Laura Evans: Burnham’s Mayoralty in Greater Manchester has meant four wasted years

15 Jan

Laura Evans is the Conservative candidate for Mayor of Greater Manchester. 

The role of Greater Manchester Mayor was created to bring change and new opportunities. But our Mayor isn’t doing his job. He’s too busy playing politics to do his day job. So it’s time we told him that’s not good enough.

Soon residents across Greater Manchester will go to the polls to pick the Mayor they want for the next three years.

Labour think the blue wall was a one off; this is our chance to prove them wrong.

There is so much at stake, but the choice is clear. A Conservative Mayor who can get things done. Or three more years of a Labour Mayor with the wrong priorities.

Andy Burnham is in charge of Greater Manchester Police. The buck stops with him. But under his watch, our police have been left high a dry without the plan or the leadership they need. 80,000 crimes have gone unrecorded in a year. Shocking figures which resulted in the force being put in special measures by the Home Secretary. Under our current Mayor, there are not enough homes in areas with the roads, schools, and services they need. And our public transport isn’t working, especially if you live outside central Manchester.

Before coronavirus, we might have been able to ignore these problems. We might have been able to muddle on and live with them. But in the middle of a pandemic, we can’t afford for our police to be stretched to breaking point because they’ve not been given the support they need.

So, we need a better plan and that’s what I’ve been working on.

My plan would be for the whole of Greater Manchester, not just the city centre. And it would be ready to go on day one after the election.

I’ve already pushed back against the Mayor’s reckless plan to charge across 493 square miles of Greater Manchester’s roads. That’s every road, in every town, everywhere. Under his plan, van drivers could be charged £10 a day to use the roads. That’s a tax on jobs which will put livelihoods at risk, right when we need people to get back to work and get wages into pockets. I’d scrap it and get to work on supporting businesses, not tying their hands.

I want to see major improvements in transport across the whole region, using our share of the extra £568 million announced by the Government to invest in the north. Ensuring each local council gets to grips with tackling congestion and improving bus routes with more services that run on time.

I would push for investment, unlocking new opportunities from across the world now we have left the EU. That’s what people voted for and I’m ready to work with the Government to unleash our potential. New employers mean more people can secure the quality well-paid jobs and apprenticeships we need.

The Greater Manchester Mayor also needs a plan to take on the criminals and put extra police back in our communities. Taking charge of our local police would be my priority – using resources effectively so we can tackle serious crime and put officers back on the beat in our communities, so they can focus on helping to make our streets safer.

Our police need the tools to do the job, but officers have been forced to use pen and paper to record crimes. That’s not good enough – and it is putting residents in danger. Together with the Government, I’ll make sure every officer has the equipment and resources they need to keep us safe. And I’ll make sure they have extra powers, like stop and search, to bring knife crime down.

I also believe we need tougher action on anti-social behaviour. Every crime needs to be taken seriously, but that hasn’t been happening. So I’ll make sure that our police take a zero-tolerance approach to anti-social behaviour, drug dealing, and theft, with extra CCTV in crime hot spots, on public transport, and around our local parks. And I’ll work with residents to set up neighbourhood watch schemes, with dedicated officers. So we can stop anti-social behaviour ruining lives.

The role of the Mayor is to make Greater Manchester work for every resident – in every city, town and village. But for too long, investment and opportunity has focussed on the centre of Manchester, and ignored the communities where people live and raise a family. As the Conservative Mayor, I would be able to work with the Government to secure the transport investment and new jobs for Wigan, Oldham, Stockport, and everywhere in between. I’m not willing to leave any community behind.

Because it boils down to this: for most people nothing has changed since Andy Burnham became Mayor. And we simply can’t afford three more years of nothing changing, especially as we look to recover from the impacts of the pandemic.

So this is our chance to reject the politics of soundbites and invest in communities, police officers, and work with the Government to get stuff done. Put an end to stunts and posturing and more roll-up-your sleeves action that actually changes lives.

The people of Greater Manchester were loud and clear at the last General Election. I’ve already been working with our MPs, including our new Conservative representatives in Leigh, Heywood & Middleton, Bury and Bolton, to secure the changes we need.

For 30 years I’ve been campaigning to improve Greater Manchester and I don’t intend to stop now. Because we need a strong police force, better transport, and more jobs. Together, at the next election, we can make that happen.

A tale of two cities. The Conservative Government has had smooth relations with Liverpool – less so with Manchester.

1 Dec

When the first lockdown began, on March 23rd, I don’t recall a single local authority expressing opposition. Even some of the more extreme measures – such as keeping the great majority of pupils away from school – went unchallenged. Local elections were cancelled with scarcely a shrug. Naturally, financial compensation was a subject keenly discussed. But on the substance, there was overwhelming support for restrictions. The only dispute was how they could go further. For instance, in my own borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, the parks were closed for a while – until it was accepted that this was counterproductive.

The mood is very different now. Council leaders are routinely challenging the “tier” their area has been put in, regarding it as unduly onerous.

