Jonathan Werran: As recent local elections showed, the mayoral revolution has been a success

12 May

Jonathan Werran is Chief Executive of Localis.

The injunction to “live local and prosper” is the order of the day in the aftermath of last week’s local and devolved regional elections. Good quality neighbourhoods, vibrant high streets, decent school provision and abundant high-skilled jobs from a prosperous local economy – everything that instils pride in place should be encouraged.

The Government can go so far in stimulating prosperous communities and productive places through all the funding and policy levers available to the central state. But the role of strong local leadership here cannot be underestimated in galvanizing place prosperity.

For evidence we don’t need to look beyond two of the three goals in the hat trick, starting with Tees Valley and Ben Houchen’s truly astonishing 73 per cent vote share to secure beyond all measure the mayoralty he had narrowly won in 2017. Friday’s success was followed up the next day by Andy Street, who nearly won the West Midlands Combined Authority mayoralty on first round preference alone.

On this basis, where you have mayoral figureheads who combine charisma with pragmatism, and with a sufficient war chest for investment, this is a model eminently capable of setting in motion a virtuous cycle of economic and political success. Seen in isolation, this outcome wholly vindicates George Osborne and Rupert Harrison’s coalition-era hatched devolution revolution plan.

As the former chancellor Tweeted leading up to Super Thursday, what is needed next is for more trust to be placed in metro mayors through further meaningful devolution from Whitehall. Ideally what is called for here are substantive powers over investment and fiscal leeway to inject fuel into to the tank of well-exercised convening powers.

In ConHome’s Saturday reaction, Paul Goodman noted how Houchen’s triumph and ability to deliver from Freeports to Whitehall relocation has unlocked four of Teesside’s six parliamentary constituencies. At local level, Street’s readeption of the West Midlands Mayoral Combined Authority was telegraphed by the gaining of Dudley Council, again pointing to the potency of the mayoral model, when well supported, in delivering political dividends.

However, these Conservative successes must be tempered by the twin failures to retain the combined authorities encompassing Cambridgeshire and Peterborough and the West of England as well as the entrenched position of Labour’s metro mayors. Switching the voting method from supplementary vote to first past the post in future mayoral polls would have made the difference for James Palmer at least.

But any inquest must also consider the future and determine how what is working out so well as bold and pioneering in the West Midlands and North East might translate inside the deep blue wall – where the voting intentions of red urban islands such as Cambridge proved capable of commanding the rural blue seas.

Answers there may come, we hope, in the shape of the Levelling Up White Paper. If the expectation is that we revert to the vision Michael Gove offered up last July in his Ditchley Park lecture, this seemed to be pointing to one of central government rationally dealing with 50 principal players, as the US President does in relations with state governors in the federal system.

It’s very conceivable to see Conservative counties, even those shires which have been against the imposition of an urban mayoral governance model, lining up in principle with this out of party loyalty. Such a move would, by reducing the number of significant players to something manageable, align with Gordon Brown’s suggestion – one backed by Lord Hague – for saving the union by establishing some kind of “permanent forum between the regions and the nations, and the centre of government, which Boris Johnson should chair”.

But in what political economy would any new mayoralties emerge into? Going back to the first formal definition of “Levelling Up”, a term mentioned in yesterday’s Queen’s Speech, we have: “Levelling up means creating new good jobs, boosting training and growing productivity in places that have seen economic decline and the loss of industry – not through a one-size-fits-all approach, but nurturing different types of economic growth and building on the different strengths that different places have.”

Just over four years ago when a formal and interventionist industrial strategy, Localis published a report in which we made the distinction between the “stuck” and the “stifled”. The stuck referred to the places that are still dealing with the fallout of the industrial trauma of the 1980s and the stifled places that are growing quickly but whose growth is hemmed in by their boundaries. We recognised both typologies as of increasing political importance, but the Levelling Up road just taken seems firmly addressed to meeting the needs of the former – and for the latter may be seen as levelling down.

Unfair as it might be, the perception among local leaders in the South East might be that in exchange for financial and political capital being invested north of the Watford Gap, they will be lumbered with the hospital pass of meeting unpopular local housing targets. To obviate this issue, a more spatial strategy for housing might insulate from some of the uproar – but not all.

To what extent pain is inevitable and suffering optional will vary. But as a universal governance model, it’s more than likely that mayoralties would necessarily involve restructuring and reorganisation. Bearing in mind the tensions and rupture between the tiers of local government amid the pandemic response last year, then if the White Paper does come out for it, like Macbeth, ‘’If it were done when tis done, twere well it were done quickly”. If not, not at all.

The evidence shows that when resourced and supported, charistmatic and committed leaders of place like Houchen and Street can lead all before them. For the sake of our recovery, we could do with more of them.

The recent example of Ben Bradley, the Mansfield MP, taking on the duty of leadership at Nottinghamshire County Council is an undeniably bold and imaginative coup which bodes well for the authority’s ability to cut through in talks Whitehall. To quote from the catchy campaign song of failed London Mayoral candidate Count Binface, it’s in such terms that you can see it being hip to be a mayor.

Unconscious bias training. What’s the point of having a huge majority if Tories can’t say no to it?

