Victory in Harrow demonstrates a willingness among British Indians to vote Conservative

13 May

Victory! This word was not often needed by Conservatives in London as last week’s election results came in.

But in the London Borough of Harrow it was required, for here the Conservatives took control of the council from Labour, with the party winning 31 of the 55 seats.

How was this victory won? Why did Harrow prove more favourable territory than Wandsworth or Westminster?

A great part of the answer lies in the growing propensity of British Indians, who make up about a third of the population in Harrow, to vote Conservative.

This is not a phenomenon which can be conveyed in purely statistical terms, however impressive the statistics may be (and for this phenomenon they are still for the most part deficient).

At lunchtime yesterday I took a Metropolitan Line train from Finchley Road to Northwick Park, the stop before Harrow-on-the-Hill, a journey which still breathes the last enchantments of John Betjeman.

But one does not engage on this line only, or even mainly, with the past. One also sees something of the future.

A short walk from the station between well-maintained, 1930s pebble-dashed houses, often with expensive cars parked outside, brought me to Kenton Road, one of the borough’s principal thoroughfares, lined with mainly Indian businesses.

For no particular reason, other than hunger, I entered Ram’s Pure Vegetarian Restaurant, and ate a delicious lunch before engaging one of the proprietors, Prashant Upadhyay, in conversation.

He is 41, came to London from Gujarat in 2004 on a student visa, worked for five years without a holiday, acquired British citizenship and took over Ram’s, which he had observed to be a popular establishment.

In 2015 he was one of 60,000 British Indians who gathered in Wembley Stadium to cheer Narendra Modi, Prime Minister of India and previously Chief Minister of Gujarat, who was on a visit to the United Kingdom.

Upadhyay did not pretend that all British Indians admire Modi. He put the split at 60 per cent who are in favour, and 40 per cent who are against.

He said Modi was a bit like Boris Johnson: people could tell you straight away whether or not they liked him.

David Cameron, then British Prime Minister, acted in 2015 as Modi’s warm-up act in Wembley Stadium. I confess that at the time, this event passed me by.

Having now watched a recording of Cameron’s speech, I can attest that the whole occasion is extraordinary. With what ebullient enthusiasm the Prime Minister is over and over again cheered to the echo as he declares that British Indians are “putting the great into Great Britain”, and that many of them are from Gujarat, information which elicits a particularly ecstatic cheer.

Johnson recently became the first British Prime Minister to visit Gujarat. “The timing was perfect,” a British Indian councillor in Harrow told ConHome with reference to the local elections.

Cameron pointed out in his Wembley speech that there are more MPs of Indian origin than ever before, named Rishi Sunak, Alok Sharma, Suella Fernandes, Shailesh Vara and Priti Patel, and declared: “It won’t be long until there is a British Indian Prime Minister in Downing Street.” Tremendous cheers.

As I left Ram’s, Upadhyay was making his way next door, where he has an estate agency and a logistics business. He has moved to Watford, so his children can go to Parmiter’s School, which happens to be the alma mater of Oliver Dowden, Conservative Party Chairman, recently to be found canvassing in Harrow, where one of his staff commented that the local Conservatives knew all the right doors to knock on.

On the other side of Kenton Road, I entered Sazz Jewellery & Beyond, which was founded and is run by Shumyla Khan, a Muslim from Kashmir.

Labour’s pro-Muslim, pro-Pakistani line on Kashmir has in recent years helped drive many British Indians towards the Conservatives.

Khan said: “Because it’s so beautiful, one of the most beautiful places on earth, everybody wants it.”

She goes there every year to visit her parents, who worked in Reading but retired to Kashmir. She and her family voted Conservative in the recent elections and she refused to take a sectarian view of her local community: “We are Londoners. We are people of Harrow. Everybody lives together. That’s the most important thing in Harrow, respecting each other’s views and faiths and beliefs.”

She lives in Harrow, but her children go by cab each day with some other children to the Royal Grammar Scbool and to Wycombe High School in High Wycombe.

On my way back to the station, as I passed Churchill Parade, erected in AD 1929, I entered on impulse a convenience store, small and clean and neat, where 18-year-old Paras Masand was at the till, reading an A-level economics textbook.

He was born and lives in Brent, goes to Park High School in Stanwell, and thought Labour had done badly in the local elections because they had not been good at filling in potholes and clearing away rubbish.

I asked him whose shop it was. He said he and his sister, who is 22, set it up in November 2020, because a convenience store was then, because of the pandemic, pretty much the only kind of shop they could set up.

They are doing quite well, selling drinks and snacks to school children. She is reading law, but has been able to follow a lot of her lectures online while minding the shop. He intends to study accountancy and finance.

It never occurred to me, when I was Masand’s age, to found a business, but here in Harrow a new generation of entrepreneurs, natural Thatcherites, is getting going. They are helped by the still relatively modest level of rents, which in Westminster or Wandsworth might prove prohibitive.

I rang an opinion pollster. He did not want to be quoted by name, but said of the turn in recent years of British Indians towards the Conservatives, Jains and Sikhs as well as Hindus: “Everyone is afraid of this subject. It is emotive and difficult and complex. It has basically been ignored.”

There is a danger of stirring up anti-Muslim feeling in order to appeal to British Hindus.

