Sam Hall: Conservative lessons from Houchen and Street about how to respond the Greens

11 May

Sam Hall is the Director of the Conservative Environment Network

The dominant stories from last week’s elections were the Conservatives’ hat-trick of English triumphs in Hartlepool, Tees Valley, and the West Midlands, and the SNP falling short of a majority in Scotland. But amid these headline-grabbing results, a new trend emerged: the quiet rise of the Green Party.

The Greens won 88 new council seats across England, including from Conservatives. Yes, they did well in their traditional strongholds, such as Bristol, Sheffield, and around Liverpool, where their main competitor is Labour.

But they also defeated incumbent Conservative councillors across England in places as diverse as Surrey, Sussex, Derbyshire, Stroud, and Northumberland. They won an additional two seats in the Scottish Parliament and an extra member of the London Assembly, recording their highest ever vote share in both contests.

Despite two brief surges around the 2015 general election and the 2019 local elections, the Greens have for decades struggled to break past five per cent of the national vote. But the signs from Thursday are that they are on the rise, and could become an electoral threat not just to Labour, but to the Conservatives too.

The reasons for the Greens’ recent electoral success are varied. Public concern about the environment is at historically high levels, with media and government focus on the issue growing, and climate change impacts becoming more visible. It’s understandable that, as the environment becomes more salient, more voters turn to the party whose defining mission is to save the planet.

Factionalism on the left is undoubtedly boosting the Greens, too. As Keir Starmer repudiates Corbynism, he is pushing some of the party’s more left-wing supporters towards the Greens, who have long supported some of the more radical ideas of John McDonnell, such as a universal basic income. The Liberal Democrats remain toxic to many on the left for going into coalition with the Conservatives. And in Scotland, the Greens provide a more environmentally-conscious alternative to the SNP.

Greens across Europe have benefited from a similar trend. Just a few months out from federal elections, the Greens are currently the highest polling party in Germany, two points ahead of the CDU. Greens are part of the coalition government in Austria, after securing 14 per cent of the vote in the last year’s elections. There was also a green surge in the 2019 elections for the European Parliament, with the green bloc growing from 50 seats to 74.

However, this phenomenon isn’t simply about splintering on the left. Nor is it the case that the Greens are just taking votes off Labour and allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle. As Thursday’s results show, the rise of the Greens threatens both the main parties.

That said, the threat shouldn’t be overstated at this stage: the Greens only control one council, Brighton and Hove (where they are a minority administration), and they still only have one MP. But a response will be needed nonetheless.

First, here’s what to avoid. Counteracting the Greens doesn’t entail copying their policies, which are a bad combination of the unfeasible (net zero by 2030), the unpopular (a meat tax), and the economically damaging (a four day week). But neither should they Conservatives shouldn’t become hostile to the entire green agenda, which is popular with a majority of voters. Nor should they ignore other policy priorities in favour of an exclusive focus on the environment. As James Frayne has argued convincingly on this site, this approach wouldn’t keep the party’s voter coalition together.

Instead, Conservatives should unite behind the strategy that the Prime Minister articulated in his ten point plan for a green industrial revolution, linking net zero to people’s immediate economic concerns. This prospectus has the best chance of binding together the Conservatives’ diverse supporter base and stalling the rise of the Greens.

This strategy has worked well for Ben Houchen, whose tireless advocacy for Teesside is helping to attract many of the UK’s leading net zero investments to his area, from GE’s new turbine manufacturing factory and BP’s blue hydrogen plant, to one of the first carbon capture projects and a hydrogen transport hub. He has been one of the biggest advocates for the PM’s green industrial revolution, including on this site, and was re-elected by a landslide.

The Government should copy this formula in other parts of the country. It should invest in enabling infrastructure, fund large-scale green demonstration projects, and put in place market frameworks to attract private investment in new clean industries, such as battery manufacturing, floating offshore wind, heat pumps, and green steel production.

But while it can unite Conservatives, this approach to net zero is divisive on the left. The red-greens can’t decide if they support ‘degrowth’ as a route to tackling climate change. They debate whether people’s lifestyles must be drastically curtailed, or whether to focus on clean technology. And they are divided over whether to attach radical cultural policies on race and gender to their environmental agenda.

