‘Location, location, location’ vs ‘a property-owning democracy’. Are we seeing a shift in Tory housing priorities?

30 Jul

After the flash floods in London and the horrible sights of communities getting washed out in Germany, it is perhaps not surprising that the Government intends to (finally?) restrict developers from building houses on land in danger of flooding. The Daily Telegraph reports:

“New powers will also be given to the Housing Secretary to block “inappropriate development” on land threatened by flooding. The Government is introducing the reforms after 866 homes were granted planning permission in 2019/20 despite formal warnings from the Environment Agency (EA) about flood risk.”

But sensible as this is, it is also yet another weight on the scales against the Government’s housebuilding ambitions, and will put more pressure on Robert Jenrick to get things built elsewhere.

In fact, the importance of location is a theme that crops up quite a lot when you talk to Tories about housing. For example Ben Everitt, the Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for the Housing Market and Housing Delivering (henceforth ‘APPG for Housing’), set out his mission statement to me thus:

“We need more homes, in the right places, at the right time, and I don’t really care who builds them or who owns them.”

It seems the old Conservative preoccupation with building a ‘property-owning democracy’ is over, at least amongst a section of the back benches. Instead, Everitt reports that there is little in the way of partisan divisions on the APPG, with the Tories all on board with building more council or Housing Association homes.

What does ‘in the right places’ actually mean, though? A cynical observer might plot its use onto a spectrum of meaning, with ‘don’t build on a floodplain’ at one end and ‘more homes yes, but not here!’ on the other. There is a definite keenness, for example, to tie housebuilding to ‘levelling up’ and, as a result, shift the focus of housebuilding northwards – which has the handy side-effect of reducing pressure (at least in theory) on the southern shire constituencies that return many of these very Tory MPs.

But the case can be put more or less persuasively, and it basically depends on whether one tries to put cart or horse first. Everitt, for example, wants to make sure that areas of the country around freeports and other ‘levelling-up’ initiatives are able to rapidly building new housing to meet need once those projects have generated new demand. This makes more sense than building hundreds of thousands of extra properties in places where housing is already affordable in order to try and drive recovery, as Bob Seely seems to advocate.

What about the South, where the demand is right now? In the first instance, according to Everitt, the priority is speeding up development where communities have already “been through the pain” and planning permission has been granted. This is the popular ‘stop land-banking’ case.

There are two potential problems with this. First, as the Centre for Cities sets out, it is no silver-bullet to getting supply up. Far from being merely a tactic by greedy developers to keep prices up, ‘land banking’ is often simply a side-effect of how long and fraught with danger the planning process is. Over-bidding for permissions is one way of making sure developers have a steady supply of projects.

Second, there is currently a shortage of building materials. Trying to force developers into rapid building via some kind of legal stick would only exacerbate this. (Everitt points out that it isn’t MPs’ job to solve that, which is fair enough, but the Government must nonetheless keep it in mind when regulating the sector.)

If he and the APPG are representative of backbench Conservative thinking on housebuilding, there have definitely been some hopeful developments. There is broad support for planning reform, albeit with more input for communities in ‘growth zones’, and recognition that clever demand-side wheezes without supply-side solutions just “make housing more unaffordable”. It isn’t hard to see why the APPG has apprently found MHCLG willing to listen to their advice.

But the apparently low priority placed on expanding home-ownership is significant. It does not yet seem to be shared by the Government, whose “preferred discounted market tenure”, the First Homes scheme, instead involves a state-maintained discount and sale restrictions on what is otherwise private housing.

Nor ought it to be. Whilst there is certainly a place for council and housing association property in the system, to allow this to become the main way of getting people into their own homes would be to abdicate half the point of planning reform.

Conservatives have a bad habit of neglecting the importance of structural reform. For example, successive education secretaries have allowed the heat to come out of the schools revolution, even though the pandemic spotlit the dividends of Michael Gove’s changes as academy chains fought to open whilst the teaching unions fought to keep schools shut.

Housing is the same. The reason reform of this sector is so important is because of the impact it has on the entire structure of society – and the electoral map of the South East, too. A vast expansion of state tenantry would be no substitute for giving the next generation the opportunity to actually own their own home, as their parents did. It would just be a blueprint for more Brightons and more Canterburys.

Henry Hill: Sunak must always remember that the Treasury is one of the few truly British departments

29 Jul

A subject we have returned to time and again in this column over the last year or so is the way the pandemic has exposed the chaotic state of the UK’s ‘territorial constitution’ – who governs what, basically.

