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In the first of a series of posts on the fortunes of the three main parties across northern England in 2012, Ed Jacobs looks at the Liberal Democrats’ year in numbers.
The words ‘It’s been a tough year for the Lib Dems’ are ones which could have been used last Christmas and the Christmas before, and will likely be appropriate next year and the year after that as well.
As 2012 draws to an end, we find the party seeking to outline a distinct identity within the coalition over the Leveson Report and the green agenda, and trying to portray itself as the conscience of a Government which, without the Lib Dem presence would be doing many, many, unspecified, ‘nasty’ things.
The reality is, that when we look at the Liberal Democrat year in numbers, it has not been one to remember. Seldom have the words to the carol In the bleak midwinter been so appropriate for a political party.
Here then is a rundown of the key numbers:
6.1 is the average percentage of support for the Lib Dems in northern England has measured by the Guardian‘s regular polling by ICM Research. To put that into perspective, the final prediction by ICM for the Guardian in May 2010 before the General Election put the Lib Dems in the north on 16%.
Three is the number of northern parliamentary seats which the Lib Dems would have lost had May’s local elections been a general election – over a quarter of the party’s 11 seats in the three northern regions. Third is also where the Lib Dems found themselves at the Middlesbrough by-election, behind UKIP. At the General Election the party came second with 19.9% of the vote. This time round they managed 9.9%.
Fourth is the position the Lib Dems came in the shock victory of George Galloway in the Bradford West by-election. In 2010, the party came third with 11.7% of the votes cast. In the by-election they achieved just 4.59% of the vote.
Second was a rare electoral bright spot as the party was runner-up in the Manchester Central by-election, a chink of light in its fight to avoid political irrelevance in the north. But the party won only 9.4% of the votes cast compared with 26.6% at the 2010 election.
Eighth was by far the most dismal performance by the Lib Dems this year as they limped home in the Rotherham by-election with just 2.1%. Ahead of them were Labour, UKIP, the BNP, Respect, Conservatives, English Democrats and an independent candidate. In 2010 the party was third with 16%.
Nil was the number of successful Lib Dems in November’s Police and Crime Commissioner elections, not only in the north but over the country as a whole.
It is perhaps a sign of the times that it is taken as a given that the Lib Dem’s electoral prospects as things currently stand have all the potential of a chocolate fire guard.
What will the party will do and, more importantly, when they will do it, to get themselves out of the electoral collapse they have seen across the north this year? Ideas welcome. And check out the views of the Lib Dem MP for Redcar Ian Swales in a companion Guardian Northerner post to this piece.
There are four feisty ones, says Ed Jacobs in his weekly commentary for the Guardian Northerner. But do they matter?
The decision last week by 53 Conservative MPs to join forces with Labour and vote against the Government’s position that the EU budget should be frozen in real terms, and in favour of a Conservative-inspired amendment calling for a real terms cut, did two things for David Cameron.
Firstly, it once again highlighted that despite all the progress the party has attempted to make, any mention of the word ‘Europe’ has the capacity to tear the Conservatives apart in much the same way that led to the downfall of Thatcher and the fatal undermining of John Major.
More broadly, it served to trigger a renewed bout of debate not about the Government’s central economic and financial strategies but about David Cameron’s apparent weakness, vis-à-vis his own party at a time when things should be looking up with falling unemployment and growth finally being injected into UK PLC.
In May, the expert extraordinaire of parliamentary voting behaviour, Professor Philip Cowley of Nottingham University, in conjunction with his research fellow, Mark Stuart, published research showing that the 2010-12 Parliament saw the highest number of rebellions by government MPs of any session in the post-war era. It is fairly extraordinary for a Prime Minister in his first term to face such difficulty.
In part this is a natural by-product of coalition. Where a Prime Minister would usually have total freedom to dangle the prospect of ministerial jobs in front of backbench MPs, Cameron does not enjoy that freedom. He has to have Lib Dems filling ministerial posts, and they are eyed with jealousy by those Conservatives who might have hoped to hold them instead.
