Hancock’s Half Page

LABOUR LANDSLIDE IN NORTH WEST ELECTIONS?

LABOUR LANDSLIDE IN NORTH WEST TOWN HALLS?

Labour could be heading for the dominance of  Town Halls in our region that they last enjoyed in the mid 1990s.

The local elections on May 3rd have been overshadowed by coverage of the elections and referendums on elected mayors. We need to remind ourselves that in Lancashire the issue is completely irrelevant. In most cases the old model of electing councillors to the Town Hall and the leader being chosen internally remains.

There are old fashioned elections for a third of the metropolitan councils in Greater Manchester and Merseyside. There are also contests for a third of the councillors in seven district councils in Lancashire and the all purpose councils in Blackburnwith Darwen,Warrington and Halton.

The political background against which these contests are taking place does have similarities to the mid nineties. In 1995 and 1996 the dying Tory government of John Major suffered successive hammerings in local elections which left them in control of only one council in the whole of the North of England.

Things aren’t that bad for the Conservatives this time but events have conspired to make it likely that this will be the election where the government really suffers the mid term blues. Last year the Tories dodged the bullet, partly because of the collapse of the Lib Dems. This time both coalition parties are likely to face the wrath of the voters for a range of reasons.

The economy is always the main factor and however much Ministers might look for signs of recovery, people and businesses are suffering.

Then there was the Budget. Far from helping Conservative and Lib Dem candidates in the North West, a range of unhelpful headlines will ensure a frosty reception on the doorstep, phone or Twitter.

The underlying strategy to keep bearing down on our national debt was right. What was wrong was not to foresee the reaction of people to the granny tax, the pasty penalty and the removal of tax relief on large charity donations.

So let’s look at how all this might play out on the ground in the North West with Labour having a healthy lead in the polls and the Lib Dems fighting with UKIP for third party status.

Labour is further helped by the fact that on the last three occasions when these seats were contested they did badly so they have “easy” ground to make up. In 2000 Tony Blair suffered mid term blues, in 2004 the Iraqwar was underway and in 2008 Gordon Brown’s brief honeymoon was over.

Last year the Tories made up for northern losses by taking Lib Dem seats in the south. This year they are defending some unlikely gains when Gordon Brown was in charge.

The Lib Dems may not repeat last year’s catastrophe which saw them lose nearly every seat they were defending in Liverpool and all in Manchester, but they could end up with less than three thousand councillors nationally for the first time since 1986.

Lancashire offers most prizes to Labour with the probability that they will win full control of Rossendale and become the largest party in Pendle, Chorley and Burnley. In Pendle and Chorley the Conservatives are currently the largest party, but in Burnley it’s the Lib Dems.

A Labour recovery in Burnley would mark the end of eight dark years for the party. They lost control in 2004 initially to a surge from the British National Party who were in turn replaced by the Lib Dems.

On the back of that the Lib Dems got Gordon Birtwhistle elected as MP which illustrates the importance of these polls for the General Election in three years time. If your council base is knocked away, you can lose the activists you need to fight the parliamentary contest.

An outside prospect for Labour is West Lancashirewhere they would need a net gain of six seats to resume the control they lost in 2002.

On Merseyside the most significant contest will be in Wirral. All hell has broken out around Wallasey Town Hall in the last couple of years. Two years ago the Tories took minority control. Last May Labour were back only for the Tories to link up once again with Lib Dem support to put Conservative Jeff  Green back in charge in February.

Steve Foulkes, the long standing leader of Labour in the peninsula is standing down and added to all this a tale of alleged council officer incompetence is being revealed. Labour’s new leadership is hoping it can gain full control for the first time in ten years.

Labour has never had full control of Sefton. They need a net gain of five seats which will be difficult in this historically balanced council, but deep Tory divisions centred on ex Tory Sir Ron Watson may help.

In Greater Manchester, Lib Dem minority control of Stockport is in jeopardy. A lot will depend on whether the consistently underperforming Tories can help Labour in squeezing the Lib Dems.

Labour should take full control of Rochdale where the Lib Dems have been hit by defections to the Tories and Labour should consolidate the hold that they gained in Bury by the drawing of lots in a dead heat ward last May.

Trafford is likely to remain the one Tory bastion in Greater Manchester although Labour entertains a thin hope of removing the Tories overall majority.

Labour will hold the unitaries of Blackburn with Darwen, Halton and Warrington. In the latter case a particularly interesting contest will take place in the Lymm ward. Long standing Tory matriarch Sheila Woodyatt is up against Labour’s Su Williams. Williams is well regarded for her local community work and it might make a difference.

