Suspensions and shouting matches outside TV studios was not an ideal way for Labour to prepare for next week’s local elections. They were already going to find gaining seats difficult due to the election cycle discussed below. The anti semitism issue is important for Labour to sort out but it is also part of the internal campaign against Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters.

With all this said, next week’s electrions will be no easy ride for the Conservatives.



It was always going to be a difficult election for the Conservatives. They are facing their first Town Hall elections as the sole governing party since 1997. They are not only distracted by the EU Referendum but are also very split on the issue unlike any other party. The run up to these elections has been less than smooth with the Budget unravelling, Iain Duncan Smith resigning and a growing row over forcing all schools to become academies.

The latter issue is particularly relevant to these local elections. There was a time when education was one of the main battlegrounds between the parties because Town Hall influence in the running of schools was strong. Now the government is hell bent on side lining councillors as it moves towards creating academies in all schools. Not surprisingly many Conservative councillors have reacted angrily to this implied criticism of their role in many high performing schools. The move is hardly likely to raise morale amongst Tories as they fight the local elections.


Labour has been gaining ground at every local election since the Coalition government came into office in 2010. The last time these seats were contested in 2012, Ed Miliband did particularly well.

Labour controls virtually all the urban councils across the North from the Wirral and Cheshire West and Chester to South and West Yorkshire. The three councils running down the Pennines (Pendle, Calderdale and Kirklees) divide these two areas and are under no one party control. However Labour has them in its sights.

Labour has all the councillors in Manchester(in the interests of democracy and scruitiny it would be handy if some Greens could be elected) and 80 of the 90 councillors in Liverpool. It has gained control of all the district councils in southern Lancashire from Burnley and Rossendale to West Lancashire.

All this means that further gains are going to be difficult for Labour, although they will hope not to fall back.


The Coalition years proved devastating for the Lib Dems who are now reduced to defending their heartland in the South Lakes and trying to hold on to minority control in Stockport.

It will be Tim Farron’s first test as party leader. He was elected over Norman Lamb because it was felt he was better placed to rebuild the party through its activist base. Now comes the test. The Lib Dems 6% poll rating has hardly flickered since the General Election but Farron claims they have been making gains in the regular by elections that take place each week without much publicity. Free from governing with the Tories, now is the time the tide must turn for the Lib Dems.

UKIP has generally made slow progress in getting elected to northern councils in recent years, with the exception of Rotherham where the child abuse scandal has dealt a blow to Labour. They have often got substantial votes in wards but fell victim to the voting system. This year they have bigger fish to fry in the EU referendum and are not expected to make a big impression, particularly in the North West.


Next Thursday a third of the seats on the metropolitan councils of Merseyside, Greater Manchester and West Yorkshire are up for election.

All the seats are up for election in Knowsley and in the unitary authority of Warrington due to new ward boundaries. A third of the councillors on the unitary councils of Blackburn with Darwen and Halton are up for election.

A few shire district councils have a third of their seats up for election. They are Burnley, Chorley, Craven, Harrogate, Hyndburn, South Lakeland, Rossendale and West Lancashire.

Few councils will change hands. The Conservatives will be keen to cling on to their slim majority on their only metropolitan council of Trafford and if they are to make gains, these are most likely in Rossendale and possibly West Lancashire.

Labour will battle for Trafford too but are also targeting Pendle, Calderdale and Kirklees whilst the Lib Dems would like to edge towards the 31 mark needed for control of Stockport. They are currently on 26.


Jo Anderson is expected to defeat the challenge of six other candidates to win a second term as elected mayor of Liverpool. The Lib Dems and Conservatives have good candidates in veteran Richard Kemp and charismatic businessman Tony Caldeira respectively but Anderson won in 2012 with nearly 60% of the vote. He doesn’t plan to stay long as he wants to contest the Liverpool City Region elected mayor post next year, but other Labour figures may want to be nominated for that role too.

In Salford Labour’s Paul Dennett will take over from the retiring Ian Stewart.



Since the late seventies there have been forty different schemes to boost economic activity in the North to help close the gap with the booming South East. Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) are the latest initiative and their performance has come under the eagle eye of the National Audit Office (NAO).

Their findings matter because by 2021 £12bn of our money will be channelled through LEPs under the Local Growth Fund. However the NAO has just published a report saying many of them lack capacity, expertise, transparency and that they spend money on short term projects because of Whitehall funding conditions.

There are LEPs all across the North with Leeds awarded the largest Growth Deal so far, £627m. Greater Manchester tops the national table for money given to transport projects. Liverpool City Region has been well staffed from the outset having taken on the staff of the Mersey Partnership. Warrington and Cheshire LEP is boosted by Warrington’s ability to take advantage of its excellent connectivity. With regard to Lancashire, Downtown recently hosted a top level conference at Brockholes where the ambition of the county to be part of the Northern Powerhouse was clear.

For all that there are major challenges facing our LEPs. For instance what exactly is their role in the Northern Powerhouse world of City Regions and elected mayors? The government wants LEPs centrally involved in the devolution deals they have recently signed. But LEPs have told the NAO they are uncertain of their role particularly when their boundaries are not aligned with city regions. The relationship between the business led LEPs and city region mayors, to be elected next year, remain unclear.

The idea behind LEPs was that senior business leaders would play prominent roles, but getting these busy people involved has proved difficult. The impression is sometimes given that the business representation on LEPs lacks heft and drive. The NAO calls for business to make a greater effort to be involved after years of complaints that such bodies were dominated by politicians.