This is compounded by the introduction of elections to select committees and the establishment of the backbench business committee, enabling backbenchers to make their mark and forge their way onto lucrative committees, in some cases even chairing them, free from the need to cosy up to the Whips office.
But to blame the Prime Minister’s internal party difficulties all on the dynamics of coalition politics would be far too simplistic.
Firstly, there’s the ‘aloofness’ factor. Prime Ministers might not like it, but they owe their position within our Parliamentary system of Government to maintaining the goodwill and support of their own MPs. Such goodwill and support needs cultivating and working on, listening to the concerns and thoughts of backbenchers in the Commons tea rooms and giving them nuggets to show that the leadership not only listens but responds.
For David Cameron however, his problem as reported by the Economist recently, is that too many Conservative MPs have concluded that he has a style of leadership that makes him seem aloof. Arguing that the whole Downing Street operation remains “too narrow”, Andrew Percy, the erstwhile Conservative MP for Brigg and Goole, spoke for many in the party on Radio 4’s ‘The World This Weekend’ when he urged the Number 10 machine to listen more to its backbenchers and give them much greater opportunities to contribute to policy-making.
But there is also a sense of loyalty being taken for granted. Time after time backbenchers have found themselves having to defend to their constituents and the press unpopular causes such as the pastie tax, Andrew Mitchell and ‘pleb gate’ and the sell-off of the forestry estate, only to see their defence of such problems undermined by u-turns and backing down. As David Davies, Conservative MP for Monmouth and chair of the Welsh Affairs select committee has told his local newspaper:
There comes a point when it is becoming more difficult to remain so loyal.
So who are the Government’s northern rebels? A glance at the Cowley research reveals that four Conservative MPs from the three northern regions have defied their Whips and voted against their own party.
David Nuttall, the MP for Bury North used his maiden speech in 2010 to declare that he would be a “strong and independent advocate for my constituents in Bury” and so he has. Voting records show that he has rebelled against his own leadership on almost 17% of all Commons votes in which he has taken part since 2010.
Philip Davies, elected Conservative MP for Shipley in West Yorkshire in 2005, has made a career of causing mischief, frequently staying in the Commons on Fridays to scupper bids by backbenchers on all sides to get private members’ legislation on to the statue books. A controversial figure, having recently called for the re-introduction of the death penalty, he has rebelled in just over 19% of all parliamentary votes he’s taken part in since 2010.
Former teacher Andrew Percy, who is Conservative MP for Brigg and Goole, seems to have lost the discipline that he no doubt employed in the classroom. A frequent critic of Government policy on everything from the static caravan tax to regional pay, since 2010 he has voted against the Government in 9% of the votes in which he has taken part.
And last, but by no means least, David Davis. The long-time MP for Haltemprice and Howden who challenged David Cameron to the leadership remains a threat to the Prime Minister, not least because he has a straight-talking manner and breaks the ‘Tory toff’ stereotype that the current leadership are finding hard to shake off. Having rebelled against the party leadership in over 9% of the votes since 2010, his independent streak could cause problems for David Cameron if he fails to improve the party’s fortunes in the polls.
But does any of this matter? Or is it a load of internal Westminster nonsense that doesn’t resonate with the outside world?
It used to be said that divided parties don’t win elections, but does that still hold true?
Andrew Hawkins, Chairman of the polling company, ComRes argues that the impact of rebellions is perhaps not as great as it once was. Speaking to the Northerner he explained:
The impact of rebellions on party brands appears to have diminished since John Major’s so-called ‘eighteen-month winter’ in the 1990s, but there are two big differences today: Coalition Government seems to be able to accommodate rebellion without the same degree of panic – perhaps flexibility is more acceptable? – and secondly David Cameron’s leadership has not come under direct challenge. Yet.