It is a reminder that for all the national political tides at work, local candidates can often make a difference.

MANCHESTER CENTRAL: ANOTHER CHANCE FOR RESPECT?

MANCHESTER CENTRAL

Could the drama of Bradford West be rerun in Manchester Central?

Labour chooses its candidate next Monday to replace Tony Lloyd who is set to resign to stand for Police and Crime Commissioner for Greater Manchester.

Manchester Central has some of the characteristics of the Yorkshire seat that saw George Galloway’s shock victory for Respect at the end of last month.

Nearly 30% of the electorate is non-white and many feel this would be an appropriate constituency for Labour to choose an ethnic minority candidate. It is long overdue for Manchester to end its white male monopoly representation at Westminster.

If that is to happen then Patrick Vernon is the man. He is Chief Executive of the Afiya Trust, one of the leading race equality health charities in the country.

However he faces an uphill task. He is a Londoner facing three experienced Manchester politicians.

Party bosses are hoping that Lucy Powell will be chosen. She is a close aide of Labour leader Ed Miliband but failed to dislodge the Liberal Democrats from the neighbouring Withington seat two years ago.

The other candidates are Manchester councillors Mike Amesbury and Rosa Battle.

If Lucy Powell is chosen, will she face a similar challenge from Respect that Labour failed to withstand in Bradford?

Probably not as Manchesteris a city well run by Labour without a hole in the ground where a shopping complex was meant to be, as was the case in Bradford.

But there will be nervousness about the timing of the contest after Galloway’s victory and because by elections that are caused by party manoeuvrings, rather than the death of an MP, often annoy voters and lead them to punish the party that held the seat.

 

FROM PRISON TO TOWN HALL?

The government hoped that a different type of person would stand to be elected mayors instead of the usual political suspects.

Well they have certainly got what they wished for in Salford. Paul Massey hasn’t got a political record, but he certainly has a criminal one. In 1999 he was jailed for 14 years for stabbing a man in the groin. Mr Massey will give a whole new meaning to the description “independent candidate” when he stands against the likely winner, ex-Labour MP Ian Stewart, in the poll next month.

There are ten candidates in Salford but a full dozen in Liverpool where the race will be on to stop the Joe Anderson political bandwagon.

One blow for the current council leader will be that he will not appear at the top of the voting paper.

Normally alphabetical order prevails but there appear to be different rules for this new post. Election officials carried out a ballot which resulted in Joe being placed second behind the National Front representative.

There are a number of quality candidates including successful businessman Tony Caldeira for the Tories, experienced Richard Kemp for the Lib Dems and Tony Mulhearn who has stuck to his socialist principles all his life.

But the independent candidate Liam Fogarty should be given serious consideration. Liam was my producer at the BBC and has been campaigning for an elected mayor forLiverpool when most of the other candidates were still pouring scorn on the idea.

Nominations are now closed for the two mayoral polls and the local elections across Lancashire, Greater Manchester and Merseyside. The parties are all likely to be affected by three extraordinary weeks in politics.

 

GALLOWAY: THE POLITICAL TROUBADOUR

By all means the major political parties should beat themselves up over the result in Bradford West. They need to ask themselves how a political maverick and a powerful social media campaign among the Asian community of that city, left them floundering.

However it is likely to be one of those by election soufflés. We have seen a few of them in the North West.

Shirley Williams was elected at the height of the surge of the Social Democrats in 1981 as MP for Crosby, but dismissed by the fickle electorate two years later. The SDP had a similar experience ten years later when Mike Carr won Ribble Valley on the back of poll tax anger. He lasted a year.

Chris Davies managed just two years as Lib Dem MP for Littleborough and Saddleworth from 1995-97 following a by-election.

By-elections, like the European Parliament elections are classic opportunities for otherwise serious voters to let their hair down and give the major parties a kicking knowing that the government of the country is not at stake.

Bradford West was a bit different because of the complex world of Asian politics which mixes uneasily with the traditional politics of Westminster.

We saw that in the 2010 General Election in Oldham East and Saddleworth where old Labour party apparatchiks answer to Muslim voters drifting to the Lib Dems was to “get the white vote out”.

But there was was no sign of the dodgy leaflets in Bradford that did for Phil Woolas in Oldham.

One suspects that in Bradford a fairly complacent Labour machine felt they just had to put up a well known member of the Muslim community and job done. But Galloway has been riding political bandwagons since 1987 when he defeated the leader of the Social Democrats, Roy Jenkins, in Glasgow Hillhead.