Yet within these parameters, there are some stark variations. Even before the current lockdown was announced I found that most Conservative council leaders felt restrictions had gone too far. As they become more exasperated they are increasingly speaking out in public. My understanding is that Conservative MPs contemplating rebellion are usually emboldened by council leaders in their constituencies.

But often it has been Labour councils which have faced demands from the Government for the tightest controls. Conservatives are more likely to live in towns and villages where the population is more spread out. Labour voters tend to inhabit the bustling cities. It is scarcely surprising that the virus is a greater risk to communities in the latter group. There is an appreciation that making an announcement is easy but that implementation is a bit more tricky. So the active support of local authorities is important. Here the response of the Labour leaders in the big cities has varied.

Consider the cases of Manchester and Liverpool. Andy Burnham is the directly elected Mayor of Greater Manchester – he is a “Metro Mayor” whose empire, or “combined authority”, covers not just Manchester City Council but ten local authorities. His behaviour has been frankly duplicitous and exasperating for Ministers. Did he feel restrictions were too tight or too loose? He managed to say both at the same time. There would be staged showdowns for the media but a lack of serious leadership during this period of crisis.

Then we have Joe Anderson, the directly elected Mayor of Liverpool, who has put partisan politics aside. His conclusion is that the Government is justified in applying unprecedented restrictions. He might be wrong, of course. As with all of us, personal experience will have an impact – his brother Bill died of coronavirus in October. What can’t be disputed is his good faith in working with the Government. Not only in acquiescing to restrictions but also in applying the mass testing pilot to his City – which is now to be applied elsewhere.

Reflecting on the political context, this is rather remarkable. Where in England are the Conservative most hated? Surely, one would have to say Liverpool – that city synonymous with socialist militancy. Margaret Thatcher backed Michael Heseltine’s regeneration efforts for the City, after the Toxteth riots. But the Scousers never appeared to be overcome with gratitude. Then, in 2004, there was more trouble when a young Conservative MP called Boris Johnson was sent to the City to apologise. A leader in The Spectator had claimed Liverpudlians were “hooked on grief”. Johnson was the Editor – although he hadn’t actually written the piece.

Anyway, here we are. Of today’s vote by MPs regarding the new rules, Anderson’s vitriol is reserved for those Tory MPs contemplating voting against the Government. He says:

“When I hear this fella arguing we should let covid rip, this little pipsqueak, I say to him, you come up here and work as a porter in the Royal Liverpool Hospital and you see the people that are dying and then tell us we should just allow this to continue and not have a tier structure. You have a shift carrying the bodies up to the mortuary.

“Come up here and talk to the doctors, and nurses like the one who had to ring me at quarter to ten on a Friday night to tell me my brother had died. You do a shift with them, Steve Baker.”

“You have to put the lives of people first. It’s the number one priority. Then, of course, the economy is important. But, first of all, what are you if you don’t prioritise lives?”

That is hugely unfair to Baker and the other “lockdown sceptics.” The premise that the tighter the controls we have, the more lives we save, is disputed. It is not a question of being indifferent to death. Still, at least the Government know where they are with Anderson – while Sir Keir Starmer makes calculations about which division lobby to enter, eventually resolving to abstain.

Government sources I have spoken to, at the Ministry for Housing Communities and Local Government, do not wish to overstate Liverpool’s exceptionalism. “Some of the local government leaders in Manchester have privately been good to work with,” I’m assured. Sir Richard Leese, the Leader of Manchester City Council, has a personally “amicable” relationship with the Government. It is Burnham’s “grandstanding” that has been the difficulty.

As Daniel Hannan has said:

“Perhaps we have hit what marathon-runners call ‘the wall’: that moment, around 20 miles into the course, when the stored energy in our muscles runs out, forcing us to a walk. The end is in sight, but our accumulated exhaustion weighs us down.”

General opposition to restrictions is still a minority opinion – though a growing minority. More of a challenge for the Government are the objections regarding consistency. Why are we in Tier Three when we have fewer cases than a neighbouring area which is in Tier Two? Why have we gone up to Tier Two when our number of cases have gone down from when we were in Tier One? Why is x allowed when y is not? A Deltapoll survey for the Mail on Sunday found that 37 per cent felt their local tier “too high”, 56 per cent thought it “about right” and only eight per cent “too low”.  Another response to that survey indicated that while 43 per cent of us are in Tier Three, only 25 per cent of us feel that we should be in Tier Three.

No doubt as the vaccines and the Vitamin D pills are distributed, the emergency will ease. As we crank up to elections in May, the normal tribal loyalties and hostilities will reassert themselves. Yet in the time being, we have the irony, that while the Government has managed to dismay so many of their supporters, the Mayor of Liverpool could hardly be more vociferous in backing their cause.

Anand Menon and Matt Bevington: Will Johnson really be able to level up?

30 Nov

Professor Anand Menon is Director of UK in a Changing Europe, and Matt Bevington is Public Policy Analyst, UK in a Changing Europe.

