David Skelton: The Government must not forget that it was working class voters who delivered the 2019 majority

17 Nov

David Skelton is the author of Little Platoons: How a revived One Nation can empower England’s forgotten towns and redraw the political map.

Last December, people who wouldn’t even have considered voting for us ten, or even five, years ago put their cross in the Tory box for the first time ever. Constituencies that had been Labour since their formation voted Conservative with remarkable swings. These voters had long been forgotten by the newly gentrified left and, in the aftermath of the referendum, had often become the butt of sneering and snobbery.

Working class voters, who had seen their economic and political priorities ignored by politicians of all parties for decades, saw that their concerns were being at long last listened to. They entrusted us with their votes, sometimes enthusiastically, sometimes warily, in the hope not only that their Brexit vote would be implemented at last, but also that, as a government, we would prioritise improving their lives and their communities. We should take that trust that was placed in us very seriously indeed.

A working-class Tory agenda is economically and politically the right direction to take

We should reflect on this trust that was placed in us and the basic political maths as we ponder the excellent question posed by Rachel Wolf on these pages on Saturday. In a nutshell, this question was whether we use the present “reset” to focus on the working class voters who delivered the 2019 majority or shift priorities towards the more affluent in a revival of a politics aimed at middle class metropolitans. For political, economic and moral reasons, the only correct path is to retain our focus on the working class voters who backed us in such numbers last year.

Politically, this new electoral coalition delivered the biggest Conservative majority in over thirty years. Only an electoral coalition centred on winning working class constituencies enabled us to do this and only this coalition would enable us to win another big majority in four years time. So-called “DE” voters backed Labour over the Tories for the first time and we had a 15 per cent lead over Labour amongst “C2” voters.

This allowed us to make some remarkable gains, from my home town of Consett to Andy Burnham’s old seat in Leigh – both symbolic of a “Labourism” that isn’t coming back. Electoral coalitions can’t be turned on and off like a light switch and we must continue the present focus. Maintaining this focus on these working class voters is the only realistic route towards a lasting Conservative majority and an enduring realignment.

We remain the custodians of the trust that was placed in us and we must repay it by delivering the substantial, positive and lasting change that we promised. This kind of change – boosting long-forgotten parts of our imbalanced economy – would also make our economy more productive and the country as a whole more prosperous. When parts of the country are held back from fulfilling their economic potential, that is a problem that impacts everybody. We must redouble our efforts to level up and genuinely create One Nation.

A One-Nation agenda of improved town centres, rising real wages, better jobs and improved infrastructure

In Little Platoons, published last year, I set out how an ambitious agenda of reform could transform long-forgotten towns, through infrastructure spending, transformation of town centres and a policy of reindustrialisation. We have made great strides so far but we now need to go even further and even faster, particularly as both the health and economic impact of Covid-19 risks impacting working class communities in the North more than prosperous communities in the South.

As James Frayne suggested last week, one of the key priorities should be making sure that town centres start to look and feel better over the next few years. Rather than being pockmarked with empty shops, bookies and discount shops, high streets must become symbols of community pride. Town centres should become community hubs – places for people to shop, businesses to set up (rather than in distant out of town business parks) and for families and young people to meet up and come together. Revived town centres should leave as lasting an impression of local and civic pride as the likes of Birmingham City Hall and the majestic Grey Street in Newcastle.

Just as people should see a difference in their town centres by the end of Boris’s first full term in office, they should also see a difference to their pay packets and their local economy. Despite the Covid associated economic hit, there must be a focus on creating economic revival in “Red Wall” areas.

As I made clear here a few weeks ago, our impending freedom from EU regulation will give us greater scope to use industrial strategy to help revive post industrial towns and promote a policy of reindustrialisation, including being leaders in green industry.

This should include aiming to shift the type of jobs that predominate in these towns from low-paid, insecure work to making them a central part of a high-skills, high-productivity, high-wage, tech-driven economy. We should enable local leaders to do whatever it takes, including through the tax system, to encourage industrial investment in their areas.

Part of the case I made in Little Platoons is that a direct government lever for revival is by relocating great swathes of the Civil Service to the North and the Midlands. An impressive report by the Northern Policy Foundation, published this week, shows that such an agenda would put “rocket boosters” under levelling-up and allow local areas to benefit from the agglomeration effect of relocating key arms of government.

We should also be stepping up investment in infrastructure programmes, to ensure that towns as well as cities have world class road, rail and digital infrastructure. We should consider how light rail can make a difference to people in “Red Wall” towns and also mustn’t forget about the importance of high quality, reliable and inexpensive bus services to local people. When even the deficit hawks at the IMF are arguing that now is the time to invest in infrastructure, we should be prepared to show audacity and imagination with big infrastructure projects for the North.

A relentless focus on making change happen

We must have a relentless focus on making this change happen. Levelling up should go through everything we do. Every day, ministers should ask themselves how their decisions are improving the lives of working people and to advance the levelling up agenda. And we should manage and track the levelling up agenda against these key metrics of improved town centres, rising wages, better jobs and improved infrastructure.

This is a One Nation government and levelling up is a definitively One Nation policy. As Damian Green argued as part of this series on Monday, building one nation is a conservative, not a libertarian, project. That means we should be prepared to use the power of the state to tackle regional economic inequalities (the GDP per head in the City of London is 19 times that in County Durham) and restore hope and economic vibrancy to long forgotten places.

We must make it our defining mission to repay the trust that working class voters placed in us and ensure that their lives are better and their towns are better places in which to live. If we do so, the realignment will be a lasting one. Now, more than ever, we must double down on levelling up.

