Richard Holden: We need mayors to do for other places what Houchen is doing for Teesside

20 Jul

Richard Holden is MP for North West Durham.

There is a theory that political moves outside the playbook get panned because those commenting on them do not really understand what’s happening. This was the case when the Prime Minister booted out the Brexit rebels in 2019. I’ve got a funny feeling that it might be the case with his ‘levelling up’ speech too.

After doing the Today programme on Radio 4 – fourteen hours and various outlets throughout the day later – I had buckled to pleas from CCHQ to also do Newsnight. On with me was Steve Reed MP, the Shadow Local Government Secretary.  He loomed large over my left shoulder as he was beamed in ‘down the line’ from somewhere with an odd green glow. The group-think from the bubble was that there was “nothing in the speech” – which was the line Mr Reed took. But the more he spoke, the more it dawned on me that he had either not watched or read the speech, or simply not understood it

The previous “devolution” agenda – based around “City regions” – has worked well for some, but not for the rest of us. They’re not what we’ve been after, and have been a huge sticking point. Government used to say: “accept the big agglomeration or you get nothing”. That all changed on Thursday.

The one thing that almost everyone in County Durham had opposed was being lumped in with six other local authorities. This would have created a mayoral area that spread over 100 miles from Berwick-Upon-Tweed to beyond Barnard Castle. A vast region – but that local people knew it would nonetheless have ended up with a narrow focus on the metropolitan centre of Tyne and Wear.

The Prime Minister’s speech did one thing that the bubble seem not to hear. He was speaking to those concerned, those who understood. Yes, we need to see some detail in the White Paper later this year, but the promise is clear. I know it appeals in County Durham and knowing that, that it is likely that it will appeal to other non-metropolitan parts of the country too.

And he’s looking to build on success. If you had asked 90 per cent of people in ‘the bubble’ where Teesside was a few years ago, then you might have as well asked a monkey to throw a dart at a map. Now, thanks to Ben Houchen – a man driven by the place and its people – that has changed. Only four years in office, he not only speaks for the Tees Valley, but the bubble listens.

“Levelling Up” is not focused on the city centres – central London, for example, or central Manchester. It is about the counties, sub regions, smaller cities and towns feeling that they are getting a fair deal. And the truth is that in many of these places there hasn’t been someone either willing or able to be a driver of change. Frankly, too often, there has been parochial bureaucratic resistance.

Teesside would never have worked if it had been led by a committee of local authority leaders, or by a party with councillors fighting for their individual patches or wards. Local leadership needs to be able to represent a county or area, uniting those who are culturally and economically intertwined for greater gain.

Too often Government attempts to improve local places have become bogged down with opposition not from local people, but from local administrations. It’s clear that the levelling-up White Paper will need a stick to help prod sometimes reluctant individuals in local authorities in the right direction. We don’t have forever and it needs to be done.

I’ll bet that the Prime Minister and his levelling up supremo – Huddersfield-born Neil O’Brien, late of this parish – understand what they’re driving for. The bubble may only understand the large metro-centres, but there’s clearly something more going on. After all, the Prime Minister won these places and their people over – and clearly remains set on doing so again.

Richard Holden: Manufacturing (for Nissan) and football (fingers crossed) are coming home

6 Jul

Richard Holden is MP for North West Durham.

Nissan UK Plant, Sunderland

It’s coming home! Sadly, I experienced England’s second goal on Saturday night vicariously via the cheers from my living room. I was in the kitchen, dishing up a roast chicken with trimmings for A small group of England fans.

What was to be half-time dinner had been delayed. My temporary absence from the screen was due to timing, specifically, my poor timing. The chicken had been removed, and was snugly wrapped and resting in tinfoil. However, getting different vegetables to roast to sufficiently similar levels was proving to be irritatingly difficult.

At Wembley, though, England’s timing was, unlike mine, proving to be pretty pitch-perfect. Having returned to catch the replay of Harry Maguire’s goal, I had then nipped back to dish-up dinner. As I was carving the chicken, Kane headed in his second and guaranteed our place in the semi-finals and, for a second time in six minutes, I experienced England scoring second hand.

Fortunately, a couple of days before, my timing had been better. At seven in the morning and already having been on the road from London to Sunderland for an hour, I received the long-awaited call from Kevin Fitzpatrick, the boss of the Nissan plant in Sunderland.

He confirmed that what was in the papers was true ,and that Nissan was making a billion-pound investment in the North East. The truest sign of what is being referred to as ‘levelling up’ is seeing good jobs secured and more on their way; and this investment is the clearest example of that yet, especially after the fears for the future of the plant at the time of the EU Referendum.

The real timing of this deal is due to two factors. Firstly, the Chancellor’s big push on the super-deductor means that big investments in productivity and production right now are really good value. Secondly, the Government’s EU Brexit Deal has an eight year “rules of origin” clause which means that, within that time, the vast majority of anything exported between the EU and United Kingdom must have 70 per cent of its components made within the UK or European Union. As batteries become a key part of the cost of any new car, they’re going need to be produced in the UK or EU.

Nissan chose the UK. As a result, there will be thousands of direct and indirect jobs in high-end, next generation manufacturing – as well as (fingers crossed) football – coming home. This is a picture being repeated by announcements at Filton with Airbus, Rolls-Royce in Derby and at UKBIC manufacturing in Coventry, too, during the last few days. The workshop of the world has a golden opportunity to power forth again.

As I told East Surrey Conservatives on Friday night – following the invitation of my good friend (and superstar local MP) Claire Coutinho – Levelling Up isn’t about taking from one area to give to elsewhere. That is permanent subsidy. The cash transfer which has been Labour’s answer that has, sadly, hitherto gone unchallenged for too long.