In a warning to the Conservative whips, however, he continued:
That said, rebellions are like committing adultery: the more you do it, the easier it becomes. If the scale and number of rebellions continue to increase it could be extremely damaging for the Tories to go into the next election being seen as more divided than Labour. Perceived unity is second only to competence as a necessary requirement for electoral success.
For Gideon Skinner the head of political research at Ipsos MORI, meanwhile, rebellions are never a good thing but David Cameron is still widely seen as a better bet for PM than Ed Miliband. Skinner explained to the Northerner:
Back in September 2011, Labour was seen as more divided than the Conservatives (by 55% to 49%), One year on the positions are reversed – now 49% say Labour is divided, but 62% think the Conservatives are (the Liberal Democrats incidentally are worst of all). Nor will this be helped by the fact that only one in four think the coalition as a whole is working as a united team. But having said that, David Cameron is still the leader with the strongest support from his own voters: 68% of Conservatives are satisfied with the way he is doing his job, compared to 58% of Labour voters who are happy with Ed Miliband.
What do you think? Can divided parties ever win elections?
Early this coming Saturday, 20 October, thousands of northerners will head for London on chartered trains to join the TUC’s March for A Future. In the first of four Guardian Northerner posts, Ann Czernik talks to Bill Adams, regional secretary for Yorkshire and the Humber TUC, about changes needed for a sustainable northern future
I go straight into the subject and in answer to my first question , Bill Adams smiles and says:
I’m marching to think about a new future for my kids, and their kids
He’s thought carefully about what it means to him to march on Saturday and he sums it up like this:
The government’s attitude to reducing the deficit is completely flawed – what they are doing is making things worse. We need to look at how we finance things in this country, our tax system, benefits and welfare. We need a new social contract between business, government and the workforce.
Throughout our interview, Adams glances frequently at the picture of his three children on his office wall, one a student and the other two with jobs but not sustainable ones, not good ones. His daughter, who has a history degree, manages a restaurant, but it’s not what she wants to do. Every interview she goes to elicits the same response – not enough experience.
His son manages a website, making sure the sales are up, and his other son is at still at university. Like millions of parents in Britain, he worries what a decade of austerity will bring for his children. He says:
Brendan (Barber) has led the opposition to austerity better than any politician. I really believe that Brendan has the right strategies. We’re not saying that we won’t rebalance the economy but it needs to be done in such a way that gets people paying tax rather than drawing benefits.
Outside his office there are reminder of the economic crisis. In the heart of the financial sector in Leeds, For Sale and To Let signs hang like bunting and there’s a queue outside the job centre. Adams has been involved with the trade union movement since leaving school at 16 to take up an apprenticeship. After years of low paid work,getting up at 5am, 6 days a week, he returned to full-time education in 1989, earning a law degree at the University of Central Lancashire.
Now, he jokes, he gets up at six and,works five days a week although I suspect Adams works round the clock. He began as a workplace union rep, then became an education officer and is now the TUC regional secretary of Yorkshire and the Humber.
He is deputy chair of his old university where applications dropped by 15% this year. Adams shakes his head and says that no-one believed him when he warned fee increases would deter applications from lower income or working class homes. He wants a new deal for young people:
Good jobs they could aspire to or damn good training vocational schemes. Francis O’Grady was right, she’s bang on with climate change, green energy,skills and investment for our young people. We should be saying – there’s no such thing as dole lad, you turn up here and you’re training to be an engineer. That to me is the long term, sustainability.
Adams would rein in the worst excesses of the banks and look for ways of providing sound financial help for ordinary people – there are 25,000 people in Leeds who don’t have a bank account. He sees a particular role for the north in this:
New ideas need to come in. There’s plenty out there. A British Investment Bank based in the north of England, for instance, would send out a message that says: ‘We’re not the poor neighbour.’ Leeds is the second biggest financial centre in the UK. We’ve got the right people, the rights skills – all sorts of people who could take that on.
