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.

Reports of Johnson’s political demise are greatly exaggerated

20 Jun

Vote Leave‘s successor was Change Britain – a name that says much about the country’s decision to leave the European Union five years ago.

Brexit was a vote for economic as well as constitutional change: to shift from a model based on financial services, high immigration and London’s hinterland to one more favourable to manufacturing, lower migration and the provinces.  You might call it “levelling up”

If you doubt it, look at this constituency-based map of the results.  West and South of London, you will find a kind of Remain Square.  Its eastern boundary is Hertford and Stortford, more or less.  Its western one is Stroud.

Its northern frontier ends at Milton Keynes and its southern one at Lewes.  Admittedly, this square has a mass of holes punched into it: much of Hampshire, for example, voted Leave.  And some of the Remain majorities within it, like some Leave ones, were narrow.

Levelling up is a term of art.  It can mean enterprise zones, freeports, better schools, improving skills, devolving power – none of which necessarily imply rises in or transfers of public spending.

But to some in that Remain Square, and elsewhere, it is coming to mean taking money in higher taxes from people who live in the south and transferring it to people who live in the north.

This truth would hold had the Chesham and Amersham contest never taken place.   Obviously, it was a lousy result for the Conservatives – for the Party to lose a by-election without seeing it coming, let alone by some eight thousand votes.

There should be a searching post-mortem. But why would any canny voter back the establishment in a by-election?  Isn’t it best to send it a message – namely: “don’t take our votes for granted”?

In the north, that establishment is still Labour.  Hence Hartlepool.  In the south, it’s the pro-levelling up, Red Wall-preoccupied Conservatives.  Hence Chesham and Amersham.  Now on to Batley and Spen.

Come the next general election, the Liberal Democrats won’t be able to concentrate their resources in a single seat, as they did last week.  Nor will they necessarily be the opposition front-runner in the Remain Square, or elsewhere.

Which suggests that last month’s local elections are a better guide to the future than last week’s by-election.  Crudely speaking, they found the right-of-centre vote uniting behind the Tories, and the left-of-centre equivalent divided between Labour, the LibDems and the Greens.

ConservativeHome will take no lectures from anyone about the potential threat to the so-called “Blue Wall” – to the seats within the Remain Square that we identify.  Henry Hill published an analysis of it on this site on May 11, which we re-ran last Friday in the by-election’s wake.

But the good news for Boris Johnson is that the Blue Wall is crumbling more slowly than the red one.  So time is on his side rather than Keir Starmer’s, which is why we still believe that the Prime Minister will be pondering a dash to the polls in 2023.

The bad news for him is that no party can hold a monopoly on much of the country forever.  Tony Blair had one even more extensive than Johnson.  He got three terms out of it (which will encourage the Prime Minister), but Labour eventually ran out of time and votes.

Its backing melted away at both ends.  In the blue corner, their new-won support from 1997 eventually returned to the Tories or went LibDem.  In the red one, their base was eaten away not so much by economics as by immigration and culture.

The medium-term danger to Johnson should start kicking in – unless inflation speeds the process up – in two to three years, when the vultures from post-Brexit and post-Covid spending really start coming home to roost.  He may well be on a second term by then.

But at that point the Prime Minister could find himself trapped in what William Hague, referring to potential British membership of the euro, described as “a burning building with no exits”.

The cornerstone of Government economic policy to date is “no return to austerity” – which we crudely interpret to mean questionable control of the country’s public finances.

This being so, the only weapon left for Ministers to deploy is tax rises: and the tax burden is already forecast to hit the highest level since the late 1960s – 35 per cent of GDP by 2025/26.

We all have a way of reading into by-election results whatever we want to read into them.  Undoubtedly, HS2 was a factor in Chesham and Amersham.  So was planning.  Above all, Blue Wall voters were asking for what Red Wall ones are getting: a little bit of love and attention.

Beyond that, anti-lockdown campaigners claim that the result was powered by opposition to shutdowns.  Pro-aid ones assert that Buckinghamshire’s voters stand behind the 0.7 per cent.

Those suffering from Johnson Derangement Syndrome, such as Dominic Grieve, claim that Buckinghamshire’s “sophisticated” voters see through the Prime Minister.  But if so, why did they chuck Grieve out of Beaconsfield less than two years ago?

So we make no special claim about what happened in Chesham & Amersham last week, other than to take some of the more exotic claims with a lorryload of salt.

But we do make a forecast about what will happen there and elsewhere within the Remain Square in future – regardless of whether or not the seat, like Newbury and Christchurch and Eastbourne and other Liberal by-election gains of the past, duly returns to the Tory column.