Levelling up is about ensuring that good, well paid jobs are spread across the country. That with government investing in infrastructure, and working with private enterprise on skills and jobs, we can help get those parts of the country (which exist in pockets in the South of England, as well as in larger areas of the North) that are currently reliant on being drip-fed taxpayers money to break out of the relative economic stagnation they have experienced for the last few decades.

Timing, in football, politics, and in cooking, is everything. Coronavirus has held us back over the last eighteen months. If we are to show progress on the levelling up agenda ahead of the next general election, then now is not the moment to sit back and say manana.

We are a One Nation Conservative Party with an agenda that can deliver for the whole of the United Kingdom. We have one shot at really showing those first-time voters who put their trust in us that we’re different to both our (at least perceived) previous incarnations and to the Labour Party who lost their trust over generations by their failure to deliver.

Levelling up will benefit the people of Lingfield in Surrey, Littlewick Green in Berkshire and those in Leadgate in County Durham. Now the Coronavirus restrictions are lifting, it is time to focus on delivering what people voted for us to do, and double down on levelling up.

Richard Holden: Levelling up is for voters in the South as well as my constituents in Durham

21 Jun

Richard Holden is MP for North West Durham.

The Village Hall, Delves Lane, Consett, Co. Durham

It’s a bit like the fabled London bus: you wait ages for a by-election, then four come along at once. For the Westminster bubble – the media, politicians, psephologists and the commentariat – these provide much-needed fresh meat for broadcast comment and column inches. They are the perfect base on which all can retrospectively build their latest pet theory, or justify their most recent musing.

Last month, Hartlepool and Airdrie and Shotts were the focus. In a fortnight, the bubble’s eyes will alight upon Batley and Spen. Until then, the Chesham and Amersham result provides nourishment for this week.

Like an oversized Christmas turkey, the result will be dissected and eaten, the remaining meat will sandwiched and eaten cold for days, and the carcass will then be picked over by someone in need a morsel. Finally, the bones will be boiled up for stock, and set aside to form the basis of future fodder.

Today, we’re at the sandwich stage. Edward Davey, a man uniquely blessed both with the appearance and charisma of a microwaved jacket potato, is clearly relishing some rare limelight for the Lib Dems. The dead parrot is very much alive, he cries! And he repeats this on every media outlet going, spreading his orangey-yellow spin-sauce as thick and fast has he can.

Former Conservative Cabinet Ministers, sat on colossal majorities – thanks to our Prime Minister’s clear stance on Brexit, rather than their own failed approach – bemoan this latest by-election result. The reason for it is clear: it’s whatever pet peeve is tickling their fancy, as they charmlessly forget that they’re participants in, not commentators on, politics.

But from the conversations I’ve been having, the general noise from the bubble is drowning out a far stronger signal. In elections, as with opinion polls, you’ve got to look at trends, not individual results. The trend, rather than the by-election de jour is the same as the local election results. The Conservatives continue to perform solidly (unusually so for a party in Government), and you can see just how much trouble Labour are in. And it knows so.

The local elections of just six weeks ago showed Labour going backwards from the hammering they’d got under Jeremy Corbyn in 2017. Hartlepool added to the party’s woes. The trend has been re-enforced in Labour’s unprecedently poor showing in Chesham and Amersham. 622 votes (1.6 per cent) is abysmal, especially when you consider that, under Corbyn in the 2017 general election, Labour came second with 11,374 votes (20.6 per cent of the vote). Starmer, elected in part because it was thought he could win back more of Southern England as well as reverse the losses in the Red Wall, is now looking weaker than ever.

From the day Tony Blair became Labour leader, the party didn’t go backwards in the by-elections that other opposition parties won all the way up to 1997. Perth and Kinross, and Littleborough and Saddleworth, won by the SNP and Lib Dems respectively in 1995, both saw Labour’s vote share rise, despite the other parties taking those seats from the Conservatives. Moreover, Labour know that talk of ‘electoral pacts’ would be madness for a party that seeks to govern, or for a leader who thinks that they can become Prime Minister.

But Labour now knows that it has a leader who is incapable of winning elections. Behind the scenes, it is looking to change him, and sooner rather than later. Plans are more advanced than is widely known beyond the bubble. Both Lisa Nandy and Angela Rayner have desires for the Labour crown with campaigns ready to go, if not already fully underway.  Andy Burnham’s appetite for the leadership is so blatant it’s even being spoofed on Radio 4 comedy shows.

With Labour about to become embroiled in another testing civil war – the timing of which is dependent on just how badly this downward trend goes in the near future – Conservative MPs, wherever they represent, should cool their boots.

There’s a lot of talk at the moment, but the Government’s planning proposals haven’t even gone out to consultation yet. Everyone knows that the current system’s broken: that it works for large land-banking developers, and does very little to really drive sustainable brownfield regeneration outside the centre of our major cities. So let’s not prejudge anything.

On top of that, levelling up is an agenda for everyone because it’s explicitly not about taking from one to give to another. The clue is in the name: it’s about ensuring the provision across the country is there to meet the talents of our people. It’s as relevant to the lad in Ashford as it is for the girl in Ashington. Both want good further education provision, a good job, in time a home of their own for them and their family, good transport and broadband connectivity.

It’s about tackling the productivity issues our country faces so that we don’t have a hideous situation where we’re having to transfer vast amounts of tax around the country to perpetually subsidise some areas. The drive behind levelling up is instead ensuring that towns, villages and individuals across the country will have the jobs and access to jobs and opportunities that, in time, will enable them to pay a greater portion into the collective national pot as they get better off.

Labour don’t like levelling up because they want client communities who rely on handouts from the centre who will then, with a tug of their collective forelock, say thank you for the hand-out by re-elect Labour MPs. So, let’s not fall into the trap of its North v South drivel.

