Guy Opperman: In the North East, Labour’s Red Wall continues to crumble – here’s where we can win next

20 Jun

Guy Opperman is the Minister for Pensions and Financial Inclusion, and is MP for Tynedale and Ponteland.

During this year’s local elections, we saw seismic change in the North East of England. Hartlepool fell with a near 7,000 majority to Jill Mortimer. Ben Houchen secured 73 per cent in the Tees Valley. In County Durham, Northumberland and elsewhere, the Labour Party retreated.

I don’t think that is our high watermark. In May 2021, we solidified our 2019 general election successes in Blyth Valley, across County Durham and in Teesside – and we can do better.

It has taken time. When I was selected to be the Conservative candidate for Hexham at the 2010 General Election, it was the only Conservative-held seat in the North East. We gained over 100 seats in the 2010 election across the country, but only one new seat was gained in the North East. In 2015, Anne-Marie Trevelyan took the formerly ‘safe’ Liberal Democrat seat of Berwick, making it three.

However, our electoral success in the North East only started really to change in 2019. We gained seven seats – including Tony Blair’s old seat in Sedgefield. Following our Hartlepool victory, we now have 11 seats altogether.

However, there are opportunities for us to go even further, and to do so, we need real action, and determination over the coming years. Boundary changes may alter some seats, but this is how it presently stacks up.

In Northumberland, we now hold three of the four constituencies, and run the council on our own. As we head towards the next election, Wansbeck – the seat of Ian Lavery, an arch Corbynista – is well within our grasp. At the last election, Lavery clung on: but his majority was cut from over 10,000 to just 800.

In truth, he was lucky to hold the seat. We put most of our effort locally into winning the neighbourhood constituency of Blyth Valley but, in the May local elections, local Labour Councillors saw their majorities tumble. It will be for the new Conservative Council in Northumberland to deliver for local people, attracting major new employers to create jobs – building a new train line which will link Ashington and Blyth to Newcastle upon Tyne, and changing Northumberland for the better.

In County Durham, my southern neighbour Richard Holden has written on in ConservativeHome of the sea change in his constituency. I saw first-hand at the local election some of the amazing new Conservative councillors who are delivering for their communities. Richard will always be rightly famous for defeating Corbyn’s heir apparent, Laura Pidcock. In my view, no Labour seat in County Durham is safe. The remaining seats all have majorities under 6,000. There is a big change happening in Durham.

In Sunderland, Labour hold all three seats with majorities of less than 4,000, and in Sunderland Central (majority 2,964), the Conservatives topped the poll in the local elections.

Many of our recent gains came from the Tees Valley. Perhaps that’s no surprise. Ben Houchen is doing an incredible job in transforming Teesside – from delivering more jobs and investment, to saving the Airport, and more importantly projecting a ‘can do’ enthusiasm that all can see.

Ben’s landslide victory shows we can win in any part of Teesside. Both Stockton North and Middlesbrough now look very winnable. Even in Middlesbrough, a seat once so safe the former Labour MP lived in france most of the time, Ben Houchen won well over 60 per cent of the vote. And if Hartlepool can be won by nearly 7,000, anything is possible with work and a real commitment to bring change for the better.

We are making progress on Tyneside too. In a by-election in North Tyneside caused by the resignation of Kate Osborne, now a Labour MP, a local young campaigner showed local residents exactly what a hardworking local Conservative can achieve – and won, taking a safe Labour seat.

In Gateshead, Blaydon is another area with real potential. It is a seat that neighbours my own, and my sense is that Boris Johnson’s leadership and the Conservative message is resonating on the ground.

However, whilst there are many opportunities for success, we will only make progress in the North East if we continue to deliver the change people want to see. So how do we achieve that?

In 2012, as I recovered from my brain tumour, I did a four-week charity walk from Sheffield to Scotland – through what was then the Red Wall. I met people in pubs, mosques, bed and breakfasts, shops and at community events. I talked to people endlessly to get an understanding of the change people wanted to see.

Most of all, people wanted proper representation, with local champions fighting for better investment in schools and hospitals, improved public transport, and more job opportunities. That is exactly what the Government under Boris Johnson is doing. Key symbols of this that matter: like the relocation of part of the Treasury to Darlington, which will open up a world of opportunities for local young people, and play its part in ending the ‘London Centric’ culture that has existed for far too long.

