Do we in ‘the north’ really want a northern leader?

As readers of this blog site will know I follow what Jim Hancock has to say on his ‘Hancock’s Half Page’ blog, indeed I often agree with him. However, I was a little taken aback by this quote from a very recent piece on Jim’s blog:-

‘Public support for devolution and elected mayors is rising, but not spectacularly according to recent polling. People want more say over housing, transport, and crime. But to energise that lukewarm enthusiasm, voters want to see results and a strong leader for the whole of the North’

I don’t think I have ever heard anyone, politician or public, say they wanted a northern leader in my earshot. The north (of England) is not one homogenous place with clear and common objectives etc. so why on earth would folk want a northern leader? And if you take this idea on board, surely there’d also be a southern leader too, although in reality that would be the government of the day as it always has been.

Jim’s comment was based on polling* and the political demise of a chap clearly looked upon (by some) as the quasi leader of the north, one Nick Forbes, who’s recently been deselected as a Labour candidate/councillor in Newcastle. I must admit I’d not personally looked upon Forbes as our leader and to be honest, I think reading about him in Jim’s blog article was the first time I’d heard of him! I have been involved in politics ‘in the north’ since 1980 so you’d have thought the name would have rung a bell with me.

I get it that folks want more devolution of powers, indeed I’ve spent my whole political life battling for such; well I’m a Liberal so I would of course. However, I’m very far from being convinced that folks want more elected mayors, never mind a northern leader.

* I’d be interested in the detail of the polling data and how the questions were phrased as in my experience folks have never really taken to the Tory Americanisation of our politics via elected mayors. Indeed, often where they have them the post and indeed the post holders become quite unpopular.

Regional economic regeneration – It’s done the rounds so many times!

My good friend Bob Robinson recently pointed me towards the podcast linked below:-

open.spotify.com/episode/0BkowQ14PrKsFwsTQAregb

Bob’s take on it and indeed the whole issue of how governments keep on making the same mistakes over targeted regional investment are summed up here:-

‘This is a 50-minute podcast and is the most accurate description of the chequered history of UK regional development, I have ever heard. I carry the scars as I was involved in submitting business cases to: the North West Development Agency (Improving Construction Industry Safety), the South West Development Agency (Construction Skills development) and the Welsh Development Agency (Redeployment of Military facilities}. I watched their rise and fall. I also was seconded for a period to support the DTI’s “Rethinking Construction Programme” following on from the 1998 Egan Report into the root and branch need to reform the construction industry. Listening to this podcast suggests we are making the same mistakes over and over again. Regional policy has been a half-hearted inconsistent shambles for years and this fiasco, as evidenced by the ongoing rows about the Manchester Rail Network, is set to continue.’

I can’t but agree with Bob’s assessment having listened to the very interesting podcast and taken his concerns on board. UK policy in so many critical areas is subject to far too many twists and changes meaning nothing gets bedded in before an incoming government wants to shake it all up again. The NHS and Education are a couple of glaring examples but this blog piece is about regionalism and how we invest in areas most in need of investment – ‘Levelling Up’ being the latest incarnation of it.

I’ve blogged about such issues before so there’s a danger I could well repeat myself here; if so my apologies. My experience as a Sefton Borough Councillor from 1999 to 2015 and particularly my period as Council Leader from 2004 to 2011 inform my views.

There’s little doubt that the North West Development Agency was the big beast with regard to most if not all large scale projects whilst it was in being. It sat rather uncomfortably aside the North West Regional Assembly as Blair was going about his decentralisation of power and public money from Westminster. His was the first government to really embrace regionalism aside from the efforts of ‘Tarzan’, the ‘Minister for Merseyside’, Michael Heseltine during the previous Tory years under Thatcher and Major.

That we live in one of the most centralised countries in the developed world says a lot so Heseltine and Blair were kicking against a well-ordered position stoutly defended by virtually all Labour/Tory politicians and of course the Civil Service. Liberals had seriously woken up to regionalism and devolution many years before them I might add so in general, we welcomed such initiatives whilst usually being of the view they were too small in scale, done to people rather than them being consulted and not far-reaching enough. Of course, we were right!

Blair got stuck or got bored with regionalism and devolution and it kind of fizzled out well before the job was done particularly in England. Ignoring the Brown years where nothing much happened on this agenda it took the Coalition Government to have another go and I think it fair to say that they only succeeded in adding to the dog’s breakfast of English regionalism and devolution. City Mayors and City Region Mayors were their big idea and I opposed them from day one as I still do now. My many previous blog postings on this subject go before this one so I’ll link one that seems pertinent below:-

tonyrobertson.mycouncillor.org.uk/2021/03/02/more-elected-mayors-will-not-address-north-south-divide/

So the podcast is very much to the point and sadly the majority of our English politicians still love that we are overwhelmingly ruled from Westminster. Apart from crumbs from their table, they will want it to stay that way too!

Until the UK fully embraces regionalism and very significant devolution of powers and spending from Westminster we’ll continue to be badly governed.

What kind of Tory Government have we actually got?

With some of the highest rates of taxation in living memory, it makes you wonder, doesn’t it?

I’m sure I heard one Tory describe the present Conservative Government, a while back, as a benign Ted Heath type. Yes, I found that hard to accept too.

Interestingly, I’ve also heard folks speculate on Johnson not actually being a Tory at all because of his spend, spend, spend approach to the economy and yes, some of that speculation has come from Tory supporters.

Then of course you see the more traditional Tory approach in the recent taking of £20 per week back from those receiving Universal Credit. Now that seems more like the Conservative Party we’re used to. Yes, I know they gave it out in the first place, on a temporary basis due to Covid, but with significantly rising inflation removing it instead of confirming its permanence has quite simply made the poor poorer.

Acting appallingly towards refugees crossing the Channel; that’s plumbing new depths which traditional Conservatives of my Dad’s generation would never have contemplated no matter how bad their right-wing rhetoric against such unfortunate people may have sounded.

The endless dithering over Covid measures on the other hand seems so not Tory in nature, as traditionally they have liked to be seen as stable and decisive.

But what about ‘levelling-up’? It’s an odd thing for Tories to promote particularly if they actually meant it to be anything more than the political slogan which sadly it is. Surely Conservatism is all about protecting the middle and particularly upper/ruling classes from the working class? I guess it’s the recent re-emergence of working-class Tories who have deserted the Labour Party which is driving this pretend ‘levelling-up’ agenda.

From my perspective, all these contradictions are the result of the Tories getting lost in their own self-made fog and fantasy of Brexit, their pandering to populist right-wing wish lists, them lacking (in common with other UK political parties) strong leaders and finding themselves very poorly equipped to deal with the pandemic.

At the very time the UK needed a strong government it got ditherers. What my dear old Dad would have made of this I don’t know. He was from working-class Tory-supporting roots, although if you reminded him that his family used to live in a council house he always looked uncomfortable having made it to become middle-class. But my point is though that he had standards that were generally those of a decent person (I’m putting to one side here his utterly appalling anti-semitism!) and he’d seen through Johnson many years ago. Dad died in 2009 and he was bemoaning the decline in standards in public life and in the Conservative Party for maybe 10 years prior to that.

To my mind, the present Conservative government is all over the place politically but with a populist entertainer as their leader should we be surprised? It makes John Major look quite the statesman with hindsight does it not?