Namely, that the good voters of Chesham and Amersham won’t tolerate more tax rises for long.  Not that voters in Red Wall or provincial English seats would do so either.

But the private sector in the Remain Square is relatively big; employment in public services relatively smaller; exposure to property and pensions taxes relatively bigger.

Sooner or later, Johnson and Rishi Sunak will have to revisit the other side of the financial sustainability ledger: spending control.  With over a third of it going on pensions and healthcare, that will mean tough choices, in Chesham, Amersham – and everywhere else.

As for the Prime Minister’s prospects, we are where we were before. He can have all the Turkmenbashi statues he wants, and more, for getting Brexit done – and for saving the country from metaphorical if not literal Dreyfus affair-style strife.

ConHome believes that he should have his chance to “Change Britain” (with a majority of 80, he has earned it; anxious backbenchers please take note) while having little confidence that he actually will.

What’s left of this term risks being frittered away in bread, summits, and circuses, Roman-style.  The possibility is frighteningly plausible.  We devoutly hope that we’re proved wrong, as we sometimes are.

Is the Blue Wall around London in danger of cracking?

18 Jun

This year’s local elections are at least as good a guide to the future as by-elections. ConHome therefore republish my post-May analysis of the threat to the Conservatives in the South.

Overall, the local elections in England have produced great results for the Conservatives. They have enjoyed high-profile victories for the mayoralties in the West Midlands and Tees Valley, and seen gains in councils across the north.

But whilst they currently benefit from a divided opposition, Tory strategists would do well to remember that a realignment can be a two-edged sword. As the party focuses on broadening its appeal to a new coalition of voters, it risks alienating parts of its traditional base.

This is the basis for what some are starting to call the ‘Blue Wall’: more than 40 constituencies “which have been held by the Conservatives since at least 2010, where Labour or the Liberal Democrats have overperformed their national swing in 2017 and 2019 and where the Conservative majority is below 10,000”, as Matthew Goodwin explains. If CCHQ isn’t careful, these could follow those London seats where the party was competitive, or even won, in 2010 but is deep underwater now.

Some results from the weekend, such as the Conservatives’ loss of control in Cambridgeshire, are already being held up as examples of this trend, which as our Editor reported yesterday were described by one pollster as “big red flashes which under someone better than Starmer could cause chaos”.

But what is the situation in other Tory heartlands, such as the Home Counties?

In Hertfordshire, the party retained overall control but lost five seats – including that of David Williams, the council leader – whilst the Liberal Democrats made gains. It was a similar story in the Isle of Wight, where the Tories lost four seats and their leader.

In Kent, the Tories fell from 67 seats to 61, whilst Labour and the Greens advanced.

Buckinghamshire was electing a unitary authority for the first time, so there is no direct change, but according to the Bucks Herald “their lead over other parties has slimmed down slightly this time”, again whilst the Lib Dems gained ground.

On and on it goes. In Surrey, the Tories fell from 61 seats to 47 at the expense of the Lib Dems and various independents and residents’ associations.

In Oxfordshire they lost seven seats whilst the Lib Dems gained seven, leaving the two parties almost neck at neck at 22 councillors to 21.

They lost three councillors in East Sussex, and eight in West Sussex.

And despite the Conservatives advancing across the North, its a different story in one of the areas where they have traditionally done well: they lost four councillors to Labour in Trafford, cementing the Opposition’s control over what was once ‘Manchester’s Tory council’ by picking up Ashton upon Mersey, Daveyhulme, and the village of Flixton.

Whilst local trends don’t necessarily presage Westminster ones (Watford has a Conservative MP and not a single Tory councillor), Sir Graham Brady’s majority in Altringham and Sale West was halved in 2017 and contracted again in 2019, even as the party made gains elsewhere. Might it be that this prosperous suburban area, which returned a Conservative MP even in 1997, might drift out of the Tory column over the next decade?

Naturally, it doesn’t follow that all of these results are part of some grand pattern. Local issues will invariably be in play, and some of it may be the sort of backlash against a ruling party that one normally expects to see in ‘mid-term’ contests such as these.

For example in Tunbridge Wells, the LibDems caused much excitement by seizing control of the borough council. But all five of the wards at county council levels remained in Tory hands.

But the example of Oxfordshire, where the party held 51 out of 73 seats in 2009 ,but has been on a downward trajectory ever since, suggests that CCHQ can’t take such comforting explanations for granted. And by the time it becomes obvious that a council is properly trending away from the party, the best moment to take action will have passed.