David Gauke: With a position so exposed, how did Burnham get away with it?

24 Oct

David Gauke is a former Justice Secretary, and was an independent candidate in South-West Hertfordshire at the recent general election.

Who would have believed that we would see a mainstream, liberal MP turned city mayor taking a bold political risk, build an unlikely coalition of support and win a public relations battle by articulating the resentment of those who feel victims of an out of touch London establishment?

Boris Johnson has had a difficult couple of weeks, but I hope he has enjoyed the irony of being on the wrong side of Andy Burnham’s somewhat populist revolt.

The extended row with the Mayor of Greater Manchester has put the Government on the back foot, looking mean-spirited and out of touch, whilst Burnham has come across as a heroic ‘King of the North’ – personable, passionate and articulate, he has successfully presented himself as a doughty defender of hard-pressed Mancunians.

He has had a political triumph – although the coherence of his position does not withstand a great deal of scrutiny. As Paul Goodman has pointed out, Burnham’s language, attacking an approach that ‘might not work’, was designed to appeal to those who thought that the new restrictions did not go far enough, as well as the likes of Sir Graham Brady, who want to adopt a very different strategy.

Even though he has made the valid point that lockdowns cause mental health problems, it does not seem likely that Burnham is a lockdown sceptic himself.

In May, he expressed the view that lockdown restrictions were being relaxed too quickly, appropriate for the position in London but not for Manchester.

More recently, he has expressed support for Keir Starmer’s call for a tighter, national lockdown. It is safe to assume that he believes the mainstream and, to my mind, rather commonsensical view that if you reduce the number of social interactions people have, there will be less chance for the virus to spread.

If that is the case, and given his criticism that the Tier Two restrictions which have been in place in Manchester since August have not stopped the spread of the virus, it is remarkable that he spent ten days resisting the imposition of tougher and more effective restrictions in Greater Manchester, where infection rates were high and, in eight out of ten boroughs, rising.

No doubt his supporters will make the argument that he was not opposing tougher restrictions – just tougher restrictions on the cheap.

But again, one can question whether his position was coherent. It is true to say that the level of support in Tier Three – the focus of his complaints – is not as generous as was available under the original lockdown.

But the real issue for many businesses was not the support available under Tier Two for those businesses forced to close, but the absence of support for businesses in Tier Two, where restrictions meant that hospitality businesses could stay open, but with little prospect of many customers. This was the real problem with Government support, until the Chancellor’s announcement on Thursday.

So a not unfair description of Burnham’s position was that Tier Two was ineffective in preventing the spread of the virus and involved inadequate support for businesses, but that he was determined to keep Greater Manchester within it.

There is also some confusion about his view on whether lockdown restrictions should be determined on a local or national basis.

He has argued that decisions should be made by those close to the ground but, back in the spring, he was opposed to London exiting lockdown before Manchester, because people there would object to seeing Londoners in pubs when they were still banned from going for a pint – suggesting that he favours national uniformity.

Given that he was also opposed to the national exit from lockdown because it did not reflect conditions in Manchester, he presumably favours a national policy based on conditions in Manchester – which is all very well but somewhat hard to justify to the rest of the country.

That he was able to turn such a position into a political triumph is a testament to clumsy handling on the part of the Government (appearing to withdraw the £60 million that had been offered) as well as Burnham’s political skills. He has tapped into northern distrust of the south, articulating the view that the interests of Manchester are treated as a lower priority to those of London.

In doing this, he is taking a leaf from the SNP in Scotland. The politics of national and regional resentment and grievance, the argument that ‘the system’ is designed to support the prosperous South East at the expense of the rest, is one that finds a ready audience in many parts of the UK.

‘If it wasn’t for a distant government in Westminster, taking our resources, we would be doing alright’ is the message of Scottish Nationalists, as well as regional mayors.

In purely fiscal terms this is, of course, nonsense. Contrary to the received wisdom of many parts of the UK, resources are massively redistributed from London and the Greater South East to the rest of the United Kingdom. In the last year for which numbers are available, 2019, London, the South East and the East of England had fiscal surpluses of £39 billion, £22 billion and £4 billion respectively which only partially offset fiscal deficits in the rest of the UK, including a deficit of £20 billion in the North West and £15 billion in Scotland.

This is not an argument that the Government is likely to be making any time soon. After all, the Conservative majority at the last election was heavily dependent upon the narrative that the Government was going to ‘level up’ the country, correcting the perceived London-centric nature of our economy and politics.

Tapping into anger at metropolitan elites proved very helpful to Boris Johnson in both the EU referendum and the 2019 general election; this week, that anger was turned against him as he was made to look like a representative of the establishment, not the insurgency.

The idea of localised restrictions has not been discredited, however painful local negotiations have been. This is the logical approach to a virus where the level of infection varies enormously. But the Government has been slow to recognise that localised restrictions will result in resentment if the level of support is seen as parsimonious. And arguments about fiscal discipline will not persuade those new, Red Wall Conservative voters who delivered the Prime Minister his majority.

The bitterness of the row between the Government and the Greater Manchester Mayor, as well as the continued surge in support for the SNP, has been dispiriting.

At best, it reveals that, as we enter a long winter with rising case numbers and deaths and restrictions on our everyday lives, we are becoming more fractious and distrustful of the Government. At worst, it reveals that the whole cohesion of the United Kingdom is starting to disintegrate – not just amongst the nations of the UK but between the regions of England.

If the approach that Burnham has taken is seen to be the exemplar of how regional politicians should operate, and if the Government cannot nullify those regional grievances, our politics will become yet more bitter and divisive. Ultimately, pitting one region against another would make us ungovernable.