As things stand, he reckons there’s virtually an investment strike – not just in the north but across the UK. Billions of pounds that could be used to rebuild the economy are sitting in banks. Adams believes that with investment, the north could develop strong local economies. The appetite for green technology for instance, with some of the biggest polluters in terms of power stations, cement works and chemicals based in the region. The legacy of the north’s expertise in heavy industry could breed world leaders in new technologies which merge engineering prowess with scientific advances to create sustainable, well-paid jobs in carbon capture and green energy.
In July, Drax Group announced plans to convert its North Yorkshire power station to run mainly on biomass, the same huge power station which recently completed the largest steam turbine modernisation programme in UK history, increasing overall efficiency and reinforcing its position as the most efficient coal-fired power station in the UK. But a pipeline out to the gas fields in the North Sea which would have reduced carbon by 40% was cancelled when the £1 million cost proved prohibitive. That saddens Adams:
We could have been a world leader in that technology. We’ve got Doggger Bank, wind and wave power – loads of platforms on which to build the north’s economy with good jobs. Not £6-an-hour jobs but work for engineers, technicians and skilled construction staff.
A think tank at Leeds city council recently asked: how are we going to get through the next few years without completely dismantling what the council does? One answer is through encouraging civic entrepreneurism – relocating companies, getting them to come here and invest in the economic front, taking advantage of the special skills that people in Leeds have in abundance – but also putting something back into the community as part of a long term plan.
Adams worries that:
A small elite of people own and run so much and outside of that no-one really has any power, any control over national politics, any stake in the companies or organisations that they work for. There is a sense of hopelessness, but I think that has generated a new type of activism as we’ve seen with Occupy, with student populations getting political again, fighting back on what has happened to them. A lot of unemployed young people are looking to get involved , to change things.
I’ve noticed how across the region so many groups being set up out of dismay and thinking: we can do something if we get together.
What do you think? Please comment at the end of Ann’s fourth post here.
Ann Czernik is a freelance photojournalist specialising in activism in the north of England. All photographs within the text are hers.
Exotic suggestions in the shanty – and the comments thread to last week’s Northerner post on the case – set aside in favour of a month in jail
The drunken sailor described in a Guardian Northerner post last week, whose ‘What shall we do with..?’ headline drew many suggestions in the comments thread, has been jailed for 28 days.
The sentence on 44-year-old Russian skipper Viatcheslav Poleshchuk is conventional compared to those in the sea shanty, but Judge Michael Mettyear said that it was designed to send a message to all sea captains.
He told Hull Crown court that his scrutiny of case law, after adjourning last week to study previous, similar episodes, left him in no doubt that prison was unavoidable. An earlier hearing, at which Poleshchuk admitted being in charge of a ship while over the legal alcohol limit, was told that the skipper drunkenly asked police “Can I have another go?” after twice ramming the lock gates at Goole.
The judge told the disgraced captain, who has lost his command and job after the incident last month:
It really does seem to me that a person as drunk as you were must expect a custodial sentence. The courts must send out a clear message that a custodial sentence is inevitable.
This was really disgraceful conduct to be four-and-a-half times over the legal limit in charge of a massive boat. I accept there was no immediate danger, but there were others on board. When someone drinks as you did on board a ship, anything could happen. You were fully aware of what condition you were in.
Poleshchuk’s counsel Simon Norton said earlier in mitigation that the skipper had been told unexpectedly to leave the Yorkshire port earlier than expected with his cargo of scrap metal aboard the 3000 tonne cargo ship RMS Baerl. But the judge said:
It is not an excuse to say your sailing time had been brought forward. You could have put some else in charge or said you were not fit and delayed your sailing.
He also made a geographical point about the effect of the sentence as a warning:
I am not saying for a moment that all east European captains are guilty of this, but all the case law of drunken sea captains provided by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency enforcement unit features eastern European captains.