Down the line, this would have implications for general elections if London overspill and sky-high house prices see more seats follow Brighton and Canterbury into the Labour column – a prospect which is reportedly already concerning Tory MPs.

But will it be enough to spook those MPs into doing what’s necessary to fix it? The Government is right to believe that its hold on the ‘Red Wall’ rests on expanding home ownership. But it has so far failed to overcome the self-interest of southern MPs and get them accept the blunt fact that the same thing is true of the ‘Blue Wall’ too. Somehow, ministers need to get sufficient houses built to put home ownership and family formation within reach of young professionals.

It will take much greater study to assess the true nature and scale of the problem. But the party needs to be across it and prepared to act. The sorry state of the Labour Party shows just how badly the voters can punish those who take their homelands for granted.

Starmer’s interview. The Labour leader showed his real self, and ideological inclinations – but will it boost the party’s success?

3 Jun

On Wednesday the British public was treated to an episode of Piers Morgan’s Life Stories with Keir Starmer. You could call the Labour’s leader’s appearance either brave, or the act of a man who has nothing to lose. Let’s go for the more generous interpretation: it showed that Starmer is a fighter – even when faced with some pretty dire local election results.

Did it work? In several respects, the interview was a success for Starmer. For one, it showed the Real Starmer, not the slightly robotic one we are used to in the House of Commons. Although I found some of the “experts” on his life a bit random – Dame Helena Kennedy tells us that “school was where Keir blossomed” (was she there?!), you get a good understanding of him – and what makes him tick – by the end.

Inevitably, a large part of the show was dedicated to Starmer’s life as a barrister. He is clearly someone who thrives on having big targets to achieve, rising from QC to Director of Public Prosecutions to Labour Party Leader in, actually, quite a short period of time. Furthermore, his cases tell us about his ideological inclinations. One that features is in 2005 when Starmer famously represented two penniless environmental campaigners who were sued by McDonald’s for libel. The then government ended up reviewing libel laws as a consequence.

At that time, Starmer said of the case “Until now, only the rich and famous have been able to defend themselves against libel writs. Now ordinary people can participate much more effectively in public debate without fear that they will be bankrupted for doing so. This case is a milestone for free speech.”

This rather John Proctor-sounding Starmer is miles away from the one we now know, who not long ago was part of a “second referendum” campaign that would have erased a fair few “ordinary people’s” votes… He should bring this energy back to Labour and discuss not only “ordinary people”, but “ordinary” things, be it council tax, living costs, rather than the Twitter politics that have consumed his party.

Lots of headlines have been focused around the emotional parts of Starmer’s interview. He talks about the death of his mother, Josephine, who had Still’s Disease, adding “For some people it comes and goes, for mum it came and it came and it came again”. He also spoke of his father who was “totally devoted” to her. Elsewhere he talks about his wife, who impressively shuts down one of Morgan’s questions with a joke.

These sections, particularly around Starmer’s parents, are touching – and show a man who has had a lot of hardship in his life – but stayed strong for his loved ones. You would have to have a heart of stone not to sympathise. And yet, on a broader note, I do wonder why we now expect political leaders – and otherwise – to share their personal lives. Is this the Prince Harry effect?

Overall it was a “good” interview because it increased Starmer’s likeability – he even boasts about getting drunk with George Clooney in it. He comes across as someone with thick skin, a sense of humour and unshakeable determination (don’t worry, I’m still a Conservative voter). Will this boost support for Labour?

One challenge will be viewing figures. Apparently Starmer on Piers Morgan was watched by 1.6 million people, compared to Coronation Street’s 3.7 million (on immediately before). You can be as charming as you like, but if no one’s watched it, then meh.

Then there’s the fact that Labour still doesn’t have a credible proposition, with lots of fractures between party members. A jolly chat with Piers Morgan won’t change that.

Saying that, I rather agreed with Robert Halfon yesterday, who wrote about the importance of Conservative voters not getting complacent around the Labour Party (or indeed other threats).

The issue I spot is that the Conservatives are drifting, as their voters see it, to the Left, with their “green revolution” and the Tory rebellion over the cut to foreign aid. Voters are crying out for lower living costs, and the “conserving” of the nation’s finances and culture. An alternate that’s stronger here – combined with the likeability factor – is the risk.

Steve Baker: The UK almost certainly needs an Electoral Integrity Bill. The question is whether it goes far enough.

3 Jun

Steve Baker is MP for Wycombe, and served as a Minister in the former Department for Exiting the European Union.

It is easy for people living in small, stable communities to wonder why the Electoral Integrity Bill is needed at all. For those campaigning in urban areas, the answer will be obvious.

