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Tories can be Northern champions

I never expected to say this after Eric Pickles destroyed our regional development agencies, but the party has a chance next week to position itself as the defender of the North.

The private consensus in Brighton was that Ed Balls was preparing us for a Labour government to scupper HS2. His remarks, and those of other party spokesman after his speech on Monday, went beyond legitimate worries over escalating costs. Balls has got his eyes on the £50bn projected cost of HS2 for other projects. The problem is that in practice that money has been assembled for this scheme and would not automatically be available for health or schools.

How depressingly familiar all this is. I thought the Olympics marked an end of timid party squabbling Britain unable to take the big decisions at the right time. In fact we are late with this scheme. The West Coast main line is already over capacity south of Rugby. That’s why places like Blackpool are denied a direct service. North of Rugby HS2 would connect our great northern cities like Leeds and Manchester and crucially allow the existing rail network to improve the service to towns and cities not directly on the HS2 line.

There are broadly three groups opposed to HS2. There are the small but vocal number of people directly affected by the line who’s homes are already blighted. We must sympathise with them and compensate them very generously. I know how it feels. My home was demolished for a roundabout in the 1960s.

There is the London lobby already campaigning for Crossrail 2 oblivious to the historic scandalous imbalance in transport investment between the capital and the rest of the country.

And now we have elements of the Labour Party and others who want to spend the money elsewhere. Their argument ignores the point I made above that £50bn won’t be available to be transferred, and it fails to answer the question of what will happen when we are trying to use a Victorian railway two hundred years after it was built.

So in Manchester next week I would suggest the Tories seize the initiative. They will be meeting in a building that symbolises the need to move on when it comes to rail investment. Manchester Central station closed in 1969 and is now their conference centre. The government are investing in the Northern Hub, the Ordsall Chord, and electrifying the Liverpool to Manchester line to dramatically improve services on the existing network across the North.

The Transport Secretary Patrick Mcloughlin should burnish his credentials as a former miner and claim that it is the Tories who have the best interests of the North at heart in backing HS2. They certainly need some arguments after Labour’s conference in Brighton.

Red Ed

I asked last week for some distinctive policies for Labour to campaign on and to be fair we got some. The promise to scrap the bedroom tax and the energy price freeze are the best indications yet of how different an Ed led party is from how his brother would have run things.

These are concrete proposals with a definite left wing thrust. The more the energy companies squeal the more will people identify with Ed. The claim that, in response to world market forces, energy prices go up like a rocket and down like a feather rings true with hard pressed families in the North.

The question is how broad this appeal will be? Are there enough struggling voters in the South to join Ed’s crusade or will they be frightened off as they were when Neil Kinnock was in charge?

Time to neigh Mr Ed!

Why should I let Labour back so soon? That’s the question floating voters will expect an answer to from Brighton next week. We need exciting policies that really differentiates Labour from the Coalition. Perhaps it’s time for a bit of socialism. For instance take the bedroom tax or spare room supplement. Labour rail against it, there’s a shortage of smaller houses for the folk affected to go to. So will they promise to scrap it….no.

I don’t think we will be inspired by Brighton. Mr Ed is reported to be frightened of disclosing his hand too soon or of having policy ideas blow up in his face. The problem is that people are beginning to make their minds up about the next election. Some have already concluded that Mr Ed is a bit odd, betrayed his brother or the memory of the last Labour government is too green.

Then there is the modest upturn in the economy. That presents a problem for Labour. The Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls is now being depicted as a prophet of doom who’s been proved wrong and Coalition Ministers are saying there has been gain from the pain. The answer to this in Brighton will be that despite the upturn people are still getting worse off because inflation is ahead of wage rises. Who will win this argument?

It’s not all gloom for Mr Ed. Arguably he helped create the breathing space for an alternative solution to air strikes in relation to Syria’s chemical weapons. Also I don’t expect the conference to be derailed by a row with the unions. Mr Ed is on to something in wanting real Labour supporters involved in the party rather than being token ones on union membership lists. Whatever the merits of the issue, a floor fight was averted at the TUC and it surely will be in Brighton.