The judge also fined Poleshchuk £1,000 fine with £250 costs and ordered that if a wire transfer of funds from his family in Rostov failed to arrive, he would have to serve another 28 days in jail.
James Harris won’t win the White House. But he’s coming to our town to back the Communist League candidate – and while Labour’s bigwigs are here too
Not many Parliamentary by-elections in the UK feature a visit by an American presidential candidate but that is happening in Manchester Central in a fortnight’s time.
It won’t be a question of motorcades and the sort of security which accompanies Barack Obama or Mitt Romney, because the politician in question is James Harris, who is running for the White House on the ticket of the Socialist Workers.
This has to be a definition of optimism in a country where political campaigners can in all seriousness hold up the UK’s national health service as the sort of horror which awaits them if Obama’s reforms go too far. But Harris is a conviction politician like the man he has come to support: Peter Clifford, the Communist League candidate for Manchester Central whose initial manifesto was featured in the Guardian Northerner last month. You can re-read it here.
Harris is 64 and a veteran trade unionist who shares what Clifford calls his “working class, labour movement, socialist campaign.” He was politicised by the American civil rights movement and protests against the Vietnam war and visited Cuba as early as 1969, spending two months helping with the sugar harvest.
Sugar workers are once more an interest as he has been acting for 1300 American sugar workers locked out since the beginning of August last year in a dispute over wages and conditions. He has also been involved in protests over alleged police brutality and the Trayvon Martin case.
He takes a global view of the problems affecting Manchester Central, and will tell an audience on 29 September:
The capitalist crisis, attacks by bosses, and workers’ resistance are worldwide phenomena. Everywhere they are driven to attack us in an effort to become more competitive.
He’ll also describe the difference between his better-known rivals for president as compulsory health care tax versus more privatization, or more wars with drones versus more ground troops – and neither offers an alternative for working people.
Harris’s visit from 29-September to 1 October coincides with a much bigger invasion by politicians in the shape of the British Labour party conference which takes over the city centre from Sunday 30 September to Thursday 4 October. Something like 11,000 people will be staying or visiting in various official capacities, bringing an estimated £23.9 million with them.
The event, including the preliminary women’s conference and over 500 fringe meetings, is a testament to Manchester’s virtues at holding this kind of mega-assembly, although we should spare a thought for Blackpool which was one of the party’s favoured venues for so many years. Manchester went poaching after its hosting of the 2004 spring conference was successful and has been host to Labour in 2006, 2008 and 2010 as well as running the 2007 leadership election in the Bridgewater Hall.
Sir Richard Leese, the Labour leader of the council, says:
Manchester is now the major conference destination for the two main political parties and we’re pleased that Labour has chosen to return. The feedback we received from 2010 was that it was a resounding success and the delegates were given a warm Manchester welcome. I’ve no doubt this will be repeated again this year.Manchester is going to be on show to the world during the five days of the conference – and we won’t disappoint.
Don’t forget to get some feedback from James Harris too. There are an awful lot of Americans out there.
Harris and Clifford will address an election meeting at 6.00pm on Saturday 29 September at Hilton House, 26-28 Hilton Street, Manchester M1 2EH
Last week the Mayor of Liverpool, Joe Anderson, joined me in signing up to the national campaign to end rough sleeping and made a public pledge that Liverpool city council will continue to work hard to tackle homelessness.
In the midst of a recession, when the latest government figures show that homelessness is steadily rising across the UK, some might think this is a brave statement. For us, it’s what we do every day. It’s simple: we believe that the most vulnerable people in society should not bear the brunt of our country’s economic problems.
There might be a million reasons why someone sleeps rough for the first time, but No Second Night Out (NSNO) makes sure they do not have to sleep out a second time. And it works: no one who has been referred to NSNO in Liverpool has had to spend a second night on the streets.
This success does not happen overnight. It has been the outcome of hard work by dedicated people, setting up the right services so that new rough sleepers can be identified and helped off the streets immediately.