In my own constituency since 2010 we have rebuilt all four high schools, refurbished a local hospital and invested heavily in our community. That is levelling up in action. By getting on with the job and delivering on the people’s priorities, there is a great future for the North East. The Labour Party is out of ideas and does not represent their heartlands. We must keep working, select candidates early, and make the case for conservatism in action.

Can we win more seats than the 11 we now hold? Yes, we can.

Daniel Hannan: A Levelling Up Fund will not, on its own, turn Sunderland into Singapore. Localism will takes us closer, though.

9 Jun

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

How exactly does levelling up work? The aspiration is unimpeachable and the slogan pithy. But how does a government go about realising it? Imagine that you’re the official in charge of enriching one of our poorer regions. You sit at your desk, you open your laptop. Now what?

Part of the answer has to do with infrastructure. That’s the easy bit, the bit that the PM, with his boyish enthusiasm for bridges, railways and airports, most enjoys. But a £4.8 billion Levelling Up Fund is not, on its own, going to turn Dudley into Dubai or Sunderland into Singapore.

A certain reshuffling of government departments might help at the margins. When, for example, the Department of International Trade moves 500 jobs to Darlington, it slightly boosts the economy of County Durham. But it does so at the expense of other regions, since those jobs are maintained at public expense.

So what can ministers do? How might they stimulate the generation of new wealth rather than simply pushing piles of cash around? The obvious answer is one that, for some reason, is rarely heard these days: more localism.

Let’s stick, for a moment, with Teesside. Labour, in retrospect, made a bad mistake when it held the Hartlepool by-election on the same date as the regional mayoral contest. Ben Houchen, the incumbent Conservative Tees Valley mayor, romped home with an astonishing 72.8 per cent of the vote. Why? Because he is seen as an effective local champion who stopped the airport from closing, is redeveloping the former steel works at Redcar and is turning the region into a freeport.

It is an iron law of politics that, the bigger the unit of government, the less efficient it becomes. Town halls are by no means perfect, but they are far less likely than Whitehall departments to preside over monumental cock-ups involving consultants and computers. So why not extend the model? Why not push more powers out to local people?

In 2008, Douglas Carswell and I co-wrote a book called The Plan: Twelve Months to Renew Britain. It set out a comprehensive agenda for the diffusion, democratisation and decentralisation of power.

Some of its ideas were successfully implemented by the Coalition government which took office two years later. A recall mechanism allowed local voters to challenge an unpopular MP. Proposals could be forced onto the Commons agenda by petition (people tend to forget that this is how Brexit first made its way into Parliament). Whips lost some of their patronage powers, and parliamentary committees were elected. MPs’ expenses were reformed.

Other ideas turned out to be less successful. Locally elected sheriffs were watered down until they became Police and Crime Commissioners. I have always disliked that name: it is boring, technocratic and inaccurate (read literally, it suggests that PCCs are responsible for crimes). But, in a depressingly ahistorical spasm, Whitehall decided that sheriff sounded “too American”. Nor were the PCCs given anything like the powers we had proposed. In any event, the reform never caught the public’s imagination. People carry on grumbling about woke coppers without it seeming to occur to anyone that PCCs are there precisely to ensure that the police’s priorities don’t drift too far from everyone else’s.

Our biggest idea, granting English counties and cities the sorts of power that are exercised by Holyrood, wasn’t tried. It never is. Central governments are not usually in the business of devolving power. In almost every democracy, the long-term tendency is the other way – driven, in part, by media cultures which make it almost impossible for a minister to say “this is nothing to do with me – talk to the local council”.

Go back, for a moment, to the idea of freeports or special economic zones. The original example, Shenzhen, was a huge success. It didn’t simply suck activity in from neighbouring provinces. It generated new wealth, because it had real power.

Imagine that our freeports could, say, scrap all taxes on savings and inheritance, or require balanced budgets, or introduce Singapore-style healthcare systems. Then we would get the growth that comes from innovation. New schemes would be piloted and trialled. What worked would spread. Jurisdictional competition would give us something we have never known before in this country – downward pressure on tax rates.

