I have always believed throughout my journalistic career that the vast majority of MPs and councillors go into public life to do good. Jo Cox was indeed one of them. My sympathy to her lovely family and the many Labour MPs who were close friends and are bitterly grieving at this time.


We are on the brink of voting to leave the European Union. Sunday’s polls show a stemming of the Remain advance, but it remains likely we will vote to leave.

The immigration issue is overwhelming the very strong economic arguments to stay in. So what needs to be done to avoid this disastrous result? Increasingly lurid threats about emergency austerity budgets probably won’t do it. An appeal to solid Labour voters in the North of England will help. They hold the key to next Thursday’s vote. So let’s put the Remain case to Labour voters who feel their jobs and neighbourhoods are threatened by “uncontrolled” immigration from the EU.

It is not actually uncontrolled. We do deport EU migrants who break our laws. The Prime Minister has negotiated that they won’t get unemployment benefit. If they haven’t got a job in six months they will can be asked to leave and it will be a full four years before they can claim full benefits in the future. The “pull” factor of being able to get £10,000 a year benefits on arrival is going. All that said most EU immigrants staff the NHS, pick the fruit, pay their taxes and add to our diverse culture as they have done since the Anglo Saxons enforced free movement on the indigenous Celts.

Another “pull” factor is also diminishing. One of the reasons for the large influx of EU workers has been the disparity between the UK economy which has been doing well and the poor performance of the Euro zone. That is now reversing with the latest figures indicating that the Euro zone is doing better than the UK economy which has been hit by all the uncertainty of the referendum.

Turkey will not be joining the EU for years, and we have a veto anyway. It is the case that more immigrants come here from outside the EU.

Finally I have no doubt that if by any chance we narrowly vote to stay in, the politicians and Commissioners of the EU will have got the message that something has to be done about free movement in the Single Market. Senior Labour figures are already indicating they support this.

Other messages to northern Labour voters are these.

Most major employers are urging a Remain vote. Jobs and investment is at risk. Also some Tory Brexiteers have their eye on scrapping workers rights provided by the EU.


If we vote to leave, there is no going back, no second thoughts. The whole complex and expensive process of detaching ourselves from forty years of engagement with our former friends will begin. It will be carried out against a background of economic downturn and turmoil. Just look at what has been happening to the pound and the markets as the likelihood of a Brexit vote has loomed.

The lie about us paying £350m a week remains on the Brexit bus. It is half that and the EU has funded projects in the north of England that Whitehall would never have done as our MD Frank McKenna argues powerfully in his blog.

The Brexiteers have no answer about what is going to happen to the Northern Ireland border with the Republic crossed by 200 roads.

The EU has ensured 70 years of peace after a thousand years of conflict in Europe. Vladimir Putin wants a Brexit vote to destabilise the EU.

This is not a referendum on a David Cameron, a here today gone tomorrow Prime Minister. It is about the future of this country in Europe and the world for the rest of this century. Let us maintain our role of leadership in Europe and respect from the rest of the world by voting to Remain.







As people lie in ambulances waiting for treatment, the sound of squabbling politicians rings in their ears.


If it’s not the NHS, it’s the economy. We got four or five rebuttal and counter rebuttal documents from the Conservatives and Labour on Monday about each other’s spending plans.


The electorate is already mightily disillusioned with the Westminster game. Four months of this will not just have them turning off in droves, it will make them angry.


Political reporters have already been overusing the phrase “the election campaign got under way today”, when we know that there will be multiple launches around the spring party conferences and when Parliament is dissolved. Oh for the return of the short sharp campaign. There is a view that people generally form a view two years out from an election. It is difficult to achieve significant changes in opinion amid the sound and fury of the last few weeks before polling day. To inflict this early period of claim and counter claim on a weary electorate is a mistake.



For business, the approaching election means the thing it hates most, uncertainty. The possibility of a change of government might mean that investment plans will be put on hold. This is compounded by the prospect that forming a new government might take weeks and involve multiple parties. Discerning what that will all mean for taxation and business incentives is very difficult, hence the Prime Minister comes up with his plea for continuity under the Conservatives.