As an example of the complexity of what is actually happening, the pollster said that although in Leicester there is clear evidence that British Indians are turning, as in Harrow, towards the Conservatives, in Sparkbrook, in Birmingham, it is another story, and Labour are doing well.

Local factors matter, and so does long-term engagement. In 2015 Paul Goodman wrote a piece on this site called The Conservatives’ Indian Spring?

He alluded to research by Michael Ashcroft and Andrew Cooper which showed that Britons of Indian origin were more receptive to the possibility of voting Conservative.

Last week’s result in Harrow has helped to demonstrate the truth of this contention. A question mark no longer needs to be used in the headline.

But this phenomenon has to some extent been concealed by the growing tendency of well-educated white Britons to vote Labour. When, as often happens, they live in the same area as British Indians, they obscure the tendency of the latter, no matter how well-educated (and they take education very seriously), to vote Conservative in increasing numbers.

Rishi Sunak was often mentioned with pride by Hindus in Harrow. But so far as I know, my plea when I reviewed Ashcroft’s life of Sunak has not yet been answered.

I therefore reiterate the hope that just as Max Weber wrote The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, so some scholar is even now hard at work on The Hindu Ethic and the Spirit of Conservatism.

John Macdonald: It’s unsustaintable for the Tories to offer so little to younger voters

10 May

John Macdonald is the Head of Government Affairs at the Adam Smith Institute.

It’s not just the cities, or the young and aspirational that the Conservatives are losing. Their very political engine is starting to break down, and to make it worse, they appear to be burying their heads in the sand – whilst simultaneously arguing that Labour’s success in London bodes poorly for the next general election.

Losing both Margaret Thatcher’s favoured Wandsworth Council and Westminster too suggests that the Tories are quite content with sacrificing aspirant prosperity for declinist welfarism.

Perhaps this is because voters have traditionally drifted towards the Conservatives as they got older. But rather than being an iron law, this is more simply a product of circumstance. The boomer generation was buoyed on a current of unprecedented economic growth, rising wages and the prospect of home ownership. Without any of these three factors in place, there is little reason for this phenomenon to be reproduced. In reality, there is no evidence to suggest people under 40 are moving right at all.

This was all well and good in the context of the 2019 election. By promising an end to 2017’s ‘Zombie Parliament’, end the Brexit headache and take the country Corbyn-neutral, the Conservatives could assemble a well distributed coalition of disenfranchised Labour-leavers in the North and Midlands, without worrying about losing their southern, prosperous (but often remain leaning) heartlands – on the basis that a vote for anyone other than the Conservatives would bring Jeremy Corbyn one step closer to occupying Downing Street.

But since Brexit is now more about results than bluster, blunder, and blue skies, and the Government is seen to be doing too little to alleviate the cost of living crisis, there is now space for voters to coalesce around anti-Tory sentiment.

It is looking increasingly uncertain whether the Conservatives will be able to hold on to their old, prosperous heartlands in the south while protecting their 2019 marginal seats in the North and Midlands. If voters become more at ease with a Lib/Lab coalition, the Tories’ thumping majority could end up being very short-lived.

In pursuing a political narrative of redistribution, from young to old, from prosperous south to left behind north, the Conservatives have fundamentally misunderstood the underlying challenges facing the country. Productivity and real wages haven’t recovered since 2008. The average house price is 65 times higher than in 1970. But average wages are only 36 times higher. The Government has announced tax rises worth two per cent of GDP over the last two years, the same that the last Labour Government did in ten.

This might not be so bad for those in or approaching retirement, who will be spared paying for the pandemic and will benefit from the rapidly rising value of their homes. But the young have lost formative years of education, early career opportunities and freedoms to a pandemic that they are paying through the nose for.

As it currently stands, the Government is creating a bloc of young voters that attempt to move from their place of their birth to seek prosperity, only to find themselves in cities being paid low wages, taxed at a high marginal rate of 42.2 per cent (if they’re a graduate) and scant chance of getting anywhere near the housing ladder. Quite often, these graduates then return home to non-graduate jobs, embittered by the stark reality that the economy is more oriented towards extracting revenue from them, rather than giving them the opportunity to live, work and start a family where they so choose.

What can be done? The Government could seriously consider treating Covid debt as war debt, hiving it off to be paid back at a much slower rate, and freeing the Treasury from its current, revenue first, growth second tax mentality, a policy being privately pushed by Liz Truss. Rather than exempting young people from income tax entirely, thresholds could be unfrozen, giving them a significant tax cut in real terms.

Adjusting student loan interest via CPI, the Government’s own standard measure of inflation rather than the higher RPI would also ease the pain on graduates reaching the soon to be lowered repayment threshold. Providing maintenance loans on the same terms to apprentices as students could also extend opportunities to those who don’t go to university.

To suggest that the Conservatives face a long-term existential crisis could be hyperbolic. They have succeeded at re-engineering the party time and time again, and the cohort they are targeting with welfare and subsidy is only just reaching its peak electoral salience.

But the Tories’ electoral strategy is jettisoning the fuel behind the prosperity of older generations, allowing them to coast without firing up the engines of growth. But unless the Party reorients itself around value creation, building houses and in offering young people a genuine shot at prosperity, it risks sliding into decline.