Rather than being able to pursue a joined-up approach to combating Covid-19, the Government was instead reduced to trying to stitch together a ‘four nation’ strategy with the devolved administrations.

But Rishi Sunak’s visit to Scotland this week shows that these tensions may yet have some distance to run. Alison Thewliss, the SNP’s ‘shadow chancellor’, has urged him to apologise for winding down furlough and other economic interventions ‘early’.

The root of the problem is as follows. Control over lockdown and other pandemic control measures is in the hands of the devolved governments – that’s how Mark Drakeford managed to close ‘non-essential’ supermarket isles. But control over the financial assistance that makes things such as furlough possible is controlled by the Treasury.

Even in the most fevered devocrat imagination, it could scarcely be otherwise – not unless Edinburgh and Cardiff wished to finance the pandemic on their own resources, which seems doubtful. We could not have devolved administrations simply voting themselves British cash without accountability to our British Parliament.

But it does raise the prospect of yet another row, with Drakeford and Nicola Sturgeon accusing the Government of dragging Scotland and Wales out of lockdown on England’s schedule.

Nor is this the only constitutional minefield the Chancellor will have to navigate. Assuming it isn’t abandoned for other reasons (including basic generational justice), Whitehall sources suggest he could face a backlash over the constitutional dimension of his proposals to hike National Insurance in order to fund social care.

What constitutional dimension? Well, NI is a tax collected on a UK-wide basis, whereas social care is a devolved competence for which the Government is only responsible for England. This is thus, apparently, the first time a British tax has been increased explicitly to pay for an England-only spending commitment.

Of course, any increase in social care spending will generate Barnett consequentials, so the other nations would get the money ‘back’. But nobody likes a tax hike, especially when the SNP can weave a grievance into it. It’s also a bit of an unforced error, as the link between the tax increase and the spending is only in the Government’s rhetoric and could have been avoided.

Sunak is talking up the ‘strength of the Union’, and rightly so. As Chancellor, he commands one of the few truly powerful British departments, with the ability to make its presence felt in every corner of the country. It is therefore especially important that he is properly prepared to do battle with the nationalists – be they SNP or Labour.

If the Government wants to hit Net Zero, it will have to foot the bill

27 Jul

This morning’s papers report that there may be yet another Government u-turn, this time on green policy. According to The Sun, ministers are preparing to give families more time to switch from ‘dirty’ gas boilers to greener alternatives.

British homes apparently make up a substantial chunk of this country’s emissions, and changing that has therefore to be front and centre of the Government’s plans to achieve ‘Net Zero’.

However, overhauling millions of houses will be eye-wateringly expensive. And unlike a big set-piece project such as a new power station or similar, it will cause disruption for many millions of voters.

Worst, it will impose costs too. The impact of simply legislating to ban gas boilers, which was the Government’s plan, is to impose the financial burden of replacing them on ordinary households. Some in Whitehall were pushing for ‘carbon cheques’ to help offset such costs – but these have been vetoed by the Treasury. Instead, the boiler ban may get pushed back by up to 15 years.

Is this an example of the lamented ‘Treasury brain’, which has often seen the UK’s long-term policy priorities subordinated to Exchequer shibboleths? Or does this row simply highlight the shortcomings of the ‘legally-binding targets’ approach to policymaking?

I have written before about how it increases the democratic process’s exposure to judicial meddling. But it is also a problem of trying to impose rigid plans on an unknowable future. Large amounts of green spending must have seemed much more practical before the Treasury’s extraordinary interventions to support the economy through the Covid-19 pandemic.

Then there’s new technology. No doubt Net Zero will help to drive R&D investment in clean tech, and this will be extremely welcome. But even if so, the exact nature and timescale of technological change is very hard to predict.

To take just one example, one reason New Labour reject the UK Ultraspeed maglev alternative to HS2 was expert advice to the effect that its green benefits would be offset by the coal burned to generate the energy it needed and the pollution caused by passengers driving to out-of-town stations. Yet we have already all but banished coal from British energy generation, and by the time even HS2 is finished the Government plans to be well on the way to the electric car revolution!

It seems an unenviable dilemma. The more politicians put off interventions towards Net Zero, the more brutal the scramble to hit it as the deadline approaches. But the earlier they move, the greater the chances of a policy being overtaken by events or technological change.

One can see why politicians with an eye on today’s electorate might be tempted to start putting off expensive decisions. But if the Government wants to hit Net Zero, it is going to have to foot the bill.