I am certain votes are being cast which ought not to be cast, votes which ought to be cast are being cast by those who ought not to be casting them, votes are being cast in particular ways as a result of treating and intimidation and, for various reasons, prosecutions are not forthcoming.

The Government is absolutely right to propose no party campaigners should handle postal votes. I know of cases where a person has turned up at a polling station several times with a clutch of postal votes in their hand. I have received accounts of candidates visiting electors’ homes, demanding postal votes are completed in front of them and then taking them away. I know these are not isolated incidents. We cannot assume voters enjoy secrecy and freedom when marking a ballot paper at home.

Our current electoral system has not caught up with population growth and the realities of modern life. Our procedures have become somewhat quaint, a point which struck me when I looked at the rules for candidates entering polling stations to check for personation. While I know many of my constituents, I do not know a sufficient number that I can go into every polling station and have any chance of spotting personation.

Those opposing the need to have photo ID when voting at a polling station say the number of people prosecuted for personation is low. I would agree. But the reason it is low is because all too often no prosecution is made despite overwhelming evidence being presented to the authorities.

Far from saying the provisions in the Election Integrity Bill are unwarranted, I would say they do not go far enough.

When Individual Voter Registration was introduced, I was pleased that, at last, it would not be possible for people to register more than once in a constituency. I quickly became wise to the fact it was still possible for people to vote more than once. In the 2017 election, an opposition activist was registered twice in a small street at different addresses. He voted at one address in person, and at the other with a postal vote. This was not a mere slip-up. He did the same at the General Election a few weeks later.

In urban areas, where there is a high churn of registrations, and where people live in houses of multiple occupation, it is not easy to determine who is entitled to be on the electoral roll and who isn’t. At one address in my constituency, a small three-bed Edwardian terraced house has 12 adults registered to vote. Either this is house is grossly over-occupied, or people are registered who have no right to do so. It just so happens that all those 12 voters regularly vote at election time.

I know of landlords who register to vote at properties they own, but where they do not reside. We have found foreign nationals on the electoral roll living legally in the United Kingdom, but who are neither nationals of the UK or the Commonwealth, nor EU citizens. Nevertheless, they are on our register to vote.

My election agent found out the hard way that if you want to object to a person’s name being on the electoral roll, your name is disclosed to the person to whom the objection is being made. Surely it should be possible to challenge an entry on the roll without disclosing who has made the complaint so long as there are reasonable grounds to do so?

I know the law allows people to register legally at more than one address, and that it is legal to vote in different elections on the same day. But the time has come to put a mark by people’s names showing which address is their principal residence, and therefore entitling them to vote at parliamentary elections, and which is a secondary address which will allow voting in local elections only.

The law is often very clear, but what is not clear is that appropriate importance is always attributed to each and every vote and to prosecuting offences. I am clear that when one vote is stolen, or otherwise corrupted away, it is not just a pencil mark on a piece of paper but the inheritance of a tradition of liberty and equality fought for at great cost and handed down over centuries.

If we fail to understand the magnitude of the corruption of even a single vote, we are a politically bankrupt nation.

Here is a link to Steve Baker’s recent speech on the Electoral Integrity Bill.

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.

Iain Dale: Until Labour stops telling voters they’re wrong, racist, or stupid, it will continue to decline

14 May

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and the ‘For the Many’ podcast with Jacqui Smith.

I rarely do a lot of preparation for an interview. Sometimes, the more preparation you do, the worse an interview is. Some interviewers war game every interview they do. I don’t. I find such an approach stultifying. It often just leads to you writing down a list of questions, and then asking them in the order they’re written down in.

My best interviews are invariably ones where I don’t have a single piece of paper in front of me. Yes, it’s risky. Freewheeling always is. But at the age of 58 and three quarters, I know what works for me and what doesn’t. However, there are exceptions to this rule and last night (as you read this) I will have interviewed the Israel Ambassador to London, Tzipi Hovotely, and conducted a phone-in.

I defy anyone to pretend they have a 100 per cent understanding of the Israel/Palestine situation, and everything that has led to the current unrest. So I am writing this column a little earlier than usual on Thursday morning to give me a little more time to read up on the situation.

I don’t call it preparation: I call it avoiding making a tit of yourself, and getting a key fact wrong. I don’t and won’t hide the fact that I am a supporter of Israel but, boy, does it make it hard for its advocates sometimes.

And this is one of them. I was slightly surprised when the Ambassador agreed to take calls from listeners, but delighted at the same time. As a presenter, I know it’s the calls from listeners that can often be far more difficult to handle than the questions from a professional interviewer.