Live Blog: With most councils declared, Welsh Conservative losses exceed those in Scotland

6 May

19.00

  • With 18 out of 22 councils declared, the Welsh Conservatives have now lost 67 seats whilst Labour have picked up 63. It’s a brutal result: they actually lost more councillors than their counterparts in Scotland, which is not what one might have expected reading the pre-election predictions.
  • Meanwhile the recriminations have already started north of the border, with Paul Hutcheon of the Daily Record suggesting that these results might finish off Douglas Ross’s leadership of the Scottish Conservatives.
  • His defenders (see Ruth Davidson) below can point to the national picture, but his critics can rightly argue that he needs to own his decision to u-turn on demanding Boris Johnson resign over Partygate. As I noted in January, his ability to send a letter of no confidence to Sir Graham Brady was a good advertisement for a united, national party. Why the change of course?
  • Behind that, the grim reality that the scandal-ridden SNP has just posted its best-ever local government performance.
  • Meanwhile results from Northern Ireland are continuing to trickle in (SF 16, UUP 3, DUP 2, APNI 2, SDLP 1, Oth 1), but we’re going to call it a day on this live blog. Thank you for following along!

18.00

  • Not only have the Conservatives lost control of Monmouthshire, their only Welsh council, but Labour are now the largest party for the first time since 1995. The Conservatives lost 12 seats, falling to 18.
  • Counting in Scotland is complete: the Tories lost 62 councillors in total, and were overtaken by Labour. Both Labour and the Nationalists gained one council each.
  • In Northern Ireland, Doug Beattie, the Ulster Unionist Party leader, has told reporters that he will continue in post “until his colleagues say otherwise”. Currently the results reflect Sinn Fein’s position as the strongest single party even more strongly than before: they have elected 15 MLAs, and no other party has yet more than two.

17.30

  • Douglas Ross isn’t actually having the worst day of the Scottish leaders: not a single candidate for Alba, the separatist group launched by Alex Salmond after his split from the SNP, has been elected.
  • It looks as if the Nationalists will be able to cling on to Glasgow Council, after edging out Labour by a single seat.
  • However, the bad news for the Tories keeps coming: they’ve apparently lost half their seats on Edinburgh Council, and been overtaken by the Greens in the process.
  • Meanwhile in Wales, Plaid Cymru have picked up Anglesey. The corresponding Westminster constituency, Ynys Môn, is currently held by the Conservatives.

17.00

  • In Wales, the Conservatives are now down 28 seats on last time, and Labour up 30. Plaid’s early surge has evened out a little, and they’re only up five seats – although both they and Labour have picked up a council.
  • Scotland has the Tories down 60 seats. Labour are up 17, the Lib Dems 21, the SNP 24, and the Greens 15. This has been a very tough day for Douglas Ross, just one year after he defied expectations to hold every Conservative seat at Holyrood and deny Sturgeon a majority. Ruth Davidson, like my sources in Wales, pins the blame on the national picture.
  • Northern Ireland currently has the following MLA totals: Sinn Fein ten, DUP two, Alliance two, UUP one, Others one. We can only hope that ratio is an artefact of the declarations!

16.30

  • Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, the DUP leader, has been elected to the Assembly. However, he apparently won’t commit to resigning his seat at Westminster in order to sit there. Apparently he will meet with DUP officers to decide the ‘best way forward’.
  • Meanwhile the Welsh Conservatives I’m speaking two are giving mixed signals on whether or not they expected things to be this bad (outwith Monmouthshire, which all agree is a surprise). Sources say that events at Westminster have “dominated” the campaign.
  • The latest scores from the BBC have the Conservatives down 22 seats in Wales and 53 in Scotland, with Labour up 28 and 16 respectively.
  • Depressingly, the SNP are up 22 councillors on last time. Whatever one’s stance on the constitutional question, it is extraordinary to see a government performing so badly secure such a result.

15.30

  • The Democratic Unionists have said that “the door is open” to Alex Easton, the Independent Unionist MLA who has topped the poll in North Down. He previously quit the party over a lack of “respect, discipline or decency” in its conduct. This will be significant if the DUP runs Sinn Fein close on the seat count; if Easton would make the different on a Unionist First Minister, the pressure would be immense.
  • Meanwhile early reports of pressure on the smaller parties seem to be holding up, according to the News Letter it looks as if Roy Beggs, a UUP veteran who has served in the Assembly since 1998, may not retain his seat. Mike Nesbitt, their former leader, is also apparently fighting to stay in Stormont in the face of a “TUV surge”.

15.00

  • In yesterday’s column, I reported predictions that Plaid Cymru might have a disappointing day today. It isn’t the case so far – the nationalists are up on seats and have taken overall control of a council.
  • Meanwhile the BBC reports that Vale of Glamorgan, which the Conservatives controlled from 2017 to 2019, is “too close to call”. If they take it, it will make the poor outcome in usually-solid Monmouthshire all the stranger. However, the Tories are apparently facing an uphill battle in the north-east, where they won big in 2019 and have been running several councils in coalition.
  • In Northern Ireland, the Alliance surge continues as the party tops the poll in Strangford, a solidly unionist seat in the east of the Province. They have thus returned the first MLA of 2022.