Free Scotland

I’ve been north of the border this week and have got the full force of the Scottish independence debate. With a year to go until this decision is made I went to the old fruit market in Glasgow where my old Radio Manchester colleague Victoria Derbyshire was conducting a debate. She had supporters of both sides and a large number of people undecided because in their heart they want to be free but fear cutting ties with England might hit their living standards.

In the debate broadcast on BBC Radio 5 Live, passions were highest amongst those wanting independence and their indignation about being ruled by Conservatives at Westminster when they are virtually nonexistent in Scotland was a major cause.

Train on the Cable

The Business Secretary Vince Cable got a taste for the spotlight when he did that Strictly cameo in 2010. He spent the whole of last week in Glasgow drawing attention to himself. He was going to stay out of the economic debate, then he arrived surrounded by cameras. Then he was rude about the Tories to the consternation of the right of his party, and he finished up saying the Coalition might collapse before the election.

Anyway my time in the Scottish capital was not wasted, so here’s the gossip.

I heard a rumour that the LIVERPOOL ARENA has extracted generous compensation from the Lib Dems following the party’s decision to pull out of their planned conference in the city next autumn because of a clash with the Scottish Referendum…….opinion is divided on whether North West MEP CHRIS DAVIES can hold his seat against the UKIP onslaught in next May’s European elections……HAZEL GROVE Lib Dems are warning party HQ not to interfere if Sir Andrew Stunell stands down and they have to choose a new candidate…..and CLLR BILL WINLOW is enjoying his role as Scrutiny supremo at Lancashire County Council. The Lib Dems are supporting the minority Labour administration and according to Bill he gets first sight of most of the policy ideas.

Now let’s see if Brighton rocks!

Are we at end of our teather with Lib Dems?

Last year in a Scottish local council ward a penguin got more votes than the Liberal Democrat candidate. Actually it was an independent dressed in a penguin suit, nevertheless across the country they lost 74 councillors in elections that mirrored their performance in recent polls across the north of England.

Whether the site of sassanach Lib Dems heading for Glasgow this weekend for their party conference will appease the Tartan Army of Scottish voters remains to be seen.

The decision of the “catastrophically depressed” Lib Dem MP Sarah Teather to quit at the next election might be dismissed as a fit of pique by a sacked minister, but her declared reasons for going bear some examination. This is because they address the major problems Lib Dems have had in Leeds, Liverpool and Manchester since the coalition was formed.

Before 2010 the party managed to be an organisation that disaffected Tories could vote for in the South while fed up Labour voters could switch to the Lib Dems on the basis that they were sort of on the left and were reasonably progressive.

Now in office the Lib Dems have been tainted in many of their ex supporters eyes by the difficult decisions of government. It will ultimately be a decision for the whole electorate in 2015 whether the pupil premium, lifting the poorest out of income tax and other Lib Dem backed measures will be enough to save them from electoral oblivion, but Teather has highlighted some problems they will face in getting a reasonable vote in the North and Scotland.

Her central charge is that Nick Clegg’s party no longer fights hard enough on issues like social justice and immigration. She cites Lib Dem support for a cap on welfare, a £1000 visa charge plan for immigrants and the government’s vans touring London urging illegal immigrants to “go home or face arrest.”

A large number of Lib Dems are deeply worried about association with the Conservatives but feel it is a price worth paying to have some influence in office. However one has the impression that there is a faction who have enjoyed their time in office and are quite happy with the party moving right.

The Lib Dem conference is by far and away the most democratic of the three gatherings we shall witness this autumn. It remains a place where real policy is made but there is nothing on the agenda about the strategy for the crucial period coming up for the party.

Do they stick with the coalition till the end? What will they do if the Tories emerge as the largest party in 2015?

There will be plenty of talk about this in the bars of Glasgow but on the conference floor the theme will be the creation of jobs. The Lib Dems say a million have been created since 2010 and they want a million more. They want to double the number of businesses and train the apprentices for them. They will be debating an end to Britain’s four boat Trident nuclear submarine fleet and only want an in/out EU referendum if more powers are planned to be devolved to Brussels.

Good progressive stuff but the hand of the party’s right can be seen in the resolution on whether to restore the 50% tax rate for those earning £150,000. Conference can vote to endorse George Osborne’s cut to 45% or go back to 50% only if a review indicates that the tax take would exceed the cost of its introduction.