After saluting Saddam Hussein and getting expelled from the Labour Party, Galloway was at it again defeating an excellent MP, Oona King in Bethnal Green and Bow in 2005.

People made the mistake of thinking that pretending to be a cat slurping milk on Big Brother would do for him. But the Muslim community of Bradford West appears to have turned a blind eye to such decadence.

Certainly the younger members of that community have anyway, because there is evidence that a frantic surge of tweeting in the final days caught the main parties napping. The doorstep encounter is no match for the iPhone amongst the young. That’s something all parties will now have taken note of.

So where have all these events left the parties in our patch with a three weeks to go to the local and mayoral polls?

Despite Bradford, Labour is set to do well. We are now deep into mid term and that is usually a bad time for the party in power. Nowadays the government is both the Tories and Lib Dems, so it’s a win win for Labour. Also Labour did really badly in this round of elections in 2008 and can regain lost seats relatively easily.

For the Tories we only have to put together a few bizarre phrases to identify their short term problems.

Just think of a granny munching on an ambient temperature pasty while trying to fill a jerry can and you have identified that the Conservatives have temporarily lost the plot. They are heading for the mid term hammering that they avoided last year. But petrol and pasties will be forgotten if the underlying economic woes can be sorted out in the next couple of years.

The Lib Dems are perhaps staring down the barrel of a pistol rather than a double barrelled shotgun this year, but it stlll looks pretty dire for them. Local elections used to be great for their party. They were grateful recipients of the votes of people fed up with the government. But they are the government now and will only be saved in some places by the individual work put in by councillors in particular wards.

WOMEN IN POLITICS: MORE TO DO

WOMEN IN POLITICS: MORE TO DO

Would Emmeline Pankhurst be proud of the progress that Blair’s Babes, Gordon’s Girls and Cameron’s Cuties have made in breaking the glass ceiling in British politics?

One thing’s for certain the Suffragette leader of a hundred years ago would be appalled that the popular press can still get away with the sexist headlines that  so often accompany commentary on the role of our female MPs at Westminster.

Despite women only shortlists and determined drives by political parties to rectify the problem, there is still a lack of women in leadership roles at Westminster and in our Town Halls.

You would expect that the greater the number of women MPs and councillors would lead to more of them emerging into top jobs, therefore the following statistics are worrying.

Men outnumber women 4 to 1 in Westminster, at this rate it will take another fourteen General Elections for parliament to reflect the population it purports to represent.

Only 5 out of 23 cabinet ministers are women. Just 31% of councillors are female and 13% of local council leaders are women.

The Town Hall figures contradict the notion that women find it easier to be involved in local politics. The argument goes that as the activity is local it is easier for women to manage the demands of work and family.

We can all recall some formidable female local government leaders in the North West and more widely. Louise Ellmann, the current MP for Liverpool Riverside, had her most prominent years in politics as leader of Lancashire County Council.

At County Hall in Preston in the 1980s she developed the then pioneering notion that local government could be a partner with business in creating  jobs. Lancashire Enterprises was her vision.

Politicians on police authorities have recently been accused of being low profile. That charge could not be laid against Margaret Simey in Merseyside and Gay Cox in Greater Manchester. In the troubled early 1980s these chairs of their respective police committees were more than a match for powerful Chief Constables Ken Oxford and James Anderton.

Turning to the present, Marie Rimmer gives robust leadership to St Helens council, fiercely protecting what she sees as the interests of her town from the potentially overbearing influence of Liverpool.

But these women are the exception. Down the years and across the region the vast majority of Town Hall leaders are men.

When it comes to the Chief Executives of our local councils, the position is very different. Salford,Wigan, Trafford, St Helens, Knowsley and Cheshire East are among the authorities with a woman on top.

The reason for this perhaps gets us to the heart of the problem of why there aren’t more prominent women in politics.

Although Chief Executives work hard, they owe their positions to competitive interview. It’s a process that generally leads to appointment on the basis of ability. Once in post, the employment contract goes a long way to protecting job security.

To become leader of a council, you first have to get selected by your party, then elected to the council, then get elected by your group to the position of leadership. It involves the sort of 24/7 commitment that few women can contemplate. It is also often a very male world of clans, macho politics and the pub.

I realise I am generalising here. I have personal knowledge of men who have taken on domestic responsibilities to allow their partners to pursue a political career, but they are the exception.

Now let us turn to Westminster where some parties have introduced artificial methods to boost the female count. Labour’s women only shortlists and the Tories A-list of candidates being the most promising examples.

In the eighty odd years between 1918, when women first stood for parliament, and 1997 when MPs first entered parliament from women only shortlists, progress was slow. Parliament remained largely male, pale and stale.

