Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 21 August 2014

London Notebook: Labour Party's new boy Ivan Lewis lays out priorities to UUP

Three Shadow Cabinet posts in as many years suggests the Labour leader recognises Ivan Lewis's talents, but is unsure what to do with them.

Reshuffles are an occupational hazard almost unique to politicians. One minute you are an expert on local planning, the next you are explaining your party's line on Syria.

The politicians get used to it – after all, a new brief is better than no brief at all.

Ivan Lewis, MP for Bury South in Greater Manchester, was in Northern Ireland last weekend, musing on his recent experiences as one of Ed Miliband's lieutenants.

"When I made my speech to the Labour party conference four weeks ago on international development, I would never have dreamt that my next speaking engagement would be to the Ulster Unionist Party annual conference," he said.

In truth, few MPs at Westminster dream of attending the UUP conference, but for Lewis it was the beginning of a long process of learning the ins and outs of Northern Ireland politics.

Last weekend, he held meetings with the first minister, victims' groups and small business representatives and attended the Neighbourhood Retailers Awards and the conference. As now seems to be the norm, all of these meetings were recorded on Twitter, where you can also access a video of Lewis's UUP speech.

Lewis told the delegates at the Ramada Hotel in Shaw's Bridge something of his background.

"I was elected to Parliament in 1997 at the tender age of 30," he said. "I had the privilege of serving in the Blair and Brown governments as a minister for state for nine years.

"I served in a number of departments – education, the Treasury, health, DfID [Department for International Development] and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

"Since going into Opposition, I have served in Ed Miliband's Shadow Cabinet, firstly at DCMS [Department for Culture, Media and Sport], then DfID and now Northern Ireland."

Three Shadow Cabinet posts in as many years suggests the Labour leader recognises Lewis's talents, but is unsure what to do with them.

But the most recent reshuffle of the Shadow team – Miliband's fourth – is likely to be his last before the 2015 general election.

So Lewis is ready to "listen, learn and then provide leadership on issues where I believe Her Majesty's Opposition can make a positive difference".

With the opinion polls indicating a Labour victory, Lewis could be running the Northern Ireland Office in a few years.

He told the UUP of his priorities for Northern Ireland: an active industrial strategy in a highly competitive global economy; supporting the Executive to bring forward long-term investment projects and a business rates cut and a one-year national insurance break for small business.

He also said Labour would introduce a compulsory jobs guarantee that would put 2,000 young people in Northern Ireland back to work, funded by a £2bn tax on bankers' bonuses.

At the end of last weekend's visit, Lewis shared his thoughts with his 6,600 Twitter followers.

"Interesting and thought-provoking weekend in Belfast," he wrote.

"People refreshingly direct, but also supportive."

He can expect more "refreshingly direct" conversations when he visits the SDLP conference next month.

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