The improving economy is strengthening the position of right wing Lib Dems who would feel quite comfortable with another deal with the Tories, but that approach will be hard to sell in working class areas of the North.

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Nuclear weapon states horrified by Sarin

I share everyone’s disgust at the sight of children dying on our TV screens from the effects of chemical weapons. They were made illegal in 1925. But napalm isn’t illegal. Agent Orange (used by America in Vietnam) isn’t illegal and nor is the most poisonous and indiscriminate weapon of all, nuclear bombs. The latter is possessed in large number by the United States and France who look most likely to “fire a shot across the bows” of President Assad of Syria sometime soon.

I have always had a problem with rules of war. It makes the whole ghastly business seem like a game. I suppose we need rules on the treatment of captured servicemen but we had better realise that war is bloody where awful things can and will happen. Trying to regulate it is going to be increasingly difficult now that people in the West are heartily sick of kicking over hornets nests in the Middle East.

Britain and France share historic blame for carving up the Middle East in the way we did in 1919. We hadn’t a clue about Sunni and Shia. T.E. Lawrence had a better plan for Greater Arabia. But we are where we are. On the one side Assad who’s very ordinariness personifies the blandness of evil. On the other a mixture of liberals, religious fanatics and terrorists. Removing dictators is problematic. For instance Israel is not seriously threatened by Assad but if Syria is taken over by an Iranian friendly regime a general war could break out from the flashpoint of the Golan Heights.

Russia rather than America offers the slimmest possibility of sorting this out. Will Putin rise to his responsibilities or stick with being a well buffed semi dictator?

Mean brothers

We probably have Ed Miliband to thank for stopping David Cameron and President Obama firing “shots across the bow” of President Assad last weekend. But no sooner had Ed got the credit for reflecting public unease on action against Syria than he was facing a big problem back home. The GMB union has cut its affiliation fees to Labour by a million pounds. This follows Miliband’s decision to try and make membership of the Labour Party honest. At the moment it is padded out by trade unionists who are deemed members unless they opt out of the political levy part of their membership fee.

The leader’s move will cause Labour huge financial problems and he is likely to get a cool reception at the Trades Union Congress in Bournemouth next week. But ultimately there is a lot in the idea of getting people either to engage with the party properly or walk away and take the consequences of continued Tory governments.

If Labour is impoverished and the election battle becomes unfair as it tries to fight a well funded Tory Party perhaps pressure will build to limit donations to them too. That would be a good thing for politics, after all much of the money raised is wasted in a poster arms race at election time.

The next Straw

They don’t do dynastic succession in Blackburn. There was a possibility that Jack Straw would retire and hand the seat to his son Will in 2015. Instead Will is taking on neighbouring Rossendale currently marginally held by the Tories. Let’s hope we have the benefit of both generations of Straw speaking up for the North after 2015. 

The last Frost

When I interviewed the late Sir David Frost about his book on the Nixon interviews, I asked him if he had reflected on the fact that in the autumn of 1962 while Frost was launching That Was The Week That Was Nixon lost the governorship of California following his Presidential defeat two years earlier. He bitterly remarked to the press “You won’t have Dick Nixon to kick around any more”.

However he did come back and they did kick him around over Watergate which provided Frost with his greatest interview. David smiled at me and said no he hadn’t “That is a special Jim thought”. Nice man. We will miss him.

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After the Prince, it’s back to the economy

If only we could have an election now some Tory politicians might be thinking as they begin their summer break. A new born prince, the heatwave and cycling and cricket success have given our spirits a boost. Most important of all there is a feeling that the economy is turning even in the North which always lags behind the South East because of successive governments’ failure to have an effective regional policy.

House prices are edging up here and jobs are being created in the private sector to help absorb the haemorrhaging of public employment. In that connection the news from Bentley in Crewe that they are to build the company’s new sports utility vehicle enhances the North West’s successful car industry alongside Vauxhall at Ellesmere Port and Jaguar Land Rover at Halewood.

The key man in all this is the Chancellor George Osborne. He rivals the Prime Minister in importance when it comes to trying to stear the Tories to an outright victory in 2015. This is partly because of his power over economic decision making but also because of his central role in political strategy. For this reason Labour call him the part time Chancellor. It is a foolish charge. It makes sense to have Osborne tied closely to political decision making.