The people, the product, the audience – where has GB News gone wrong?

23 Jul

One can see, on paper, why GB News should work. Whatever the merits of the UK’s existing news channels, there is no equivalent of Channel 4 News catering to right-wing voters. Other outlets targeting this audience, such as TalkRADIO, have been successful.

Moreover, amongst the project’s financial backers was Paul Marshall, who has previous experience backing a winning new-media entrant from funding the website UnHerd.

Yet to date, the station has been plagued by setbacks. The launch was beset by technical problems, and criticised for its gloomy set design. Then spelling errors crept into the on-screen announcements.

Guto Harri, one of the presenters, was ‘cancelled’ by furious viewers after taking the knee, and has left the station. Key behind-the-scenes staff have also quit. Andrew Neil is on a leave of absence, whilst Nigel Farage has been given his own show. There is already talk of a ‘relaunch’.

Setting up a new TV news station is hard. There’s a reason the UK hasn’t had one since Sky News launched all the way back in 1989. Nonetheless, GB News seems to have made a lot of avoidable errors. Some of these, such as the technical bugs, have obvious solutions. But others pose tricky questions about what exactly it is trying to be.

The product

Perhaps the first thing that leaps out when tuning in to ‘Britain’s news channel’ is that there isn’t all that much actual news. Instead, the line-up is given over almost entirely to feature programming, centred on the station’s line-up of presenters. According to one source:

“The case originally put to investors was built on the idea that there is an unrepresented audience for TV, and that the model of ‘owning the analysis but renting the news’ would work.”

Running a proper news rolling network is expensive. Industry sources suggest that it would require a more extensive and experienced network of reporters than GB News currently employs, as well as costly subscriptions to archive footage libraries and so forth. They nonetheless find the absence baffling: “Why call yourself GB News if you’re not actually a news channel?”

The format means that it isn’t actually serving as a competitor to the likes of BBC News or Sky News. Nowhere that simply wants to have ‘the news’ up on a screen in the office or pub is going to have GB News on.

Another observer with industry experience points out that whilst GB News might be set up as a right-wing alternative to Channel 4 News, the latter is only a small part of even the current affairs output that Channel 4 puts out. “A centre-right channel would commission drama, would do comedy, and everything else, from a different perspective”, they suggest.

Nor is their appointment-to-view model without drawbacks of its own. One media figure suggested that the reason they have recruited so many relatively inexperienced presenters is because the fees for multiple three-hour-long programmes per day would otherwise be ruinously expensive. However, two or three hours is also a punishing distance for someone new to presenting – perhaps why Farage’s new show is only an hour long, and Michelle Dewberry’s has likewise been shortened.

The format also seems to be closely modelled on radio, to the point where it is hard to distinguish GB News’ output from that of stations such as TalkRADIO which increasingly insist on video clips to more easily share their stuff on social media.

“If you want to be an actual news network”, said one source, “you need to have more camera crews out there, doing what journalists do. You need to be producing packages.” They described the current setup as “radio with pictures”.

Together, these criticisms suggest that GB News has fallen between two stools, and that committing properly to being either an actual rolling news station or a full-spectrum centre-right TV channel will require a lot of investment in people and skills.

The audience

Who are the “unrepresented audience” that GB News is supposed to be aimed at? Judging by their first few months, they don’t seem to be entirely sure.

First, their choice of style and presenters alienated some ideologically-sympathetic views who wanted a more high-brow offering. Jemina Kelly, writing for the FT, noted that:

“One contact, who voted for both Brexit and Boris Johnson, told me: “I was hoping for ‘Spectator TV,’” referring to the conservative magazine, “but instead . . . it’s just tedious, dull and obvious,” adding that its production values “make the BBC look like the Royal Opera House”. Another, who voted the same way, called it “unwatchable”.”

Someone involved in the production of 18 Doughty Street, the pioneering web-based TV station from 2006, also suggested that the ideological complexity of the station is quite one-note. Whereas 18DS gave a programme to Peter Tatchell, and UnHerd features a quite eclectic range of writers, GB News is doubling down on the culture war angle. “The decision to appoint Mark Dolan” – a TalkRADIO presenter who cut up a face mask live on air – “had me shaking my head”.

This seems to have set up a vicious cycle. The format alienates potential viewers, leaving the station more reliant on a hard core, which then makes it even harder to reach out to new audiences. Thus when Guto Harri took the knee in support of the England football team, a boycott saw the audience reportedly fall to zero. He has now left the station.