Although LEPs are business led, they rely heavily on local councils for expertise. 69% of LEPs told the NAO they did not have enough staff of their own and 28% said they were not skilled enough. However local councils are under enormous pressure to empty bins and care for the elderly. There has been a 68% cut in Town Hall spending on economic development, the core function of LEPs.

LEPs have been around for a few years now, so how are they doing? Are they providing value for money? The NAO is critical about Whitehall’s methods for answering that question. LEPs have admitted that pressure to spend money in a single financial year has sometimes led them to invest in “spade ready” schemes rather than ones that would be of longer term benefit.

LEPs also need to raise their profile with the public with greater media coverage and seek ways to be more democratically accountable. The danger of not putting down roots in the community was seen when the Coalition government was able to sweep away the Regional Development Agencies with little public reaction.





Jack Straw has been an outstanding MP for Blackburn.

He worked hard for the constituency and was proud to show it off to the American Secretary of State CondoleezaRice in a 2006 visit which I reported on for the BBC. He represented all his constituents including the quarter of the electorate from an Asian background. His relations with them were robust enough that he could be frank about sensitive issues. Mr Straw said wearing veils could make community relations harder. He spoke of some Pakistani men “fizzing with testosterone” seeing white girls as “easy meat.” Even in the age of Twitter and Facebook, he kept in touch with people’s views in the old fashioned way: from a soap box outside the Town Hall of a Saturday.

So it was with dismay and astonishment that I read this week that the former Home and Foreign Secretary had fallen for a media sting. A trap by the way that has been practised time and again on parliamentarians. Hopefully our elected representatives will be less gullible when the next set of pretty Chinese ladies come calling.

Jack Straw denies any wrongdoing, says he has always obeyed the appropriate rules and may be cleared by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. But in the meantime he ends his 36 years as an MP suspended by the Labour Party and in the words of the Wallasey Labour MP and Shadow Leader of the House has “serious questions to answer.”

Here are a few of them. Why did Jack Straw have his grubby conversation in his Commons office against the rules? He says it was because of time pressure. He had enough time afterwards to show his guests around the place. He went “under the radar” to change EU rules on behalf of a company, justifying it by saying this approach achieved results whereas a public campaign might not. The public are alienated from politics precisely because they sense they are shut out from what is really going on.

But the main problem thrown up by the behaviour of Straw and Sir Malcolm Rifkind is not to do with whether specific rules have been broken. Most of the British people will pay little attention to the detail. On the eve of a General Election many voters are turning to fringe parties disillusioned by years of revelations about politicians “on the make and on the take” (George Carman in the Hamilton case). Straw talking about getting £5000 for one speech and Rifkind feeling “entitled” to a standard of living related his professional background stokes the fires of resentment that people feel about the greed of some Westminster politicians.

Jack Straw clearly expected to go to the Lords. That will now be a tricky call for Ed Miliband.


Can the Conservatives hold on to their only Merseyside seat? Probably because of the profile of their MP, Esther McVey. The feisty former TV presenter and business woman is now a Minister of State and probably headed for the Cabinet. She finally won the constituency back from Labour in 2010 but with a majority of only 2436.

Labour candidate Margaret Greenwood will be drawing her strength from the wards on the edge of Birkenhead but McVey will be hoping that the middle class towns of Hoylake and West Kirby will support the Tories and not drift off to UKIP





Eric Pickles seems to be relishing his role as the axe man in chief of Town Hall spending. The Communities and Local Government Secretary was in typical form addressing the parliamentary press the other day, telling us that councils knew the cuts were coming and that they had the capacity to be “enormously adaptive.”


He left his most substantial jibe for northern councils complaining about the unfairness of the cuts. He said their leaders were like the characters in the famous Monty Python sketch where they compete in telling each other what a deprived background they had. You know the one. “You were lucky to live in a slum; we lived in a cardboard box!”


Mr Pickles referred in particular to the comments of the Mayor of Liverpool. Joe Anderson. He has led the charge against, what The Mayor sees, as the disproportionate impact the cuts are having on northern cities. The Minister said the problem with this approach was that having painted a picture of poverty and deprivation, the Mayor would then say what a great place Liverpool was to invest in. Pickles then made a similar criticism of the leadership of Bradford Council, an authority he once led.


So has he got a point? Well the Liverpool Mayor and the leaders of our great northern cities like Leeds and Manchester are in a bind. Politically they have to speak up for their communities. They also have to try and lure investors in. If too bleak a picture is painted of the impact the cuts are going to have, it could well put off some potential employers.


Meanwhile Mr Pickles continues to rough up the councils. He is after all one of the token northerners in a cabinet of posh boys. He is frustrated that some authorities like Manchester have managed to get around his 2% council tax limit because levies by police and fire authorities are not under Town Hall control. He is already threatening fire and brimstone for the rebels next year.


“Sooner or later councils are going to have to sit down with their electorates and decide what to spend” said Mr Pickles.


Then there is the Graph of Doom. That’s not something out of an Indiana Jones movie. Instead it is a forecast that at the current rate of cuts and the growing need for elderly care, it won’t be long before councils will only have sufficient funds to empty the bins and look after the old. They won’t be able to do anything else. What does Indiana Pickles say about this Graph of Doom?


“Share services, end duplication, adapt. You knew it was coming,” that’s his uncompromising message.


Added to all these challenges, councils are soon going to face the ending of restrictions on Bulgarians and Romanians coming to Britain. How many school places and houses should Town Halls prepare for?


Eric Bloodaxe’s answer is honest if not helpful. “Nobody knows. All that government can do is be careful of the ‘pull factors’ like housing and health benefits.” He then added an awkward truth about the Eastern European immigrants: “very few carrots would be picked without them.”