The other main element of the Conservatives’ response should be to implement ambitious but practical environmental policies that improve people’s communities and their quality of life. Here, the Conservatives’ other great election-winner from Thursday, Andy Street, provides a blueprint.

He has overseen major improvements in public and active transport in the West Midlands, reopening rail stations, extending metro lines, putting in segregated cycle lanes, and freezing bus fares. He is showing how mayors can connect up their region, reduce the cost of living, and improve the local environment at the same time.

National government should enable more pragmatic local environmental leadership like this. Ministers could give councils the powers and funding to create and safeguard a new network of wild green spaces (a ‘wilbelt’) around towns and cities. They could devolve more funding to metro mayors to insulate social and fuel poor homes in their regions. And they could fund transport authorities to replace old diesel buses with electric or hydrogen ones, and to install electric charge points along the strategic road network.

The Greens, by contrast, have a poor record of delivery on the few occasions when they’ve been entrusted with office. Remember their failure in Brighton and Hove to arrange the bin collections, which lead to strikes and images of rubbish piled up on street corners. There is a political opportunity here for Conservative environmentalism that sets ambitious targets, actually delivers them, and does so in a way that benefits the economy and people’s standard of living.

The Greens had a good night on Thursday. But by uniting behind Boris Johnson’s green industrial revolution, and replicating the approach of Ben Houchen and Andy Street, the Conservatives can prevent them rising further and can make the environment a winning, unifying issue for the party.

The AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine. A run down of the developments across Europe extreme caution takes hold.

15 Mar

Over the past few months, there have been lots of issues across Europe with the vaccine roll out. From the EU’s difficulties in acquiring vaccines, culminating in its attempt to control exports across the Irish border, to Emmanuel Macron casually deriding the AstraZeneca-Oxford jab (AZ) and causing vaccine hesitancy, it’s been problem after problem. Today there was more trouble on the AZ front, with leaders concerned about whether it leads to blood clots. Without further ado, here’s a round up of some of the developments:

  • Germany has made the headlines today for two reasons. For one, Angela Merkel’s centre-right party, the Christian Democrats (CDU), suffered its worst ever results in two regions it once considered strongholds. The drop in support has been attributed to Germany’s problems obtaining vaccines, and will have huge implications for the CDU’s fate in September’s election. To complicate matters, this afternoon it was revealed that Germany has suspended use of the AZ jab, citing fears that it could lead to blood clots.

  • Soon after Germany’s decision, it was reported that France had also suspended the AZ vaccine. Macron already has one of the most dreadful records in regards to vaccination strategy. He claimed the AZ vaccine was “quasi-ineffective” in over 65s – based on no evidence. With reports of intensive care units filling up in Paris and with France having the world’s sixth-highest total of Covid-19 cases, it is extremely troubling that European leaders are planting more doubt about the vaccine. On Twitter, political pundits did not hold back when speculating about the reasons for Merkel and Macron’s decision to suspend the vaccine.

 

  • But Germany and France are not the first to suspend the AZ vaccine. The Netherlands has paused roll out until at least March 29 for the same reasons (worries about blood clots). In the meantime, the country has had some of the most extreme lockdown protests. Over the weekend, the Dutch police used a water cannon and other shocking methods to control protesters (see the video below). So who knows how much worse this will get with the vaccine roll out being so slow. All of this has happened three days before the country’s election, in which Mark Rutte, the Prime Minister, will stand for a fourth term in office. Unlike the CDU, his party is expected to do well – and build even more seats than it did in 2017.

  • One big surprise is that Italy’s Piedmont region has stopped using the AZ vaccine. This is in spite of the terrible time Italy is having, with it recording 27,000 new cases and 380 deaths on Friday, and going into lockdown. Luigi Genesio Icardi, head of regional health services, stood by Piedmont’s decision, suggesting that suspending AZ roll out was “an act of extreme prudence, while we verify whether there is a connection”. After a teacher died from a vaccination shot, authorities have been trying to find the batch responsible to examine it.
  • Lastly, Austria has suspended the use of a batch of AZ vaccines after a 49-year-old nurse died of “severe blood coagulation problems”, and four other European countries (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Luxembourg) have stopped using vaccines from the same batch. It was sent to 17 European countries and consists of one million jabs.