Sadly, though, whatever interest politicians show in localism when they are in opposition tends to evaporate once they assume office. Indeed, it is surprising – and creditable – that David Cameron went as far as he did.

Still, there are real dangers in letting things lie. The epidemic and the lockdowns have placed powers in the hands of the central administration that would have been unthinkable two years’ ago. Closed committees decide whether we can leave the country, enjoy our property or meet our friends. State budgets have grown commensurately. And governments are never in a hurry to return the powers that they had assumed on a supposedly emergency basis.

We left the EU precisely to take back control. Having repatriated power, it would be unforgivable to leave it in the hands of Whitehall functionaries. Instead, we should give local communities the tools to raise themselves. Otherwise, four or five years from now, we might find our levelling up rhetoric thrown back at us in anger.

Tom Spiller: Celebrate our election wins. But to keep winning we need to equip activists with tools that work.

15 May

Tom Spiller is the former President of the Conservative National Convention and chaired the 2017 party conference.

What a fantastic set of results our Party had in the May 2021 elections.

I have no doubt that these historic achievements are only possible because of the efforts of our voluntary activists – some of whom travelled to Hartlepool and Tees Valley from as far afield as Dorset, South London, and Shropshire, in gruelling day trips.

Time to reflect

The road to the next General Election – whenever that may come – is now well and truly open, and our party must put serious thought into both holding the new ground that it won in 2019 and 2021, and maintaining its position in long-held territory, some of which now looks weaker than we would like.

Our first challenge will be defending the late Dame Cheryl Gillan’s seat in Chesham and Amersham. Then we face the challenge of gaining Batley and Spen – a seat which we narrowly won in last week’s local elections.

Some suggest that the political phenomenon of “realignment” is a two-sided coin – but it does not need to be. We can never rest on our laurels and, as a party, we always need to think for the long-term. Therefore, we must carefully analyse the unexpected results in (amongst others) Oxfordshire, Cambridgeshire, and Sussex, to see what lessons we can learn.

Ask the activists

Earlier this year I conducted an online survey that asked Conservative associations across the UK what support they needed to get ready for the 2021 elections and – to borrow a well-used phrase – build back better, following the lockdown era. (Click here to watch a short video summarising the results.)

I received just over 580 responses to my survey, which came from every nation of the UK, and every region in England. The answer was resoundingly clear and twofold: unsurprisingly, lockdown had a significant detrimental impact on their resources, and they were hungry for campaign-focused practical training.

Time for training, training, training

As many will know, this year our party intends to open the CCHQ Northern campus in Yorkshire.

This represents a fantastic opportunity to channel resources and support to Blue Wall associations that need them. Indeed, we must do that if we are to maintain our Parliamentary majority, to hold onto our freshly-won councils and PCCs, and to further widen the battlefield. However, this can only be done via a proper collaborative partnership with activists on the ground who have vast experience of their local political terrain. And we must all now insist on this.

I know from personal experience that this approach would be hugely beneficial. Last year I hosted an online webinar for first-time associations chairs, and I can tell you that of the 112 attendees, the majority were from the Midlands and the North.

With a particular focus on digital

Another striking feature of this year’s results, which was also echoed in the survey results, was the critical impact of well-executed digital campaigns – after all, for much of the lockdown era, digital campaigning was one of the few tools available to us. This forced many to both innovate and evaluate the approaches they had been taking to date.

But as my survey showed – in the run up to the short campaign, regardless of geographical location, all associations felt that they need more help with campaigning – and, in particular, digital.

The power of digital campaigning cannot be underestimated. A hardy team of volunteers might be able to leaflet a couple of polling districts in an afternoon – but a well-crafted digital messages could well reach thousands of voters with the click of a button.

The example of Ben Houchen

By now everyone will have heard of Ben Houchen’s fantastic achievement – he won the Tees Valley Mayoral race in the first round by winning 73 per cent of all votes cast. A key feature of Ben’s campaign was a relentless focus on digital campaigning. The content that he created ranged from easily-shareable, unspun endorsement videos sourced from small local businesses (click here to view) and construction workers (click here to view) helped by the projects he has made happen, to more heartfelt rallying cries for Teessiders to pull together to get the economy back on track after Coronavirus (click here to view).