It is Osborne’s belief in concentrating on the main issue of economic recovery that has led to the ditching of “peripheral” issues like plain packet fags and a minimum price for alcohol. Lynton Crosby, the Tory party advisor has taken the hit for this regrettable U turn, but the Chancellor will have been involved.

I recently took the opportunity to observe George Osborne up close. He was giving a lecture in memory of that great broadcaster and champion of the North Brian Redhead. To the Chancellor’s credit, he spoke a lot about Brian and didn’t use the occasion for a bog standard political message.

He acknowledged the importance of having a northern constituency (Tatton). He told us his daughter had just been made Rose Queen at her school at Wildboarclough in Cheshire and that he was aware that things looked different from a northern perspective. That was certainly Brian Redhead’s view, Mr Osborne told his audience he missed out on the editorship of the Guardian because he refused to move south with the paper. For a long time he co-presented the Today programme from Manchester until being forced to join his colleagues in London. I used to join him on the train north on a Friday and he always said he was glad to be coming home.

Osborne concluded by observing that the North was not a monolith and should not be stereotyped. Although Redhead had worked in Manchester, he was born in the North East and lived in the Peak District. The Chancellor claimed that Cheshire had more private sector jobs than London.

It was an interesting and different sort of speech from a man that it is not easy to warm to. What will matter in the next two years however is not being liked but keeping the economic recovery going as interest rates begin to rise.

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On Ilkley moor baht HS2!

High Speed Rail

At a meeting at the Yorkshire Show earlier this month, the HS2 project was apparently given the big thumbs down. Perhaps Dales farmers have more pressing things on their minds, but it does illustrate that this £40bn project is dividing opinion across the North.

The report on opinion across the Pennines was given at the annual get together of the North West CBI and MPs where Dave Watts, the St Helens North MP  pointed to the escalating costs and said the project was “masquerading as a northern scheme”. This reflects fears that the huge investment in one project could be used as an excuse not to fund other infrastructure schemes across the North.

But Blackpool Tory Paul Maynard is a fan. He told the assembled business people that cities linked by high speed rail had prospered. Although a supporter he said reduced journey time was not the key reason he was backing HS2. It would increase capacity on the West Coast Main Line (WCML) something he was particularly in favour of. Maynard said his campaign to get a direct train service from Blackpool to London was currently being blocked because of lack of capacity on the WCML south of Rugby.

Maynard also criticised the tone of the High Speed rail Campaign who have recently launched a “your jobs or their lawns” attack on wealthy objectors to the line in the Chilterns. The Tory MP preferred positive campaigning for further transport investment in the North. Now that we’ve got the Northern Hub rail improvement scheme based on Manchester, we should be thinking what the next project should be. Maynard pointed out that this was the way Boris Johnston approached things. The Mayor of London was already demanding Crossrail 2.

Other contributors to the discussion included Alan Rigby, Head of Corporate Banking at HSBC. He felt the two hour journey was just about right for people with work to do on laptops while Len Collinson believed that technology would reduce the need for people to physically meet. 

Bank lending

This topic is being debated everywhere and our gathering held at the magnificent and expanding Chester Zoo, was no exception. Andrew Miller is the MP for Ellesmere Port. His Commons Science committee is about to publish a report entitled “Bridging the valley of death”. It conjures up the nightmare for many SMEs in their search for funding. Miller will be calling for better links between the entrepreneur, funders and universities.

Paul Maynard came to the defence of bankers saying they had to apply different criteria in the post 2008 world. They were being ordered to lend and build up their reserves at the same time.

Alan Rigby of HSBC said the problem sometimes lay with SMEs. Their bids could lack knowledge of their real needs. Banks are not always the answer. Equity options were often better. 

Northern Revolution part two

Downtown’s recent discussion on how the North should be governed was taken up at the Chester meeting. Dave Watts once again condemned the abolition of Yorkshire Forward and the North West Development Agency. He hinted that Labour might restore them but I had to point out that senior shadow ministers had already said they would live with the patchwork of Local Enterprise Partnerships.

