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BEST OF MATES

TOP OFFICERS IN GREATER MANCHESTER DEBATE FOR FIRST TIME.

Downtown has a reputation for putting on great events and this week we brought together Joanne Roney, the Chief Executive of Manchester Council and Eamonn Boylan the CEO of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority.

It was the first time they had debated together since taking up their posts 18 months ago. In the past relations between the city and “upper tier” organisations like the Greater Manchester Council in the seventies and the Regional Development Agency in the noughties have been poor.

But the chemistry between the two looked promising at the Downtown gathering which is just as well as both face big challenges. Congestion on road and rail in Greater Manchester is beyond a joke. However both CEOs ruled out revisiting the congestion charge idea defeated in a referendum in 2008. The controversial housing strategy has been further delayed and all eyes are on the mayor, Andy Burnham, to see if he can deliver on his rough sleeping promises.

Then there is Brexit. Boylan could not have been clearer about the likely threat to the Greater Manchester economy because our trading links with the EU are stronger than other parts of the country.

Joanne Roney inherited Sir Howard Bernstein’s concentration on economic development. She said whilst that would continue her focus was on providing better education and social services in the city.

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MAY FREE TO NEGOTIATE DEAL.

DANCING QUEEN IN CHARGE.

As I forecast last week, The Prime Minister had a good conference. While the hard line Brexiteers raged at the fringe meetings, the mainstream of the party held things together in the hall. Mrs May’s speech showed less of the Maybot and more of a woman trying to do a very hard job in the face of rank treachery from Boris Johnson and his allies.

Direct reference to the Chequers Plan was cleverly avoided, but the success of the Birmingham conference will give room for Mrs May to get a deal with the EU. After that an alliance of sane MPs that may include the likes of Labour’s Lisa Nandy (Wigan) and Caroline Flint (Don Valley) will vote to avoid a No Deal exit.

It has been quite alarming to see the hatred against the EU being expressed at Tory fringe meetings. In the Birmingham bubble these extreme Brexiteers were immune to the dire warnings coming from Vauxhall and Toyota bosses at the Paris Motor Show. If Brexiteers want to dismiss them as “project fear”, try this for “project fact”. A clinical trial of a ground-breaking heart drug has been put on hold by a California company because of Brexit uncertainty.

Against my better judgement I queued for over an hour for the Boris Johnson rally. I hope I witnessed the last hurrah of this discredited man. Hopefully his constant treachery to Mrs May has weakened his support, even amongst the grassroots. The man has no political integrity denouncing the Northern Ireland backstop which he had agreed to in Cabinet last December.

Far more sense was spoken at another fringe meeting I attended where Tory MP Philip Lee, who resigned from the government to promote his call for a second referendum, warned that the Tory Party was heading for a death spiral. We had been shown polling figures which suggested many Tories regarded Brexit as more important than keeping Labour out of office. Lee forecast that Labour would present a powerful case to voters by blaming everything that goes wrong after March 29th on those who had taken us out of the EU.

END OF CONFERENCE SEASON.

As Parliament returns we find the Conservatives just ahead in the polls, a condemnation of Labour effectiveness 18 months after a General Election. Theresa May has every chance of battling on until Brexit is delivered and possibly longer. This is partly because she is seen to be doing her best in difficult circumstances and because the Tories are preparing policies to counter the potentially effective Labour message about the unfairness of Britain. Mrs May’s decision to remove the shackles from council house building shows a preparedness to be flexible on ideology.

Labour had a good conference and are in tune with voters on issues like the railways and utility companies ripping off loyal customers. However, they are handicapped by their flirtation with far left causes and people.

It has been a bad conference season for Lib Dems and moderate Labour MPs. They lack the political strategy and vision to create a new centre force just when its needed most.

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MAY WILL SURVIVE CONFERENCE INTACT.

 

STANDING TALL.

After the Salzburg ambush, the Prime Minister addressed the nation with two Union Jacks behind her. The absence of the EU flag was significant. Her message, that she was not going to be bullied by Brussels, will be her stance in Birmingham this weekend. The Brexit talks are on hold because Mrs May needs to prolong the Salzburg image of herself as the reasonable woman ambushed by obdurate Europeans.

Such a stance will play well with the grassroots and will help to nullify the attempt by Boris Johnson to hijack the conference. He is due to address a big rally on the eve of her keynote speech. The extreme Brexiteers will continue to denounce the Chequers compromise that the Prime Minister supports, but the suggestion that Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt was leading a Cabinet revolt in favour of a Canada type deal has faded.

Salzburg has rescued Mrs May from what was going to be a nightmare conference, as has Liverpool. Labour’s week on Merseyside has presented the Tories with so many opportunities to go on the attack.

Labour are in a shambles on Brexit. I was at the Pier Head rally on Sunday where European flags were almost as numerous as the contradictions coming from the platform. The leader of the GMB Union made it clear a People’s Vote would only be on the deal whilst every other speaker wanted the Remain option to be considered. Anyway, it was nice to catch up with one of the speakers, ex Everton hero Peter Reid, making his first foray into politics.

Then came the Brexit debate on the floor of conference. The result is the party will be vulnerable to Tory claims in Birmingham that it wants to overturn the democratic vote of the people, whilst at the same time being in open disagreement over whether Remain would be an option in a People’s Vote. Corbyn made his position clear by hugging a delegate who called the EU “a capitalist conspiracy”.

Mrs May can even look forward to some Labour MPs voting for her deal, if she can get one. Opponents of the EU like Blackley’s Graham Stringer may be joined by the likes of Wigan’s Lisa Nandy who is reported as being critical of Labour’s preparedness for a parliamentary impasse.

Calls by Crewe MP Laura Smith for a general strike to bring down the Tories and Shadow Minister Dawn Butler’s support for the 1980s Liverpool Militants stance on “breaking the law, not the poor” will be meat and drink to Tory supporters. One could say “who is Dawn Butler?” and even more “who is Laura Smith?”. Small fry in the great scheme of things, but I can tell you their speeches represented the general feel of the Liverpool conference that I will now turn to.

THE RADICAL GAMBLE.

The Corbyn revolution was confirmed in Liverpool. The conference was huge. The fringe meeting rooms totally inadequate (my only criticism of the venue) for the number of people wanting to debate the priorities for a Labour government. Gone was the subdued mood of New Labour where lobbyists in suits circled the debating hall where delegates were invited to watch discussions being held on sofas. The conference now is a forum for left wing zeal and endless debates on rule changes.

It is also the place where this week the leader, Jeremy Corbyn and Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell set out their policies for a fairer Britain. Some of the proposals, like rail nationalisation, will have support well beyond normal Labour ranks. But the proposal to effectively nationalise 10% of large companies has sent shockwaves through business already reeling from Brexit uncertainty.

Promises to create green jobs in northern communities still suffering from the loss of traditional industries and changes in Treasury rules to help infrastructure investment are good. The Tories are vulnerable to Labour’s claim we live in an unfair society.

OTHER CONFERENCE JOTTINGS

There will be no breakaway from Labour moderates. At the Progress Rally, MPs who oppose Corbyn, made it clear they were staying and fighting their corner. Good luck with that.

I was at the Jewish fringe where Wavertree MP Luciana Berger arrived with a police escort. They remain unconvinced anti-Semitism will be rooted out.

So, its off to the Midlands Engine after a week when Liverpool looked its best in the sunshine and the local economy was given a boost.

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FOR THE MANY, BUT TOO FEW.

 

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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