So all in all, there is still huge scepticism about the AZ vaccine. Are leaders right to stop the AZ roll out? The European Medicines Agency and World Health Organization have both said there’s no evidence of a link between the jab and blood clots, although the EMA is apparently going to advise further tomorrow. In the UK there have been 37 reports of blood clots among 17 million people (and there is no strong biological explanation of why the vaccine would cause a clot). So it all looks slightly strange.

Leaders are using what is known as the “precautionary principle”; a scientific method that means you pause and review something if you’re unsure about it. It’s the ideal thing to do, of course, but the consensus from scientists elsewhere seems to be that leaders need to press ahead given the urgency of the pandemic situation. Suspending AZ can mean that many more lives are lost from the direct impact of the virus. Either way, you get a sense that “extreme prudence” may not have been the right move.

Guy Mansfield: Now we must work with the EU to make Britain more safe and secure

19 Feb

Lord Sandhurst is a member of the Conservative European Forum (CEF) Justice and Home Affairs policy group. He is a past Chairman of the Bar of England and Wales (as Guy Mansfield QC), and current Chair of Research of the Society of Conservative Lawyers.

As Conservatives, it is our duty to ensure that the UK is neither less safe nor less secure outside of the EU. Both parties must think again and strengthen cooperation.

Understandably, political and media attention has been focused on the trade elements of the deal agreed between the UK and the EU on Christmas Eve. Now that we have left the European Union, it is time to review carefully all aspects of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) to ensure it satisfies all of UK’s needs, beyond simply trade, tariffs and quotas.

My paper published by Conservative European Forum’s Justice and Home Affairs policy group – The Trade and Cooperation Agreement: The Justice and Security challenges ahead – examines, in detail, part three of the TCA, which covers UK-EU security cooperation.

Regardless of one’s view on Brexit, we can all agree, especially as Conservatives, that we do not wish to see the UK less safe or less secure as result of our changed relationship with the EU.

The paper raises a number of concerns. The statement released by the Home Office immediately following the agreement was optimistic. In fact, since 31st December 2020, the UK has been at a disadvantage. We have lost tools ‘to tackle serious crime going forwards’ and to ‘bring criminals to justice.’ The new extradition system will be less efficient.

First, the UK no longer has direct, real time access to two important centralised databases – SIS II, which holds records of stolen identity documents and wanted people, and VIS, which stores fingerprints and digital photographs of those applying for a Schengen visa. In 2019, UK police checked SIS II no fewer than 603 million times. These databases have been vital for UK police forces, notably enabling them to check if anyone is wanted or missing across the EU.

Secondly, we have lost our membership of Europol. As a consequence, the UK’s police forces have lost real time access to its databases. In fighting crime, speed is crucial. Crime and criminals are constantly evolving to evade detection. The UK will no longer be a member of Europol’s management board; it will not be able to exert the same influence over its future focus or prioritise areas of threat. As a non-Member State, the UK has lost the right to initiate operations such as Joint Investigation Teams.

Thirdly, the UK has left the European Arrest Warrant (EAW). This will result in slower and more complex extradition processes. Henceforth UK and EU member states can, if they choose, refuse to execute an arrest warrant for a number of reasons:

  • In non-terrorist cases, on political grounds (the ‘political’ exception);
  • On grounds that the requested person is a national of that executing state (the ‘own national’ exception).
  • On the ground that the crime for which the UK seeks extradition is not a crime in the state from which extradition is sought (‘double criminality’). For such countries to agree to extradite, the crime must be an offence in that jurisdiction.

The political exception may well be an improvement. Not every member state is scrupulous in ensuring that decisions to prosecute are free from political interference.

