in Israel’s current behaviour. The excessive use of force on the Gaza border, the illegal settlements in the occupied territories, and the recent constitutional changes which described the settlements as having “national value”. The reforms went on to downgrade the status of the Arab language and explicitly declared for the first time that Israel was the national home of the Jewish people. Israel is rightly angered by those who describe it as a racist state. It is important therefore that we hear more about its respect for, and welcome of, the Arab minority within its borders.

PLOT AGAINST CORBYN.

A final aspect of this controversy that can also be true is that some of Jeremy Corbyn’s enemies have found this row a very convenient way of attacking him in a wider sense.

Many Labour MPs, perhaps a majority, think he is incapable of achieving a General Election victory or of being a capable Prime Minister.

If this anti-Semitism row undermines his leadership so much the better say some privately. This has led to a bunker mentality in the circle around Corbyn which partly explains why this crisis has gone on for so long.

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