14.00

  • So far the Scottish results seem good for everyone except the Conservatives (and Independents), with the Nationalists, Labour, Liberal Democrats, and Greens all up on the last election whilst the Tories have lost 21 seats.
  • In Wales, Plaid Cymru have picked up a seat to take overall control of Gwynedd, whilst the Conservatives are now apparently braced for a “convincing defeat” in Monmouthshire.
  • Meanwhile in Northern Ireland, it looks as if Alex Easton, an Independent Unionist and former DUP MLA, is set to top the poll, continuing that constituency’s decades-long habit of returning independent or minor-party representatives.

13.30

  • Yesterday, I mentioned in my column that the forecasts didn’t seem too bad for the Conservatives in Wales. That may have been too optimistic: the BBC reports that David RT Davies fears that Monmouthshire Council – the only one under overall Tory control – is too close to call.
  • More bad news for the Party in Scotland too, where it has so far returned only one of the councillors it returned in Glasgow last time, whilst three have lost their seats.
  • But Wales hasn’t been too kind to Labour either: the leader of Caerphilly Council was unseated in what the BBC has called a “massive defeat”.
  • Scotland continues to be kinder: the party has managed to scoop West Dunbartonshire council from No Overall Control. This is the stomping ground of Jackie Baillie, their combative deputy leader, who’s holding her marginal seat at last year’s Holyrood elections stymied Nicola Sturgeon’s push for an overall majority.

13.00

  • We’re starting to get results in from Scotland, and so far they do seem to bear out the predictions that Labour will come second across the country (every local authority is getting elected today). There has also been good news for the (pro-independence) Scottish Greens, who have posted a couple of “absolutely astonishing” results.
  • Also, a reminder that the implications of the Northern Irish result may be more complex than at first glance: it’s perfectly possible that Sinn Fein could edge out the DUP whilst the overall pro-UK vote holds up better than the nationalist one. Under the original rules of the Belfast Agreement, this would have meant a Unionist would be nominated as First Minister.

12.30

  • So far, the main chatter out of Northern Ireland is about the surge in support for the Alliance Party. This is the party which doesn’t formally designate as either nationalist or unionist and, despite its origins as a ‘liberal unionist’ option, has no official stance on the question of the Province’s sovereignty.
  • This seems to have come not just at the expense of the DUP, who risk getting pipped to second place, but also the smaller Ulster Unionist Party and SDLP; the latter’s deputy leader is reportedly in trouble, and some analysts are suggesting one or both may not even qualify for a post in the next executive.
  • By contrast, the harder-line Traditional Unionist Voice seem to be optimistic about expanding their presence in the Assembly. At present only Jim Allister, their leader and a former DUP MEP, holds a seat.

12.00

Henry Hill reporting.

Good afternoon! The local elections in England are well underway, but there are also local contests in Scotland and Wales and a pivotal election for the Northern Ireland Assembly being counted today. We’ll be bringing you the results as they come in!

  • I did a run-down of what is expected to happen in each nation in yesterday’s Red, White, and Blue column. In sum, it looks as if Labour are going to do well in Scotland and Wales, and the Tories badly in Scotland but OK in Wales. (Recriminations in Scotland are underway, see tweet.)
  • Should the polls be right, Sinn Fein are heading for a historic first-placed win in Northern Ireland, which – thanks to rules changes the DUP agitated for – will give them the right to nominate the strictly titular but symbolically important post of First Minister. I wrote a bit about what this means for Unionism this morning.
  • As for the timings, we’re apparently expecting the first Welsh councils to declare around 2pm (Wales Online has a full list of the timings) and the first Scottish ones at about 12.30 (ditto the Daily Record). Northern Irish results will also start coming in this afternoon.

Henry Hill: As voters go to the polls in Northern Ireland, the DUP is fighting for second

5 May

As voters go to the polls in Northern Ireland today, the last round of projections makes grim reading for the capital-U unionist parties.

The News Letter reports that Sinn Fein is on 26.6 per cent, according to a University of Liverpool survey, with the Democratic Unionists languishing neck-and-neck with the Alliance Party on 18 per cent.

If borne out, this would not only see the republicans comfortably the largest party at Stormont – and thus entitled to nominate the symbolically-important post of First Minister – but could see the border-neutral Alliance as the second-largest party.

This latter point has prompted some to speculate that Naomi Long could be nominated as ‘deputy’ (in reality co-) First Minister. But this is not the case: the right to nominate falls to the largest party in the second largest designation, and there are not many ‘Other’ MLAs outwith the APNI itself.

Indeed, it could yet be that the Unionists remain the largest designation overall, as their vote is divided between three significant parties (the DUP, Ulster Unionists, and Traditional Unionist Voice) versus just two (Sinn Fein and the SDLP) on the nationalist side.

Should this happen, it will see all of unionism paying the price for the DUP/Sinn Fein stitch up of Stormont which New Labour signed off on in 2007. This saw the right to nominate the FM/DFM transferred from the largest and second-largest designation (thus allowing voters to move between parties) to the largest party in each designation, encouraging voters to pile in behind the biggest to keep the other lot out.