Such tension between a ‘free speech’ posture and the ideological preoccupations of its audience should have been foreseeable. In his excellent essay ‘Neutral vs Conservative: the eternal struggle‘, Scott Alexander detailed how exactly the same fate befell many US efforts to create a self-consciously right-wing media space on the ‘free speech’ principle:

“The moral of the story is: if you’re against witch-hunts, and you promise to found your own little utopian community where witch-hunts will never happen, your new society will end up consisting of approximately three principled civil libertarians and seven zillion witches. It will be a terrible place to live even if witch-hunts are genuinely wrong.”

Another commentator worried that GB News is en route to becoming “UKIP TV”, saying: “If the idea is to broaden the debate and promote marginalised voices, you need an Own Jones show as well as a Nigel Farage show. Confirming the biases of a narrow audience base doesn’t contribute anything.”

The people

Perhaps that’s why Harri isn’t the only person to have left the station in the short months since launch. As previously mentioned, Andrew Neil is on a leave of absence. John McAndrew quit as director last week, reportedly because of pressure to focus on ‘culture war’ issues instead of his preferred focus on local reporting. Having insisted prior to launch that it wasn’t going to be the culture wars channel, we might expect to see more personnel changes if the station continues its pivot in that direction.

If the channel can’t recover from its disastrous launch, of course, we might also see presenters and other key staff starting to jump ship.

Meanwhile, much of the blame for the disastrous launch has been pinned on the fact that the board disregarded the concerns of both the presenters and the technical personnel to insist on launching ‘on time’, despite pretty much everyone on the ground knowing that they weren’t ready to go.

Amongst the problems caused by this was a relatively short time for pilots, which meant that avoidable technical problems – such as the programme used for remote interviews being blocked by the parliamentary internet – weren’t spotted.

Do those same executives have what it takes to get the show back on the road? It may take drastic steps. One source suggested they should take the whole thing off-air, rejig the schedule, and rebuild the set. “Come back in September, when its ready.”

Such a break could also give them the chance to ask the hard questions about what exactly GB News is trying to be – although it might longer than a couple of months to effect the sort of comprehensive overhaul some observers is required.

Henry Hill: SNP faces police investigation over ‘missing’ independence campaign cash

22 Jul

SNP facing fraud probes over missing independence campaign cash

It was an unhappy day for the country when the scandal brewing over Nicola Sturgeon, over her government’s abysmal handling of allegations against her predecessor, ran out of steam shortly before the Scottish elections.

Given that she missed out on that crucial overall majority by only one seat, it can’t be ruled out that the smoke made a crucial difference. But her career did not, as it at one point appeared it might, go up in flames.

But one escape has not fixed the deep-seated problems facing her party. The First Minister is caught between her instincts as an adept political realist and a base hungry for a second vote towards which the SNP has no easy path.

Indeed, it now appears as if the Nationalist leadership’s conviction that there won’t be another referendum anytime soon may have landed them in legal difficulty. The party is facing a police probe into allegations that it has fraudulently misused funds raised to fund the next independence campaign. The Daily Express reports:

“Police Scotland say they are investigating after saying it had received seven complaints about donations made to the party. The allegations surround claims made by whistleblowers who say that more than £600,000, which has been ring-fenced for holding a second independence referendum, is missing from the party’s accounts.”

This story has been brewing for months, ever since members of the SNP’s Finance and Audit Committee resigned after being refused access to the party’s accounts by Peter Murrell, the SNP’s chief executive and Sturgeon’s husband.

It remains to be seen if the allegations come to anything, but the fact that they have been brought by other nationalists highlights the deepening divisions opening up inside the separatist tent. And if the funds have been spent elsewhere (whether criminally or not) it will be further evidence to the base that their leaders don’t really believe that another referendum campaign is in the offing anytime soon.

Ministers allow six weeks to propose alternatives to Troubles amnesties

The Government will give opponents of its plan to issue a de facto amnesty for killings committing during the Troubles time to come up with alternative suggestions, according to the Times.

Last week, Brandon Lewis unveiled plans to protect ex-servicemen from the threat of so-called ‘legacy prosecutions’. However, in order to do so similar protections had to be offered to IRA killers. I previously wrote about how this policy is basically an extension of a long-standing campaign by Tory backbenchers against so-called ‘tank-chaser’ lawyers, which originally focused on prosecutions brought over Iraq. The Northern Irish Office exempted troops who served in Ulster from the new protections at the time.