Now is not the time to be distracted by the noise. Cool heads are required – with our opponents about to plunge themselves into another bout of “the public are bonkers for not voting Labour.” As their leadership candidates jostle for the votes of an overwhelmingly out of touch metropolitan membership, we Conservatives, the party in government, must not be distracted. We need one focus, delivery of our one-nation Conservative agenda, because that’s what the public here in the village hall in Delves Lane today or in the shop next door care about. They will accept nothing less.

Richard Holden: Improving future pensions – and why our next move should be more help for more young workers.

7 Jun

Richard Holden is MP for North West Durham.

The Copper Mine, Crook, Co. Durham

For the Labour Left, 2010 is their year zero. The Corbynites, the Trots (and the Tankies) regularly trot out their attack on the ‘politics of Austerity.’ They ignore the whole New Labour era as if had nothing to do with them. Not their party: despite the presence of their favoured Corbyn, McDonnell, Abbott and the rest, every step of the way – even if, on occasion, they demurred from the party line.

But who can really blame the Labour Left for their unwillingness to be associated with New Labour? The lesson from 2008 was that the economic prosperity and public spending seemingly enjoyed by the UK was built on sand. It became patently obvious that Britain can’t just rely on an over-heating metropolitan financial sector, plus unsustainable soaring debt and house prices, to provide tax revenues to keep it all going.

The sustainable structural change that the economy needed didn’t happen during New Labour’s 13 years in power. In truth, during that period, Britain was turbo-charged in the other direction – reliant on cheap finance, cheap immigrant labour and cheap Chinese imports. So New Labour’s “no more boom and bust” mantra became seen as the hubris it was, and the New Labour emperors were left in their birthday suits.

So in that ‘year zero’, the Conservative/Liberal Democrat Coalition was handed a basket-case of an economy. A colossal structural deficit, high unemployment, years of stalled productivity and wage growth – and a long-term pensions system that looked permanently unable to support the needs of a growing retired population.

Getting the public finances in order was, as expected, not wildly politically popular, but it was also understood by the public as totally necessary. During the pandemic, the massive financial support to keep jobs and businesses going, tens of billions more in support for our NHS, and billions to get “jabs, jabs, jabs” into the arms of the public is understood too.

Again, the public isn’t as daft as the far left make out, and understand that this significant but one-off support can’t continue for long. Furlough, grant support and a wide range of other measures must come to an end, and the Conservatives who put it in place must sensibly unwind it, and focus again on our real challenges of levelling up opportunity and the economy across the UK.

Labour’s real issue is that they’ve never quite come to terms with the failure of the New Labour economic programme. Labour’s leaders from Ed Miliband to Jeremy Corbyn have similarly been unwilling to confront it either. Astonishingly, all the real running on understanding the need to change the economy in terms of long-term decisions has been left to the Conservatives.

And it’s clear that the Conservatives know what they’re aiming for, even if, at first ,the necessity of getting the books balanced under the Coalition and, more recently, the pandemic have got in the way. George Osborne called that objective the Northern Powerhouse.

The Prime Minister’s ‘Levelling Up’ is broader, and reflects not a geographically constrained area, but something broader: to ensure that the whole UK, from Kirkwall to Cornwall, needs to see good sustainable jobs and prosperity, and not be reliant on the vagaries of being net recipients of current account transfers from an overheated City of London.

Since 2010, an area in which policy has clearly delivered real structural change is that of pensions. For decades, it was seen as too hard a reforming nut to crack, so decisions could be dealt with another day (in reality, another decade).  But the Coalition did it, and Conservatives alone in Government extended it.

Auto-enrolment will come to be seen in the future as one of the key decisions of public policy. Now, everyone aged 22 or over and earning over £6,500 automatically sees eight per cent of their salary go into a pension pot, alongside their state pension.

Crucially, they also only see a reduction of half of that proportion (four per cent) in their take home pay, because three per cent comes from their employer and one per cent from the Government in terms of tax relief.

This weekend, I’m sat in a pub, similar to the one I worked in as a teenager, with two of my friends. And we chat to the young waiter – who was due to start here just before the pandemic struck for a second time and has only just done so now. The question I’m asking as I do so is: “why wait until young people are 22?”

With the retirement age at 68, a young person working and paying in at 18, 19, 20 or 21 will have almost 50 years of compound interest for each of those years of paying in. Those four years, even for someone working full time on the minimum wage, mean an extra £35,000 to £40,000 (with the chance of it being significantly more) equivalent in a pension pot – providing another £2,000 a year for, hopefully, many years of happy retirement.

Such a policy would also be aimed squarely at those striving to work hard and get ahead without the advantages of others who don’t enter the workforce until they’re 22. Firstly, those leaving school at 18 and not going to university; but, also, all those young people who may be earning while learning.  Frankly, the kid of striving Britons the Conservative Party should always be seeking to do our best for.

Young people have been hammered by the pandemic in order to help look after all our futures; so as a society we should be doing something for their long-term prosperity, too. Ensuring they have a stake in the future of the economy by giving them the same ability to save towards their future and, in doing so, giving them a proper stake in the economic future of the country would be a sensible next step.

Richard Holden: Why Labour’s grip on seats like mine weakened. And how we can strenghten our own everywhere.

24 May

The Lazy Hollow Café & Patisserie, Mason St., Consett

Uma is, I’d guess, in her 50s. She’s buoyant, a good baker, and clearly one of those people who is not just hard-working, but also puts her heart and soul into everything she does.

A teaching assistant at a state comprehensive for the last quarter of a century, in December she took the plunge – “while I’m young enough”, she tells me – and decided to take on a café in Consett town centre. Duringg the final assembly at the school in which she worked, she tells me how she wept ,and speaks with real passion and care for the children she helped over the years.

I don’t know (and doesn’t ask) whether she voted for me or not. She gives me a little tour, and we have a couple of photos. Then we settle down to coffee and (the excellent cake she’s made), and just chat.  About education policy – an area of mutual interest – her new business and the challenges she’s facing, and the prospects of the largest town in my constituency.

