Hancock’s Half Page

LANCS LABOUR TARGET AND JOE’S CHANCE TO UPSTAGE MANCHESTER

The restless world of politics moves on. With the elections and Queen’s Speech out of the way, it is time to look to the political future of the North West after a busy week.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user johnnyenglish
Photo courtesy of Flickr user johnnyenglish

Two issues stand out. Following Labour’s good night in the district elections in Lancashire, the battle is already underway for the biggest prize of all, control of Lancashire County Council. Next year, it will be the only show in town in our patch, but expect the colourful leader of Lancashire, Geoff Driver, to put up a tough fight.

In the cities Joe Anderson is the unlikely pin up boy of the Tories having delivered an elected mayor whereas Manchester has not played ball. Already Cities Minister Greg Clarke is talking about giving the elected mayor transport powers although it would have to be with the agreement of the other councils on Merseyside. Good luck with that Joe.

With most cities joining Manchester in a no vote, it must have been a distinct possibility that Liverpool would have given a thumbs down too. So Joe Anderson’s move to get the council to bypass the referendum retains the whiff of a coup.

What will matter in the long term is if the handful of elected mayoral cities like Middlesborough, Bristol and Liverpool really do benefit from their Downing Street meetings with David Cameron or if they come to look like odd experiments in Town Hall governance that have done no better than the refusniks like Manchester and Birmingham.

There is speculation that the government is still toying with the idea of city region mayors if people want it. They should have legislated for that in the first place giving the conurbations real power. Instead they were vague on the powers of mayors and resorted to referendums which are not an effective way to make constitutional change. People don’t care enough about such issues and just use them to give the government a kicking.

Before we finish with mayors it will be worth keeping an eye on Salford where Ian Stewart was elected. He’ll be joining Joe Anderson on trips to Downing Street but he’s going to have to work hard to win the confidence of officers of the council. There’s also the question of his relations with John Merry, the former council leader who Stewart beat for the post.

Now let’s look at the council results in more detail.

 

LANCASHIRE ELECTIONS

A good night for Labour particularly in Blackburn with Darwen where they now hold nearly three quarters of the seats. A few years ago they lost power to a mixture of Tories, Lib Dems and For Darwen independents. The latter have disappeared completely, perhaps Darwen feels more comfortable about its relationship with Blackburn these days.

Labour returned to power in Burnley after a decade when first the British National Party and then the Lib Dems challenged its supremacy. The fascists are now off the council completely. The result must be worrying for the town’s Lib Dem MP Gordon Birtwhistle.

Labour also held Hyndburn and gained Rossendale and Chorley where six years ago David Cameron arrived by helicopter to celebrate the Tory triumph.

The Conservatives held off the Labour challenge in West Lancashire but only have a two seat majority over the Labour Party led by the experienced John Fillis.

The only joy for the Liberal Democrats in Lancashire is that they hold the balance of power in Pendle.

 

GREATER MANCHESTER ELECTIONS

It really was a bad night for the Lib Dems here. Another wipe out in Manchester means they have lost 24 councillors in two years and put a huge question mark under the future of John Leech as MP for Withington.

In Rochdale, once the home of Liberal success under Cyril Smith, internal divisions and the national tide has reduced the party to just 5 councillors on the authority.

The Lib Dems lost their leader in Stockport but remain the largest party largely because of the continuing poor performance of the Conservatives in the leafy suburbs that should be Tory territory. For the party not to be able to take advantage of the Lib Dems at this time should be a cause for a party inquiry.

 

MERSEYSIDE ELECTIONS

The whole of Merseyside is now in full Labour control for the first time. The party has all the seats on Knowsley,in St Helens the frustrated Lib Dem leader Brian Spencer was led from the counting hall by the police and in Liverpool the party lost a further 9 seats including group leader Paula Keaveney.

But the most spectacular result was in Sefton where never before have Labour had full control. Their victory in genteel Blundellsands summed up a night of triumph.

Political stability has come to Wirral with a Labour majority of eight. With no elections in 2013 the new Labour leader, Phil Davies, has two years to sort out the running of the troubled authority.

So the Coalition has hit the mid term blues. As ever the economy will dictate whether Cameron and Clegg can recover by 2015. Developments in France, Greece and Spain suggest that is far from certain.

IT’S JOE AND NO

While Joe Anderson was sweeping all before him to become Liverpool’s first directly elected mayor, the people of Manchester narrowly voted no.

53% voted no and 47% yes but only a quarter of Mancunians voted following a low key campaign. The government had wanted “a Boris in every Town Hall” but it will be business as usual in this well run city.

The truth is that the post has not attracted the colourful outsiders or dynamic business candidate that might have caught the voter’s imagination. Combined with that was uncertainty about what difference it would have made.

The government might have wanted a Boris in Manchester Town Hall but they weren’t prepared to give the post the powers in advance.

However Manchester’s rival city just down the M62 does now have the opportunity to exploit any advantage there may be to be gained by having an elected mayor.

Joe Anderson, the city’s council leader won easily on the first ballot. The former BBC producer Liam Fogarty came second and immediately accepted an unpaid post as Anderson wasted no time in signalling that the partisan rhetoric was being put away.

That’s just as well because the campaign has been characterised by disruptive behaviour by the fruitcakes and fascists representing the British National Party, National Front and English Democrats.

Their interventions in radio debates and at the count were crude examples of boneheaded racism. When they got beyond immigration, their other policies for the city were implausible or downright ridiculous. The people of Liverpool pronounced their verdict by putting the bunch of them at the bottom of the list.