However there seems to be all party support emerging for some overarching northern council to tackle issues like transport, the economy and skills. Conservative Paul Maynard favoured this approach.

On the economy in general there was a feeling at the meeting that the corner is being turned which possibly explains the resurgence in Tory morale at Westminster recently. Ed Miliband will need to get his row with the unions over quickly to try and re-establish his opinion poll lead which has evaporated.

Secret North euro election battle on now

You may think the verdict on who will represent Yorkshire and the North West in Europe will be decided on May 22nd next year when the European Parliamentary elections take place.

In fact 90% of the decision making is taking place now as the political parties in the two regions are deciding in what order their candidates will be on the party lists. Next May voters will only decide which party to vote for. Who gets elected will depend on the total per percentage vote the party gets in the whole Yorkshire and North West regions. Therefore your place on the list is crucial. If you are below fourth, forget it.

So how is this playing out, who is likely to represent the North in the European Parliament 2014-19 when crucial decisions are taken about the shape of the EU and our membership of it?

UKIP are on course to win these elections. They are on a role domestically and this set of elections will be fought on their territory. It will be an ideal platform for their charismatic leader Nigel Farage to taunt the other parties with his clear message, vote for us to get out of the EU without the ambiguities of renegotiating the terms.

North West euro candidates

The North West has eight members in the European Parliament. There is a chance they could take three places next May. Their sitting North West MEP is Merseysider Paul Nuttall. He is arguably the UKIP politician with the highest profile after Farage with his frequent national media appearances as Deputy Leader of his party. Unlike the Tories and Labour he is not guaranteed top place on the list by virtue of being a sitting MEP but is certain to be elected in number one spot by North West UKIP members. If UKIP do get two others elected, the will be complete unknowns to most people. I am told that we should keep our eyes on Louise Bowers, a former Tory mayor of Congleton and Andrew Fairfoul, a Warrington teacher.

The Conservatives will be losing one of the great characters in North West politics. The cricket loving Sir Robert Atkins is retiring. A former Preston MP and Minister under John Major he represented a dying breed of Tories who wholeheartedly supported our membership of the EU. So top of the Tory list will be Saj Karrim who first represented the Lib Dems in Europe from 2004-07 before defecting to the Conservatives. He recently spoke powerfully at a Downtown debate on the value of the EU in trade negotiations with countries like India. Jackie Foster will be second on the list. She is the comeback girl having represented the North West from 1999-04 when she was defeated only to return five years later. If the Tories win their bitter battle with UKIP for a third seat, then seven other candidates are currently being voted on. They include Deborah Dunleavy who failed to take Bolton North East in the General Election having been fast tracked by David Cameron. Another is Cheshire West and Chester councillor Charles Fifield.

Labour will also be losing a long serving member. Brian Simpson first sat in the European Parliament for Cheshire East in 1989. He has done good work for the region on transport matters, but is now standing down. Arlene McCarthy MEP is guaranteed top slot on the list and there is a fierce battle going on for the number two position. Former Liverpool councillor Theresa Griffin has tried for years to win a European seat but she faces formidable opposition from former mayor of Manchester Afzal Khan and Kevin Doran Editor of the informative website.

Will Chris Davies retain his seat for the Lib Dems? A dedicated campaigner on European issues, often controversial and a fell runner, Chris has represented the North West for 15 years. His party is at a low ebb.

He’ll be hoping there are enough Lib Dem votes in places like Cumbria, East Lancashire and Liverpool to keep him in Brussels.

Another party at a low ebb is the BNP and it is very likely that their leader Nick Griffin will lose especially because UKIP are making the running on immigration.

Yorkshire and the Humber euro candidates

In this vast region which embraces Leeds, The Dales and Hull the Tories have lost Edward McMillan Scott who defected to the Lib Dems. Tim Kirkhope will top the list with seven candidates contesting the vital second place on the list.

Labour had a poor showing when these elections were last contested in 2009 under Gordon Brown’s leadership. Linda McAvan will be hoping to be joined by a second Labour representative.

UKIP’s Godfrey Bloom is almost certain to be re-elected despite his views about the employability of women of child bearing age and is likely to be joined by a second UKIP representative.