She’s so positive and proud about what she and her team have done to this former job centre and amusement arcade, which is now a lovey café. And so they should be: it is fabulous.

Uma doesn’t fit the narrative that has developed of the normal Northern working-class voter that the media has portrayed as the “switch voter” that cost Labour the “Red Wall.” As a recent YouGov poll suggested – to the astonishment of many commentators – they’re pretty much like everyone else in the UK.

But, if that’s the case, three questions remain unanswered: first, why did these towns and villages continue to vote Labour for so long; second, why did they switch to the Conservatives and, third, why did they do so now?

So: why did they vote Labour in the first place? I think there are three historic differences in the political culture – the Red Wall ‘Holy Trinity’ that has slowly broken down over decades making these areas more similar to the rest of the country than before. Large unionised industries that re-enforced social class differences had an influence in everything from housing for the retired to the social clubs people went to of an evening; religion, via the non-establishment combination of Methodism and Roman Catholicism (both socially conservative – to varying degrees – but economically left-of-centre); and a traditional Labour Party of the people that was both of and in touch with these communities.

Over the last 60 years, especially since Wilson’s “White Heat of Technology” was accompanied by the pit closures of the late 1960s (people forget that Wilson closed more pits than anyone else) the beginning of the real decline in the traditional religious underpinnings took place.

These continued in the background for decades, but the break with Labour took longer. The party received a brief fillip in the early years of Tony Blair, but the break soon accelerated as ‘New Labour’ seemed to take votes but provide little in return. Many people stopped voting – and the Liberal Democrats made some moderate progressm, though rarely enough to more than dint in large Labour majorities.

Then followed a significant shift to the Britain-hating far left under Jeremy Corbyn – and the betrayal over Brexit further jolted these communities politically, too. On top of this, Labour just took their own voters for granted with too often lazy MPs (or at least MPs more interested in working on their interests rather than those of the communities they were supposed to serve) and that real, final, community orientated link between MP-Labour Party-constituency which had looked wobbly for a long time was broken.

All this can explain the move away from Labour: but why go Conservative – and why now? Well, it’s been a long, long process. The truth can be heard on the doorstep of seats like mine.

Many people barely saw a leaflet at election time, never mind between elections. And if they did get a leaflet or a knock-on-the-door they weren’t getting them from Conservatives. Conservatives were moribund, inactive and weren’t providing that alternative on the ground people were increasingly craving.

Votes spread out to the Liberal Democrats, Independents, UKIP and, sadly, to the “Won’t vote.” It was only in 2017 that the Conservative Party really realised that things could change in these seats, and started putting more effort in. That year saw a marked shift following Brexit towards the party. We must now use those results as a springboard to consolidate current constituencies, and push forward to more areas.

Moreover, there are these sort of former traditional Labour voters in every seat in the country. Ask any Conservative MP who campaigns hard in their patch. Traditional Labour wards in these areas – previously thought difficult to win – are now likely the strongest Conservative areas of these seats. These voters are there if people want to find them.

I read largely anonymous comments from some of my colleagues in other more ‘traditional’ Conservative parts of the country who put forward a variety of factors as to why seats were lost recently. Some put it down to national policy challenges but, given gains across the country from Cheltenham to Plymouth to Harlow to Delves Lane in Consett, and even Shaun Bailey in London trimming Sadiq Khan’s majority in what was meant to be the ‘heart’ of Labour, it’s clear that, actually, campaigning is what counts.

Given the national circumstances almost all seats we held could have remained Conservative if greater efforts had been made. I can see from the results across County Durham that the better the campaign, the better the result. For the first time in over 102 years, Labour may soon no longer run County Durham Council because of campaigning Conservatives.

Perhaps my thoughts are best summed up by one colleague from the South East England, apoplectic upon returning to Westminster having lost a council seat held by the Conservatives for generations. He said that he’d been telling his sitting councillor of ten years to campaign, but they kept brushing him off telling him they had “important meetings at County Hall to attend” – well, that councillor won’t be attending County Hall at all any more.

The Labour activists on the ground may still believe that someone’s so-called “class” defines their politics. That’s absolute nonsense and any Conservative who is idiotic enough to believe it needs their head examined. The “Holy Trinity” of why people voted Labour has broken down in the ‘Red Wall’ and elsewhere.

What counts is campaigning because, as that YouGov poll suggested, voters whether in the North of England of East London are not dissimilar. They want people out there and fighting for them and they’re open to voting Conservative if we’re prepared to put the effort in on the ground.

Richard Holden: Knightmare on Starmer Street. Labour loses control of Durham – held by the party for a century.

10 May

Richard Holden is MP for North West Durham.

The Louisa Centre, Stanley, County Durham

At the count in Stanley at 3am on Friday morning after the verification checks on the ballot papers, I realised that I was witnessing the latest stage of the fundamental shift in British politics.

The communities that are not merely the heartlands but the birthplace of the Labour Party are decisively turning their backs on the party which turned its backs on them.

Two weeks ago in this column, I wrote about Keir Starmer and Labour’s five tests from this set of elections in the North East of England. To be fair to the Labour leader, these results cannot all be laid at his door – they have a much longer-term gestation.

However, the man who many thought would be Labour’s knight in shining armour has delivered results even worse than the outlier, “knightmare” scenarios that I suggested a fortnight ago.

Not only did the Conservatives remain the largest party in Northumberland, but they took overall control and, in doing so, took Hartley ward – and kicked out the Labour group leader on Northumberland County Council.

Sir Keir didn’t just fail my Stockton South test (remember: Stockton South was won by Corbyn’s Labour in the 2017 general election), but the excellent campaigning of Stockton South’s MP, Matt Vickers, with together with Ben Houchen, the Tees Valley Mayor, saw the Conservatives not just retain the Stockton South council seats that they’d held, but take all the seats that were up for election, including from Liberal Dems and independents.