This comes amidst the revelation that Sinn Fein has been reaching out to groups linked with dissident republicans in its efforts to secure a border poll. The party apparently wrote to Saoradh, which is allegedly connected to the New IRA – the group linked to the murder in 2019 of the journalist Lyra McKee.

Both the UUP and the TUV meanwhile will be hoping to benefit from a major DUP setback, with the latter’s leader, Jim Allister, apparently hopeful that he won’t be his party’s only MLA in the next assembly.

These polls will also be causing as much discomfort in Whitehall as in DUP headquarters; whilst the working relationship between the Conservatives and the DUP is not what it once was, the Northern Irish Office know that the outcome most likely to lead to the straightforward creation of a new executive is the latter holding on to the top spot and their claim to the First Minister’s fiction.

If not, it could be a long few months for Brandon Lewis as Northern Ireland lurches through the extensive procedures it has for when its government isn’t functioning. These include weeks of delay whilst the previous executive holds on, then another election, and in the last resort direct rule – although this would require emergency legislation at Westminster.

A good night for Labour?

On the mainland, the situation in the local elections seems positive for Labour in both Scotland and Wales. According to Wales Online, the party is on track to pick up four councils in Wales today.

It doesn’t seem to be bad news for the Conservatives though, who are reportedly on track to hold on to the only council they have under overall control (Monmouthshire) and potentially retake control in Vale of Glamorgan too. (We covered in a previous column how the Party is running a record number of candidates.)

Plaid Cymru is predicted to have a bad night, losing 42 seats and control of Carmarthenshire council, where it governs with the help of independents.

In Scotland meanwhile, Labour look set to retake second place as the popularity of senior Conservatives “plummets” in the take of Partygate, the Scotsman reports. Their poll puts the Tories on 18 per cent, with Labour comfortably ahead on 25 per cent.

One expert interviewed by the Times suggests that this will not necessarily lead to many councils changing hands, but will allow Labour to take their claim to being once against Scotland’s second political force.

Meanwhile Douglas Ross seems to have run into difficulty over whether or not the British Government should release its legal advice on the question of another referendum on independence. This comes after the Scottish Government recently lost a transparency case over its own advice, as mentioned in last week’s column.

He has also stuck to his new, conciliatory line on Boris Johnson, insisting the Prime Minister is “fit for office”.

Unfortunately, despite the litany of failures we looked at last week, Scottish politics remains polarised around the constitutional question and the SNP look set to take about 45 per cent of the vote – their losing share in 2014.

The SNP bad news section

A lot to cover with the elections this week so we’ll do a whistle-stop tour: SNP MP apologises after breaking booze ban on ScotRail train; Nichola Sturgeon blames the war in Ukraine for the census fiasco (but insists it won’t delay independence because priorities); she refuses to apologise over the ferry scandal…

*breathe in*

…the Financial Reporting Council announced an investigation into an accountancy firm linked to a steelworks which got a potentially unlawful cash guarantee from the Scottish Government; and an ex-SNP MP accused of defrauding a separatist group of £25,000 has told a court she didn’t keep her receipts (which seems to be a common bad habit amongst the Nationalists).

Robert Halfon: Before polling day, a reminder of the good this Government has done

4 May

Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.

With sincere apologies to the Editor of ConservativeHome, if there was ever a nickname for this wonderful website, it might be ‘Conservative Groan’ or ‘Conservative Moan’.

“The Government should do this, the Government should do that”. “The Government have got this policy wrong.” “No – they’ve got that policy wrong”. “The leadership is Un-conservative”. “No – now it’s too Conservative”.

You get the point. As a regular columnist on this site arguing the case for x, y and z, I should know!

But in February I wrote a column urging the Tory Westminster village to remember our hard-working councillors and activists who are working day and night to keep our councils Conservative.

The loss of Tory councillors does not just mean poor local government, but also a real hit to our activist base in constituencies. When a councillor loses their seat, we often lose their family and friends too. Fewer activists equals less leafleting and campaigning which hits all MPs come election time.

Sadly, in the past few weeks, whilst our activists have been hard at work waging the ground war, canvassing street by street, the war for the airwaves can be best described as too cloudy to wage. Some Conservatives have been taking aim at each other, or lobbing grenades into the political mix.

In order to counter, this as we go to the polls tomorrow it is worth a reminder not just the known fact that Tory Councils cost the public less with lower council tax, but of some of the good things the Government have done, particularly in spreading opportunity.

The Lifetime Skills Guarantee giving adults a new chance to get valuable qualifications. The 1.9 million children in good or outstanding schools. The fuel duty cut on top of the eleven year fuel duty freeze. The increased Living Wage, £150 Council Tax rebate and lower tax thresholds. The £2.6 billion Levelling Up funds, rebuilding our towns and infrastructure.

Then there’s Britain’s role and leadership in the Ukraine war. Our world-leading Covid vaccination programme. A ban to end ground rent charges on leases in England and Wales, and a manifesto commitment to build 300,000 new homes a year.

If I had more column space, I could go on and on as there would be plenty more to add. When things are getting gloomy, as they do for any Government, it is worth reminding ourselves of these achievements.

I suspect tomorrow there might be some Conservatives who may be tempted to sit on their hands as a form of protest given the events of the past few months. Reassuringly, on the doorsteps, we are not seeing a great movement or swing back to Labour, but it is this abstention protest which may cause us difficulties.