The best laid plans of mice and men. Less than a year after his decisive election victory, already thrown off course by the pandemic, the Prime Minister has had to hit the reset button. His Chief Adviser is out of the door, and Red Wall Conservative MPs are worried that the government’s flagship domestic agenda – levelling up – might be on the way out too.

When he announced his candidacy for the leadership of the Conservative Party, Boris Johnson declared”: “if we are to unite our country and unite our society, then we must fight now, for those who feel left behind.” Subsequently, levelling up has become a central rhetorical theme of his Government. But can it deliver concrete results by the time of the next election? And if not, will there be a political price to pay for unmet expectations?

Levelling up is a compelling phrase, but its meaning is at best fuzzy. In his first speech as Prime Minister, Johnson referred to levelling up wages, productivity, investment and opportunity. He also pledged to answer “the plea of the forgotten people and the left behind towns”. But can all this really be addressed in a single Parliament, let alone one knocked off course by Covid-19?

number of studies make the point that the UK is among the most geographically unequal countries in the developed world, and the Institute for Fiscal Studies reckons that levelling up is a job that will take years or even decades.

Moreover, any plans to reroute substantial amounts of Government money have been thrown up in the air by the Coronavirus. The Spending Review was delayed, and the sheer scale of public debt will act as a break on any government largesse. Meanwhile, new infrastructure projects, which would take years to complete anyway, have yet to be announced.

Then there is a new problem created by Covid: unemployment. This too will affect regional inequalities. According to the IFSLondoners are the most likely to be able to do their jobs from home and therefore face least disruption. The Government doesn’t just need to address unemployment, but try to mitigate its uneven geographical impacts.

And let’s not forget the challenge that, pre-Covid, was the most vexing to the British economy: productivity. Differences in productivity across the UK are at the heart of geographical disparities. It is a complex and difficult question for which there needs to be a Government-wide strategy. Any lasting effort to level up the country has to major on it.

Finally, there is the ongoing impact of austerity. Many of the places identified in the government’s Towns Fund were those worst affected by austerity. Places like Oldham and Rochdale – already some of the most deprived local authorities in the country – saw government spending cuts of 30-40 per cent between 2010 and 2017.

So the task is herculean from the start. And we haven’t yet mentioned the elephant in the room: Brexit. With or without a deal, the economic impact of leaving the European Union will be substantial, and forecasts suggest it will be greatest in precisely those parts of the country most in need of ‘levelling up’.

Thiemo Fetzer, for instance, has found that the costs of Brexit are likely to be more concentrated in local authority areas that have relatively low educational attainment – in other words, that it will exacerbate existing inequalities.

Despite all this, levelling-up as a political project may not necessarily be doomed to failure. For one thing, we should not underestimate the importance of political attention. A Government that appears committed to addressing regional inequality sends a powerful message.

As Deborah Mattinson has found from her work in the Red Wall seats, many voters felt they had been both left behind and taken for granted under successive Labour governments. It may be that the simple fact of having a government that talks about prioritising their concerns makes a difference.

That said, the Government has hardly made a positive start. Its handling of the pandemic has led to accusations that it is one rule for the South and another for the North. Large parts of the north of England were asked to lockdown when Covid raged in the south in the spring, but not vice versa in the autumn.

Perhaps more damaging was the tussle with Andy Burnham. The Government refused an additional £5 million for businesses in his patch, and then made the scheme instantly more generous when London moved into Level Two. And when the whole country locked down, the cherries aligned and the Treasury one-armed bandit spewed out cash.

Be this as it may, there are signs that this might change. The Blue Collar Conservatives and Northern Research Group have given a new public face to the levelling up agenda. And the Conservatives have announced plans to open a second, northern headquarters, in Leeds. The aim, as with their continuing talk of the Northern Powerhouse, is to send a clear signal that the they are there to stay.

Moreover our research with low-income voters in some of these areas revealed that many are not expecting miracles. They simply want better local services. The issues they identify are often pretty basic: reliable bin collections, well-maintained green spaces, and litter-free town centres.

Reversing some of the hollowing out of local government due to austerity would go a long way to addressing these issues, and might well be much more effective (and far less expensive) than large infrastructure projects.

In order to genuinely address the problems besetting those areas in desperate need of a new economic settlement, the government urgently needs to put more flesh on the bones of its levelling up agenda. And for levelling up to be really effective, successive governments must commit to achieving it. But to win the political battle, it may be enough – just – for Johnson to show that he has listened and started to act.

David Skelton: The Government must not forget that it was working class voters who delivered the 2019 majority

17 Nov

David Skelton is the author of Little Platoons: How a revived One Nation can empower England’s forgotten towns and redraw the political map.

Last December, people who wouldn’t even have considered voting for us ten, or even five, years ago put their cross in the Tory box for the first time ever. Constituencies that had been Labour since their formation voted Conservative with remarkable swings. These voters had long been forgotten by the newly gentrified left and, in the aftermath of the referendum, had often become the butt of sneering and snobbery.