As in the North West there has to be a question mark over continued Lib Dem representation. Sitting MEP Diana Wallis announced she was standing down after failing to be elected as President of the European Parliament.

Andrew Brons, elected as a BNP MEP has now joined the British Democrats and is hopefully destined for political oblivion.

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Are the lights going out again 40 years on?

Forty years ago Ted Heath told the nation there were going to be power cuts, now the spectre is raising its head again but for very different reasons.

In 1973 Heath was about to embark on his final struggle with the National Union of Mineworkers. The NUM was led by Wigan’s own Joe Gormley. This avuncular president of the miners won his battles with the Conservative government unlike his successor, Arthur Scargill, who preferred a glorious defeat.

Now its not picketing that threatens to plunge us into darkness but the failure of successive governments to plan our energy supplies properly.

Around 2015 we are going to face the perfect storm in terms of energy. The closure of our most “dirty” power stations will be complete to comply with our environmental obligations and our old fashioned nuclear power stations will be generating electricity for the last time. North Sea gas production has peaked.

There has been much talk about what will replace these old power sources and investments are beginning, but not soon enough. Hence the recent speculation that factories might be asked to reduce their power consumption between 4 pm and 8pm on winter evenings.

Huge controversy has raged in rural parts of the North over wind farms and the government recently strengthened the powers of objectors which seemed a strange thing to do if it still has faith in renewables to come to our aid.

Wind is at the centre of a poker game being played between the industry and government over the strike price (what the National Grid will pay). Before it invests the industry wants £100 per megawatt hour (twice the market price) for onshore wind farms and £155 for future offshore plants like the ones in the Irish Sea.

Future nuclear plants are similarly stalled although the government denies it is being held to ransom by the French company EDF Energy.

So we could be down to 2% spare capacity of generated power in three years time. A cold snap could see us reaching for the candles again.

Part of the solution is lying under our feet here in the North. After a two year freeze following the Blackpool quake, the government has taken a number of steps to restart the exploration for shale gas. This could meet most of our gas needs for 40 years. Incentives for exploration, streamlining of planning and standardisation of planning permits were all announced in June’s government infrastructure announcement. These were twinned with measures to ensure that local communities on the Fylde and in Cheshire share in the benefits. However unlike in America we only own six feet under our houses, so people in Yorkshire, Lancashire and Cheshire won’t be getting million dollar cheques like some lucky homesteaders in rural America.

The cost of blackouts in three years time would be huge to industry and business. Ministers must factor that into their hard bargaining over the strike price for power in the future.

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Five years of austerity and Con-Lib coalition

We’d better get used to it. A continuing economic squeeze administered by a Conservative-Lib Dem coalition. The only difference after the General Election will be that the Tories will hold most of their cards with the Lib Dems reduced to about 30 MPs.

The Chancellor was in confident mood on Wednesday.

He shouldn’t have been. In the rose garden days three years ago the Coalition didn’t expect to still be making cuts in 2015-16. Nevertheless George, or Geoff Osborne if you prefer, has managed to convince not only the British people but the Labour Party that there is no alternative.

Labour are in serious trouble. They have broadly signed up to the cuts strategy. Having lagged behind public opinion on the need for benefit reform, they are now lurching to the right to such an extent that we are not sure that basic pensions would be safe in their hands.

George Osborne was devastating when he used Gordon Brown’s old formula for mocking the Opposition. The Chancellor told MPs he had received representations to include pensions in the welfare cap, but had resisted them. Chris Leslie, one of Ed Balls’ Shadow Treasury sidekicks wasn’t even prepared to attack plans to make people wait seven days for benefits when the TUC were warning it could mean kids going without food.

Labour are in this position largely because of Ed Balls.

I’m afraid the Shadow Chancellor has to go. He is associated in the public mind with the Brown days and people still blame that administration, and not the current one, for the mess. It may be unfair three years into the Coalition, but it is a fact.

Alistair Darling should be the Shadow Chancellor. He is currently heading up the Better Together campaign against the Scot Nats, but he could do that part time because Scotland isn’t going to vote for independence.

Darling has a reassuring manner in contrast to the bruiser Balls. More importantly he was honest about the economic troubles ahead which nearly led to his sacking by Brown.