But the reintroduction of the own national exception is bad news. Germany, Austria and Slovenia have already indicated that they will not extradite their own nationals. There are potentially a further 13 Member States which may likewise refuse to surrender their nationals. The UK will, in such instances, have to provide its evidence to such Member State, which (alone) will then decide whether to prosecute. Any trial will be conducted, if at all, in the Member State.

The double criminality requirement will slow down and even stop extraditions to the UK where the issue is raised. That too is bad.

It is not all bad news. The UK will continue to receive Passenger Name Record (PNR) data in advance of all arrivals by air. We shall continue to enjoy access to the Prüm system (which makes accessible to EU Member States and the UK all national databases which store DNA profiles, fingerprints and vehicle registration data) and the European Criminal Records Information System (ECRIS), which permits access to criminal records of individuals on national databases across the EU. These are not gains; they simply maintain the status quo.

It is important to emphasise that the losses in security cooperation disadvantage the EU too. This is not a one-way street. The UK’s diminished role in Europol will create reciprocal dis-benefits to the EU. The UK’s loss of access to the EU systems means the EU loses access to the UK’s systems.

Our conclusions are intended to be constructive. However, it is plain that we have lost important tools for tackling crime. Looking to the future, the UK and EU member states must address further the security needs of our populations to go about daily lives free from avoidable harm. I urge both sides to continue to work together to strengthen security cooperation. The price of failure is too high, not just for the UK, but for the EU as well. This is not a debate about sovereignty, trade or tariffs. It’s about security. As Conservatives, the security of the UK and its citizens must always come first.

John Jenkins: The UK still has much to learn from our European allies on dealing with Islamism

8 Jan

Sir John Jenkins is a Senior Fellow at Policy Exchange. He is a former British Ambassador to Saudi Arabia and co-author of the Government’s Muslim Brotherhood Review of 2015.

So Brexit is done. Well, sort of done anyway. But as some people are keen to point out, a lot still needs sorting out as we rebuild our institutional relationships and capacity outside the EU.

My colleague, Richard Walton, has already written for ConservativeHome about police and security cooperation in the new era. I share his hope that our relationships with European partners in this area will remain robust. As liberal democratic states confronted by similar threats, we have a strong shared interest in ensuring this happens.

And one of the main threats is that from Islamism. Some people like to claim that right-wing extremism (RWE) or white supremacism are analogous. It may indeed be the case that they are on a rising trend, albeit from a low base. And recent scenes from Capitol Hill are undeniably disturbing. But if you look at the data for terrorist attacks within Europe, the claim is seriously misleading.

According to Europol’s latest report, in 2019 ten people were killed and 26 injured as a result of Islamist violence within EU member states (including the UK); one person was injured as a result of right-wing violence (RWV). If you include the 17 EU citizens killed in the April 2019 Islamist attacks in Sri Lanka the figures look even starker. Even if you include plots that were disrupted before coming to fruition, in the same period there were 21 cases of planned Islamist violence, compared to 6 attributable to RWE.

In terms of terrorism arrests, Europol’s data for 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019 show that across EU member states, there were 3,057 Islamists arrested on terrorism charges, against 108 right-wing extremists.

As I have argued in detail in a recent paper on Islamism for Policy Exchange, organised Islamism is a 100-year old sacralised social movement with global reach and an ideology that is designed to mobilise a range of ethno-confessional grievances in the pursuit of sometimes violent but always socially revolutionary change. The Cameron government took the threat seriously, because the Prime Minister himself understood the dangers. There are encouraging signs that the current Government is also beginning to understand them.

But we need constantly to guard against the risk of institutional complacency and inertia. In the last seven months of 2020, the UK experienced four Islamist attacks (including – as we now know – Reading). These won’t be stopped by piecemeal policy, police or local authority engagement with problematic Islamist actors who want the entire PREVENT programme scrapped, or the sort of inertia that seems to have contributed to the catastrophic security failure at the Manchester Arena in 2017.

Instead we might try to learn from what is now happening elsewhere in Europe, in particular from France and Austria, where the horrific Islamist attacks in the second half of 2020 have given new urgency to EU efforts led by Emannuel Macron and Sebastian Kurz to address not just the epiphenomena but the roots of the Islamist threat we collectively face.