Working class voters, who had seen their economic and political priorities ignored by politicians of all parties for decades, saw that their concerns were being at long last listened to. They entrusted us with their votes, sometimes enthusiastically, sometimes warily, in the hope not only that their Brexit vote would be implemented at last, but also that, as a government, we would prioritise improving their lives and their communities. We should take that trust that was placed in us very seriously indeed.

A working-class Tory agenda is economically and politically the right direction to take

We should reflect on this trust that was placed in us and the basic political maths as we ponder the excellent question posed by Rachel Wolf on these pages on Saturday. In a nutshell, this question was whether we use the present “reset” to focus on the working class voters who delivered the 2019 majority or shift priorities towards the more affluent in a revival of a politics aimed at middle class metropolitans. For political, economic and moral reasons, the only correct path is to retain our focus on the working class voters who backed us in such numbers last year.

Politically, this new electoral coalition delivered the biggest Conservative majority in over thirty years. Only an electoral coalition centred on winning working class constituencies enabled us to do this and only this coalition would enable us to win another big majority in four years time. So-called “DE” voters backed Labour over the Tories for the first time and we had a 15 per cent lead over Labour amongst “C2” voters.

This allowed us to make some remarkable gains, from my home town of Consett to Andy Burnham’s old seat in Leigh – both symbolic of a “Labourism” that isn’t coming back. Electoral coalitions can’t be turned on and off like a light switch and we must continue the present focus. Maintaining this focus on these working class voters is the only realistic route towards a lasting Conservative majority and an enduring realignment.

We remain the custodians of the trust that was placed in us and we must repay it by delivering the substantial, positive and lasting change that we promised. This kind of change – boosting long-forgotten parts of our imbalanced economy – would also make our economy more productive and the country as a whole more prosperous. When parts of the country are held back from fulfilling their economic potential, that is a problem that impacts everybody. We must redouble our efforts to level up and genuinely create One Nation.

A One-Nation agenda of improved town centres, rising real wages, better jobs and improved infrastructure

In Little Platoons, published last year, I set out how an ambitious agenda of reform could transform long-forgotten towns, through infrastructure spending, transformation of town centres and a policy of reindustrialisation. We have made great strides so far but we now need to go even further and even faster, particularly as both the health and economic impact of Covid-19 risks impacting working class communities in the North more than prosperous communities in the South.

As James Frayne suggested last week, one of the key priorities should be making sure that town centres start to look and feel better over the next few years. Rather than being pockmarked with empty shops, bookies and discount shops, high streets must become symbols of community pride. Town centres should become community hubs – places for people to shop, businesses to set up (rather than in distant out of town business parks) and for families and young people to meet up and come together. Revived town centres should leave as lasting an impression of local and civic pride as the likes of Birmingham City Hall and the majestic Grey Street in Newcastle.

Just as people should see a difference in their town centres by the end of Boris’s first full term in office, they should also see a difference to their pay packets and their local economy. Despite the Covid associated economic hit, there must be a focus on creating economic revival in “Red Wall” areas.

As I made clear here a few weeks ago, our impending freedom from EU regulation will give us greater scope to use industrial strategy to help revive post industrial towns and promote a policy of reindustrialisation, including being leaders in green industry.

This should include aiming to shift the type of jobs that predominate in these towns from low-paid, insecure work to making them a central part of a high-skills, high-productivity, high-wage, tech-driven economy. We should enable local leaders to do whatever it takes, including through the tax system, to encourage industrial investment in their areas.

Part of the case I made in Little Platoons is that a direct government lever for revival is by relocating great swathes of the Civil Service to the North and the Midlands. An impressive report by the Northern Policy Foundation, published this week, shows that such an agenda would put “rocket boosters” under levelling-up and allow local areas to benefit from the agglomeration effect of relocating key arms of government.

We should also be stepping up investment in infrastructure programmes, to ensure that towns as well as cities have world class road, rail and digital infrastructure. We should consider how light rail can make a difference to people in “Red Wall” towns and also mustn’t forget about the importance of high quality, reliable and inexpensive bus services to local people. When even the deficit hawks at the IMF are arguing that now is the time to invest in infrastructure, we should be prepared to show audacity and imagination with big infrastructure projects for the North.

A relentless focus on making change happen

We must have a relentless focus on making this change happen. Levelling up should go through everything we do. Every day, ministers should ask themselves how their decisions are improving the lives of working people and to advance the levelling up agenda. And we should manage and track the levelling up agenda against these key metrics of improved town centres, rising wages, better jobs and improved infrastructure.

This is a One Nation government and levelling up is a definitively One Nation policy. As Damian Green argued as part of this series on Monday, building one nation is a conservative, not a libertarian, project. That means we should be prepared to use the power of the state to tackle regional economic inequalities (the GDP per head in the City of London is 19 times that in County Durham) and restore hope and economic vibrancy to long forgotten places.

We must make it our defining mission to repay the trust that working class voters placed in us and ensure that their lives are better and their towns are better places in which to live. If we do so, the realignment will be a lasting one. Now, more than ever, we must double down on levelling up.

