Six months till the general election

During conference season I chaired a series of fringe meetings held by the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy at each of the main party conferences. The topic was how best to achieve regional growth by removing the dead hand of the state. Each meeting provoked a revealing debate. The Labour debate was about the north – members and delegates from the north-east setting out the need for devolution but reflecting lingering scepticism following the failed referendum on the regional assembly. There was a counterpoint from the north-west – not simply the confidence of Manchester but the industrial core that Cumbria has because of Sellafield and Barrow. The Tory discussion centered on the counties, with councillors highlighting the fact that some of the strongest parts of the UK economy outside London were in the home counties, not the cities. All entirely rational and thoughtful until someone raises the point that all public spending is wasteful and you realise a third of the meeting sympathises. And then there was the Liberal Democrat meeting. That focused almost entirely on devolution, not in practice but in principle. Everything that could be devolved should be devolved they concluded. There was no discussion of why or what the purpose was, just an action that was Liberal Democrat to its core.

In every meeting I dolefully said ‘welcome to my world. It took 40 years of discussion to get to the independence referendum, so I reckon the issue of devolution and the English regions should see me out.’ I was perhaps too pessimistic. The speed with which the devolution proposals for Manchester have been developed and proposed by the government has been heartening. As has the slow sinking of the issue of English votes for English laws under the weight of its own internal contradictions. (Both the small number of truly English laws and the inability of the Tories to answer the question – ‘if you create an English legislature who are the English executive and how are they held to account?’)

What has been slightly disturbing is that on a key Labour issue the coalition and particularly George Osborne and Nick Clegg as ‘northern’ MPs have appeared to be setting the pace. So much of the hard political graft and the policy thinking has been done by Labour figures like Richard Leese and Andrew Adonis it is a shame that we are seeing the Tories and the Liberal Democrats stealing our clothes. It is inevitable that pragmatic councils will work with the government to get the best deal for themselves and their communities – that is their job. And without Labour leaders HS2 and HS3 would be far less likely to survive. But we need to claim the credit and retake the political and intellectual leadership. Politics is 25 per cent inspiration (the brilliant ideas) and 75 per cent perspiration (making everyone aware it was your idea in the first place). We have been setting the political weather for a while now – but it’s clear the coalition is now so shameless it will just exploit our work for its own ends. That must stop.

Today it is only six months until the date of the general election, a fact that is not lost on publishers. Two very useful books have just been published.

One landed on my desk this week. It is ‘Why Vote Labour: the Essential Guide’ edited by Dan Jarvis (BiteBack, £10), the latest in the genre of ‘Why Vote’ books which precede elections. I have a couple of very distinguished contributions by Roy Jenkins. Dan’s book is an excellent addition to any political library. He’s picked a good range of voices – from the shadow cabinet and beyond, and they sell Labour policy well. The standouts for me are from the non-MPs. Andrew Adonis on the economy and how to get good quality jobs out to the regions. Bex Bailey on empowering young people. And Steve Houghton, inspirational as ever on what local communities can do for themselves. An essential companion for all campaigners, and on the sound principle of ‘know thy enemy’ I’d recommend the other books in the series on the Tories, the Liberal Democrats and the United Kingdom Independence party.

The other, which is also from BiteBack, is ‘The Politicos Guide to the 2015 General Election’ edited by Iain Dale, Greg Callus, Daniel Hamilton and Robert Waller. This will become the touchstone for anyone who commentates on the general election. It combines an essential guide to all the marginal seats plus a battery of supporting essays on topics ranging from predictions of the different party campaigns through a guide to political betting to the use of social media. You will see it on desks everywhere soon.

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John McTernan is former political secretary at 10 Downing Street and was director of communications for former prime minister of Australia Julia Gillard. He writes The Last Word column on Progress and tweets @johnmcternan

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