So the test tomorrow will be how good all of us are in getting out the Conservative Vote.

In the meantime, I wish all good fortune to every Council Candidate running tomorrow. You deserve to win.

A Windfall Tax

Rishi Sunak is right to float the idea of a windfall tax on the oil companies.

That well known left-winger, Margaret Thatcher, imposed a windfall tax on the oil and bank industry during the 1980s during the difficult economic situation and the recession. She did it because these companies were making wads of cash and because there was a need to deal with the national debt and the deficit.

Currently, with the oil companies raking it in, making many billions of pounds of profits during the cost of living crisis, there is a similar case for a windfall tax to be made. The oil bosses are not doing too badly either (the current Shell CEO got a £4.5 million bonus on top of a £76 million ever increasing annual salary).

The oil companies have also been ripping us off at the petrol pumps, taking ages to reduce prices when the international oil price falls, yet jacking them up straight away when global oil costs rises.

I don’t accept that a windfall tax would mean the loss of thousands of jobs and less investment. They said this in the past and it did not happen.

A few billion pounds raised from a windfall tax, could be used to fund a tax cut for the lower paid. This is Conservative redistribution – fairer capitalism to give those on lower incomes, more of their monies back.

PS. Great news that Boris has ditched plans to ban buy one get free (BOGOF) at supermarkets. Hopefully this will mean an end to hectoring food policies that favour the rich over the less well off.

Lord Ashcroft: The findings of my 8000 sample poll on Partygate, Johnson, Starmer and politics as the local elections loom

3 May

Lord Ashcroft KCMG PC is a businessman, philanthropist, author and pollster. For information on Lord Ashcroft’s work, visit www.lordashcroft.com.

This week’s local elections take place against the backdrop of leadership plots and follow perhaps the most politically turbulent few months since the Brexit wars. My new research, including an 8,000-sample poll and focus groups with 2019 Conservatives in different types of seat throughout the country, shows how voters have reacted to the recent controversies and where Boris Johnson, Keir Starmer and their parties now stand in relation to the voters.

Partygate: is it over yet?

Just under half of all voters (47 per cent) including nearly one in five 2019 Tories, said they thought “breaking the rules is a very serious matter, and Boris Johnson should resign”. This included more than 3 in 10 (31 per cent) of those who switched from Labour to the Conservatives at the 2019 election.

Three in ten, including just under half of 2019 Tories, agreed that “if lockdown rules were broken that is a serious issue, but there are more important things going on and Johnson should be allowed to concentrate on them instead.” A further 15 per cent, including three in ten Conservatives from 2019, thought “these issues are trivial and far too much attention is being paid to them.”

In our focus groups, longer-standing Conservatives, including those who had never been Johnson enthusiasts, often argued that it was time to move on. First-time Tories in “red wall” seats were on the whole more critical – perhaps because they were the most surprised and disappointed. They had thought of him as a maverick but not a liar or a lawbreaker, and some believed the episode showed him to be part of an elite that looked down on them rather than – as they had felt in 2019 – on their side against the political establishment.

Living costs, the Sunaks, and other issues

Six in ten of all voters named the cost of living among the top three issues facing the country – well ahead of the second-placed issue, the NHS, named by 49 per cent.

While some in our groups believed rising prices were an inevitable consequence of the war, Covid or (sometimes) Brexit – and were not surprised the Government had been unable to do more to help given the state of the post-pandemic public finances – there was a widespread view that more action was needed. Many had noticed more stringent energy prices caps in other countries, including France, or called for a windfall tax on energy firms that must surely be enjoying a boom in profits.

Most had hardly registered the mini-Budget and those who had were unimpressed, saying any help was vastly outweighed by tax and price increases. Stories about the Sunak family’s wealth and his wife’s tax status – as well as the Chancellor’s apparent unfamiliarity with contactless debit cards – reinforced an impression of a government out of touch with normal people’s lives.

Who would do a better job on…

When it came to various policy issues, our poll found the Conservatives ahead only on protecting Britain’s national security (by a six-point margin).

On other issues – including crime, the economy and immigration – a Labour government led by Keir Starmer was thought more likely to do a good job by between two points (Britain’s standing in the world) and 30 points (improving living standards for most people).

The premiership

Asked who would perform better in various prime ministerial roles, Johnson was thought more likely to do a good job when it came to “making the right decisions even when they are unpopular” (though only by 32 per cent to 30 per cent), and the two were tied on “making things happen and getting things done” (with only three in ten thinking this applied to either of them).

Otherwise, Starmer led by six points on representing Britain internationally, by eight points on having a clear idea what he wants to achieve and having the right judgment in a crisis, by 9 points on speaking for the country, by 13 points on being able to lead a team, by 20 points on formulating effective policies to improve people’s lives, by 21 points on communicating effectively, by 31 points on understanding ordinary people, and by eight points on “doing the job of Prime Minister overall”. In each case, however, around 4 in 10 respondents answered “don’t know”.

The Boris question

Asked about their view of Johnson, 16 per cent of our poll participants, including 39 per cent of 2019 Conservative voters, agreed with the statement “I thought he was a rogue and a chancer, but I voted for him anyway.”