The new testing plan that Johnson believes will help him control the virus – and win back the support of Conservative MPs

19 Oct

The pincer movement on the Government from Keir Starmer, calling for a “circuit-breaker”, and Conservative MPs, urging a Sweden-type policy, has been enabled by a political development amidst the Covid-19 crisis.

It’s the same one that has spurred Andy Burnham’s public resistance to Ministers in Manchester, and complaints from Tory backbenchers that their lower-Coronavirus suburban seats are being lumped in with higher-virus urban ones under the new three-tiers plan.

Namely, a loss of confidence in the central element of Boris Johnson’s strategy, and the strategic alternative to lockdowns and loosening: test and trace.

The scheme depends on finding within 48 hours 80 per cent of those who have been in contact with someone who a test has confirmed has Covid-19.  And on those who are so traced then self-isolating for the required period.

ConservativeHome hasn’t yet found anyone with knowledge of the system who believes that this target will be hit, despite the localisation of tracing that the Government has recently agreed to.

However, Downing Street and senior Ministers believe that there is now a way out of the predicament that it currently finds itself in – one that will put Starmer back in his box, quell the calls for a national lockdown, relax the three-tiered restrictions plan and quieten those restive Tory backbenchers: a new testing programme entirely.

It is centred around two kinds of tests – in the jargon, LAMP tests and lateral-flow tests.  The key to the latter is that they cut out the need for tracing, because of the scale at which they can be delivered.

If there are enough tests, after all, and they deliver results fast enough, then an elaborate tracing programme simply isn’t necessary.  Crucially, the lateral-flow tests can deliver a result within 15 minutes or so.  This programme is the Prime Minister’s “moonshot”.

Trials will be rolled out in some of the worst affected regions to universities, with students tested weekly; to care homes, with staff tested fortnightly, and schools, where pupils and staff will be tested in the event of an outbreak.

Meanwhile, the LAMP tests will be concentrated on testing asymptomatic NHS staff in seven urban areas.  These require contact tracing.  So the results will be collected by NHS Test and Trace, and then published as part of the daily case numbers.

Millions of these new tests – the lateral-flow ones are all done by means of swabs and don’t need to be sent off to laboratories – have already been bought.  Similar ones are being used in America.

Government sources claim that present trials with students show that a higher proportion of the latter are prepared to self-isolate if tested directly, and told that they have the virus, than if contacted by a tracer, and told that they might do (which makes sense).

Unusually, the Prime Minister underplayed the chances of an immediate breakthrough last week, saying that “no country in the world is regularly testing millions of people”.

The Government will now need “to take the time to establish how to do this effectively and safely, and to build the logistics and distribution operation necessary for a large scale operation across the country”.  That will involve a shake-up.

It will involve streamlining and if necessary changing the administrative and legal framework that obstructs parts of the NHS from sharing data with government, and the private sector from delivering tests.

The present test and trace scheme will continue (Ministers insist that it is on track to hit a 500,000 daily testing capacity target by the end of this month) and the Department of Health will be responsible for the delivery of the new programme.

Nonetheless, it is Downing Street itself that has been driving the moonshot, working with scientists, laboratories, companies and deliverers: a new operational system, in short.

One Government insider says that, if the new scheme is to work, private sector involvement is crucial.  “We need to get to the point where, say, pubs and football clubs can deliver the lateral-flow tests themselves”.  There is frustration with the gold-plating of laws and regulations that make data sharing more difficult.

How soon could the new tests really start to deliver results?  One MP insider told this site that it might be as soon as “a couple of months”, but all concerned are being cautious.

Ministers with a range of approaches to tackling the virus were supportive of the new plans when quizzed about them.  The question is whether Tory MPs, and in particular the 50 or so who have voted against the Government on scrutiny and the strategy, will be as easily reassured.

They will ask some searching questions.  The moonshot is, after all, trials to date.  What if they don’t work?  Or can’t be rolled out smoothly, because of the legal and bureaucratic obstacles to which insiders refer?

Given the operational and cultural failures of the state to date – the NHS app fiasco during the summer; the recent under-reporting of tests; the use of outdated software; the chaos over airports; the carnage in care homes; the grim death numbers – they are also bound to say: why should it all be different this time?

Johnson will hope that early successes will win them round, and that political life will be breathed back into testing (and tracing, as local authorities and health trusts begin to deliver it on the ground).

As the number of tests scaled up, Starmer’s push would then falter, the three-tier system could be eased, pressure from local councils, not least Conservative ones, would wind down – and the UK really might emerged as the “world-beater” that the Prime Minister has promised so often.

All this would happen, please note, whether a vaccine is delivered successfully or not.  Our sense is that Number 10 is less optimistic than some Government scientific advisers on this point – a subject big enough for another day.

The moonshot may work and it may not.  But even if it does, there is a question about political timing.  If those quick wins don’t come, neither Tory MPs nor local authorities will be reassured, and Johnson will find himself pulled betweeen loosening and lockdowns, with more defeats in Parliament and even less authority.

Either way, Ministers need to change the public conversation, or try to, about the balance of risk – through reports on the healthcare and economic impact on lives and livelihoods of lockdowns, restrictions and Covid-19 itself.

