Saturday, April 28, 2012

The end of the beginning

Honeymoon period is doubtless an overworked term in politics – but all governments to some extent or other tend to enjoy a period of time in which the prevailing public attitude towards them is one of general goodwill.

Tony Blair was lucky enough that his lasted nearly five years, though that was in part down to the general uselessness of the Tory opposition of the time and the benign economic climate which he had inherited.

The public enthusiasm generated by the formation the Coalition government in 2010 was never quite on the scale of that which greeted Mr Blair’s arrival in 1997, and hence was never likely to last quite as long.

Nevertheless until relatively recently, the government was still widely seen as competent, and though its economic policies may have polarised opinion in some quarters, the press and public were still tending to give it the benefit of the doubt.

All that started to change with the Budget. The granny tax, the pasty tax and the row over tax relief on charitable giving combined to make this the biggest PR disaster to come out of the Treasury since Gordon Brown’s 75p pension increase.

There followed the woeful mishandling of the prospect of an Easter fuel strike, leading to what turned out to be a quite unnecessary spate of panic buying.

The government’s difficulties continued with the fiasco over the attempted deportation of Abu Qatada after the Jordanian terror suspect’s lawyers ran rings round Home Secretary Theresa May.

And by the end of last week, the run of mishaps had even acquired a name: omnishambles.

Things got no better at the start of this week as outspoken Tory backbencher Nadine Dorries tore into Prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor George Osborne, branding them “arrogant posh boys who don’t know the price of milk.”

Then Jeremy Hunt, one of David Cameron's closest Cabinet allies and a potential future Tory leader, found himself accused of operating a ‘back channel’ of communication with the media mogul Rupert Murdoch during his bid for BskyB.

His special adviser took the rap and resigned, but this failed to quell opposition demands for Mr Hunt himself to fall on his sword.

It brought forth the wounding jibe from Labour’s Dennis Skinner: “When posh boys are in trouble, they sack the servants.”

But all of this really pales into insignificance besides the news that was delivered by the Office for National Statistics on Wednesday morning: that the government had, after all, led us into the dreaded double-dip recession.

Months of Labour warnings that the government was cutting too far, too fast were suddenly and dramatically vindicated.

It is too early to say whether it will prove to be a political game changer on the scale of, say the 1992 ERM debacle or Mr Brown’s election-that-never-was in 2007.

But it does, almost certainly, mean the end of a period in which the government’s claims about the economy have generally been given greater credibility than the opposition’s.

The politician whose personal fortunes have most closely mirrored those of the government over the past six weeks is Mr Osborne.

He has gone from being seen as the strategic genius of the Tory benches to being widely blamed for many of the government’s current difficulties.

The corresponding beneficiaries are Boris Johnson – Mr Osborne’s main rival for the future Tory leadership – and of course the Shadow Chancellor, Ed Balls.

As the former Labour special adviser Dan Hodges put it in the Daily Telegraph: “Ed Balls has won the right to be listened to now. That doesn’t mean people will automatically agree with what he says. But they will listen.”

In the light of the ONS figures though, perhaps the most damaging attack on the government last week came not from Mr Balls or even Mr Skinner, but from Ms Dorries.

The particularly lethal nature of her comments is that they play into a growing preconception about Messrs Cameron and Osborne that is being heightened by the worsening economic conditions.

A Prime Minster can get away with being a posh boy so long as he is competent on the one hand, and empathetic to the plight of those worse off than himself on the other.

On both of those scores, Mr Cameron is currently being found wanting.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Labour must share blame for region's plight

Over the past few weeks, the domestic political agenda has been dominated by the continuing fallout from what has by now surely become of the most controversial, even reviled Budgets of recent years.

It started within a few minutes of the Chancellor sitting down on 21 March with the revelation that he had performed a stealth tax raid on pensioners' incomes by freezing their personal allowances - the so-called 'granny tax.'

It continued with the belated realisation that, in pursuing the entirely laudable objective of limiting the amount of tax relief that can be claimed by the super-rich, the government had also made life much, much harder for the charitable sector.

And throughout it all there has been the ongoing row over the so-called pasty tax, coupled with increasingly laughable attempts by Old Etonian ministers to get with the workers by claiming to be fans of the hot snacks.

But until this week, no serious consideration had been given to the particular impact of George Osborne's proposals on the North-East.

So first off, congratulations are due to Gateshead MP Ian Mearns, always a doughty campaigner on behalf of the region, for securing a 90-minute debate on that very subject in Westminster Hall on Tuesday.

Having spent quite a lot of my career covering such debates, it would be easy for me to write them off as so much hot air, but that would be an overly-cynical view even for me.

They may not change anything, at least in the very short term, and the ministerial replies may be invariably formulaic. But where they do succeed is in raising consciousness of an issue to the point where it becomes harder to ignore, and that sense they are vital.

It was clear from the start that this was a Budget that was particularly pernicious in its potential impact on the region.

Quite apart from the impact on Tyneside-based pasty-maker Greggs, one of its central recommendations was the introduction of regional pay rates, which would institutionalise regional income disparities in the public sector for no better reason than the fact that they already exist in the private sector.

Mr Mearns chose not to dwell on that particularly in his opening speech to Tuesday's debate, however, choosing to highlight some damning statistics about the effect of Mr Osborne's higher-rate tax cut and the government's spending priorities.