Paul Williams, the former Labour MP for Stockton South, handpicked and put on a shortlist of one by Labour HQ, delivered a catstrophic result for Labour in Hartlepool. To lose the seat at this stage in the electoral cycle by that much would have previously been thought impossible, but it’s happened.

With the Conservatives gaining over 50 per cent of the vote in the by-election, and Labour finishing a poor second, it’s clear that, in terms of parliamentary seats, CCHQ now needs to be targeting the North East of England much more broadly for the next election, including such seats as: City of Durham, North Durham, all the Sunderland seats, Blaydon – and even perhaps Gateshead and Easington.

Houchen’s utterly overwhelming victory in the Tees Valley, gaining almost three quarters of the votes on the first round, is the strongest symbol of continued Conservative advance in the North of England. The Conservative gain of the Police Commissioner post in Cleveland is further proof of this. Particularly when the vote from Middlesbrough, widely believed still to be rock solid for Labour in Teesside, came out five to three in the Conservative’s favour.

To outsiders, the loss of Durham County Council by Labour to No Overall Control may not seem quite as totemic as some of the other results. But if anything it’s more so.

The Conservatives increased their number of seats by 14, taking them from the fifth largest group (there are two independent groups) to the position of second largest party behind Labour – in one fell swoop.

Durham is where the Labour Party first gained a county council in 1919 and they have held it ever since. The results overall for the Conservatives are really, really good – particularly in my constituency in North West Durham and in my good friend Dehenna Davison’s constituency in Bishop Auckland.

Scratch the surface, and the results are more impressive still. In North West Durham, we’re now second almost everywhere we didn’t win, from what were often poor third places just four years ago. The increasing vote and vote share was at least 100 per cent, and in some cases, such as in Consett North and in Consett South, the number of Conservative votes went up almost four times.

Even in Weardale, where Conservatives were challenging two long-established independent councillors, we jumped from third place to second place, and came within 85 votes of taking one of them out.

In Woodhouse Grove, in the Bishop Auckland constituency, Conservatives gained two new councillors, and only missed out by nine votes in the working class town of Willington in North West Durham. It’s quite clear that, from this incredible baseline, Conservatives can now make further progress both locally and at the next general election.

These campaigns really came down to incredibly hard graft on the ground. It’s clear that CCHQ needs to look at how we can really capitalise on this with extra resources in the coming months and years.

The results in the North East are not unique. To see Rotherham go from zero to 20 Conservative councillors is mindblowing, as are the exceptional gains in Hyndburn in Lancashire, where the Conservatives held the county council with an increased majority.

But this succes is not just in the North. The gains in Harlow, Dudley, Southampton and elsewhere by the Conservatives show an incredible national picture.

While these results are absolutely stunning, often with significantly increased turnouts, it’s clear that the future of these areas as key battlegrounds will require the promises made by the Prime Minister and the Conservative Party to deliver on levelling up to not only be delivered on in the long-term, but also to show that progress is being made within the next year-to-18 months too.

In some areas of the country, the Conservatives haven’t performed quite as well. Downing Street and CCHQ need to find out why this has ocurred, and learn the lessons not only from the great successes, but also from the places where we didn’t do as well as we’d hoped.

What’s clear from politics is that nothing ever stays the same. Who’d have thought that the narrow victory in the Teeside matoralty in 2017 following Brexit would have not only been the catalyst for a shift in voting, but a shift in poltical culture in the North East? People are no longer willing to accept either MPs or local authority leaders who see their position as a sinicure. Delivery is what counts.

We Conservatives are in government, and have the abilty to really make that happen. If we do so, our political prospects in these areas will just get better and better.

Richard Holden: This spring’s local elections. For levelling-up to work, we need local councils and leaders who back it.

29 Mar

Richard Holden is MP for North West Durham.

Constituency Office of Richard Holden MP, Medomsley Rd, Consett

The leaflets are landing on doorsteps. The Risograph is working overtime. Walk routes are being updated. First-time council candidates – a heady combination of apprehensive and excited – are getting to know each other on WhatsApp as they make friends with people in other wards. Experienced candidates impart nuggets of wisdom, ‘war stories’ and experience on our zoom calls. Labour’s keyboard warriors fight on , but there is very little sign of life in the party of Jeremy Corbyn and Keir Starmer on the ground.

These elections are taking place in a way that is like nothing I’ve known in two decades of campaigning – after over a year of gruelling Covid-19 restrictions and under the shadow of a virus whose lingering presence, even as Britain’s phenomenal vaccine programme knocks case numbers and deaths down, is still a real concern for many. It’s not been a normal year, and it’s not going to be a normal election.

As a new MP, I can barely remember a time that I wasn’t having to try and help those struggling with Covid-19 or the impact of measures to control it. The long tail of Coronavirus will continue in various guises. Many months of delayed operations and stifled economic growth need to take place. The impact on the education of children will last for years, especially for the poorest, even with the welcome efforts of the Government at top-up tuition. The Government debt taken on to support the people, jobs and businesses through the pandemic will stay for decades.

It is in that context that Rishi Sunak came up with a big offer to business: unprecedented tax relief to try and drive investment and help to deliver knock-on productivity gains. The Treasury and Department of Trade moves to Teesside and the new freeport are massive economic boons, too, for the North East. These moves are not just about the jobs – though that’s the main part. It’s about showing that we both care and want to do something about the problems faced by our new voters in the ‘Blue Wall’.

It’s clear that both the First Lord of the Treasury and the Second Lord of the Treasury “get it”. Short term, the plan is about recovery from Covid-19: getting jobs back and the economy moving again – which they’ve also got a plan for with Kickstarter and support for apprenticeships double.