Even with Darling as Shadow Chancellor it is going to be difficult for Labour to become the largest party in 2015. Economic green shoots are appearing and house prices are rising. Public support for benefit reform and a smaller public sector has grown during the austerity years. This doesn’t mean that millions of people aren’t suffering but the majority back the Coalition and Labour is not going to be a socialist champion.

The Coalition shows no sign of breaking up as the election approaches. These cuts are for 2015. The Lib Dems could have made far more trouble about being committed to them for the year after the election. They didn’t and Chief Secretary Danny Alexander (a Lib Dem) received fulsome praise from George Osborne.

Osborne and Alexander have pulled off another trick. Amid all the cuts there is real commitment to northern infrastructure projects like rail spending in Leeds, fast track permits to frack for gas in Lancashire and the new Mersey crossing.

The biggest black mark for the Chancellor is the woeful failure to properly fund the Single Local Growth Fund. Lord Heseltine had urged Local Enterprise Partnerships to be allowed to bid for £49bn from the fund. It was given just £2bn a year.

For that you shall be called Geoffrey, Mr Chancellor!

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Justice delayed is justice denied

What do the Hillsborough families, the victims of phone hacking and the brave soldiers who fought in Iraq have in common? They are being strung along by legal and political bureaucracies that need to remember the old maxim that justice delayed is justice denied.

Hillsborough happened in 1989,the Iraq War was in 2003, Leveson reported last November amid press and politician promises of swift action.


There are plenty of explanations for why those responsible for Hillsborough haven’t been brought to justice, why the verdict on the politicians who took us to war in Iraq has still not been delivered and why we still haven’t got an agreed structure to stop the press plundering people’s privacy. It is all taking too long and the result is that the Hillsborough agony is prolonged, the doubts about the Iraq war remain as we contemplate what to do about Syria, and the press remains defiant about legislation underpinning a new code of practice.

Of course accused people, whether they be South Yorkshire police officers, Tony Blair or press barons are entitled to time to defend themselves, but not this much time.

As Margaret Aspinall, who lost her son at Hillsborough, said recently “ I am really tired of this now. I want it over.” The euphoria after the quashing of the original verdicts has now been replaced by a realisation that justice is going to take a long time. The authorities are not moving as fast as they could. For instance at a pre inquest hearing recently the judge was told there had been delays in the Home Office signing off the recruitment of officers for the investigation. Inexcusable. This week the Home Affairs Select committee has said the Independent Police Complaints Commission is “woefully under equipped” for investigating the South Yorkshire force.

Meanwhile Anne Williams, who also lost a son, has died. Only after the new inquest verdicts are delivered (and depending on what they are) can any prosecutions begin. Am I alone in thinking the passage of time, and the apparent lethargy of some of those involved, could lead to the whole thing petering out to the intense frustration of the Hillsborough victims?

Press Regulation

Kate and Gerry McCann were subject to gross misreporting and intrusion after the disappearance of their daughter Madeleine. The Dowlers’ missing daughter’s phone was hacked. Yet seven months after the Leveson Report politicians and the press are in a stand off that is a disrespectful to the victims of press excess. The political parties reached a deal on what should be done. Some press barons don’t like it, so what? As Lord Denning said “Be you ever so high, the law is above you.” Get on with legislation, there’s plenty of parliamentary time.

Iraq inquiry

Four years ago Sir John Chilcot launched his inquiry into the Iraq War which took place ten years ago. Some people are speculating it could be next year before it reports. Presumably one of the reasons for mounting this expensive exercise was to inform future decisions about Britain’s foreign entanglements. So it would have been handy to have had the findings before  us as we contemplate arming the rebels in Syria.

So what’s the delay? Officially it centres on the release of secret government documents but recently former Foreign Secretary David Owen gave a much more serious reason for the delay. He said Tony Blair and David Cameron were blocking the inquiry from seeing extracts of exchanges with former President  Bush “using conventions totally inappropriate given the nature of the inquiry.”

Owen went on to suggest this was part of a strategy by Cameron to keep Tony Blair on side and to detach Tony Blair from Ed Miliband and the Labour Party.

True or not, the fact remains that the issues of Hillsborough, Iraq and the press are taking too long to resolve and ordinary people are left in suffering limbo.

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