But away from politics there are a number of other business related questions for the year ahead. How much longer are the workers going to settle for 1% pay rises and zero hours contracts? With unemployment dropping and the economy improving, are we going to see more robust demands for pay rises? These may particularly come in the private sector where there is some evidence of skills gaps developing. Public sector workers may be less likely to take part in a wage push because remorseless cuts are set to continue whoever is in power.




Uncertainty at home and uncertainty abroad. The slump in the oil price in 2014 took everyone by surprise. Whilst it provides everyone with lower costs in the short term, what it is telling us about the health of the world economy is another matter.


The American economy is surging ahead but the Euro zone’s performance continues to be an embarrassment for those of us who want it to succeed.

The Russian economy is tanking because of the oil price and sanctions, but how will Vladimir Putin react? Will he bow to the pressure or stoke up the fear that Mother Russia is under attack from the West.


A few years ago China’s rapid expansion sent raw material prices soaring. Growth has slowed. What effect will that have on China’s policy of increasingly investing in western infrastructure? Questions are being asked for instance about progress with the development of Wirral and Liverpool Waters.




As we mark the 800th anniversary of this shake up in English governance, it would be nice if we could take a fundamental look at how we are ruled from parish council to the House of Lords.


It doesn’t look as if that is going to happen. Instead we will have to concentrate on incremental change. In that respect the question for this year will be whether Leeds, Sheffield and even Liverpool will be getting the Greater Manchester devolution deal, with or without elected City Region mayors.




Is the extraction of shale gas part of the answer to our looming energy gap, or a potential environmental disaster in our crowded island?


Opposition to fracking is rising as demonstrations from Blackpool in Lancashire to Balcombe in Sussex have shown. The government meanwhile seems determined to press ahead with exploratory licensing despite the fact that we are in the run up to a General Election.


The fracking controversy is coming to a head because Britain is facing an energy gap. Coal is a declining source of energy. Old nuclear power stations are being decommissioned and negotiations with energy companies about the strike price for new plants are lengthy. Fears about nuclear power after the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl incidents left politicians reluctant to invest in new plants around the turn of the century. UK natural gas production has been declining at 8% a year since 2000. Despite government support for renewables, the fact remains that water, wind and bio-energy account for a small percentage of our energy supply.


Then there is Russia. Recent events have increased a desire for the EU and the UK to be less dependent on Vladimir Putin’s gas and coal.




The process of fracking extracts gas from shale rock by pumping a mixture of water, sand and chemicals into fissures one or two miles down. The gas and waste water then flow up to the surface.

The chemicals used are commercially confidential and that has proved controversial with environmentalists.


Estimates vary as to how much shale gas there is under the UK. A recent report commissioned by the Department for Energy and Climate Change suggested that fracking could deliver 25% of the UK’s gas needs by the middle of the next decade. Other experts feel it will take much longer for shale gas to be produced in volume and that cheaper Russian gas will continue to be attractive. Indeed a key question will be the impact of shale gas on household bills.


The American experience looms large. There has been a 75% increase in United States natural gas reserves due to fracking. Gas prices have reduced from $12 to $3 per million British thermal units By 2020 the US will be exporting gas. However whilst states like Pennsylvania have embraced fracking, New York maintains a moratorium. Also when comparing the US with the UK, the major issue of population density must be taken into consideration. Another important difference is that American landowners own the mineral rights beneath their land whereas here they are the property of the Crown.


Currently there is a promise that £100,000 plus 1% of total revenues will be paid to local communities where fracking takes place. The question is will this be enough to buy off residents who fear groundwater contamination, methane leakage and incessant tanker movements on country lanes? The government insists that a tough regulatory regime will be in place and cite the cautious approach Ministers have taken so far. That includes a moratorium on test drilling when it was suggested that natural seismic movements under Blackpool might have been caused by exploratory work.


The conference will be held eight months before the General Election. Some of the most promising shale gas fields are under marginal constituencies in the North and the fracking debate could well become an election issue. Claims for the level of public support for fracking vary widely. An industry commissioned opinion poll claimed recently that opposition was down to 24%. A poll for the Guardian and Nottingham University suggested the nation is split fifty fifty.


However enthusiastic national government is to press on with fracking, it is local councillors who have to give planning permission. Some are questioning their expertise to make such crucial decisions.


On this crowded island fracking pitches local communities and environmentalists against those with responsibility for keeping the lights on.