The move has prompted outrage on all sides. Some of it, however, must be taken with a pinch of salt. If Labour want to attack the Government on this, it must explain the difference between this ‘bad amnesty’ and its own, presumably ‘good amnesties’. The party oversaw both the early release of convicted terrorists and issued ‘comfort letters’ (a de facto amnesty) to on-the-run criminals.

Likewise, to see Gerry Kelly – Sinn Fein MLA, convicted IRA killer, and recipient of a Royal Pardon for involvement in the Old Bailey bombing – clutching a sign opposing the amnesty is a morbid joke.

For their part, ministers are confident that the plan will stand up to the inevitable legal challenges. But the question remains: is it worth it?

Prosecutors recently dropped the case against ‘Soldier F’, the individual facing the most serious charges in relation to Bloody Sunday. Whilst there are legitimate concerns that London has allowed the legacy investigations process to focus too heavily on the state and security forces, if the investigators can’t even get Soldier F into court it may well be that the real risk of prosecution for ex-servicemen and former RUC officers was already very small.

Government squares off with the devocrats over freeports and development funding

More news from the front lines of ‘muscular unionism’ this week, with the papers reporting that the Government is to press ahead with plans to open freeports in Scotland despite efforts by the Scottish Government to scupper the plans.

Crucially, ministers have a staunch ally in Aberdeen Council. I previously wrote about how independent-minded local authorities in Scotland are looking to Westminster to help buttress their autonomy from a rapaciously centralising SNP administration in Edinburgh, and it is very heartening to see that dynamic in action.

Not that the old guard are going down without a fight. The Institute for Government, that bastion of devolutionary orthodoxy, have put out new analysis suggesting that ministers risk undermining the Union if they don’t give devocrats partial control over the new UK Shared Prosperity Fund.

Ministers are not likely to accept this claim – it rests on fundamentally different premises to the new unionism embodied in the UK Internal Market Act and upcoming Subsidy Control Bill. But it is a taste of the battle they will have to fight over and over again over the years ahead as they press ahead with this long-overdue change in approach.

The new amnesty on Troubles prosecutions is not really about Northern Ireland at all

16 Jul

The Government’s decision to attempt a de facto amnesty from prosecutions for killings committed during the Troubles has, predictably enough, angered all sides in Northern Ireland.

Unionists are outraged that the perpetrators of some of the IRA’s worst outrages will face not even the spectre of justice. The families of those killed by security forces personnel feel much the same. The Irish Government is threatening court action.

But this probably doesn’t matter, because although Brandon Lewis has introduced it, in terms of Conservative politics this policy is probably not really about Northern Ireland at all.

Instead, it’s basically the result of a much more general campaign by Tory MPs to protect the troops from so-called ‘tank-chasers’, lawyers who profit by prosecuting allegations against British soldiers. It became a scandal which culminated in Phil Shiner, “once the most feted human rights lawyer in the country“, was struck off in the face of professional misconduct charges. His firm had spent millions of pounds of public money bringing thousands of cases, none of which stuck.

When ministers moved to insulate ex-servicemen against the threat of potentially vexatious prosecutions brought long after the fact, the Northern Ireland Office excluded cases pertaining to the Troubles. It is that exemption which, by circuitous means, ends if these proposals go ahead.

There is a good case for setting limits on prosecuting the military. It is not only a question of justice and due process for individual ex-servicemen, but also a fact that the prospect of getting thrown to the wolves will directly impact the performance of today’s troops on the ground. Arguably this is especially the case in a counter-insurgency theatre such as Northern Ireland was, where the law is pretty much explicitly a front on which the battle is fought.

Such considerations must obviously be balanced against the demands of the peace process. But contra the attitudes of previous Secretaries of State, that is a decision for the Government – indeed, the Prime Minister – to make. The Northern Ireland Office is not a sovereign fiefdom, to set policy as it pleases.

That isn’t the same as saying this move is the right one. Beyond the obvious objections about letting people get away with crimes, it is problematic that the Government has decided to go with a tit-for-tat amnesty for both sides. It creates a false sense of equivalence between the Armed Forces and the IRA, and facilitates republican efforts to rebrand their terrorist campaign as a ‘war’.

On the other hand, there are no novel missteps here. London has been playing into republican hands on that issue ever since it first made the mistake of affording ‘political status’ to prisoners serving time for terror offences. Likewise, Labour’s outrage over the amnesties is all very well but it was Tony Blair who both released IRA prisoners from jail and oversaw the issuing of the so-called ‘comfort letters’, a de facto amnesty that collapsed the trial of the Hyde Park bomber.