2 Sep

On Monday, The Times revealed news that won’t exactly delight Conservatives. Having voted for Boris Johnson under the assumption that his party would stand up to cancel culture, wokeness and all things far-Left, they will be astounded to know that the House of Commons is reportedly piloting “unconscious bias training” for MPs.

Though this training has been offered to Commons staff since 2016, it is the first time it has been extended in such a manner. The move has come about partly as a result of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, as well as the experiences of parliamentary staff. According to research by Parlireach, employees from ethnic minority backgrounds were more likely to be challenged to show their security passes, among other discriminatory incidents.

While these injustices must, of course, be fixed, it is the “unconscious bias training” solution that a lot of the electorate will take issue with. Numerous articles have been written about how pseudoscientific the method is. But the worst bit is the basic premise; it assumes that racism and other prejudices sit deep within people’s minds, and need to be exorcised with the help of an educator.

Are we okay with our MPs undertaking this? What does this say if they are happy to go along with it? Personally I think unconscious bias training is prejudiced in itself (“white people have the same bad thoughts”), oxymoronic (how can you train the unconscious?), and ultimately sounds like something out of Salem (“let’s get the devil out of you!”). Yet the industry is now worth $8 billion.

Sadly, the emergence of unconscious bias training is not an isolated phenomenon; it fits into a wider trend that is troubling the silent majority, who will see this latest development as yet another example of Conservatives/ the mainstream, even, losing the culture war. Yes, the Tories repeatedly win elections, but Britain remains plagued by woke ideology, which seems to grow in prevalence each day.

The most recent example of this came from a somewhat predictable place – the BBC, which decided to scrap the words from Land of Hope and Glory and Rule, Britannia! in favour of orchestral music after the lyrics were deemed problematic. It has since u-turned on this decision, but only after a great amount of backlash. You almost had to pinch yourself that we reached that situation, and that the change of heart was some sort of victory.

As if that wasn’t barmy enough, the British Library (BL) is also going through a woke revolution. A number of people, including – worryingly – its chief librarian, have decided that this institution needs a “major cultural change”. Reforms have been proposed by a “Decolonising Working Group”, which says that the BL building is an “imperialism symbol” because it resembles a battleship. 

Who knows what’s next… Will activists “dismantle” the BL in the same way they want to “dismantle” patriarchy and other vague sociological constructs? Not to give any ideas, but perhaps the scene of it coming down might finally make politicians wake up and realise how serious the threat they are facing is. Woke ideology has been accelerated through lockdown, and it is not going away.

One is not naive, incidentally, about injustices in the world. It is far from perfect, and the battles for racial and gender equality, among others, are not won yet. It would be foolish to dismiss these, and pretend that things are fine. Clearly they aren’t.

But we have reached a state in which intolerance masquerading as tolerance has become increasingly dangerous. We live in a society where students and professors are afraid at universities because of having right-leaning political views; where people can’t get work in the arts for the same reason, and where Netflix shows as innocuous as The Mighty Boosh are eradicated because someone’s now suddenly offended.

The standards of morality seem to shift all the time; for activists, nothing is ever enough as they look for 2020’s blasphemers. Sometimes they claim that cancel culture is exaggerated, or a myth, but only because they are doing the cancelling – and never on the receiving end.

In all this, many voters are asking themselves one question, and that is: where are the Conservatives? Busy, of course, with the pandemic, but more than ever the electorate is needing reassurances that they’re safe; not next to be cancelled.

Ministers have made small steps towards sticking up for not so much ‘conservative’, but mainstream values. Gavin Williamson, for instance, has encouraged universities to defend free speech through financial incentives, and the BBC has its new Director General who wants more plurality of opinion

And yet, the recent scenes of statue toppling have not exactly inspired confidence. MPs were too quiet on the matter, perhaps scared of putting a foot wrong. They should have taken some lessons from Emmanuel Macron, who took charge when France experienced BLM protests, making a televised address that struck an important balance.

There, he acknowledged that someone’s “address, name, colour of skin” can reduce their chances of success in French society and promised to be “uncompromising in the face of racism, anti-Semitism and discrimination”. At the same time, he said the fight against racism had been distorted when it became exploited by “separatists”, and that “the republic will not erase any trace, or any name, from its history.”

The Prime Minister has spoken out against woke ideology – last week he said of the BBC Proms’ decision that Britain must stop “this general bout of self-recrimination and wetness” – but I can’t help feeling it lacked the command of Macron’s address.

Where do ministers begin at fighting back? Perhaps it is Michael Gove, Chancellor Duchy of Lancaster, who will have to lead this charge. He has already criticised “group think” in the civil service, warning that a “metropolitan” outlook of decision-makers had led to a government that was “estranged” from the people.

Or it might be that Dominic Cummings – ever in touch with public opinion – who will make a difference as he reforms the civil service, as with Munira Mirza, Director of the Number 10 Policy Unit, who has written for distinctly “unwoke” publications, such as spiked. 

It may also be the case that MPs like Joy Morrissey, who has stood up for free speech, Ben Bradley, who has fought back in the culture wars, and Neil O’Brien, who has also done this – recently criticising unconscious bias training – get pushed more towards the centre stage.

I suspect that deep down, the answer to all this wokeness (call it that, or whatever you like), is courage. Tories simply need to get much more vocal about their own convictions; the more speak up against this ideology, the better. Saying no to unconscious bias training is a good place to start.