Time for a serious EU debate


According to opinion polls following both the radio and television debates between Nigel Farage and Nick Clegg on the UK’s future in Europe, the UKIP man won fairly handsomely.

This should surprise nobody who knows a little bit about how the media works, and how much easier it is for a non – politician who talks in populist sound bites to impress over a much discredited Deputy Prime Minister who has forgotten that his advantage as a fresh faced alternative, back in the day of the first televised party leader skirmishes in 2010, has long disappeared.

The Farage bluff and bluster bears no scrutiny and, as UKIP probably counted on, it got none from his Liberal Democrat opponent who offered two performances that aspired to bland.

As a pro European my heart sank the moment I heard Clegg would be ‘batting’ for my side. No credibility, no substance, no chance sums up ‘I don’t agree with Nick’ nowadays.

In truth we learnt little about the real issues facing Europe or the UK’s membership of the European Union from these two debates. Insults were traded and outrageous claims made, but no real analysis of a UK isolated from Europe was undertaken. That type of serious discussion wouldn’t have suited either Farage or the media channels who acted as the event hosts.

The poll results, for what they are worth, demonstrate that pro EU politicians do need to start to articulate the positive benefits of European membership rather than simply saying we will ‘reform from within’.

Outside of Europe we would lose jobs, investment and influence, which is why the Prime Minister and the Leader of the opposition both support our continued involvement in the EU. They need to start to explain to us why they support EU membership in much clearer terms between now and next year’s General Election. The minor players have had their moment in the sun, a spat of little consequence in my view. It’s time the grown up’s got involved in a debate that, worryingly, currently fails to register as a key issue of interest among the vast majority of the British electorate.

April Fools?

April Fools

The new Combined Authority was somewhat appropriately launched on 1st April, and though our political masters finally saw sense in terms of the name of the organisation, dropping the ‘Halton, ‘Knowsley, Sefton, St Helens, Liverpool & Wirral Combined Authority’ title in favour of the rather more apt ‘the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority’, they could not resist snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

The crowning of Wirral leader Councillor Phil Davies as chair of the new organisation did not impress Liverpool mayor Joe Anderson, who is threatening legal action over the process that was adopted to reach this decision – he and the leader of Sefton council missed the vote as they were between three and seven minutes late for the start of the meeting – depending on who you believe.

Whatever the truth, how the council leaders representing around 50% of city region residents can be excluded from such a decision is baffling.

All of this would add up to a good script if we were talking about an episode of Yes Minister, but for a city region that has ambitions to win millions of pounds of government investment for much needed infrastructure projects across the region it is bordering on negligent.

I argued that Joe Anderson should lead this new body in my blog the special one and nothing I have heard or seen since has changed my mind. That seems unlikely to happen now, and Liverpool’s Mayor is just as unlikely to put in jeopardy the potential additional investment Combined Authority status brings by withdrawing the city’s support. That is a truth that the four district leaders who continue to put parochialism before common sense are counting on.

Nevertheless, the experience that has been the Combined Authority journey so far offers lessons that ought to have been learnt long ago. We need to learn to wash our dirty laundry behind closed doors. We need to stop acting like the basket case Westminster politicians and opinion formers think we are. We need to grow up!

Leeds’ ambition deserves Westminster backing


The strategic economic plan recently produced by Leeds is evidence that innovative, entrepreneurial and deliverable policies can emerge from regional agencies – but equally demonstrates the frustration that Northern city leader’s face when trying to implement positive change.

An executive summary of the Leeds city region document can be read here and it is clearly an ambitious, realistic strategy that articulates the huge opportunities and potential of Leeds and its surrounding areas. It is a plan strengthened because of the broad support it has from an increasingly cohesive, co-ordinated public sector and a private sector that is keen to see economic growth accelerated.

In recent weeks there has been much talk about the growing North-South divide. To address that unhealthy chasm then, government should welcome and back ideas such as getting on with HS2, investing in major infrastructure improvements, building more housing and making Leeds an IT and digital centre of excellence. But more than this, Westminster needs to give the city region the tools to get on with the job.

Funding for transport projects, allowing Leeds to retain the receipts from the disposal of HCA assets across the city region, allowing the newly established Combined Authority to recover VAT and returning revenue funding to the Local Growth Fund are all reasonable asks that the government should agree.