If we are to maintain our position in both newly-won and long-held political territory our party must now engage with associations all over the country (especially those with newly-elected chairs) and with a focus on training, particularly in effective digital campaigning. And once again – this is something that I intend to insist on.

Time for a change in approach

This is something that is based in data. I know what the party activists want because I asked them and they told me. This bottom-up, data-led approach should be the basis for all allocation of the party’s resources. If we are going to win the elections of the future we need to equip our activists with the tools that work.

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.

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.

Jonathan Werran: Levelling up. A radical economic overhaul and zero carbon cannot be delivered from the centre.

6 May

Jonathan Werran is Chief Executive of Localis.

Like a wild schoolyard football game, it will be a case of everyone’s eyes on the ball, with their legs enthusiastically following, as we throw our attention into the joyful pile-on of local and devolved election results.

We should certainly enjoy the spectacle of postponed local democracy restored, while voters in their millions flock to polling booths across England to vote in various district, county, unitary, London mayoral and regional mayoral combined authority elections.

But were we to zoom out and survey the whole frame, we’d see a tangled skein of pitches with different games being played out on fields of various sizes, to somewhat different sets of rules.

This is because, for many parts of England, a devolution destiny remains unfixed. This means, in certain cases, it remains doubtful whether there will be repeat polling business four years hence. The baked-in assumption is that in order to secure prized strategic devolution deals, parts of the country will submit themselves to the Whitehall meatgrinder of reorganisation.

The white paper and the problem of “place”

Today Localis has issued a place-based analysis of “Building Back Better” in a report entitled A Plan for Local Growth. The central thrust of our argument is that there should be a strict separation between short-term, community-led decision-making for town centre and high-street renewal – which boosts place prosperity – and long-term, high-value central government infrastructure strategies aimed at raising historic low-levels of productivity.

To this end, central government must get behind community control of high-street regeneration, accelerate devolved skills reforms and define a clear role for local authorities and their economic partners in driving economic development and meeting net zero targets.

On that vexed issue of local government reorganisation, our analysis questions the efficacy of driving economic recovery through changes of machinery to the local state. Localis firmly believes that national recovery through building back better and “levelling up” will only succeed through a grounded approach focused on place – melding the horizontal elements of place with the sector based vertical deals from the ancien regime’s industrial strategy.

However, the problem seemingly is that the definition of “place” can mean literally anything across separate Whitehall departments operating in the same place. This is often to the bewilderment of authorities seeking inward investment and businesses seeking to survive and thrive beyond Brexit and Covid.

This Whitehall disconnect also applies to public services. Anything from dedicated schools grant, migration to criminal justice reform can see individual departments taking on bit parts – research, funding, delivery. Perhaps whether the ambit of the Levelling Up White Paper can solve the perennial problem of un-joined-up government is a moot point. But a way is needed to integrate disparate cross-departmental central government agendas so that there is actual early proof these connect at the level of place, work in practice and inspire confidence to move onwards at speed.

This is where we must pin our hopes upon Neil O’Brien to ride to the rescue.

On account of the time, money, political capital and economic potential forever lost to the pandemic, we find ourselves at more of a crucial moment than we perhaps realise. The moment calls for urgently aligning the agenda for devolution and decentralisation with that of growth and recovery.

So it is a hopeful sign that O’Brien has been set the task of pulling together the disparate threads of the levelling up agenda into a forthcoming white paper, resurrecting a cause deflated by last autumn’s failure to launch the English Devolution and Economic Recovery White Paper amid the sudden ministerial departure of Simon Clarke.

The challenge demands a policy mind as sharp and political senses as keen as O’Brien possesses. The levelling up agenda currently risks a fate worse than “Big Society” – as a potentially hugely transformative agenda with popular appeal that dies from lack of rootedness in local daily life and concrete, plainly visible outcomes.

Joining the dots on levelling up

Devolution and growth must be seen as so intrinsically linked as for one to be as impossible to conceive of as existing without the presence of the other. There’s a fancy term from classical rhetoric for the occasion, “hendiadys” or literally “one through two”. In common parlance, think of “bread and butter” or “fish and chips” and try imagining in your mind one of these essential elements without the thought of the other arising.