And for the longer term, jobs in the next industrial revolution are coming down the track: batteries for our car industry and wind power for our transport and electricity. This big push to drive private enterprise to invest now is crucial, because we all know that only productivity gains can lead to real wage increases and the much talked about ‘levelling up’.

As we escape the shadow of Covid-19 we can see that much has changed but some things have stubbornly remained. In many parts of the North, moving back to the status quo ante – pronto – seems to be the order of the day from Labour. The debate over the coal mine on the West Coast of Cumbria brought this home in recent weeks.

To give you a bit of necessary background, Cumbria is a joint Labour/Lib Dem administration. Labour lost overall control in 2017 and formed a coalition (despite the Conservatives being by far the largest party). Labour retained control with their three tribes of Corbynites, Brownites and few Blairites, in what is a perpetual internal struggle.

To the mine itself. Robert Jenrick, the Housing, Communities and Local Government Secretary, has taken a lot of heat, but it’s clear that what’s really behind the palaver is vacillation among the Labour/LibDems who are running the council. Cumbria County Council has now put forward the proposal only then to decide to re-consider it no fewer than four times. Jenrick has done everything he can to let the council decide, but in the end its vacillation created a national controversy. A dangerous precedent.

Labour weakness and division doesn’t just stop at doing everything possible not to make a decision on bringing 500 really well-paid jobs in Cumbria. Look across the other side of the country and you see it caught up in another culture war with itself in Leeds.

West Yorkshire wants to rival Greater Manchester as the engine room of the North of England. Leeds is back in the premiership, and everyone’s longing for the old rivalry on the pitch and, more generally, some healthy competition across the Pennines.

But Labour politicians locally can’t even agree on whether to expand Leeds Bradford Airport. The Labour-run Council has, eventually, passed a proposal, but the local Labour MPs (more concerned about their own membership than their voters) have gone against it. Hilary Benn and Alex Sobel, amongst others, literally asked the Secretary of State to call in a decision by the local Labour council.

Scratch the surface anywhere in the North and you’ll find Labour in mini-civil wars everywhere. What does this mean for other big projects? The A1(M) upgrade? New train lines? The A66/68/69/74? Are we going to allow vacuous, vacillating, virtue-signalling Labour Councils to kibosh our levelling-up agenda?

Contrast Labour’s approach to Ben Houchen’s in Teesside or Andy Street’s in the West Midlands; pro-enterprise, and willing to work with the Government. Interestingly, Andy Burnham seemed to be too, during his early days of wanting to get stuff done but his rivalry with Sadiq Khan over who will be the next Labour leader has seen him go from pragmatic local leader to disingenuous leadership contender, in lock step with Starmer’s personal poll rating.

What I’m driving at is that for levelling-up to work, we’re going to need to see local authorities and local authority leaders who want it to work.   The sad truth is that many local Labour councils and local bureaucracies don’t want it: they’re scared of it. In County Durham, it would create further upheaval in the system of sinecures that, sadly, local council positions have been for 102 years. They don’t want to risk ‘levelling up’ – they’re happy with a lazy the politics of grievance. After all, it’s served them well for decades.

Meanwhile, when faced with big political calls, the Prime Minister tends to make the right ones. On running for Mayor. On Brexit. On standing for the Conservative leadership in 2019, doing what many said was impossible, and getting Tory MPs to back him. (I remember this ,because when I joined his campaign you could get six to one on him to make the ballot.) On the general election. On the vaccine.

He’s making a big call on the economy now – the big push to level up. This is his big bet on Britain.  To deliver it though we need strong aligned local leadership. Mid-term elections always hammer the party in power, and we’re coming from the 2017 local election high point and a year of Covid. Getting Conservative 2019 voters to come out again is the challenge on which the ability to deliver the agenda now rests. We’ve fifty days to show them it does.

Richard Holden: We shouldn’t try to win a spending arms race with Labour in this Budget – which we would lose anyway

1 Mar

Fight Fitness Guru, Consett, Co. Durham

During the last fortnight, the white wasteland of frozen fields has given way to the flora of spring in County Durham.  The thaw in the land of the Prince Bishops is being met with a broader feeling in the towns and villages that spring is on the way.  With 20,000,000 vaccinations done and accelerating, as well as the Prime Minister’s roadmap providing clarity for the future, there is a real feeling that the tide is turning.

This week’s Budget must be another step along that road.  However, with so many competing concerns it will be a difficult balance to strike.  To get it right, it’s going to be essential to zoom out and look to where we want to be in a few years’ time.

Our economy has taken a pounding because of Covid-19.  Three hundred billion pounds in extra spending and support, paying people’s wages through furlough and supporting jobs and businesses has been provided.

Three hundred billion pounds extra: that is wartime levels of additional expenditure. For context, it is more than twice the size of the NHS budget annually. It’s an extra £4,500 for every man woman and child in the UK, or about £12,000 for every income-taxpayer in extra spending: money that’s had to be borrowed.

The support has been colossal and necessary. It has protected businesses and jobs and crucially will enable our economy to bounce back as quickly as it can. But this backing wouldn’t have been possible if the Government hadn’t taken the necessary decisions to keep spending under control during the last few years.

Colloquially, this point is made frequently by my constituents, along the lines of: “I’m glad it was you lot in and not Labour. If they’d been in ,God knows what would have happened.”

Which takes me to the political.  One of the biggest gateways to so-called “Blue Wall” voters switching from Labour to Conservative was Jeremy Corbyn. But this wasn’t just because of the terrorist sympathising and antisemitism. Or Keir Starmer’s policy of betraying democracy over Brexit. It was also because of Labour’s economic credibility.

People stopped listening to Labour’s promises when they became increasingly outlandish.  Remember them? Free broadband for all, give WASPI women £30,000 each, cancel student debt and make university education taxpayer-funded. The list went on – all with no plan to pay for it: it was fantasy economics that lacked basic credibility.