Without these relatively minor changes at central government level, without a degree of decentralisation of finance, decision making powers and responsibilities, and without a recognition that Leeds knows what is best for Leeds, then this impressive plan will only be partially delivered – and that economic imbalance between North and South will get worse rather than better.

Labour’s 50% Gamble


Depending on your politics and point of view a 50% tax rate for those earning more than £150,000 per year may seem fair.

However, there is absolutely no economic sense in taxing the highest earners at this level as it leads to a fall rather than an increase in the tax take for the exchequer.

How can this be so? Well, at 45p in the pound a successful business owner or entrepreneur may wince a little, but psychologically they will live with it.

Once you tell someone you want half of their income, it is of little surprise that they start to aggressively investigate the many loopholes that exist to stop HMRC getting their mitts on their hard earned cash.

The other problem with the 50p rate though is that is does cap aspiration and ambition; it signals a culture of envy rather than enterprise; and most worryingly it prevents business owners from investing in growing their companies. What is the point of adding £500K to your bottom line if the return you get is likely to be less than 10% of that? It is a risk that is not worth taking.

That is why I think that Ed Balls announcement that a Labour government would re-introduce the 50p rate is wrong, and more ‘gesture politics’ than economically savvy.

Labour believes that the majority of us who can only dream of a salary of 150K support the measure and will vote accordingly.

I think it will enable the Tories to paint Labour as anti ambition, anti business and as the party of taxation. It was a road tried and tested by Neil Kinnock and John Smith in 1992, much to John Major’s delight.

It didn’t work for Labour then, and although scandals with banks and our big financial institutions means we are in a different place today, I doubt if it will work in eighteen months time when the country goes to the polls again.

Nonetheless, the battle lines have been drawn and it will be interesting to see if Cameron and Osborne take a gamble of their own by announcing a further cut in top rate tax to 40p; and how shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna convinces business leaders that Labour support his ‘British Dream.

Don’t underestimate the university of life


Tony Blair famously stated that ‘education, education, education’ would be his government’s top priority, and it is fair to say that literally billions of pounds were invested into academia during the New Labour years.

Undoubtedly, some of this spend was absolutely essential. Decades of neglect, particularly in the North of England, meant that many primary and secondary schools were in an antiquated state by 1997.

The need for a huge spend to improve the infrastructure of education in our country did not come soon enough, and it is now the exception rather than the rule to see run down, dilapidated, inner city state schools.

The loosening of the grip of Local Education Authorities over the management of schools, the introduction of Academies and the shift in emphasis on the importance of schooling were positive contributions that the Blair government made to the education agenda.

However, as was the case in many areas where public sector spending was dramatically increased by New Labour, the government failed to maximise the impact of its investment.

Most obviously, many schools failed to modernise, both in terms of management and in terms of grasping the opportunity of flexibility to learning and the curriculum that Blair, if not all of his colleagues, wanted to see.

There was also a failure to introduce a more diverse range of teaching and teaching methods; the working practices of those in higher education was a joke; and the quality of tutors across the piece remained, at best, average.

Most disappointingly for me though was the government’s obsession with University. Further education is always to be encouraged, but why this must always end with students donning a cap and gown is beyond me. Far too many people who were not going to benefit from University were encouraged to attend. Degrees were being offered in everything from origami to allotment management!

This led to a generation of young people having a university education – but often lacking any basic skills that readied them for the workplace. A degree in common sense was clearly not an option if some of the university graduates I have employed in the past are anything to go by.

There may be good arguments against the introduction of high university fees, however it has put a stop to young people using the years of 18-21 to ‘find themselves’ and have not even one eye on what career they wish to pursue as an adult.

The new agenda that offers good vocational courses, apprenticeships, internships and on-the-job learning is to be welcomed and offers a much more comprehensive learning journey to students. It is also a more attractive environment for more mature learners who are in need of re-training.

The more innovative schools and colleges are now inviting entrepreneurs and business leaders into their classes. Even football clubs are getting involved, the likes of Everton establishing a free school and proving that hard to reach kids do not have to be written off.

Of course, university is always going to be a good option for some – but now graduates are more likely studying subjects that will enhance their career prospects rather than opting for courses that enable them to frequent the student union and city bars most regularly.

Getting an individual ‘work ready’ is not the only thing that education is for. But it is one of them. ‘Education, Skills and Training’ is a better mantra than that of Blair’s which in the end actually translated into ‘University, University, University.’ It was good for the academics, but bad for business.