In practice this means six local authority areas working together to offer 24 hour services and getting the public involved in connecting rough sleepers to these services. For many this introduced a new way of thinking, and change of this scale can be tough.
For those working throughout the night to make sure that someone with nowhere to go does not have to sleep on our streets, it can also be a thankless task. As homelessness figures rise, so do the headlines, and it may seem like the work you’re doing is a drop in the ocean.
As the Guardian Northerner reported just last week, the number of people making a homelessness application in Liverpool has risen by 17% from July 2011 to June 2012 compared to the same period the previous year. It’s important to remember that those making an application are not yet living on the streets, but could be at risk of rough sleeping if they do not get the support they need now.
This is where more work needs to be done. Research by umbrella charity Homeless Link has shown that 57% of rough sleepers seek help from services such as mental health or criminal justice before they sleep out. Preventing homelessness and rough sleeping is about working together across these services to ensure that, as the Government says in their latest homelessness strategy, we are ‘Making Every Contact Count’.
This is exactly what Liverpool and our surrounding partners will be working towards achieving beyond 2012. No Second Night Out will remain essential to ensuring those who end up on our streets do not have to stay there, and for many areas implementing NSNO it will be their crucial first step on the road to tackling homelessness.
Once in place, however, the next step is to make sure that no on arrives on our streets in the first place.
More than 30 areas across the country are currently working towards NSNO. Here are my top steps for implementing No Second Night Out in your area.
1. Establish who the main partners are: could include the voluntary sector, housing options, police, health and other local authorities.
2. Identify scale of the problem: all local services will have information on who they work with. Share this information with your partners.
3. Establish your vision: be clear on what you want to achieve and by when and set realistic goals. Services in Liverpool aimed to help 500 people in the first year of the initiative, but ended up helping more than that in the project’s first six months.
4. Identify the tools and services you need: ask yourself, do you offer a practical range of services for rough sleepers and where are the gaps? Could you apply for any funding to support you?
5. Implement your services: Work together to develop and implement the services you have identified. We were funded by the Homeless Transition Fund to set up a 24 hour hub where rough sleepers can get access to all the services they need.
6. Review your success and respond to challenges: projects and initiatives need to evolve. Always monitor your successes and any challenges you face, and make changes when needed to ensure the best outcome for your clients.
Ann O’Byrne is Liverpool city council’s Cabinet member for housing and a Labour councillor in the city’s Warbreck ward.
Regional values, upsetting the cynics’ applecart and showing how generous public funding pays glorious dividends. We have been given plenty to think about
Many welcome words have been written about the huge success of the Paralympic Games but I hope you’ll forgive me for adding a few more.
Since the week before last, I have been living in a Paralympic euphoria bubble, getting up early to catch the excitingly-named Javelin train from St Pancras to the Olympic Park and getting back weary but elated well after midnight.
My family had a personal motive, roaring ourselves hoarse (as you can here in one of my wobbly YouTube clips) in support of Susie Rodgers, my older son and daughter-in-law’s bridesmaid, who won three swimming bronze medals. Go for Rio, Suse Missile!
But you didn’t need that sort of connection to be carried away by the mood of the Games, supervised by Sir Philip Craven from Bolton, and the extraordinary crowds they drew: warm, friendly, co-operative, cheerful. In a word, Northern, in the sense which persuaded viewers that the famous Hovis TV advert filmed in Dorset was actually filmed up here.
I know that I am inviting derision by saying that, or at least mild reproof in the gentle spirit of most comments in the Guardian Northerner‘s threads, but it is a serious point. Guided by the Gamesmakers, who really should be put in charge of everything all the time everywhere, the rushing, self-regarding, sharp-elbowed side of the metropolis had a wholesome dose of the way we live, by and large, in the English regions.
When we left the park, how we missed the purple and pink uniformed volunteers and the care-plus-fun-minus-saccharine which they gave to visitors.