Burnham is trying to face both ways on lockdown restrictions

15 Oct

Andy Burnham, the directly elected Labour Mayor of Greater Manchester, is a shrewd politician. Within a few months of Jeremy Corbyn becoming Labour leader, Burnham concluded that the hard Left were destined to prove themselves right in their long-standing contention that there is “no Parliamentary road to socialism.” Rather than sit on the Oppositiion benches, if he wanted to exercise power it would require a new role. Given that at the General Election last year, his constituency of Leigh was gained by the Conservatives, it’s unlikely Burnham has any regrets.

Given his political experience, Burnham is familiar with producing forms of words designed to reconcile what are irreconcilable positions. He certainly wishes to disguise, if possible, a split in his stance and that of, Sir Keir Starmer, his Party leader.

Yet when it comes to his stance on the lockdown, Burnham’s efforts to maintain contradictory positions surely leave his credibility in shreds. At present, Greater Manchester is at the “Tier 2” level of restrictions. Burnham argues strongly that it would be wrong to increase it to “Tier 3” the level being applied in Liverpool. He has gone so far as to threaten legal action against the Government over such a proposal. The logic being such an imposition would be unnecessary – or even counterproductive. Yet at the same time, Burnham has indicated his support for a new national lockdown – which would be far more draconian than the situation currently being applied in Liverpool.

One of the criticisms of the Government’s approach to local lockdowns is that the areas they cover are too wide. Sir Richard Leese, the Leader of Manchester City Council, was among the signatories to a letter which argued that as “decision making must balance difficult trade-offs. This requires a more nuanced approach than moving straight to a full local lockdown under the ‘tier three’ arrangements. Our response should consider broader local impacts than absolute numbers of infections: impacts on jobs and business; effects on poverty and deprivation; and relative infection rates in different sections of the population (e.g. between students and care homes).” There is a strong case to be made for greater targetting. But would a fullscale national lockdown constitute a “more nuanced approach”?

Thus we have this statement from the Greater Manchester Combined Authority which sought to combine the messages that the restrictions went too far – as well as going not far enough.  It starts off:

“We do not believe we should be put into Tier 3 for two reasons. First, the evidence does not currently support it. The rate of Covid infection in Greater Manchester is much lower, at 357.6 cases per 100,000, compared to Liverpool City Region which is in Tier 3 at 488.0 cases per 100,000. Plus our hospital admission rate is much lower than in LCR as Deputy CMO, Jonathan Van Tam, highlighted in his press conference this week. Liverpool University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust 7-day rolling average Covid patients in beds is at around the 225 mark and in Manchester University NHS Foundation Trust it’s at the 100 mark. Second, the financial package accompanying Tier 3 is nowhere near sufficient to prevent severe hardship, widespread job losses and business failure.”

But it continues:

“If cases continue to rise as predicted, and the Government continues to refuse to provide the substantial economic support that Tier 3 areas will need, then a number of Leaders in Greater Manchester believe a national circuit break, with the required financial support would be a preferable option. This would create the conditions for a re-set of the Test and Trace service into a more locally-controlled operation which, with cases driven down to a lower level, would be more likely to succeed.”

Note the reference to “a number of”. It was a reference the Labour leader missed at Prime Minister’s Question Time yesterday. Sir Keir stated:

“I think the Prime Minister is behind the curve again. He probably has not noticed that this morning, the council leaders in Greater Manchester that he just quoted, including the Mayor and the Conservative leader of Bolton Council, said in a press statement that they support a circuit break above tier 3 restrictions—keep up, Prime Minister.”

Cllr David Greenhalgh, the Leader of Bolton Council has made clear that he was misrepresented by the Labour leader. Why has Sir Keir not apologised?

How long would Burnham be willing to back a “circuit breaker” lasting for? The statement doesn’t set a limit. Sir Keir has proposed that “two or three weeks” restrictions would include all “non essential” offices being closed, as well as pubs and restaurants. What if case numbers don’t fall? Would Burnham favour another two or three weeks? What if they fell a certain amount, but SAGE advised that rather than full liberalisation, certain areas – such as Greater Manchester, perhaps – should be on Tier 3? Would Burnham agree?

As Burnham is willing to support a “circuit break” of undefined length, what if he finds that there is a difficulty for The Treasury in stumping up the “required financial support” he so breezily calls for. The statement refers to “a furlough scheme of at least 80 per cent of wages offered to all businesses forced to close or severely affected.” But the idea that funding for a second national lockdown would be as generous – or more generous – than provided for the first one is fantasy.

There is a serious case to be made for more restrictions. There is a serious case to be made against. Burnham’s tortuous efforts to put forward both cases at once are a dire failure of leadership.