If you missed the hour last night, you can catch up with it on the Global Player or the LBC Youtube Channel. And, next week, we’ll repeat the experience with the Palestinian Ambassador, Husam Zomlot. However balanced you try to be on this subject, though, there will always be people who accuse you of being biased and ignoring one viewpoint or the other. Such is life in the modern social media world.

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In my weekly email newsletter on Sunday I wrote:

“You can tell an awful lot about a politician by how they react to an election defeat. This week we learned that Sir Keir Starmer is neither a lucky general or is cool under fire.

His interview on Friday afternoon was a textbook classic of how not to react. He looked like a rabbit in the headlights and didn’t seem to comprehend the scale of what had happened.

He promised to take “full responsibility” himself. Twenty four hours later, we learned he had sacked Angela Rayner, the chair of the Labour Party and its campaign co-ordinator.

Given Labour’s problems seem to be a lack of ability to reach out to northern working class voter, it didn’t really seem a good idea to sack a norrthern working class woman.”

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The week hasn’t exactly improved for the man whose name is now invariably preceded by the word ‘beleaguered’. I find it genuinely perplexing to understand what has happened to Sir Keir since Christmas. During hhis first nine months as Labour leader, he established a positive reputation, and many Conservatives thought that at last they faced an opposition leader that the electorate could imagine as an alternative Prime Minister.

Since then, it’s all gone to pot. And last week’s elections demonstrated how, if not why. Labour had the odd positive result but, overall, they were a disaster. To lose the Hartlepool by-election by a country mile, to lose the West Midlands Mayoralty by a large margin, to come a bad third in Scotland and to lose 322 local council seats was quite the hattrick.

Again, there was little understanding in the Labour Party as to why it had happened. Judging from the lame reshuffle ,Starmer then conducted it was all Valerie Vaz’s fault.

The comment of a defeated northern Labour council leader sums up Labour’s problem. He said: “I hope the electorate don’t live to regret what they’ve done.” Effectively he was saying: it’s not us, it’s you. Too many people in the Labour Party think the electorate must be stupid and thick to vote the way they do. “We know what’s best for you,” they think subliminally.

Grace Blakely, the Tribune columnist, is a living example of this phenomenon – middle/upper middle class intellectuals who think they know how best to improve the life of the peasants – and woe betide those peasants if they don’t take notice of them.

What we are experiencing is another form of ‘peasants’ revolt’: ordinary people are telling their previous lords and masters that they are quite capable of judging things for themselves, thank you very much. They don’t need to be told they’re wrong, racist, or stupid. And until the Labour Party understands that, it will continue to decline in electoral popularity.

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The slow rise of the Greens is something most of the media has largely ignored. They gained a good clutch of council seats and an extra seat on the London Assembly. They have beaten the Liberal Democrats to be the third party in many of the major contests.

If I were the LibDems and Labour I’d be worried about this, since the Greens are becoming the home of the ‘plague on all your houses’ vote, as well as those who are disillusioned with Labour and the LibDems.

However, they also gained quite a number of seats from the Conservatives. So electoral strategists in all parties would do well to monitor the Greens locally.

If they ever started to build the kind of grassroots local networks that the LibDems did during the 1980s and 1990s, they could become a much bigger electoral threat than they currently are. Expect them to double the number of candidates they field in local council elections next year. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if within five years they had got more councillors across the country than the LibDems.

Gavin Williamson: Skills, jobs and freedom. My priorities for this week’s Queen’s Speech – and the year ahead.

14 May

Gavin Williamson is Secretary of State for Education, and is MP for South Staffordshire.

The election results last week demonstrated that today’s Conservative party commands support across the length and breadth of the nation. Whether it was in Devon, Dudley or Durham, the voters who first put their faith in the Prime Minister in 2019 resoundingly confirmed that the Conservatives are they party they trust to deliver results, to create opportunity and to stand up for Britain.

And with the first part of our mandate delivered – to Get Brexit Done – attention is rightly turning to our commitment and determination to level up the nation.

The Education Bills that her Majesty announced in the Queen’s Speech are at the living, beating heart of that agenda. The Skills and Post-16 Education Bill will deliver fundamental reforms to our college and university system, making it as easy to study a vocational course, at any age, as it is to go to university.

The Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill will put an end once and for all to the chilling effect of cancel culture in universities.