Two other points. One of the friends who came with us said: “We only just stopped grumbling in time”, and a datasearch back on the relentlessly sceptical tone of the pre-Olympics media coverage bears her out. It isn’t new. We went round Kensington Palace in between times and were struck by its display on the Great Exhibition, the most successful event ever held in the UK, and how Prince Albert and his co-organisers had to stick to their belief that it would work in the face of what the Queen noted in her diary as the newspapers’ ‘cold indifference.’
Such long-standing scepticism by public and press may be part of our national character and perhaps it keeps everyone up to the mark; we certainly wouldn’t want the speciously optimistic culture and denial of problems which marked Eastern bloc Communist countries. But a Levenson inquiry into the corrosive effect of downbeat, gloom-ridden and sometimes sneering assumptions about public life would turn up fascinating stuff; not breaking the law, but braking people’s energy, confidence and hopes. How excellent that Channel 4’s decision to broadcast so much of the Paralympics has been rousingly vindicated.
That puts me in mind of another brave and justified broadcasting decision, the BBC’s move to MediaCityUK in Salford. On which point, a final impression from London is the scale of funding which has gone into the Olympic and Paralympic Games and made them such a success.
It is stunning, as is the level of prosperity which you pass on your stately Boris bike in front of packed restaurants and pubs spilling drinkers on to almost every street corner in the city centre. I don’t begrudge this. It’s marvellous. But goodness, it needs sharing with the rest of the country.
Other photographs by Martin Wainwright.
Cameron’s reshuffle is a distraction from the real question – what’s the point of this Government now?
Checks and balances complicate the Prime Minister’s expected changes in Government. But what he rally needs is more northern faces round the Cabinet table. The Guardian Northerner‘s political columnist Ed Jacobs reflects
Cabinet reshuffles can be tricky things to undertake.
Used properly, they enable Prime Minister’s to breathe new life into their Governments and help them to stamp their authority on Whitehall. In 1981, Thatcher famously used a shuffle of her pack to purge her Government of the so called ‘wets’ in an attempt to show that she was in charge, which she managed to do extremely successfully. She became undoubtedly the biggest figure in British politics until the last year or so of her time at Downing Street.
Get a reshuffle wrong however and things can get sticky. Harold Macmillan’s ‘Night of the Long Knives’ in which he dumped seven of his cabinet ministers proved an unmitigated disaster. Likewise Tony Blair’s reshuffle of 2003 proved ill thought-out as he proudly announced that he had abolished the post of Lord Chancellor before later finding out that the law didn’t allow him to do so.
And the hazards don’t stop, there. In reshuffling the ministerial pack, Prime Ministers have a 3D game of chess to play. Ensuring continuity whilst being able to inject fresh blood into the top team; keeping all wings of the party happy; and ensuring that they don’t create too many enemies on the backbenchers – to name just three considerations. Blair for example had the constant worry in the background about how Gordon Brown would react to his shuffles.
For David Cameron however, things are exacerbated tenfold. As he mulls what looks set to be an imminent reshuffle from his holiday sunlounger, the prospect is likely to be causing him one mighty headache.
Putting aside the Ken Clarke problem, within his party Cameron has a hugely delicate task to perform. Little wonder that multiple strategies are being leaked to the press. The Daily Telegraph for example has reported that a number of the 2005 Conservative intake will be promoted in an effort to appease those who bear grievances and feel that they have so far been looked over in the promotion stakes. ConservativeHome has gone big on plugging those from the Conservative’s class of 2010 who should be handed keys to ministerial red boxes. And the need to maintain the Lib Dem/Conservative ratio in Government and for Cameron to keep both the left and right wings of his party together remain as pressing as ever.
Yet amidst all the talk of the Prime Minister needing to balance things out, one crucial factor is missing – regional balance.
A glance at the list of Government ministers reveals that just seven of them represent constituencies in northern England – three inside cabinet and four outside. Further, in the vast amount of material published on the forthcoming reshuffle so far, all the runners and riders looking set for promotion come from outside our three northern regions.