Labour council leaders’ resistance to local lockdowns gives Starmer a dilemma

7 Oct

Sweden is governed by the Swedish Social Democratic Party (in coalition with the Green Party). The Swedish Social Democrats are a sister party to the British Labour Party. They are both affiliated to the Party of European Socialists and the Progressive Alliance (as the Socialist International is now called.) Yet I am not aware of a single Labour MP who supports the policy of their Swedish comrades in opposing lockdown restrictions in response to the coronavirus. Boris Johnson has to cope with growing scepticism from his Parliamentary colleagues about his approach. But when it comes to Labour MPs, Sir Keir Starmer does not have the same difficulty maintaining support for restrictions.

However, when it comes to local government, the position is more complicated. There might be some logic in varying the severity of the rules imposed in one area rather than another in proportion to the degree of risk. While that principle is broadly acclaimed, when it comes to applying it in practice, there is great potential for unfair treatment. With a lot of data to measure, it will often be possible to make a case that one local authority has locked down even though another one remains free despite having more cases.  Or that a lockdown might be justified for one or two wards but not a whole city. Then there will be the disputes about process. The Government hasn’t been transparent about figures. Or it hasn’t consulted in advance.

Another grievance is that there is a lack of compensation for businesses being hit by the extra impositions. Furthermore, that the “financial package” should include extra funding for the local authority. In 1948 Nye Bevan, the Health Secretary, declared that he had won over the support of doctors for the establishment of the NHS “by stuffing their mouths with gold.” Councils can miraculously find they are convinced of the justification for a local lockdown if they discover lots more money from The Treasury goes with it. The trouble is that the Chancellor is running out of the stuff.

Then there is the frustration that the centralised arrangements for test and trace have failed. Local authorities can argue that giving them responsibility would be more effective and mitigate the need for new restrictions.

Andy Burnham, the Mayor of Greater Manchester, says:

“Without urgent change, the North of England will be thrown into one of the most difficult winters we have ever experienced, with the risk of significant harm to health and our economy. It’s that serious.

“We are heading into the winter months with a Test and Trace system which is still not working and the risk of redundancies rising sharply as the furlough scheme comes to an end. Without extra support for individuals, business and councils, it could be a winter of dangerous discontent.

“I remain ready to work with the Government to build public support for its approach to local lockdowns, but that requires meaningful consultation and proper support for the areas affected. That is not happening at the moment.

“We have now reached a point where there is a real risk of the Government losing the public in the North because of the perceived unfairness of its local lockdown policies. We can’t let that happen. There is still time to put in place better measures to protect communities across the North this winter but time is running out.”

Joe Anderson, the Labour Mayor of Liverpool, is even more critical, declaring that the restrictions are “not working and the increasing infection rate going up” and adding:

“It’s about common sense, it’s about getting the balance right and about what we can do, what we should do and how local lockdowns work, working with local leaders to get it right. There’s a lack of consistency, a lack of clarity, but most of all a lack of communication and collaboration.”

The leaders of Leeds, Manchester, and Newcastle city councils have joined Anderson in writing to the Health Secretary to oppose further restrictions. That letter argues for “local decision making to agree additional lockdowns before they happen”. But it gives a pretty big clue that winning such agreement would be unlikely:

“We want to be clear however that we do not support further economic lockdowns…This requires a more nuanced approach than moving straight to a full local lockdown under the ‘tier three’ arrangements. Our response should consider broader local impacts than absolute numbers of infections: impacts on jobs and business; effects on poverty and deprivation; and relative infection rates in different sections of the population (e.g. between students and care homes).”

Back in July we had opposition expressed by Sir Peter Soulsby, the Labour Mayor of Leicester, to the “political” decision to lock down the whole City and to “penalise its economy” rather than to “focus on the ten per cent where the virus is “.

It’s not just Labour politicians. Andy Preston, the independent Mayor of Middlesbrough, says:

“To me, it is obvious that anyone should be allowed to visit a relative or a friend in their garden, and have a cup of coffee while remaining well distanced. And, of course, we should be able to meet them for a chat in a well-run, socially distanced coffee shop. Yet these new rules – which essentially ban different households from meeting – will prohibit all those safe, human activities that are small but so essential for wellbeing.To add to the insanity, it isn’t even clear how the regulations will be enforced. Like so many growing towns, Middlesbrough spills out of its boundaries – and the neighbouring borough of Redcar and Cleveland is not included in the restrictions. It’ll be two rules for one town, and sometimes two rules within one street.”

So will Sir Keir back these local leaders or continue to back all restrictions the Government imposes? Last week he voted to support the full set of measures, but asked the Government to “reflect” on whether closing the pubs at 10pm was counterproductive. Rather a weak compromise to vote in favour of something but to declare it to be a mistake. At Prime Minister’s Questions this afternoon Sir Keir highlighted inconsistencies and asked about the ineffectiveness of local lockdowns. We were left unclear whether Sir Keir felt the answer was to lift the lockdowns or make them more severe.

But the dilemma is clear to see. Politicians like to talk about “following the science” regarding coronavirus – as if the evidence was clear, the impact of measures easy to accurately predict, and that scientists are all agreed. Of course, that is nonsense. But following the polling is more straightforward. There is strong support for restrictions – the objection being the Government hasn’t gone for enough. Even if Sir Keir just asks for specific relaxations, the public may get the message that he wants the Government’s measures to be softened – when there is strong demand for them to be harder.