And alongside this legislation, we will be continuing to drive improvement in our schools, completing the revolution begun in 2010. We are supporting all schools to join strong multi-academy trusts, embedding a consistent culture on discipline and behaviour, and working with the Education Recovery Commissioner, Sir Kevan Collins, to develop an ambitious, long-term plan for recovery – on top of the more than £2 billion we have already invested for this purpose.

At the heart of our reforms is the new Skills Bill. Ever since I became Education Secretary, my mantra has been Further Education, Further Education, Further Education.

For too long in this country, technical and vocational education has played second fiddle to university. It’s left our economy short of the vital technical skills they need, our employers dependent on importing labour and too many of our citizens left behind by a culture that values academic qualifications above all else.

Our new Lifelong Loan Entitlement will change that, giving everyone the equivalent of four years of post-18 education to use over their lifetime – at their local college, or at university. This is levelling up in action, and it will turbocharge our economy by getting people back into jobs and Britain working again.

In addition to the Lifelong Loan Entitlement, the Bill contains measures to strengthen our great further education colleges, the engines of opportunity that lie at the centre of our towns. New legislation will put employers at the heart of our skills reforms, joining forces with further education colleges to ensure young people can be confident they are taking high-quality, work-relevant courses that will get them the good jobs they deserve.

We are going to make sure there is a better balance between the skills that local employers want from their workforce and those that are being taught by colleges so that young people have a valuable and top-quality alternative to university.

Rather than encourage people to leave home to find a rewarding career, we intend to empower them to find fulfilling and rewarding work wherever they live, invigorating communities and driving economic growth, up and down the country.

It is a natural progression to the ground-breaking reforms we have already been rolling out, such as our T level and apprenticeship programmes, and which will deliver the skilled individuals to boost the post-pandemic economy and bring down unemployment.

And finally, the Bill will strengthen the ability of the Office for Students to crack down on low quality courses, delivering on our manifesto commitment. Our universities, which have played such a vital role in developing the vaccines and treatments to beat Covid-19, must be a fundamental part of levelling up through the Lifelong Loan Entitlement.

The record number of people taking up science and engineering demonstrates that many are already starting to pivot away from dead-end courses that leave young people with nothing but debt – and our reforms will open the way for them to embrace the opportunities offered by degree apprenticeships, higher technical qualifications, modular learning and our flagship Institutes of Technology.

Whether in the Tory shires or the Red Wall, the people of Britain have more in common than not. They want good jobs, better living standards and to own their own home. They want to know that they can trust their local school to give their children a good education, that their streets at safe at night, they can get a GP appointment when they need one. And, fundamentally, they want a society that offers a fair deal, where hard work pays off and the talented can get ahead, whatever their background.

And, as they demonstrated in 2016, and again in 2019, they believe in Britain. They know that while we may not always be perfect, this country has historically been a force for good in the world, and continues to be one of the best, fairest and most tolerant places to live and work.

The citizens of this country care deeply about injustice, rightly abhor racism, and increasingly recognise that love is love – but they have little patience with the increasingly intolerant and puritanical strand of the far left, which seems to be perpetually ashamed of our flag, our nation and our history. They have no truck with nonsense such as the denigration of Churchill, the ‘cancelling’ of our great naval heroes such as Drake and Nelson, or the renaming of buildings named after David Hume, a pillar of the Scottish Enlightenment, or the reforming Prime Minister, William Gladstone, who amongst other things implemented universal primary education for our children.

Our universities have a long and proud history of being spaces in which differing views or beliefs can be expressed without fear of censure, in recent years this has come under threat. There are increasing concerns of a chilling effect, with students and academics who dare to disagree with the campus consensus facing abuse, intimidation and even threats of investigation, dismissal or expulsion.

While the majority of academics and students believe in free speech, too many universities have allowed a small minority of activists to determine what can and cannot be said, for example by making law-abiding student societies pay security costs to invite mainstream speakers, rather than standing up to those willing to threaten violence to shut down speech.

I wrote a year ago that if universities didn’t protect free speech, the Government would. That is why we have introduced our Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, delivering on our manifesto commitment to protect free speech and academic freedom in universities. The Bill will strengthen existing duties on universities to promote free speech, extend these duties to students’ unions and establishing a director in the Office for Students to protect and promote these rights – including levying fines where necessary.

The programme of reforms my Department is implementing delivers for citizens across our electoral coalition. It rewards the new voters who have put their faith in us for the first time, trusting us to deliver the opportunity, prosperity and better lives that Labour has so sadly failed to provide for them. And it reassures our traditional voters that the torch of liberty, democracy and freedom burns as brightly within the Conservative party today as it ever did. As the Prime Minister has said, we are going to unite and level up our nation, and education is at the core of that mission.

