What does 2015 hold for politics in the North East? Jonathan Walker looks ahead

Political Editor Jonathan Walker predicts an exciting General Election - and more cuts, whoever wins

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After his look back at the year in politics in 2014, political editor Jonathan Walker looks ahead to what will happen in 2015.

Though millions of people are still on Christmas holidays, working their way through leftovers and wondering about braving the January sales, thoughts at Westminster are turning towards what 2015 will bring.

There’s going to be an election, of course. And for perhaps the first time since 1992, it really is anyone’s guess who is going to go be Prime Minister once it’s all over.

I’ve written before that opinion polls suggest Labour is on course to win, and that hasn’t changed.

But there’s time between now and May 7, 2015, for the Tories to gain ground. A lot will depend on what voters make of Labour leader Ed Miliband when they see a more of him during the campaign.

UKIP is one of the wild cards in this election. Nigel Farage’s party threatens to take votes from all the major parties, and this could affect the end result even in seats where UKIP doesn’t actually win.

Then there are other smaller parties such as the Greens (or perhaps I should say “traditionally smaller”, as Greens would point out they are doing as well as the Lib Dems in some regards). These might also do well.

There have even been suggestions that Nigel Farage could hold the balance of power at the next election.

But perhaps it’s best not to get carried away. The key question in the election will be who is to lead the country - David Cameron or Ed Miliband. And voters who backed UKIP in the past may see it that way when they arrive at the polling station.

It’s also important to remember that our voting system still favours the two largest parties.

Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg
 

Liberal Democrats got 23% of the vote at the last election - not that far behind Labour on 29%. Yet the Lib Dems won 57 seats compared to 258 for Labour.

Indeed, the Lib Dem share of the vote rose by one per cent, but the party won five fewer seats than in 2005.

The reason Nick Clegg has a share of power now is that neither of the two major parties won an overwhelming victory against the other. When the election was over, Labour and the Tories were relatively close, in terms of the number of seats they held.

The same thing could happen again, of course. But the question of whether there is a hung Parliament, and a coalition, is determined largely by whether the two big parties are neck and neck or whether one of them succeeds in breaking ahead - not by how well smaller parties do.

There are suggestions that this could be the first “social media” campaign, although similar claims were made last time.

But the popularity of social media - the likes of Twitter and Facebook - has not had quite the impact some academics and soothsayers (some of them employed in the newspaper industry) claimed.

One of the big questions of 2015 and the general election will be what happens to the Liberal Democrats.

They currently have two MPs in the North East in the shape of Sir Alan Beith, a former Deputy Leader of the Lib Dems who has represented Berwick-upon-Tweed since 1973 and Redcar MP Ian Swales.

Berwick MP Sir Alan Beith
Berwick MP Sir Alan Beith
 

Now that Sir Alan is retiring, the Tories scent blood. They were 2,690 votes behind in 2010, but could do better this time thanks to the loss of Sir Alan’s personal vote. Redcar, traditionally a Labour seat before 2010, will also be hard for the Lib Dems to hold on to. The North East could become a Lib Dem-free zone, as far as MPs are concerned.

What happens once the election is over?

Both Labour and the Tories are promising yet more massive spending cuts.

The leader of Newcastle City Council has warned that the city has been forced to make “impossible choices” to cope with cuts, which could encourage a rise in support for extremist political organisations.

That’s a response to the current Government’s plans. But Labour is also due to cut departmental spending year after year in every department, except a few which will be protected.

Labour Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls has written to Shadow Cabinet members telling them: “You should be planning on the basis that your departmental budgets will be cut not only in 2015/16, but each year until we have achieved our promise to balance the books.”

The party has not yet confirmed which services fall under the protected banner, but if they include the NHS and schools then there’s only a few big spenders left to make cuts to - and that includes local government.

Labour argues its cuts will be smaller than those imposed by the Tories, for three reasons.

One, it will tax the rich more (although proceeds from Labour’s planned mansion tax will be spent om the NHS, so this won’t help local councils).

Second, it will increase wages, which means the Government will receive more in tax revenues, allowing it to impose smaller cuts. However, while central government may be able to increase wages for people on low pay, by raising the minimum wage and promoting the living wage, it’s hard to see how Labour can promise that employers will pay workers in general higher wages than they would get under a different government.

Third, and most important, Labour is committing itself only to balancing the books for day-to-day spending. It will continue to borrow money to invest in infrastructure.

Joe Giddens/PA Wire Prime Minister David Cameron
Prime Minister David Cameron
 

By contrast, the Conservatives want to stop borrowing money altogether.

This means a Conservative government would cut more than Labour. But it remains true that public services and local councils face more cuts whoever wins next year’s election.

There’s also the difficult issue of what to do about the EU.

Both major parties have made a rod for their own backs by attacking the principle of free movement of people across Europe.

But while they can fiddle at the margins - cutting benefits paid to immigrants, for example - they are very unlikely indeed to persuade other EU nations to allow the UK to impose immigration controls.

At some point during the year the North East combined authority - which includes County Durham, Gateshead, Newcastle, North Tyneside, Northumberland, South Tyneside and Sunderland - is likely to ask the Government for a devolution package similar to the one already agreed between the Chancellor, George Osborne, and the Greater Manchester councils.

The question is whether the authority will agree to create a mayor to lead it. Without one, Osborne will probably agree only to a second-rate package.

Alternatively, if the councils hold out until the General Election, and if Labour wins, they can negotiate with Ed Balls instead. And he’s clear that it’s entirely up to them whether to create a mayor or not.

While this is going on, the Tees Valley councils of Darlington, Hartlepool, Middlesbrough, Redcar & Cleveland and Stockton on Tees are also likely to be putting the finishing touches to their own combined authority. If the Tories are in power then they too will have to consider whether to create a mayor.

But if Labour win the next election, the way the North East is governed might change in other ways.

We will get regional “senators” in a reformed House of Lords.

And Labour is likely to bring back the post of Minister for the North East, to ensure the region is represented within Government.

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