Among those leaning towards the Tories at the next election, four in ten said “I think he’s a rogue and a chancer but that won’t stop me voting for him.”

Several in our groups – again, largely first-time Tories from 2019 – said their opinion of Johnson had deteriorated sharply in recent months. As well as the lockdown party controversy, they felt that the Government had delivered little apart from Brexit, that it seemed to have no discernible plan for the future, and that it seemed out of touch with their lives and concerns: “It comes across as though he’s winging it,” as one put it.

But even some critics of the Government defended him, praising his handling of Brexit, Covid, the vaccination programme, and his sheer resilience: “I don’t see anyone stronger in terms of personality and leadership… He still gets out there and makes his point stronger than anyone else.”

What is a woman?

We showed our poll participants two statements from Starmer and Johnson on the subject of trans rights and how to define a woman. The statements were shown without attribution to help avoid partisan responses. We asked people how strongly they agreed or disagreed with each one.

Overall, there was more and stronger agreement with Johnson’s statement that those wanting to make a transition should be treated with generosity and respect but “the basic facts of biology remain overwhelmingly important” than with Starmer’s view that a woman is a female adult “and in addition to that, trans women are women.” 62 per cent agreed with Johnson’s statement and 41 per cent with Starmer’s.

While 2019 Tories were much more likely to agree with Johnson’s statement than Starmer’s (by 75 per cent to 27 per cent), Labour voters were only slightly more likely to agree with Starmer’s than Johnson’s (by 59 per cent to 54 per cent). Among 2019 Con-Lab switchers, 72 per cent agreed with Johnson’s statement and 32 per cent with Starmer’s.

Many in our focus groups had heard about Starmer being reluctant to give clear answers when questioned on the subject. While some gave him credit for trying to be inclusive and avoid causing offence, more felt he was simply afraid to give a more definitive answer for fear of upsetting radicals in his own party – which told them more about how he might behave as Prime Minister than it did about his views on the issues itself.

Battle of the brands

Asked whether a selection of positive attributes applied to each of the two main parties, voters considered only one – “willing to take tough decisions for the long term” – to apply more to the Conservatives than to Labour (though only 26 per cent of voters, and 55 per cent of 2019 Tories) said they thought it was true of the party. By very narrow margins Labour were more likely to be “clear about what they stand for”, “competent and capable” and “united”, to have “the right priorities for the country” and to be trusted to “do what they say” – though with only one in five or less saying these were true of the party in each case.

Labour leads were wider when it came to being “on the side of people like me” (with 24 per cent saying it was true of Labour, and just seven per cent of the Tories) and wanting “to help ordinary people get on in life” (41 per cent saying it applied to Labour, 10 per cent to the Conservatives).

Poll respondents were shown a wide selection of words and images and asked to choose three of each that they most associated with Labour and the Conservatives.

Among voters as a whole, the words and phrases most often associated with the Conservative Party were “untrustworthy”, “for themselves”, “out of touch” and “for the few”. The most frequently chosen images were a prosperous-looking man in a suit, a rich family in front of a big house, an expensive car and Big Ben.

Labour’s “brand board” as constructed by voters as a whole was more positive, including the words “for the many” and pictures of a doctor and a busy working woman. However, it also prominently features a man on a sofa drinking beer, often chosen in the past to suggest Labour as a party for people who prefer not to work. The idea of Labour as a Division Two football club, suggesting a slightly second-rate operation, also featured widely, along with the words “weak”, “confused” and “jumping on the bandwagon”.

Among those who voted Conservative in 2019 having not done so at the previous election, the most popular selections were similar to those of the electorate in general – but with the more positive addition of “patriotic” and “optimistic”.

The same group had a more negative view of Labour, adding the word “woke” and an image representing fear – but also a picture of a miner, usually chosen to represent the party’s traditional alliance with working class voters.

While many in our groups thought the Conservative Party seemed different compared to the Cameron and May eras, especially in being more diverse. However, some felt that attempts to show it was on the side of working-class people had been shown to be superficial: “They’re trying to look different and for the people by having someone like Boris as leader, but it’s just a cover;” “They managed to push through Brexit, but the issue is where are we now and what’s the long-term plan going forward?”

Aside from Johnson and Sunak there were positive mentions in our focus groups for Liz Truss, Nadhim Zahawi and Sajid Javid, and strong views of Priti Patel, both positive and negative.

There was very little enthusiasm for Labour in our focus groups, even among those who had been highly critical of Johnson and the Conservatives. There were concerns that Labour could not be trusted with the public finances, and Starmer himself was widely thought to be criticising the government without offering any constructive alternatives. “There’s no kind of solution coming out of his mouth. It’s just ‘we wouldn’t have done that, this shouldn’t have happened’. Nothing to make me think ‘this guy’s got a plan, he knows where he’s going’.”

The next election

We asked our poll participants how likely they thought they were to vote for each party on a scale from zero to 100. Labour had a slightly higher mean likelihood score among voters as a whole (30) than the Conservatives (26).

This was largely because 2019 Labour voters gave a higher mean likelihood of repeating their vote (65) than 2019 Tories (60). Those who switched from Labour to the Conservatives in 2019 had a mean likelihood of voting Tory again at 42/100 – lower than among Conservative leaners as a whole, but higher than their likelihood of voting Labour next time (23/100).