He revealed that, while in London, the South-East and East Anglia, nearly 195,000 taxpayers will reap the benefit of the tax giveaway, in the North-East the figure will be fewer than 5,000.

On transport spending, the disparities are even more alarming. Mr Mearns revealed that more than 160 times as much is being spent on transport infrastructure projects in London than in the North-East.

"Once more, the people of the North East are paying the price for an economic strategy made in and for the wealthier south," he said.

He didn't, as it happens, mention the proposed HS2 high-speed link, but although it has its supporters, my own view is that it is not necessarily the panacea that some say it is.

For one thing, it won't arrive here until 2032 at the earliest. For another, any economic benefits to the wider North are likely to migrate towards Leeds and Manchester, which will be getting the link a good half decade earlier.

But the most fundamental question that has to be asked of any Labour politician when raising the issue of the North-South divide is why the party did not do more to address it during its 13 years in power from 1997.

Ian Mearns at least can point to a consistent track record on that score. As a leading figure in North-East local government during the Tony Blair years, he was one of those who regularly highlighted that administration's failure to address the issue, while the likes of Nick Brown and David Clelland also argued strenuously behind the scenes for a better deal for the region.

But the party as a whole allowed Mr Blair to get away with two particular claims that, taken together, served fatally to undermine the case for a more proactive regional policy.

The first was that the differences within regions were as great as the differences between them. The second was that any attempt to rebalance the economy risked harming the Southern regions which were the main driver for the economy as a whole.

Whatever the merit of these arguments, they became, over time, an excuse for simply doing nothing.

In the words of its response to a 2003 report on the issue: "The government does not accept the proposition that increased public funding to the less prosperous regions is a necessary condition to improve their prosperity."

The sad truth of the matter is that New Labour had an historic opportunity to do something about regional economic disparities at a time when it had a fair political wind behind it and, crucially, public spending as a whole was rising.

For the Coalition to try to tackle the gap in the current economic environment is a much harder task.

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Saturday, April 14, 2012

It's regional devolution, Jim, but not as we knew it

Writing last Saturday, the Newcastle Journal's regional affairs correspondent Adrian Pearson opened his column with the words: "If an elected mayor is the answer, what could possibly have been the question in North Tyneside?"

Well, allow me to have at least a stab at providing an answer.

There are plenty of cynical explanations. Elected mayors were originally the brainchild of the Tory cabinet minister Michael Heseltine in the early 1990s, and were seen by some at the time as an attempt to circumvent the power of high-spending, left-wing Labour councils.

Indeed, as Adrian pointed out in his column, this was precisely what later happened in North Tyneside, where Labour's stranglehold on local politics was finally thwarted by a succession of Conservative mayors in what became a recipe for decade-long infighting.

By the time New Labour came to enact Heseltine's proposed reforms, though, the agenda had changed somewhat. I believe Tony Blair's primary motivation for implementing elected mayors was simply to try to revive flagging voter interest in local government by, well, sexing it up.

In that sense, it was no more than a reflection of the trend towards ‘presidential’ politics that reached its apogee under Mr Blair, and which continues, though to a slightly lesser degree, under David Cameron.

The sorts of arguments that were heard then - "increased accountability through increased visibility" - are still used to promote the elected mayoral idea today - but a decade or more on, the debate has now become much more bound up with economic development and in particular with redressing regional economic disparities.

It is now very much part and parcel of the "city regions" concept that emerged from the wreckage of the regional government debate after the North East Assembly referendum debacle, with elected mayors seen as a way of giving their areas the kind of clout that properly-empowered assemblies might once have exercised.

This argument is already very much to the fore in the debate over whether there should be an elected mayor of Newcastle, for instance.

The city has yet to even make a decision on the issue - but already people such as Lewis Goodall of the regional policy think-tank IPPR North are talking openly about a directly-elected leader or 'metro mayor' not just for Newcastle but for the entire Tyneside conurbation.

"To really counterbalance the power of London, mayors need to have real powers to forge the destiny of their area," he wrote in Good Friday's Journal.

"Over time, this might mean a move towards a metro mayor for the wider city area - not just Newcastle but the surrounding conurbation too, with powers over economic development and transport."

To those of us with long memories, what is particularly interesting about that comment is that it was precisely those powers that the proponents of an elected regional assembly demanded - and failed to get - prior to the 2004 referendum.

I have always believed that had Mr Blair been more inclined to hand such powers to a regional body, the public might well have been more inclined to vote for it.

But regional government was only ever a means towards the greater end of tackling the North-South prosperity divide.

And as Lewis Goodall also pointed out in his piece, this is still very much with us, with the government planning to spend £2,700 per head on infrastructure projects in London compared to £5 a head in the North-East.

Looming over the whole debate over elected mayors is the larger-than-life figure of London Mayor Boris Johnson.

Not only has he enhanced the ‘accountability’ argument in favour of mayors by being a highly visible elected figurehead, he has also enhanced the economic argument by using his undoubted clout to further deepen that imbalance.

Mr Cameron’s own decision to axe regional development agency One NorthEast didn’t help matters either – but a gaggle of elected mayors flying the flag for the region could go some way towards filling that gap.

It isn’t regional devolution as we once knew it, Jim, but it might turn out to be the best form of regional devolution on offer.

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