Daniel Hannan: Super Thursday’s results weren’t a victory for conservatism, but for our leader: Brexity Jezza

12 May

Lord Hannan of Kingsclere is a Conservative peer, writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.

It was, as every pundit rushed to explain, an incumbency vote. The Conservatives held England, Labour held Wales and the SNP held Scotland. In a crisis, people rallied to the regime.

Yes. But let’s spell out, in full depressing detail, precisely what kind of regimes they were rallying to. They were rallying to free stuff. They were voting gratefully for administrations that were ladling out grants, subsidies and interest-free loans. They were cheerfully endorsing the idea of being paid to stay at home.

Indeed, they had little option but to vote for these things. Who was offering an alternative? What politician, in the current mood, wants to be the gloomster reminding everyone that accounts must be settled? Who feels like being a Cassandra, droning on about how the debts of the past 14 months will drag us down for years to come? I mean, look what happened to Cassandra.

The rise of big government is paradoxically bad news for Labour. Boris Johnson has always had a thing about bridges, airports and other grands projets. Even before the pandemic hit, the man who once described himself as a “Brexity Hezza” was starting to unscrew the spending taps. But the lockdowns altered the fiscal terms of trade utterly and irretrievably. Not so much Brexity Hezza now as Brexity Jezza.

Corbynistas are claiming belated vindication. “You see? There was a magic money tree after all! Your guy is spending more than our guy ever promised!” Yes, he is. And that is precisely Labour’s problem. How can Keir Starmer – how can anyone – criticise the government for not spending enough? The usual Labour line, namely that they’d be more open-handed than those heartless Tories, is redundant.

If it can’t attack the Government on fiscal policy, what else can Labour go for? Sleaze? Yeah, right, good luck with that. The country decided early on that it was fond of the PM. Sure, he might be seen as a bit chaotic, but he is doing things that people like. At a time when he is leading the UK through a world-beating vaccination programme, moaning about a redecoration that is not alleged to have cost taxpayers a penny is not just pointless, but self-defeating. Labour has made itself look unutterably small during a crisis. Wallpaper for Boris, curtains for Keir.

Green issues, then? Again, forget it. The PM has embraced the eco-agenda as wholeheartedly as any head of government on the planet. Labour would, as voters correctly perceive, pursue the same agenda, but in a less cost-effective and market-friendly way.

With economics, sleaze and environmentalism off the table, Labour is left only with the culture war. Oddly, this is one of the few issues that unites Corbynites and Starmerites. The trouble is, it doesn’t unite them with anyone else. The two Labour factions squabble furiously on Twitter, but both are leagues away from the patriotic working people who used to be their party’s mainstay.

As Khalid Mahmood, the Birmingham MP, put it after the result: “A London-based bourgeoisie, with the support of brigades of woke social media warriors, has effectively captured the party”. Mahmood was the first British Muslim MP, and is generally happy to take up causes for his co-religionists outside Birmingham. But he has little time for identity politics – at least, not in the deranged form that the British Left seems hell-bent on importing from the United States. In common with most Brits of all ethnic backgrounds, Mahmood a patriot, proud of having had ancestors in the Merchant Navy in both world wars. That his love of country should set him at odds with the Labour leadership is telling.

The culture war is where Labour is weakest. Corbyn was more or less openly anti-British, siding automatically with any nation against his own, regardless of the issue. Starmer at least sees why this is unpopular, and does his best to be photographed from time to time with flags. But, coming late and awkwardly to patriotism, he offers a slightly cringe-making version. The country at large – not just Labour’s old base, but the 80-plus per cent of us who think that, with all its faults, Britain has been a benign force down the years – senses his inauthenticity. As I write, opinion polls suggest an 11-point Conservative lead.

The combination of social liberalism and extreme internationalism that Corbynites and Stamerites share is, outside a few cities with big universities, unpopular. That may change over time, of course. The historian Ed West, rarely a man to look on the bright side, believes that demographic change will eventually align the electorate with Labour’s purse-lipped culture warriors. The population, he glumly notes, “is going to be more diverse, more urban, more single, more university-educated and more impoverished by rental prices” – all trends that help Labour.

Perhaps so. Indeed, as Henry Hill noted on this site yesterday, the one region of England where the Conservatives have started slipping is my old patch, the South East. Local election results saw reverses in Kent, Surrey, Sussex, Oxfordshire and (by extrapolation from the new boundaries) Buckinghamshire. But, to be brutally frank, it makes little difference. Under the first-past-the-post system, the Tories can slide a lot further in the Home Counties without endangering more than three or four MPs. For the next couple of election cycles, at least, the Long Awokening won’t much matter.