I and others have consistently argued that this threat is not simply one of violence. It is ideological, representing a powerfully sustained challenge to the very basis of the modern, liberal democratic state. And – as I and a colleague have just discussed in another new paper for Policy Exchange – both Austria and France (and to a certain extent Germany) offer important examples of how democratic states can try to address it.

There are good reasons for this. In Austria, for example, an activist Islamist presence dates back several decades, starting with Arab exiles and Turkish-based organisations and individuals, often with worrying links to jihadi networks in the Balkans, Chechnya, and the Middle East. The Austrian authorities have built a capacity to monitor both violent and non-violent forms of Islamism.

But there are gaps, and the current Chancellor has made the effort to fill them a key part of his policy platform – reinforced in the wake of the 2 November 2020 terrorist attack in Vienna. This has placed a premium on tackling Islamism as an ideology.

His government has announced new measures specifically targeting this ideology. These include a move to make adherence to political Islam a criminal offence; the closure of Islamic religious and cultural associations; the introduction of an imam registry; the tightening of existing legislation governing the establishment and conduct of NGOs – including, but not limited to, external funding; increased sentencing tariffs for the use of prohibited symbols; and improved coordination and data exchange between law enforcement agencies and the bodies overseeing associations and self-governing religious bodies such as the IGGÖ (the Islamische Glaubensgemeinschaft in Österreich – the Islamic faith organisation officially recognised by the government).

In all this, Kurz has sought to underline the primacy of Austrian law. As in Germany, where the 1948 Grundgesetz (Basic Law) identifies a series of fundamental rights which define a self-consciously liberal democratic order, Austria’s federal constitution and the Basic State Law already contain provisions regulating the separate spheres of state and religion.

Other laws define certain political and ethical boundaries in more detail: notably, the 1947 Verbotsgesetz (Prohibition Act) and the 1912 Islamgesetz (Law on Islam), revised in 2015. The former criminalises the promotion or dissemination of National Socialist activity and ideology and also various forms of antisemitism. The latter provides a legal basis for the governance of Muslim affairs by certain self-regulating bodies, which in practice means the IGGÖ. It stipulates a range of rights but also obligations, most notably acceptance of the precedence of national over Islamic law; and a positive approach towards society and state.

In France, Macron has taken a similar line, bolstered by public outrage at the gruesome murder of Samuel Paty and the assault on Christian worshippers in Nice in October. As in Austria, pressure for a more coherent and comprehensive approach has been building for some time. If you look back at the French concern about ‘Londonistan’ in the 1990s, the disturbing 2004 report on Islamisation in French schools by Jean-Pierre Obin, the then Inspector-General of Education, or the report by the French Senate last summer on Islamist radicalisation more generally, you can see a trend.

Like Kurz, Macron – for all the ill-informed criticism from some US and British journalists and the usual self-serving apologetics of Islamists and their sympathisers – has hit on something important. Both of them identify the supremacy of secular national law, with its roots in 2000 years of European history, as a fundamental principle. In addition they are seeking agreement for practical and coordinated law enforcement measures across the EU – in particular for more effective control of the Schengen borders, better data exchange, restrictions on returning foreign fighters, and the diminution of terrorist content on social media.

And all this is reflected in an increasingly rich public debate not just in the populist press, but across the Franco-German linguistic space: on Deutsche Welle or the ÖRF and in the philosopher-haunted pages of Le Monde, Le Figaro, Die Welt, Die neue Zürcher Zeitung or Die Frankfurter Allgemeine.

No one is claiming that the Austrian, the French or indeed the German way of addressing threats to the legitimacy of the liberal democratic order is perfect. Many critics have in particular questioned the sense or practicality of outlawing Islamism. But each country offers an important case study of ways in which the liberal state can start to build public support to counter those who deny the fundamental principles on which it has been built, all first recognising that it cannot simply be neutral in the face of that challenge.

That’s an impulse we seem sometimes to have lost in this country over the last decade. Now that we’re outside the EU it might be easier to recognise what unites us – and act on it. As a newly sovereign state, we should not be embarrassed to admit that we can and should continue to seek lessons for our own public policy from European partners. After all, we may still have something to learn.