This is where we Conservatives now need to be careful, and why Rishi Sunak needs to tread a fine line. We cannot, nor should we wish to, win an arms race with Labour over who can spend more taxpayers’ cash.

We’ve not spent the long, hard yards of the last decade, undoing the catastrophic position Labour left in 2010, to let that credibility go. The reason we’ve been able to support the country through the global pandemic is because we’d had credible spending plans for the last decade. The reason Labour couldn’t win in 2010 is because Labour believed its own hubris about having ‘abolished boom and bust’ and, to nab a much-loved phrase from George Osborne, “failed to fix the roof while the sun was shining.” And the result was the famous note from Liam Byrne, then Chief Secretary to the Treasury: “there is no money left.”

Given such an analysis of where we are, then: what’s next? The budget must focus on three things:

  • Recovery. Allowing the country, especially our hardest hit sectors to bounce back from Covid – and in doing so avoid a massive spike in unemployment.  This week, I led 68 Conservative backbenchers in writing to the Chancellor about support for pubs (massive employers of young people) via keeping beer duty down. It’s vital that he also allows our high streets breathing space regarding business rates. And for families in constituencies like mine, where for so many a car is essential, fuel duty rises, which Conservatives have found hard against for a decade, need to be avoided.
  • Delivery. Keep building towards our key manifesto commitments on public services: more police, more nurses, crucial infrastructure and deliver on the levelling up promise that was made.
  • Credibility. Long-term economic stability with borrowing under control to allow us to keep our debt – and crucially our debt interest payments – under control.  We can’t just hope that interest rates stay this low forever: they won’t. Only a balanced plan will allow the Government the space to deliver on the first two objectives of recovery and delivery.

It’s a tall order, and the Chancellor needs to be clear, honest, and fair in what he spells out. Those who’ve profited during the pandemic and those with the broadest shoulders should take the lion’s share of slack as we now deal with the consequences of it.

As for Keir “Goldilocks” Starmer – naturally, nothing will be ‘just right’.  But he won’t come up with any other real proposals, either. He’s opposed to anything that will raise revenue, but Labour MPs will doubtless demand more spending.  The party is all over the place, with a front bench hopelessly out of its depth, and a broader one so divided as to the way forward that it’s hardly a surprise Sir Keir is unable to get them to agree on anything but to abstain.

So Labour’s economic credibility will remain in tatters. We need ours to remain strong.

This spring in North West Durham and across the “blue wall”, let’s ensure that the growth we see is built to last. Unsustainable borrowing might be Labour’s answer, but it can’t be ours. Without doubt, at some point, winter will come again.

And when it does, we’ll need to respond to it from a position of strength with flexibility – as we have this time.  The electorate will not forgive us is we don’t ensure long-term credibility. Without it we put both a sustainable recovery from the global Coronavirus pandemic and delivery of our manifesto in jeopardy.

Perhaps the simplest way of putting it on the Budget is: it’s all about economic credibility, stupid. Because come 2024, it certainly will be.

Richard Holden: Dogs have been a comfort during lockdown. There’s more we can do to protect them – and other animals.

15 Feb

Richard Holden is MP for North West Durham.

Co-Op, Tow Law, Co. Durham

North West Durham is currently quilted by its second blanket of snow in the last month. This week’s constituency surgery visits involved cautious transit along ungritted roads to my hardy constituents.

Even the sheep, usually scattered across fells, or grazing their own patch of fields, were huddled round hayracks – the animals themselves barely offset from the off-white landscape about them. Temperatures have averaged below freezing for five weeks now and, chatting with constituents, outside homes and businesses, in the villages and towns that fill the upper reaches of the Wear and Derwent catchments, I was glad I’d suitably layered up.

I mention the environment because it and the animals that we share it with are both important to my constituents. Necessarily removed from human contact, people have lent much more on ‘man’s best friend’ as a substitute. Animals have provided companionship, especially to the most vulnerable, and a necessary breathing-space for so many families that have otherwise been largely stuck indoors.

Despite all this, though, my constituents wouldn’t view themselves as ‘animal rights activists’.  Nonetheless, they are animal lovers, and are deeply concerned about animal welfare.

With so many stuck at home and unable to see friends, pets have become more prized and demand for them, especially dogs, has jumped. Sadly, reports of dog-thefts have surged in the UK and now litter many local Facebook groups.

Last year, I met with the Royal Veterinary College, Dogs Trust and other animal charities, including Farplace Animal Rescue based in North West Durham, and they also raised concern about another issue that’s on the rise and has been more acute during lockdown: so-called ‘puppy smuggling’ by organised crime gangs from Eastern Europe. Animals illegally being carted across the continent, with many dying in transit and others, without the proper vaccinations or paperwork, susceptible to bringing diseases, such as rabies, into the UK.

In constituencies like North West Durham, with working dogs and animals on farms and on the moors; pit ponies in the mines within the last few decades, and with pet ownership well above the national average, these issues matter to local people – even if often they are seen as low priority for policymakers.

What’s vitally important is that we do not allow the extremists to grab hold of the debate in this area. We need to be leading the way on reasonable measures to protect people and their animals and here are a few suggestions:

1) Pet Theft

My colleague Tom Hunt is already leading the charge on better legislation to tackle dog theft. Too often, it’s treated the same as a stolen bicycle but, as the pandemic has emphasised, our pets are far more than that.

Our animals are part of our families, and those targeting animals know that the worth that they have is far more than their supposed monetary value. It’s vital that this particularly nasty crime gets the proper sentencing it deserves.

While there is a good theoretical top-end sentence at present, all too often perpetrators get away with fines. It’s clear that the guidelines on sentencing need to be toughened up, and the Home Secretary may be able to act in this area without further recourse to brand new primary legislation.

2) Puppy Smuggling

It’s not always that national charities such as the Royal Veterinary College and the Dogs Trust are aligned, but they are in this instance – and we should make the most of this.