However those women that did break through made a big impression. It may be their rarity value that drew the public’s attention but the North West had a remarkable collection of women MPs amid the massed ranks of the men in the post war years.

Leading the way was Barbara Castle. The MP for Blackburn for over thirty years. In her ministerial posts she introduced seat belts, the breathalyser and earnings related pensions. As First Secretary she fought a mighty battle with the unions on curbing wildcat strikes.

She thrived under the patronage of Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson, one of the few holders of that office to actively promote women. She was sacked by Wilson’s successor Jim Callaghan, a product of the male and stale trade union brigade.

Bessie Braddock was elected at the same time as Red Barbara and although she never held ministerial office, she was a major figure inLiverpool politics for thirty years. Gwyneth Dunwoody served Crewe for even longer and made ministers that appeared before her Transport Select Committee tremble. Angela and Maria Eagle have made their mark in the last fifteen years representing Merseyside seats.

On the Conservative side Margaret Thatcher had to battle male prejudice before rising to the top job as did Lynda Chalker in Wallasey and Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman in Lancaster, one of the last Tory dames to grace the back benches.

It was always said that Conservative women were the main block on female advancement in the party, believing for a long time after it became publicly unfashionable, that a woman’s place was in the constituency helping her male MP husband. That way they got two for the price of one.

The lack of women MPs has been a severe problem for the party that should find it most easy to select females, the Lib Dems. They have 7 women MPs out of 57 and they are all in marginal seats. 2015 could see the party with no female representation at Westminster at all.

Sporadic attempts to introduce quotas or women only shortlists have been thwarted by activists who have argued that such methods are fundamentally illiberal.

Will women make the breakthrough to equality of representation at Town Hall and Westminster? It is difficult to be optimistic particularly because one senses an irritation when the issue is mentioned. There’s a feeling that the matter has been dealt with or not enough qualified women put themselves forward.

The only hope lies in a fundamental shift in the way we do politics. The Bradford West by election showed that there isn’t much enthusiasm for the conventional parties or the way they do politics. Perhaps a breakdown in traditional allegiances will lead to new parties with greater appeal to women to put themselves forward.

COME DINE WITH ME

So now we know how those millionaires secured their tax break in the recent budget…. dining at Dave’s Dodgy Downing Street diner.

Mind you Labour is in no position to point fingers with the Unite union effectively choosing the next Labour leader and possible Prime Minister.

Nor are the Lib Dems in the clear on the issue of party funding, remember their association with donor Michael Brown who was convicted of fraud?

We’re told politicians hate these fund raising dinners when they have to sit for hours over the rubber chicken listening to some boring, but hopelessly wealthy donor, droning on about the 50p tax rate.

Well let’s put them out of their misery.

I’m a member of the Richard the Third Society. We campaign to correct the wholly distorted image of this fine king by that Tudor spin doctor Will Shakespeare. We can only spend the subscriptions we receive. It is the same for thousands of clubs and organisations all over the country.

So let the political parties survive on what they can get individual members to pay, with a ceiling of £5000.

I can hear the howls of anguish now. The democratic process will grind to a halt! The parties won’t be able to communicate with the voters!

What does this communication amount to? In the years between elections the parties tick over, selecting candidates, fighting local elections and spending modest amounts of money. When the General Election comes all reason is cast to the wind and millions are spent on posters, battle buses and political consultants. The mounting debts can be left for another day.

Most of what that money is spent on irritates the public profoundly. That’s why the concept of state aid (you and I paying for it in our taxes) is a non runner.

There is an argument that the political parties should be able to communicate with us directly on TV without the interference of journalists. So I propose that the BBC be charged with producing the party political broadcasts out of the licence fee money.

Not an appropriate use of the licence fee? Sorry that principle has been breeched already with BBC money being siphoned off to pay for digital switchover.

Most attention has focused on the Tories but Labour has become far too dependent on the unions. Union barons bankroll the party up to 90%. Ed Miliband denounces most strikes, so we can’t say this arrangement buys the barons much effect on policy. But the unions did bring their influence to bear in the leadership election. With rank and file members and MPs backing David Miliband, it was the union vote that secured Ed his victory. After the Bradford West debacle many in the party think the unions made a bad call.

Union members should have to positively opt in to having part of their sub paid to the Labour Party. I think most would and if not, that’s tough.

In any other walk of life if you want someone to give you money, you have to provide a product or service that they want. So it should be in politics. Then we stop this endless cycle of scandal as parties try to raise money either from dodgy characters or people expecting influence.