The Government is up against the clock to justify its next set of restrictions – as the Covid Recovery Group grows

17 Nov

Will they or won’t they? Is the question being asked of MPs in regards to whether they will extend the current lockdown restrictions in England. Although these measures are due to expire on December 2, at yesterday’s press conference, Matt Hancock told the nation that it was “too early to know” if they had worked.

The Government’s post-lockdown plan is to return to the tiered system of lockdown. But even that could shift. At the same press conference as Hancock, Susan Hopkins of Public Health England, threw a spanner in the works when she said there had been “little effect from Tier 1”, and that the Government might have to “think about strengthening” tiers “to get us through the winter months until the vaccine is available for everyone.”

Despite some encouraging statistics about the nation’s battle with Covid – intensive care admissions have fallen, and hospitals are running at “normal capacity”, according to Carl Heneghan, a professor director of evidence-based medicine at Oxford University – there are signs the Government will play it safe when it comes to imposing more restrictions.

There was the fact that Rishi Sunak recently expanded the furlough scheme so that it will last until March. More recently, a newspaper printed emails from George Pascoe-Watson, Chairman of Portland Communications, who had been advising Dido Harding and James Bethell on strategy and communications, revealing he had been “been privately advised that tier 2 restrictions will be imposed on London until at least the spring of next year.” 

In short, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to make the following prediction (contingent on hospitalisations being at a manageable level): the Government will phase out the lockdown (thereby keeping its promise and avoiding the difficulties of an extension being approved) but then move parts of the country into Tier 2, 3 or 4 (as has just been imposed on 11 local authorities in Scotland) – with the measures in place until spring. Therefore, many will be left feeling that they are in de facto lockdown. 

One reason the Government might feel emboldened to keep restrictions going is the news of two vaccines, as well as the knowledge that mass testing is being rapidly developed. It’s far easier to ask people to “sit tight” if they know an exit strategy is on its way.

But one group that is going to present a big headache for the Government is the anti-lockdown Covid Recovery Group (CRG), whose members will vote on the next set of restrictions. The CRG has been steadily growing in numbers, now standing at around 70 members, according to reports. Depending on how much bigger this figure gets, and what restrictions the Government next wants to impose, it may have to increasingly call on Labour to get the voting numbers.

And it’s not only the idea of a national lockdown that the CRG is opposed to. Its members are also sceptical of softer restrictions; or, at least, they want them to be justified. Mark Harper, CRG chairman, has called some of the previous Covid-19 measures “arbitrary”, and the group is unlikely to ease off the pressure because of a vaccine. Steve Baker, its deputy chairman, has said that “we must find a more sustainable way of leading our lives until a vaccine is rolled out”. As far as the CRG is concerned, days, weeks and months are too long in terms of waiting for Pfizer to come to the rescue.

The group’s main demand is that the Government is more transparent with information on the cost of lockdown. It wants a full-cost benefit analysis of restrictions on a regional basis, and for the Government to publish the models that inform policies – so that members of the public can make up their own mind. In short, the CRG is trying to place the burden of proof onto the Government to explain why it’s imposing any restrictions – as opposed to MPs having to argue for them to come off.

As Harper tells me: “When the Government brings forward its proposals for what follows the lockdown, it’s incumbent on it to show that for every restriction it wants to put in place, the good done by the restriction outweighs the harm, both from a health perspective and an economic perspective.”

Given that December 2 is approaching the Christmas period, the pressure will be all the greater for the Government to explain the rationale for each set of restrictions, as even more closures for shops could signal their end. MPs will also be after more information for how the Government’s mass testing programmes are coming along – one of the main ways it can reopen the economy until the vaccine arrives.

Interestingly, the Government could be about to run into difficulties not so disimilar from the ones Angela Merkel has experienced in Germany. Merkel had wanted to tighten Germany’s restrictions, but failed to win the support of the country’s state leaders. Thus she has had to postpone decision making in this regard. In essence, just as the public support for lockdown might be tiring, so is MPs’.

Either way, the next couple of weeks will be interesting to say the least.

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