Whilst its undoubtedly the case that Prime Minister’s should pick who is best for ministerial positions based on competence rather than where they represent, Cameron, whether he realises it yet or not, is in desperate need of northern voices around his top table.
As I have previously argued, the Conservatives also desperately need more seats across the north if they are to achieve that elusive majority at the next general election. That prospect has been made harder because of the decision by Nick Clegg to veto constituency boundary changes.
With the Olympics now done and dusted, Ministers need to expand as much energy into building up the north as has been invested in London and the south east over the past few years. It is nowhere near enough that the likes of Eric Pickles and Justine Greening are northern by birth. They now represent Parliamentary seats in the south. Nothing can beat the authenticity of northern MPs, in Government and Cabinet, having to return to the region on a weekly basis and hear in surgeries week in and week out of the personal, harsh struggles faced by fellow-northerners.
In the end, however, even a reshuffle which meets this need will not compensate for the Government’s central problem, which both Nick Clegg and David Cameron will have to address if the coalition isn’t simply going to limp on unproductively until 2015. With constitutional reform proving so divisive for the coalition partners, economic growth a dim memory and borrowing increasing, all of the supposed raisons d’etre of the coalition have one by one been eroded.
As they mull the reshuffle therefore, perhaps the best question for both David Cameron and Nick Clegg to be asking themselves is not who should have what job but something far more fundamental: what exactly is the point of this Government?
A string of dire statistics leave no doubt about the crisis facing the smallest of England’s nine regions. It also has huge assets but they need mobilising. The Guardian Northerner‘s political commentator Ed Jacobs calls for ideas
So the Olympics are over, our political leaders have packed their buckets and spades and are now sunning themselves in destinations across Europe and we have a Yorkshireman, born and bred, keeping control of the shop in the form of Foreign Secretary and Richmond MP, William Hague. All well and good.
Well not quite, for in the midst of the post-Olympic analysis and the euphoria of the medals won, the Office for National Statics (ONS) this week released what was largely unreported material on regional trends across the UK, data which provide particularly worrying reading for the North East.
In its profile of the region, the ONS revealed that despite it being the smallest UK region, the North East faces some of the biggest policy challenges. For example:
The region produced 10.6 tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO 2 ) emissions per resident in 2009, the highest in any ofl the English regions.
Almost 15% of adults aged 16 to 64 had disabilities that limited their daily activities or work in the North East in the year ending March 2011, the highest region in England.
More than a fifth of children in the North East lived in workless households in Q4 2011 (22.4%), the highest proportion in the UK.
Life expectancy at birth in the region in the three-year period 2008 to 2010 was among the lowest in the UK at 77.2 years for males and 81.2 years for females compared with 78.2 and 82.3 years respectively for the UK.
Gross disposable household income (GDHI) of residents in the North East, at £13,300 per head in 2010, was 15% below the UK average and the lowest of the English regions and countries of the UK.
In April 2011, the median gross weekly earnings for full-time employees on adult rates who were resident in the North East was £451, lower than the UK median of £501.
Pretty depressing stuff. But it gets worse. With national figures suggesting a drop in unemployment to 8% across the UK, the data also points to unemployment of 10.4% in the North East, almost double that of the region with the lowest rate of 5.8% – the South West. Inactivity rates are also England’s highest in the North East, standing at 25.5%.
With PricewaterhouseCoopers having also pointed to the North East and Cumbria seeing the biggest increase in insolvencies and reports of a sharp drop in apprenticeship numbers across the region it would seem that, in the aftermath of what Boris Johnson might call Olympiomania, we’re heading for a hangover plus a headache.
As the parties prepare for their conferences and with promises of a coalition ‘mid term review’ sometime over the next few months, what one policy or initiative do you feel would best kick start the North East?
We’ll be putting the best suggestions to Ministers and Shadow Ministers and seeking a response from them.