When Boris Johnson elevated Claire Fox to the peerage, I noted that the cause of Ulster seemed to have thinned in the blood of the modern Tory Party. The shields in the Commons paying tribute to Conservative MPs murdered by republican terrorists did not stop the Prime Minister putting an apologist for their murderers in the House of Lords. Today’s “protect our boys” approach to military prosecutions seems to be a product of the same trend.

Ultimately, the Belfast Agreement has done what Lloyd George’s creation of Stormont did before it: allow mainland politicians to put Northern Ireland out of their minds. As ever, the price of that is paid, one way or another, by Northern Ireland itself.

Henry Hill: Scrapping EVEL makes ‘muscular unionism’ more important than ever

15 Jul

A couple of weeks ago, I looked at what Conservative MPs and advisers thought about the Government’s Union policy, such as it is. One feature was the broad support for scrapping ‘English Votes for English Laws’, or EVEL.

This support is not universal. Some strategists are concerned that ministers have simply de-activated a potentially potent weapon against a future Labour government. Others are concerned that leaving the West Lothian Question unanswered will only encourage those advocating even worse solutions, such as an English Parliament.

And that is not forgetting the not inconsiderable danger that a future Parliament may have to confront the question in a much more urgent fashion if the situation EVEL was supposed to guard against – a British government without a majority in England – ever arises.

However, the real virtue of EVEL is perhaps best illustrated by the nature of the case made by its critics. I previously quoted those concerned that it undermined Westminster’s ‘universal mandate’. But since then Andrew Bowie, in a piece for this site, has provided a full-length and eloquent example of what I mean.

Some of his arguments are more persuasive, others less. The idea that pre-1972 Northern Ireland, with its 12 MPs, provides any compelling evidence against the case for EVEL is a stretch, to put it mildly.

Likewise, the claim that it creates “two tier of MP” skates over the fact that it was actually devolution that did that. The West Lothian Question is entirely about the creation of two classes of MP. (Not to mention the historical operation of the Scottish Grand Committee…)

As for the claim that there are no such things as ‘England-only laws’, that is a much more compelling argument for reform of the Barnett Formula than it is against EVEL.

However, it is significant that until the debate around the UK Internal Market Act, it tended to be only in debates on EVEL that this sort of argument was ever deployed. One of the most refreshing things about the debates on its introduction was hearing Labour MPs from Wales, previously content to incant about the importance of “more powers”, suddenly stressing the inter-connected nature of our United Kingdom.

The problem with this line of thinking is that it only works if it cuts both ways. If Welsh and Scottish MPs should get to vote on English legislation because of the possible it might have on their constituencies, why should English MPs not get to vote on Scottish and Welsh legislation on the same basis? You don’t need to look very hard to find, for example, MPs for seats on the Welsh border with long-running concerns about the impact of decisions made in Cardiff Bay on their local NHS services, or the fact that the Welsh Government has taken control of passenger railway services that serve English routes.

Nor is it impossible to imagine, as devolution continues to metastasise, the profound impact that different tax or regulatory regimes could have on border communities.

Ministers have taken a first, tentative step towards this line of thinking with the UK Internal Market Act, and are teeing up the next with the upcoming Subsidy Control Bill (which has been dubbed ‘Ukima II’ by some insiders). But some high-profile champions of scrapping of EVEL also opposed Ukima and are set against the sort of ‘muscular unionism’ it embodies.

Perhaps Mark McInnes, the Prime Minister’s incoming adviser on the Union, can impose some coherence. But until then, the moral unionist case against EVEL will ring hollow. It cannot be seriously argued that asking Scottish and Welsh MPs to crack on with some casework whilst English legislation is debated poses a more serious threat to the Union than creating separate legislatures and an entire devocrat class to produce Scottish and Welsh legislation in isolation.

What to prepare for if you want to become a Conservative MP

10 Jul

2017 was a snap election. 2019 was at least a sort-of snap election. One consequence is that it’s been a while since would-be candidates underwent a full Parliamentary Assessment Board (PAB), and CCHQ are currently calling people in to get re-listed.

Charlotte Gill has already examined the party’s decision to incorporate psychometric testing into selections. But what does the rest of the process look like?

CCHQ obviously don’t hand out cheat sheets. But would-be candidates looking to find out what it’s up to may be aware of College Green Group’s ‘Becoming a Conservative MP’ package.