There was little difference in mean likelihood to vote Tory again between 2019 Conservative Remainers (58/100) and Conservative Leavers (62/100).

Full details of the research, including data tables are available at LordAshcroftPolls.com.

Oliver Dowden: In the local elections, choose a better deal for your area – vote Conservative

20 Apr

Oliver Dowden is Co-Chairman of the Conservative Party and Member of Parliament for Hertsmere.

We are living in historic but challenging times. A global pandemic followed by war in Europe have left us with rising inflation and rocketing energy costs.

The effects are being felt across Britain, every time someone fills up their car, does their weekly shop, or opens their monthly bills.

So the cost of living is the first thing people want to talk about when I knock on doors. Across the country the questions are the same. How am I going to afford to get through the next year? How are you going to help me?

My answer – as I embark today on another tour of crucial council seats, including in Staffordshire, Edinburgh, the Scottish Borders, Northumberland and Newcastle – remains the same. There is something very simple you can do right now to keep your cost of living down: vote Conservative at the local elections on May 5.

Conservative councils charge the lowest taxes in the country, yet they deliver more.

You can see the evidence on your street – Conservatives recycle more waste than Labour and fix four times as many potholes. And you can see it in how they care for the young and vulnerable, with the only children’s services rated ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted being those run by Conservatives.

How are we able to do this? For a start we have a better record of collecting the taxes that are owed, so hardworking people don’t have to subsidise those who don’t pay.

But more than that: we get the big calls right and take the difficult decisions needed to grow our economy.

Thanks to our strong economic stewardship we have been able to give residents a veto over excessive council tax increases and, this year, offer households a £150 rebate.

And at the same time we have increased government funding to councils faster than at any point in the past decade. That is enabling them to help level up the country, spreading opportunity far and wide.

In fact, councils are at the forefront of that mission, giving people the skills they need, building the homes they want to buy, regenerating the local areas they live in, and, ultimately, ensuring they don’t have to sell their homes if they need care in the future.

We have been able to go further on the cost of living too, offering a record increase in the living wage, cutting fuel duty, reducing the universal credit taper rate, and delivering the biggest net cut in people’s taxes in a quarter of a century.

Behind this lies the age-old Conservative principle of cutting people’s taxes to make work pay. I’ve always been clear that the single best answer to the cost of living is more better-paid jobs.

But these things just would not be happening if the Prime Minister had not made the big calls through the pandemic. The fact that we protected jobs, rolled out the fastest vaccination programme in Europe, and opened up when we did has meant that our GDP has grown faster than any other country in the G7, and unemployment is back down to pre-pandemic levels.

I well remember the difficult decisions we as a Cabinet had to take in the run up to Christmas, where Labour, the Liberal Democrats and others were demanding we push Britain back into lockdown. And now the outcome of that decision is clear: we were right and they were wrong.

Labour’s management of local government is what you’d expect from a party who doubled council tax when they were in power. Today, they charge the highest rates in the country. Some examples are eye watering – £2,000 a year for the residents of Hyndburn, where the average house price is £91,000.

Wales have it worse; council tax has trebled there under Labour. The party even wants to make lone parents, widows and widowers pay more, with their proposals to scrap the single person discount.

Meanwhile Labour have driven local authorities to the brink of bankruptcy while giving their councillors above-inflation pay rises. More often than not, hard-earned taxpayers’ cash is wasted on dodgy investments and woke vanity projects, like pulling down statues and renaming streets.

Perhaps “Rip-Off Road” or “Squander Street” would work in the Labour-run borough of Merton, where residents pay a whopping £900 more a year than their neighbours in Conservative-controlled Wandsworth.

It’s a similar story with Lib Dem councils, who have the distinction of being the first party to charge more than £2,000 for council tax in London, in Kingston. That is more than double what residents pay in Westminster. Pity those in Teignbridge and North Devon who are forced to spend more than ten per cent of the average salary there on their local rates.

In Scotland, the SNP have removed the cap altogether, giving councillors carte blanche to jack up taxes.

When it comes to the choice before us at these elections, our councillors’ desire for value, efficiency and lower taxes is what sets us apart from the others. We want to give working people the freedom to spend their own money.

Indeed, freedom is a thread that runs through all we do.

We are strong on defence and tough on crime because we want people to their lives free from fear and tyranny. We take a common-sense line on issues of culture and identity because we want people to be able to live their lives how they wish, but also to know that they can speak their minds without being descended upon by woke warriors.

For those on the left, government knows best. But our trust is, and always has been, in people.

We know we face challenges in this set of elections: we have been in government for more than a decade and that we are at a ‘mid term’ stage which is always tough. Increasingly people are saying to me that they are sick of hearing about Westminster politics and just want to see politicians focused on what is happening in their lives where they live.

That’s why our message is that we are getting on with the job of delivering on the people’s priorities. What will make a difference in today’s cost of living crisis is not political games in SW1, but who runs your town hall.

And that’s why we need to help hardworking local Conservatives get elected again across the country in May.

So this is my message. At a time of rising costs, why risk paying more for less with Labour and the Lib Dems when you can get a better deal with the Conservatives? You can make that difference, by voting Conservative on May 5.