In an earlier Localis contribution to ConHome on England’s place in the union, and taking our cue from George Orwell, we advocated that “England has got to assume its real shape”. A bit of local laissez-faire and free choice when it comes to English local governance might not be the worst outcome, it was argued. And as Paul Goodman instantly observed of the Plan for Growth in ConHome, “if it really wants to go for sustainable and more even growth, the Government will need to devolve more power”.

So on the basis that levelling up, a radical economic overhaul and zero carbon cannot be delivered from the centre, and that we must trust in the new mayors to use their convening powers to get the local political economy around the table, how might we suggest the Levelling Up White Paper create maximum benefit for minimum effort? To build on the foundations laid out in the Plan for Growth, Localis recommends that the Levelling Up White Paper should:

  • Create pathways to community autonomy as a vehicle for hyperlocal, small-scale and patient financing of regeneration;
  • build a framework for devolution to skills advisory panels to facilitate local collaboration between employers, providers and education authorities to further accelerate the push to improve skill levels;
  • create a clear role for the local state in driving towards the skills for net zero; and
  • clarify and codify the role for existing institutions of the local state particularly local authorities in LEPs – in driving economic development.
The political and economic imperative

Many Red Wall Conservative MPs will become if they are not already are acutely alert to the fact that they risk paying the political price for an unreformed, silo-fixated Whitehall’s disjointed and agonisingly slow local delivery at local level.

The test for Levelling Up White Paper will be its ability to work through connective administrative tissue of the “people’s priorities” – clean growth, whatever new badge is thrown over industrial strategy, as well as local skills training. A joined-up and fleshed-out levelling up can achieve a virtuous circle of devolution, leading to growth and recovery that inspires further trust and pride in place and place leadership.

Witness the electoral fortunes of Ben Houchen in Tees Valley and Andy Street in the West Midlands. Their likely success is testament to the policy vision laid out for trusting men of “push and go”, charismatic regional leaders with energy and vision to champion their wide economic area. So on the basis that a combination of the vaccination bounce and whatever local political factors ensure a satisfactory set of local and regional results overnight, there should be both confidence and conviction to repay this trust with Whitehall ceding more powers to metro mayors in a deeper devolution settlement.

Otherwise, we risk the continuation of a lop-sided, centrally-led, interventionist growth policy which only serves to hamstring our localities from achieving anything like their fullest inherent economic and place potential.

Amanda Milling: Let’s keep our campaigning going during these last few days

3 May

Amanda Milling is co-Chairman of the Conservative Party and is MP for Cannock Chase.

“You know what needs fixing – the potholes on the road out here”, a woman said on the door in Wolverhampton, “we need someone to sort the park out to keep the kids safe” two women said in Hartlepool, and “I’ve asked the council to sort the trees on the street here and they’ve done nothing” a gentleman said on the doorstep in Sandwell.

From Northumberland to Gloucestershire, as I’ve travelled the country over the past few weeks on the campaign trail this is what people have been bringing up on the doorstep.

This is what the elections this Thursday are all about – who you want in charge of your local services, who you want to empty your bins, who you want to fix your roads, who will be in charge of keeping your streets safe and who will bring jobs and investment to the area.

Up and down the country it is Conservative councils who have a proven track record of delivering good local services, investing in your communities and keeping bills low.

It’s Conservative councils that charge lower levels of council tax, fix potholes more quickly on average than Labour councils and recycle twice as much as Labour councils.

From my conversations with voters on the campaign trail, where we have strong Conservative councillors, they tell me of the positive impact the hard work their local Conservatives have in their communities.

And where we don’t have control of the council, or where we have no Conservative representation at all, voters feel left behind and forgotten by their councils.

When I’ve been campaigning for our Police and Crime Commissioners, voters have praised the efforts of our sitting PCCs. In Bedfordshire, with our new candidate, Festus Akinbusoye, the locals are keen to keep that strong track record going with Festus.