I don’t expect Sir Keir will significantly shift on this issue – unless and until the polling does.

Grant Shapps: Why I’m in Manchester today to help kick-start better, greener and more modern transport for the North

23 Jul

Grant Shapps is Transport Secretary, and is MP for Welwyn Hatfield.

Forgive a Conservative Cabinet Minister for citing a Labour Prime Minister in approving terms, but one of my favourite quotations on railways comes from the opposite side of the House. Not a real Prime Minister, to be accurate, but a fictional one. Harry Perkins, the Sheffield steelworker’s son who takes on the Establishment and loses in A Very British Coup.

Asked by a reporter if he intends to abolish first class rail travel now that he is in power, at the head of a radical Left-wing government, our Harry replies: ‘No, I’m going to abolish second class rail travel. I think we’re all first class. Don’t you?’

Perkins may have had the wrong Idea about many things, but he was right on this. For years now, the successful South East, and particularly London, has sucked in rail investment. The argument in Whitehall goes something like this. London is the cash cow; the goose that lays the golden eggs.

Spend on infrastructure there, and in the prosperous hinterland supplying its commuters, and you will get bang for your taxpayers’ buck. The “business case” is overwhelming. Why risk spending in the North or other supposedly far-flung places, when you can be sure of a good return on your investment by shipping white-collar workers into the City?

This is one of those circular arguments that ensures nothing changes. Reinforce economic strength and punish relative weakness, and you get what I call the transport deficit, resulting in a lopsided rail network that impedes the spread of prosperity.

While commuters into London enjoy new trains, their counterparts in Manchester and elsewhere have in many cases put up with old or second-hand rolling stock. And the routes these trains run on are more likely to be narrower, more congested and more prone to delay.

For far too long, the North, cradle of the Industrial Revolution, has had to put up with rail infrastructure bequeathed from that time. Take the Trans-Pennine route from Manchester to Leeds. This corridor through rolling moorland is completely inadequate as a link between two great cities and the other cities – Liverpool, York and Newcastle – that connect through it. Much of it is two-track, meaning that fast trains must jumble up with local stopping services, slowing everything down. It is badly in need of electrification to speed services and make them greener.

I’ll let a regular user of this line describe her experience of this route, using it to reach Manchester from her home in Marsden before she gave up in frustration.

‘Standing room only at peak times is a given. Home time is worst – trains regularly cancelled, so it means platforms are crammed with two or three trainloads of stressed-out people, and when the train eventually arrives it is every man and woman for themselves. People just surging forward knowing that if you don’t you will be left on the platform. Then the poor conductor comes round to throw people off who’d otherwise be hanging out of the doors.

There are fights – not surprisingly. People just want to get home after a hard day. Most people are amazingly restrained, though, given the appalling service and the huge sums of money they pay to use it. A sort of “What do you expect? It’s the North”. A hellish commute, which is why I started to drive in.’

Many people in the North took a chance on the Conservatives at the last election. They put aside old loyalties, not only because of Brexit, but because they saw a glimmer of opportunity – a Prime Minister prepared to tear up the rulebook of North-South politics. Go on,they said, prove us right.

Which is why I’m in Manchester today, surveying the view from Piccadilly Station with Andy Burnham, the Labour mayor of Manchester. Politically, we are the odd couple – hardly natural allies.

But we share a desire to rectify this transport deficit, and get things moving. This is practical politics, getting together to solve problems that do not discriminate when it comes to party affiliation. But this emphasis on delivery will work for Conservative MPs across the North, too. Particularly those who helped to demolish the Red Wall ,and who now occupy marginals in which expectations are high.

There will be more of this with the Northern Transport Acceleration Council, which I formally announce today. This will bring together ministers from the Department for Transport – junior ministers or me – and mayors and council leaders, Tory and Labour, to thrash out ways to cut through red tape and build new transport infrastructure quickly, in the life of this parliament. NTAC is about doing.

We are “doing” already. Today, this Government committed some £600 million to kickstart the upgrading of the Trans-Pennine Route and begin the process of ending commuter misery. Four tracks will replace two on key stretches initially, easing congestion. And there are plans for full electrification, digital signalling and more four-tracking in future.

We know projects like this must proceed, despite the blow delivered by Covid-19 to the economy. Growth is the key to our recovery, and that means infrastructure: green infrastructure that future-proofs our transport system as we face the challenge of climate change.

Burnham was generous in his praise for these initial steps, describing them as a gear change. The best aspect of this Government is it willingness to experiment, not only with solutions to problems that affect us all but in relationships with others who may not fully share our beliefs.

Pragmatism must be our ideology. Conservatives are best when they tackle problems in a rational, practical way. It’s what people expect of us.

At the last election, former Labour voters in the North and elsewhere lent us their votes in a gigantic experiment. After decades of barely-managed decline they are hungry for success. They only desire the tools to get on with the job. We must supply them and set the North free.