To which end, I did a two-hour workshop to find out what it believes awaits anyone looking to run the PAB gauntlet – both the online and in-person sections.

Before continuing, two things to note. First, the tests below are not the actual PAB. They are exercises that CGG believe will best prepare candidates for the PAB, based on their experiences preparing people (including some now-elected as MPs) for the old one.

Second, CGG very kindly offered to let me actually do the training. But it is geared towards people who actually want to be MPs and have been living their lives with that goal in mind and I, dear reader, have not. So we discussed the programme instead.

In-person assessment

The very first thing the trainer tries to sort out is why an applicant wants to be an MP. You’d think that would be simple enough, but apparently the question throws people, especially if they think it’s simply the next step in the political life-cycle after being a councillor or similar.

Preparing for the in-person test involves finding a good answer to that question. If you’re already a successful business leader or council leader, why are you trading in real power and a huge budget to become a backbench MP? Why do you think you could do more good in the House of Commons than wherever you are now? If not, what skills or experience are you bringing to the green benches that other candidates are not?

Once you’ve worked out why you’re there, the next step is teasing out which parts of your CV and backstory best support your case. A bare list of achievements is probably not enough – lots of able and accomplished people want to be MPs. Instead, the trainer helps applicants embed proof of key skills and attributes in stories that will hook the assessors’ attention, and help them stand out when the latter compare notes at the end of what was probably a long day.

At CGG, they run you though what looks like quite a comprehensive list of questions intended to illustrate qualities such as leadership, resilience and drive, relating to people, and communication skills, as well as probing your Conservative principles. There is also a section intended to highlight stand-out episodes from one’s personal, professional, and political life.

Online assessment

The online part of the process is divided into two parts: a ‘situational judgement test’, and the aforementioned psychometric test.

In the former, the applicant is presented with a variety of scenarios and then a list of possible responses, and asked to rank these from ‘most likely’ to ‘least likely’ to do. These include constituents approaching you with problems, a young activist joining the party and wanting to meet, allegations of impropriety against colleagues, and so on.

For the latter, CCHQ haven’t publicised which test they’re using but after talking to HR professionals, CGG think that the Party is using the Hogan Assessment Series. This consists of:

  • Hogan Personality Inventory – Highlights your positive attitudes
  • Hogan Development Survey – Unearths any negative traits
  • Motives, Values, Preferences Inventory – Tests whether an applicant is a ‘good fit’ with an organisation

These tests work by firing a lot of questions at you in a short space of time, with controls thrown in to highlight if you’re answering at random or dishonestly. Whilst they’re hard to prepare for, one can pay to sit the Hogan tests independently if one wishes to.

Conclusions

There can surely be few who have had the privilege of working on the parliamentary estate not of the view that all parties could do with a more rigorous procedure for selecting their parliamentary candidates, for a variety of reasons, and it is good to see CCHQ taking the time to overhaul the process.

However, as with any instance of professionalisation in politics, there is a danger that it ends up producing homogenisation. Selecting people fit to represent the nation in Parliament is not the same as choosing an individual to fit into a well-defined role in a commercial organisation.

Given that, it would be regrettable if CCHQ placed too much weight on the online part of the process. If psychometric testing can filter out obviously unfit applicants who might have slipped through the net (and that’s a very big if), then that’s all to the good. But it can’t be allowed to reach the point where perfectly suitable but unorthodox applicants run into a wall of ‘computer says no’.

On the question of teamwork, specifically, the trainer noted that the Party seem to have abandoned the ‘group exercise’ from the old PAB. This saw a group of candidates assigned roles as MPs or candidates for constituencies affected by a common problem (such as a new road) and tasked with working together to find a solution. It would certainly be more time-consuming than just sitting a Hogan test, but it would probably do a much better job of weeding out shrinking violets and bullies.

With so much to get done, Johnson shouldn’t sideline the Downing Street legislation team

8 Jul

It might not have attracted as much attention as the departures of Dominic Cummings and Oliver Lewis, but Downing Street is losing another of its fighters. Nikki da Costa, the pugilistic Director of Legislative Affairs, is expected to leave Downing Street in October.

Some in government are worried that the legislative affairs function may be sidelined or downgraded before da Costa’s successor is confirmed. They point to the line of thought expressed by one Number 10 source quoted in above: “The PM will continue to receive advice on parliament from his Chief Whip and Leader of the House of Commons.”

At first glance, this might seem reasonable enough. It’s one thing to need a legislative strategist when facing the extraordinary circumstances of the last Parliament, after all. But is it really necessary when the Government enjoys an 80-seat majority?