This Conservative Government is determined to cut crime and make our streets safer. It’s one of the Prime Minister’s key priorities and with Priti Patel we now have nearly 9,000 out of the 20,000 additional police officers across England and Wales we promised to put on our streets.

Across the country people know that it is the Conservatives who will work hard to cut down on crime and keep people safe. Labour have made it clear it’s not a priority for them – only weeks before the election campaign kicked off Labour voted against measures to keep this country safe in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. You only have to look to the record of Sadiq Khan in London and Andy Burnham in Manchester to see what happens when Labour are in charge of keeping people safe.

In the West Midlands, Tees Valley, Cambridgeshire and Peterborough and the West of England we have seen exactly what a Conservative Mayor can deliver.

In Birmingham, I’ve seen firsthand the work Andy has been doing to level up the West Midlands. There’s so much building work going on in the city I was unable to film a video without a drill being used or a digger driving by.

Ben Houchen, in the Tees Valley, has helped secure tons of investment to the region bringing new jobs to the region and has been a standup example of what can be done to those towns that were left behind by Labour for far too long.

We never expected these wins in 2017, but our Conservative Metro Mayors have shown us what local Conservatives can deliver. We need people to get out and vote for them this week so they can continue to work with this Conservative government to continue to level up with investment in good quality local jobs and services.

I hope that Ben will be joined by Jill Mortimer in that great work. After 57 years of being let down by Labour, Hartlepool deserves better and Jill offers that change with a plan for jobs, investment and apprenticeships. But we’re under no illusion of how hard it will be. Labour have never not won the seat since it was first drawn up – with even Corbyn holding it easily.

On Thursday May 6, the country heads to the polls to vote in this bumper crop of elections. Now there’s no denying this will be a tough fight, we are defending over 2,000 council seats, the largest of any Party, and after 11 years in government it is common for the governing Party to suffer losses.

Labour and the Lib Dems are starting from an historic low so we can expect to see a post-Corbyn bounce and a Lib Dem revival.

This has been a campaign like no other but even with the challenges we’ve had to overcome our fantastic Conservative campaigners have spent hours ringing voters, knocking on doors and delivering leaflets come rain or shine. I’d like to pay tribute for all that you have done so far and urge you to join me in the final push ahead of Thursday.

It’s your efforts on the doorstep and on the phone that will help us to deliver more local Conservatives with a proven track record of delivering good local services.

While your shoes are worn and your knuckles are bruised your campaign spirit is alive and kicking. So as we head towards the final hurdle let’s get out and get campaigning to get people out voting Conservative on Thursday May 6.

Nick Faith: The UK is well placed to emerge from the pandemic in a stronger position over time. Here’s how we do it.

28 Apr

Nick Faith is the Founder of WPI Strategy.

Over the past 10 months, my company has been working with a group of some of the highest profile business leaders from across the UK on a long-term plan to ensure we do not just recover from the pandemic but thrive in a post-Brexit Britain.

The National Prosperity Plan, published today by the Covid Recovery Commission, is the culmination of this work and includes input from over 100 public policy experts, academics and business groups.

It is overwhelmingly optimistic in its tone. By harnessing everything which is great about Britain – our leading universities, world-class innovation and R&D, our businesses and financial system, our democracy, our institutions and governance – the report makes it clear that the UK is well placed to emerge from the pandemic in a stronger position over time.

The report is also pragmatic. It acknowledges the deep-rooted challenges that we face as a nation; poor productivity levels, underinvestment in high-quality technical education and training, the inability of small businesses to access the finance they need to scale-up.

The plan that we are setting out today will not solve all these problems with the flick of a magic wand. It is, however, an attempt to set a framework that we hope will lead to a new compact between government, business and civic society to deliver on a set of shared national imperatives.

There are a number of elements to the report but five core areas are set out below:

1. For “levelling up” to be successful, it cannot be constrained to specific geographical regions and we must be able to measure progress

The inequality gap has only worsened as a result of the pandemic. Unemployment levels, mortality rates and mental health cases are rising fastest in the most deprived communities across the UK. These communities are found in every part of the UK, and often within some of the wealthiest local authorities. A one size fits all approach to “levelling up” simply won’t work.

