Keir Starmer in the sidings as fence-sitting Labour fail to convince Northern voters: Tom Richmond

SIR Keir Starmer took the first step this week towards the formation of Labour’s next manifesto – he authorised a policy review into the future of high streets and town centres.

Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer visits the Leeds United Foundation at Elland Road stadium on March 31, 2021. Picture: Ian Forsyth/Getty

The fact that it is already too late for many shops – and their staff – is neither here nor there. Many more stores will shut before the party’s commission finishes its task.

Yet, while this initiative should be acknowledged because the social and economic challenges facing our towns are stark, it is the lack of ambition on Starmer’s part that so perturbs.

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Where, for example, is the party’s year-long commission into the Northern Powerhouse, the ‘levelling up’ agenda and how to achieve genuine equality of opportunity across the country?

Keir Starmer during a recent visit to Sheffield ahead of the local elections. Picture: Chris Etchells

After all, this is effectively where the next election will be won and lost – assuming the Covid pandemic has passed by the time Britain goes to the polls.

It is fundamental to Labour regaining the swathe of ‘red wall’ heartlands seats that it lost to the Tories, some for the first time ever, in the 2019 election.

It is crucial – even more so when the Government refuses to set out its levelling up policies and objectives – to Labour building a broader coalition of support that it will require in time.

And it’s also important for Starmer, and his party, to debate ideas – and involve policy experts – before coming up with a coherent, credible and costed plan.

Now one Labour insider said to me that the party did not want to go down this route in case Boris Johnson – and the Tories – ‘steal’ their best ideas.

I disagree. Narrowing the North-South divide is fundamental and Labour should be building policy foundations now as well as holding Ministers to account.

Yet this will not happen when this national mission is entrusted to Jim McMahon who shadows Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary and Northern Powerhouse Minister.

Virtually anonymous, the best he’s come up with for The Yorkshire Post in six months is “the Government’s approach to the pandemic sums up its attitude to the North” and “the North can no longer be an after-thought for this Government”.

That’s not opposition. It’s not even gesture politics – or a campaign slogan, never mind a vision. It’s frankly insulting – and a dereliction of duty on the part of McMahon, and also Starmer for being as slow as an old Pacer in trying to get his party out of the political sidings, never mind back on track.

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THE opportunities that exist for Labour in the North need to be set in the context of this week’s revelations that it could take another decade to fix the rail infrastructure issues that led to the May 2018 meltdown over new timetables.

Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham led a series of angry responses at a Transport for the North board meeting last Friday, saying it was “embarrassing” the rail industry had put forward “non-workable options” aimed at relieving pressure on the network in central Manchester – the key bottleneck for the entire region.

Now it remains to be seen whether the supposed Northern Transport Acceleration Council set up by Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary, to overcome logistical and engineering issues can live up to its brief – ‘acceleration’ – or whether it’s just an empty gesture that’s as unreliable as an old Pacer train.

I’ll reserve judgement.

But, given this issue was well-documented before Shapps was appointed to his current role in July 2019, the DfT’s response that it is “committed to cutting congestion, improving punctuality and reliability” seems particularly lame.

What is its plan – and when will the North witness the level of urgency that would exist if this pinch-point was disrupting transport in and out of London?

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BORIS Johnson’s Covid press conference on Tuesday was notable for two factors – the verbosity of Dr Nikki Kanani, the NHS medical director of primary care, and sheer number of questions on football’s supposed European (not so) ‘Super’ League.

Kanani urged viewers to come forward if they’re invited for a Covid vaccine. Likewise if they have Covid symptoms.

And then she added: “If you have other symptoms, please come forward.”

She clearly has little idea of the many GP surgeries that are, for whatever reason, not even providing their patients with a rudimentary service (in the unlikely event of circumventing the switchboard of the practices in question).

I would have liked someone to have asked the PM when he expects this ‘front line’ health service to begin to return to normal - he must be aware of the public’s misquiet - but instead he talked about legislation to tackle football’s ‘cartel’ when the Government has no powers to intervene.

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THERE’S only one plausible explanation for Boris Johnson’s decision to scrap the daily televised press briefings after spending £2.6m of public money on a set – and hiring former TV reporter Allegra Stratton on a salary of up to £130,000 a year.

It is the lobbying scandal and the Prime Minister’s realisation that scandals will be even more difficult to defuse when his spokesperson, Stratton in this instance, will have little idea, for example, of the ‘dodgy’ texts sent by David Cameron and others to Ministers.

What a waste of money – and what contempt, and cowardice, on Johnson’s part having committed himself to open government (but only on his terms).

If I’m wrong, and Downing Street’s decision is motivated by other factors, the invitation for them to set the record straight remains an open one.

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