No, far more alarming is the way in which fiscal conservatism has simply disappeared, an early casualty of the lockdowns. Even as the country reopens, there is almost no talk of cutting spending back to where it was, let alone of starting to repay our debts. Just as after 1945, a collective threat has made us more collectivist. We crave big government. We feel we have earned a pay rise, and we vote accordingly. The Labour Party may have had it; but so, alas, has the free market.

Is the Blue Wall round the Home Counties in danger of cracking?

11 May

Overall, the local elections in England have produced great results for the Conservatives. They have enjoyed high-profile victories for the mayoralties in the West Midlands and Tees Valley, and seen gains in councils across the north.

But whilst they currently benefit from a divided opposition, Tory strategists would do well to remember that a realignment can be a two-edged sword. As the party focuses on broadening its appeal to a new coalition of voters, it risks alienating parts of its traditional base.

This is the basis for what some are starting to call the ‘Blue Wall’: more than 40 constituencies “which have been held by the Conservatives since at least 2010, where Labour or the Liberal Democrats have overperformed their national swing in 2017 and 2019 and where the Conservative majority is below 10,000”, as Matthew Goodwin explains. If CCHQ isn’t careful, these could follow those London seats where the party was competitive, or even won, in 2010 but is deep underwater now.

Some results from the weekend, such as the Conservatives’ loss of control in Cambridgeshire, are already being held up as examples of this trend, which as our Editor reported yesterday were described by one pollster as “big red flashes which under someone better than Starmer could cause chaos”.

But what is the situation in other Tory heartlands, such as the Home Counties?

In Hertfordshire, the party retained overall control but lost five seats – including that of David Williams, the council leader – whilst the Liberal Democrats made gains. It was a similar story in the Isle of Wight, where the Tories lost four seats and their leader.

In Kent, the Tories fell from 67 seats to 61, whilst Labour and the Greens advanced.

Buckinghamshire was electing a unitary authority for the first time, so there is no direct change, but according to the Bucks Herald “their lead over other parties has slimmed down slightly this time”, again whilst the Lib Dems gained ground.

On and on it goes. In Surrey, the Tories fell from 61 seats to 47 at the expense of the Lib Dems and various independents and residents’ associations.

In Oxfordshire they lost seven seats whilst the Lib Dems gained seven, leaving the two parties almost neck at neck at 22 councillors to 21.

They lost three councillors in East Sussex, and eight in West Sussex.

And despite the Conservatives advancing across the North, its a different story in one of the areas where they have traditionally done well: they lost four councillors to Labour in Trafford, cementing the Opposition’s control over what was once ‘Manchester’s Tory council’ by picking up Ashton upon Mersey, Daveyhulme, and the village of Flixton.

Whilst local trends don’t necessarily presage Westminster ones (Watford has a Conservative MP and not a single Tory councillor), Sir Graham Brady’s majority in Altringham and Sale West was halved in 2017 and contracted again in 2019, even as the party made gains elsewhere. Might it be that this prosperous suburban area, which returned a Conservative MP even in 1997, might drift out of the Tory column over the next decade?

Naturally, it doesn’t follow that all of these results are part of some grand pattern. Local issues will invariably be in play, and some of it may be the sort of backlash against a ruling party that one normally expects to see in ‘mid-term’ contests such as these.

For example in Tunbridge Wells, the LibDems caused much excitement by seizing control of the borough council. But all five of the wards at county council levels remained in Tory hands.

But the example of Oxfordshire, where the party held 51 out of 73 seats in 2009 ,but has been on a downward trajectory ever since, suggests that CCHQ can’t take such comforting explanations for granted. And by the time it becomes obvious that a council is properly trending away from the party, the best moment to take action will have passed.

Down the line, this would have implications for general elections if London overspill and sky-high house prices see more seats follow Brighton and Canterbury into the Labour column – a prospect which is reportedly already concerning Tory MPs.

But will it be enough to spook those MPs into doing what’s necessary to fix it? The Government is right to believe that its hold on the ‘Red Wall’ rests on expanding home ownership. But it has so far failed to overcome the self-interest of southern MPs and get them accept the blunt fact that the same thing is true of the ‘Blue Wall’ too. Somehow, ministers need to get sufficient houses built to put home ownership and family formation within reach of young professionals.

It will take much greater study to assess the true nature and scale of the problem. But the party needs to be across it and prepared to act. The sorry state of the Labour Party shows just how badly the voters can punish those who take their homelands for granted.