Our new freedom from the EU makes checks in this area much easier, in order to tackle the organised crime gangs behind this. It’s likely that if they’re involved in smuggling one thing then they’re involved in smuggling another.

It’s clear that we must step up measures in this area – not just in terms of people smuggling dogs but also people. We already have compulsory microchipping of dogs since 2016, so checking that dogs have been chipped must be an easy step forward in this area. The current fine of up to £500 could be increased, too, to help ensure compliance and make it easier to deal with illegally smuggled animals.

3) Horse Tethering

Several constituents have raised this issue with me recently and, with people less willing to leave their houses, it seems to be a growing issue locally, and one I’m looking at leading a campaign on.

It’s clearly wholly unnecessary that horses in an enclosed field should be tethered to a post for any period beyond that necessary for their own welfare (such as for shoeing to take place).

We rightly have some of the highest standards in the world in terms of animals being bred for food production, and those being kept as pets should have similar protection. Issues such as this could be managed by the Government supporting various Private Members’ Bills during the coming years.

4) Banning the export of live animals

Further measures like banning the live export of animals is a massive step in the right direction, and the Government has already indicated its willingness to move forward in this area. Again, often changes to regulations rather than primary legislation could achieve this objective.

Let one of the consequences of lock-down be that we deal with some of these issues, which have been bubbling away on the backburner for too long. Better animal welfare is clearly one of them.

Addressing it also allows us as Conservatives to ensure that the whole environmental agenda isn’t left in the hands of extremists, and delivers something that connects on a visceral level – more than ever because of Coronavirus, with our animal-loving constituents and their pets.

Targeted action with short and snappy campaigns can really help make a difference, rather than sweeping reviews and consultations. We know what the issues are. Let’s tackle them – and give a bit of extra protection to ‘mans’ best friend’ and his pals who, for so many, have really earned that title during the last year.

Richard Holden: Here in County Durham, my sense is that moderate Remainers are now saying “I’m glad we’re out”

1 Feb

Richard Holden is MP for North West Durham.

Glenholm Park, Crook, Co. Durham

Bubbles are not so much de rigeur at present but, sadly, de jure. But there’s nothing like constituency surgery calls, the caseworker inbox, or bumping into constituents on street to puncture the echo-chamber that journalists, politicians and the twitterati exist in.

The streets of North West Durham have a short and a clear message, and it has the feel of the one that the Admiralty messaged the Fleet in 1939. I’ll bet my bottom dollar that Westminster will soon hear it loud and clear in polling too. It’s a three-word phrase that could have come out of a ‘explain the policy in three words’ machine and it is: ‘Boris is back’.

A corner has been turned. The vaccine programme and getting Brexit done with a deal – and in the North East, the news from Nissan that they now see it as an opportunity rather than a catastrophe – have changed the mood. The parliamentary inbox is no longer awash with people concerned about when their gran will get the jab. Instead, it’s back to the more everyday concerns.

And if the Prime Minister is back, it’s also clear that Keir Starmer is on the back foot. I’m even getting emails from constituents critical of the way that the Opposition is behaving with its weak attempts at political point-scoring over covid. Whether the Conservative Campaign HQ phrase “Captain Hindsight” is cutting through or not, I’m not sure, but as one former Labour-voting pro-Brexit constituent bluntly put it to me on Friday: “I don’t know about hindsight, but Starmer don’t half talk a lot of sh**e. Wasn’t he the one who was the most pro-EU of Team Corbyn?”

And it’s the joining together of the UK vaccine programme, the EU vaccine row, and Starmer’s previous pro-Second Referendum EU position, that is most damaging for Labour at present. It is starting to feel as though the moderate Remain voter has shifted from: “I voted to Remain, but we have to honour the referendum result” to “I’m actually glad we’re out – look at the way they’re trying to treat us, can you imagine if we were in their EU vaccine programme?”

By any stretch, Labour should be gaining ground purely by the virtue of not being led by Jeremy Corbyn. But under Starmer, Labour seem paralysed. Unable or unwilling to engage on any policy level at all with voters beyond demanding more spending on, well, everything. The only concrete policy that Labour’s leader seems to have adopted is the absurd position of putting vaccinating healthy 25 year-old-teachers against Covid-19, ahead of 69 year olds who might actually get seriously ill or die from it.

One of the things that struck me most the day after the general election was Boris Johnson’s measured response. It wasn’t triumphalist or promising the earth: it was very much ‘I am humbled by the trust you’ve placed in me. I will seek to prove to your that you were right in doing so.’

On Brexit and on the vaccine programme, the Prime Minister and his team are delivering. Of course there have been sticky points during the last year – not least his own illness – but people also understand that dealing with a global pandemic isn’t easy. The next steps are crucial in responding to the post-pandemic need to get public finances in order, deliver good jobs in a reviving economy and making significant progress on the levelling up agenda.

While Labour continue not to offer anything – bar telling people they were wrong for voting for Brexit; that their area is awful; that their lives are awful, and that only Labour can help them – Conservatives have a real opportunity to make further progress.

The Government is making the running on everything from tacking rough sleeping, to NHS funding to a future, greener economy, to Global Britain: it seems Labour don’t know where to turn. The internal battles on Labour’s National Executive Committee over a combination of Corbyn’s membership of Labour and how woke can you can go continue to dominate Labour politics. Starmer is in danger of doing to the former ‘Red Wall’ in Wales, the North and the Midlands what Miliband did to it in Scotland.

This provides a genuine opportunity, regardless of what happens in the council elections in May – a traditional point to grumble mid-term – and it’s vital that CCHQ see this and target to gain further parliamentary seats in the Blue Wall.

The Prime Minister is back, let’s ready the Fleet. If we get our post-Covid-19 strategy right, 2019 can be just the beginning.