However, there are several reasons that the Prime Minister should be cautious before he allows Legislative Affairs to go the way of the Union Unit.

Parliamentary management is still important

Reports that the Government is going ahead with ‘Freedom Day’, in part because it doesn’t have the Conservative votes to prolong restrictions, are just the latest evidence that parliamentary management remains a more fraught process than it might have been for a government with a similar majority in decades past.

The habits acquired in the previous Parliament haven’t just been un-learned. MPs are now organised into more backbench groups than ever before. They have learned new tactics, including better collaboration with like-minded members of the House of Lords.

Boris Johnson must also consider the political reality that whilst his Government may be fairly fresh, the Conservatives have held office since 2010 and the main thing he was elected to do has, however imperfectly, been done. He’s also had plenty of time to promote the people he’s going to promote, and for the people he isn’t going to promote to notice.

For better or worse, this group of Conservative MPs are likely to be much more transactional in their loyalties than those typically found supporting majority governments barely 18 months into office, and will thus require more careful handling – especially when the Government has a packed legislative programme including some extremely controversial Bills.

(All this is compounded by the imminent departure of Roy Stone, who has served as the Principal Private Secretary to the Government Chief Whip since 2000 – a serious loss of institutional knowledge.)

The Chief Whip and the Leader of the House have different functions

Can the Prime Minister not, as the papers suggest, fall back on Mark Spencer and Jacob Rees-Mogg? After all, it is the former’s business to know what MPs are thinking and the latter’s to make sure the Government gets its legislative agenda through the House.

Such proposals might cheer traditionalists who dislike the expansion of the Downing Street operation under successive governments. But they must address the fact that it would actually be quite difficult for either Rees-Mogg or Spencer to simply fill the gap left by a weaker legislation unit. The Leader’s office is focused on the mechanics of getting the Government’s programme through the House. The whips are responsible for tactics and triage, defending Government business as it progresses through Parliament.

Neither of them are strategic in the same way the Number 10 legislative operation is. Nor can either systematically feed into the process inside Downing Street.

A system that rested on the Leader’s Office and the Chief Whip alone would thus almost certainly – through no fault on the part of either man – be more reactive than the one which ‘got Brexit done’.

There are plenty who might think that’s a good thing, probably including the judges who overturned Johnson’s prorogation. But with an ambitious legislative agenda to deliver, the Prime Minister should take care to ensure his parliamentary operation is as effective as possible.

Leadbeater’s first test: will she rebuke Shah’s call to criminalise cartoons of Mohammed?

7 Jul

Labour’s victory in Batley & Spen has had the outsize effect on the political narrative that wins by a couple of hundred votes always do. But you can be sure the party noticed how close George Galloway came to handing this safe seat to the Conservatives.

Although his new Workers’ Party of Great Britain doesn’t seem to have quite the pulling power that Respect used to, a strong third place suggests that the danger is real – and he might try playing spoiler again at the general election.

Perhaps that’s why Naz Shah, Labour’s ‘Shadow Minister for Community Cohesion’, used the debate on the Police, Crime, Sentencing, and Courts Bill to call for what sounds very much like a blasphemy law.

Her logic is if the Government is introducing stringent criminal penalties for vandalising statues, it ought to do the same for people who “defame, slander or abuse” religious figures. If not, Shah suggests, ministers risk erecting “a hierarchy of sentiments”.

One might argue – indeed, I have – that the PCSC Bill is at least as much about public order as public feeling. Shah has no time for that:

“To those who say it is just a cartoon, I will not say, “It’s only a statue”, because I understand the strength of British feeling when it comes to our history, our culture and our identity. It is not just a cartoon and they are not just statues. They represent, symbolise and mean so much more to us as human beings.”

That’s the Shadow Minister for Community Cohesion seeming to suggest that drawing a picture of Mohammed is not a legitimate act by people who can “debate, discuss, disagree and even respectfully and vehemently oppose” a religious figure, but the public-order equivalent of actual vandalism.

Is that actually Labour’s position? It’s not just an academic question. As of a couple of weeks ago, at least, a teacher who showed cartoons of Mohammed in class was still in hiding. How much help can he expect from his new Labour MP?

We must hope that Kim Leadbetter is as prepared to face down her own front bench as she was the thugs on the by-election campaign trail – even if this means continuing to antagonise the voters who backed Galloway and thus nearly handed the seat to the Tories.