Saturday, May 19, 2012

Clegg fires welcome warning shot over regional pay

When the history of David Cameron’s government comes to be written, the Budget delivered by Chancellor George Osborne on 21 March may well be seen as a decisive turning point in its fortunes

Whether it was the pasty tax, the granny tax, the tax on charitable giving or the abolition of the 50p rate, those looking for something to criticise in the Chancellor’s package found plenty of things to choose from.

But of all the measures announced by Mr Osborne two months ago, surely the most pernicious as far as the North-East is concerned was the proposal to introduce regional pay rates – paying teachers and other public sector staff in Newcastle less than people doing the same jobs in London.

Far from seeing the prosperity gap between richer and poorer regions as an evil which needs to be addressed, the idea of regional pay takes such inequality as an incontrovertible fact of life and then threatens to institutionalise it throughout the entire British economy.

Despite the efforts of some North-East MPs and union leaders, the proposal has received little national attention up until now, demonstrating once again the London-centricity of our national media.

But that may be about to change.  For the question of regional pay now appears to be playing into the much wider political narrative concerning the longer-term future of the Tory-Lib Dem Coalition.

In what can only be seen as a shot across Mr Osborne’s bows, Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg warned this week that his party could not sign up to a policy that would exacerbate the North-South divide.

It seems that regional pay has now joined the growing list of issues, alongside Europe, House of Lords reform and Rupert Murdoch, where the two parts of the Coalition are singing from increasingly varying hymn sheets.

Speaking to the National Education Trust in London Mr Clegg said: “Nothing has been decided and I feel very, very strongly as an MP in South Yorkshire, with a lot of people in public services, we are not going to be able simply willy-nilly to exacerbate a North-South divide.

“I think people should be reassured we are not going to rush headlong in imposing a system from above which if it was done in the way sometimes described would be totally unjust because it would penalise some of the people working in some of the most difficult areas.”

Perhaps the most heartening aspect of Monday’s speech was simply hearing a senior minister – the Deputy Prime Minister no less – talking about the North-South divide again.

It became practically a banned subject under Tony Blair, who first attempted to dismiss it as a "myth,” then tried to con the region into thinking something was being done about it by inventing a spurious target to narrow the gap between the three richest regions and the six poorest.

In one sense, Mr Clegg’s intervention is not unexpected given his own status as a South Yorkshire MP in what is a genuinely three-way marginal constituency.

Mr Blair’s former spin doctor Alastair Campbell has stated that Mr Clegg's only hope of retaining his Sheffield Hallam seat at the next election is to join the Conservative Party, and even making allowances for Alastair’s obvious partisanship, I’ve a sneaking suspicion he may be right,

But in the meantime, it is clearly in the Lib Dem leader's interests to try to put some clear yellow water between himself and the Tories on issues with a particular relevance to the Northern regions.

In view of the Lib Dems’ dismal performance in local elections in the North since the party joined the Coalition in 2010, it is surely not a moment too soon.

Mr Blair’s indifference to the whole issue of regional disparities was partly responsible for the Lib Dems’ dramatic surge in support in the region between 1999 and 2007, with Labour-held seats like Newcastle Central, Blaydon and Durham City briefly becoming realistic targets.

Meanwhile at local government level, the party took control of Newcastle from Labour, and actually managed to hang on to it for seven years before being swept away in the post-Coalition backwash of May 2011.

It will be a long way back for the party to reach those giddy heights again, still further if it is to mount a serious challenge for additional parliamentary seats in the region.

This week, however, Mr Clegg might just have taken the first step along the road.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

A renewal of vows? Pull the other one

There is a school of thought that says that once a government gets itself into a position where it needs a relaunch, the brand is probably already so badly tarnished as to render the whole exercise pointless.

To be fair, the Coalition is probably not at that point yet. It is only two years into its existence, and governments of a far older vintage have come back strongly from similar periods of mid-term blues before now.

But the largely negative reaction to this week’s relaunch, with Wednesday’s Queen’s Speech at its centrepiece, does suggest that the government’s current difficulties go deeper than merely a run of bad headlines.

Coming in the wake of a disastrous Budget, a dismal set of local election results, and the continuing slow drip of damaging revelations from the Leveson Inquiry, it seems the Coalition is currently suffering from a bad case of the political Reverse Midas Touch.

Three major criticisms have been made of the legislative package announced by Her Majesty in what, for her, was surely the least eagerly-awaited public engagement of this her Diamond Jubilee year.

The first was that, with only 16 Bills, it was ‘too thin,’ but for my part, I wonder whether this was not in fact a point in its favour.

Over the past two decades, we have been subjected to an increasing deluge of legislation, for instance the 21 criminal justice bills spewed out by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s administrations over the course of 13 years.

A Conservative-led government, committed to reducing the burden of regulation and shrinking the size of the state, should perhaps have made more of a virtue of this year’s relative paucity.

The second most oft-heard criticism this week was that there was little or nothing in the programme specifically directed towards tackling the country’s current economic difficulties or producing a programme for growth.

But this, surely, is a category error.  Budgets, not Queen’s Speeches, are where you set out your economic policy, and Labour leader Ed Miliband should perhaps have known better than to make the main focus of his attack.