In third place was Liberal Democrat Richard Kemp. With his long experience on the council and national positions with the Local Government Association, he could have plausibly run the city.

Fourth place wasn’t bad for the Greens’ John Coyle with the veteran Socialist Coalition candidate Tony Mulhearn in fifth.

Steve Radford of the Liberals was virtually tied with Tory Tony Caldeira in sixth and seventh place. Caldeira campaigned well, attracting top ministers in to support him like Cities Minister Greg Clarke. Caldeira has laid the foundations for a bid for parliament.

Manchester will now watch the elected mayors of Liverpool and Salford bed in but most cities across the country holding referendums have said no to the project.

There’s already a feeling on Merseyside that Joe Anderson will seek to extend his influence beyond the city’s boundaries. Transport is an area where his writ does not run beyond the city boundary. As the ballot boxes were stacked away he told me he would be asking questions about the deal the city gets from Merseyside Transport Authority.

The saga of the lost tram scheme for the city still wrankles with the old bruiser. Anderson told me he intends to open discussion with the government about more powers for the office he now holds.

Although Sefton, Wirral and St Helens are either opposed to or equivocal about a sub regional mayor, they are now all under full Labour control for the first time. This may or may not assist in bringing Merseyside together.

WILL MANCHESTER VOTE YES TO ELECTED MAYOR?

MANCHESTER REFERENDUM

A very senior contact within Manchester Town Hall told me this week that there would be a three to one vote against having an elected mayor in Thursday’s referendum. But is that right?

With Liverpool set to elect Joe Anderson to this powerful post, will its big rival want to be left behind?

Most people thought Salford would reject the concept in its January referendum but although the turnout was small, I understand that in every ward there was a yes vote. That shows widespread though limited support for the idea.

That Salford is to get its local champion might be a good reason for Manchester to follow suite. The ten councils of Greater Manchester have come together in a Combined Authority sinking their local differences in the interest of all. There is concern that the Salford mayor waving his mandate from the people could destabilise things. Better then that Manchester has an elected mayor too.

Now let’s look at the candidates on offer in the two cities that are having mayoral votes on Thursday.

 

SALFORD MAYOR ELECTION

In Salford Labour’s candidate Ian Stewart was not a happy bunny when he lost his Eccles parliamentary seat in boundary changes in 2010. But he benefited from internal opposition to council leader John Merry to gain the nomination. He is almost certain to win and will be a doughty fighter for Salford, although his complete lack of local government experience is causing anxiety.

The two other major parties have good candidates who have served Salford well over the years. Norman Owen for the Lib Dems put a big dent in the Labour majority some years ago, but faces the problem that good work on the ground may count for little when set against his national party’s unpopularity.

Being a Conservative in Salford is never easy but Karen Garrido has battled on, often being a lone voice on the council. Her slogan in this campaign is “Trust the People”. They are unlikely to give her the answer she wants.

UKIP was ahead of the Lib Dems in one recent national opinion poll. In Salford its candidate, Bernard Gill, is claiming the money spent on regenerating The Crescent gateway to the city is a waste of money. Meanwhile the Green’s Joe O’Neill wants to cut the number of Salford councillors by a third, a policy that has merit with an elected mayor in place.

Of the other candidates, the independent Paul Massey stands out. He’s served time for a serious assault but claims his experience of the criminal world will serve the people of Salford well. David Cameron said he wanted a different type of person to come forward for elected mayor rather than the usual suspects. It’s unlikely he had Mr Massey in mind.

 

LIVERPOOL MAYOR

In Liverpool Labour’s Joe Anderson has dominated the mayoral race. He swept to power two years ago and as the Liberal Democrats have collapsed,Anderson has forged ahead with a business friendly agenda to promote the city’s economy for too long dependent on the public sector.

He has bitterly criticised the government’s cuts but readily embraced a city deal which he claims will restore some cash to the city as well as giving the elected mayor power over new improvement zones.

So keen was he to gain the fruits of the city deal that he got the council to scrap a mayoral referendum and move straight to a vote for mayor.

Anderson may win on the first ballot but it is worth mentioning that these elections are being run under a system called the supplementary vote. People can put an x in the first column of their ballot paper for their first choice and an x in the second column for their second choice.

If a candidate gets 50% of the first preference votes he is elected. If not the second choice votes for the top two candidates are counted. In theory the second candidate could overtake the first candidate in the run off.

The problem with this system is that to make your second choice count you have to guess who the top two candidates are going to be.

It is quite hard to work out who is going to finish second to Joe Anderson.

The Lib Dems have the highly experienced councillor Richard Kemp who could credibly run the city. The Conservatives have  businessman Tony Caldera. He won’t win this race but if David Cameron wants to do something about the “posh boy” image of his party then he should get  Tony into parliament double quick. From a market stall in Kirkby, he now runs a multi million pound soft furnishing business. His friendly and articulate manner will take him far.

Then there is my former BBC producer and friend Liam Fogarty. He has campaigned for ten years for an elected mayor against entrenched opposition to the idea from the political establishment. He is passionate about Liverpool and would seek consensus from a whole range of people about the city’s future direction. The question is would he have the stomach for the rough and tumble of city politics? He certainly merits consideration for a second choice vote.

There are two other candidates with good Town Hall experience standing. John Coyne for the Greens and Steve Radford for the Liberal Party.

Even with 12 candidates standing there isn’t a single woman. The last I would wish to highlight is Tony Mulhearn. The Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition candidate has stuck to his principles ever since he was expelled from the Labour Party for his membership of Militant in the eighties. I admire him for that and his vote may be stronger than people imagine in the light of George Galloway’s success in Bradford.

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.