The third main criticism of the Speech – and the biggest one as far as most Tory backbenchers are concerned – was that it concentrated too much on Lib Dem hobby-horses such as House of Lords reform and not enough on issues that mat

Again, this depends on your point of view.  A second chamber elected by proportional representation from region-wide constituencies could well provide a stronger voice for regions such as the North-East – but I can well understand why the Tories, in particular, would not want that.

For me, the most fundamental flaw in Wednesday’s speech was not that it was too thin, too lacking in economic content or too Liberal Democrat, but that it lacked a unifying narrative which would give people a reason to support the government.

Say what you like about Mr Blair, his Queen’s Speeches never suffered from this deficiency, even if, as time went on, they tended to be more about protecting people from nightmares than giving them dreams of a better future.

Perhaps the reason it lacked a unifying theme because it was less the product of one man’s over-arching vision and more the product of compromise between the government’s two constituent parties.

In this respect, the most interesting political story of the week was not the Speech, but Prime Minister David Cameron’s interview with the Daily Mail in which he bemoaned his lack of freedom of action to do the things he really wanted.

What was especially notable about this is that, while Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg loudly and often complains about the Conservatives, Mr Cameron very rarely does the same about the Lib Dems.

Yet here was the Prime Minister saying:  “There is a growing list of things that I want to do but can’t…..there is a list of things that I am looking forward to doing if I can win an election and run a Conservative-only government.”

This week’s relaunch had been billed in advance by some cynics as the Coalition’s “renewal of vows,” but Mr Cameron’s interview shows this to be well wide of the mark.

In truth, it seems to be heading all the more rapidly for the divorce courts.

Saturday, May 05, 2012

Johnson the real winner once again

You can look at yesterday's local election results purely in terms of the 400 or so council seats lost by the Conservatives and the 800-plus gained by Labour.

You can look at them in terms of national share of the vote, with Labour opening up a seven-point lead over the Tories that if repeated in a general election would put Ed Miliband comfortably in Number 10.

You can look at them in terms of the almost wholesale rejection of the government's plans for a network of powerfully elected mayors in our major cities, not least in Newcastle where the idea was rejected by a majority of almost 2-1.

But whichever way you choose to look at them, it's already pretty clear that Thursday was a very bad night for the Coalition.

It was always likely that the Tories would try to get us to look at the results through the prism of their star performer Boris Johnson's ultimately successful re-election campaign for the London Mayoralty.

But this really won't wash.  Johnson is a political one-off, and so, in a different sense, is his Labour opponent Ken Livingstone, who found himself deserted in this election by a significant element within his own party.

Although in the short-term Mr Johnson's narrow win provides the Conservatives with a convenient fig-leaf for their wider failure up and down the land, in the longer-term his victory is a disaster for David Cameron.

Once again, Boris has proved that he is the proven winner in the Tory ranks, in marked contrast to a leader who couldn't even score an outright election win against the exhausted volcano that was Gordon Brown in 2010.

In one sense yesterday's results were entirely predictable given the catalogue of disasters that the government has visited upon itself lately.

Mr Cameron will hope he can draw a line under it all in time-honoured fashion, with a relaunch of the Coalition - or as some are calling it, a renewal of vows – likely to come as early as the next fortnight.

This will be followed by a wide-ranging summer reshuffle that could see Ken Clarke and Andrew Lansley thanked for their service and replaced by younger, more media-savvy operators such as Grant Shapps and Chris Grayling.

But even this poses difficulties for Mr Cameron, with the long-planned promotion of Jeremy Hunt having to be put on hold pending his appearance at the Leveson Inquiry into press standards.

For my part, I wonder whether something deeper than mere mid-term blues is at work here - whether a public that was initially disposed to give the Coalition the benefit of the doubt has now started to do the opposite.

It is surely significant that, while 12 months ago the Tory vote held up as the Lib Dems bore the brunt of voters' anger over the austerity measures, this time round they were both punished equally.

Equally ominous for the Conservatives is the rise and rise of the UK Independence Party, which took 13pc of the national vote in a set of elections where it traditionally makes little impact.

If UKIP can start taking as many votes off the Conservatives in a general election, it might even one day force them to embrace the merits of proportional representation

Mr Miliband, though, will refuse to get carried away by any of this.

Six months ago I thought the public had by and large made up its mind about him, but maybe they are taking another look and liking what they see.

The biggest encouragement for the Labour leader is the fact that the party appears to be on the march beyond its traditional strongholds.

Not only is it winning back bellweather Midlands cities like Derby and Birmingham that will be crucial to its general election chances, but also more southerly councils such as Harlow, Plymouth and Great Yarmouth.

As for the North-East, having rejected regional government in 2004 it has now rejected the nearest thing to it, a Newcastle city region led by a powerful, Boris-style elected mayor.

While I am no great fan of presidential-style politics, it is hard to see how the region can compete effectively for its share of the national cake without such powerful advocates.

Fear of change, the desire to stick to the devil you know, remains a powerful factor in determining political outcomes, and Thursday’s mayoral referendum was no exception.

And if there is a crumb of comfort anywhere for Mr Cameron in yesterday’s results, it may well be in that.
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