A successful recovery will rely on having clearly defined objectives and metrics and using data to make decisions and monitor progress. We believe that this should be delivered through a National Prosperity Scorecard. This would be a list government would publish of how every locality in the country measured up against some key social and economic indicators, including employment and benefit dependency rates as well as health and educational outcomes.

2. Government needs to play an active role in creating the conditions for high value, globally competitive industries to flourish

Industrial strategy as a term may be confined to the store cupboard in the Department for Business, but there is a clear role for government to play in setting a national framework for growth. The Government’s Plan for Growth, published alongside the March Budget, is the industrial strategy’s successor. It has many strengths including a focus on growing existing and building new net zero industries and creating the conditions for high growth, innovative businesses.

Business stands behind these ambitions but needs more detail. We need to be honest about our existing industrial strengths and weaknesses. We need to develop a Great British Supply Chain to support our globally competitive industries, using the government’s purchasing power to create long-term certainty for businesses.

Were the government to commit to a 15 year National Deal for Net Zero Homes, for example, including publicly financing the retrofit of all council owned homes by 2030, it would act “pump prime” the energy efficiency market, providing the demand certainty needed for businesses to invest, innovate and deliver better and cheaper products at scale.

3. Local leaders must be given proper powers and funding to set their own plans for growth and prosperity

With poverty and inequality spread right across the UK, success will mean ensuring that prosperity rises in all parts of the country. However, the nature of the opportunities and challenges in different areas varies greatly between regions and communities, and policy responses will need to reflect these differences. This means that we need to understand these differences, build plans and track progress on delivering prosperity at a local level.

Local leaders should be given the power and funding to create their own Local Prosperity Plans, working with businesses and civic leaders to ensure their area can identify and seize upon the unique opportunities to develop high value industries in their area while supporting local people through tailored training programmes and financial and mental health support. Ben Houchen’s ambition for Teesside to become a global hub for clean energy development and deployment is a perfect example of what can be achieved when the centre devolves more power.

4. Retraining and upskilling our workforce is a non-negotiable if we are to create a more productive and a fairer society

The pandemic has caused significant economic disruption across the UK and, despite extensive government support, millions of people have lost their jobs. Digitisation and decarbonisation have the potential to create hundreds of thousands of new jobs but the transition to a tech enabled, greener economy could have an unequal impact on specific areas of the UK, for example those traditionally reliant on carbon intensive industries.

The Commission believes that lifelong learning will be key to supporting this transition to higher skilled, higher paid jobs. That is why our report proposes that every worker in the UK be given an individual pot of money – potentially as much as £10,000 – which can be used throughout their working lives to access accredited courses, for example, to improve their digital skills.

5. Businesses can no longer sit on the sidelines or be sidelined

Economic success in the next century calls for a more compassionate form of capitalism. More than ever, businesses must recognise that they have a broader role to play in supporting and driving the delivery of shared societal goals.

This means working more closely with central government, local policymakers and civic institutions to deliver real change in communities across the UK.  This could take the form of providing increased mental health support to workers or co-investing in social infrastructure projects, for example, supporting local technical colleges or investing in digital training courses for local residents.

The businesses on the Covid Recovery Commission are committed to working with others to build prosperity right across the UK: ensuring that individuals, families and communities can enjoy better economic, social and environmental outcomes. Let’s harness this energy and create a stronger, fairer and more resilient society.

Richard Holden: The Stockton South Test – and four others for Starmer, as the run-in for next week’s elections gathers pace

26 Apr

Richard Holden is MP for North West Durham.

Malton Picnic area, Lanchester, Co Durham

Things are hotting up on the Northern Front. “Battleground North East” is anchored in public consciousness this year by the Hartlepool by-election: what should be a safe Labour seat appears less than solid due, frankly, to the sheer uselessness of the current Labour leadership.

But who will win? Well it feels like it’s closer than it should on the ground, and there’s no way on god’s green earth that the Prime Minister would have made multiple visits if there wasn’t at least an outside chance.

But Keir Starmer faces more than just Hartlepool in his Red Wall test in the North East this bumper election year (due to the delays from last year), with the Hartlepool by-election just one of a swath of big battles.

After a year in office, Sir Keir has moved beyond the ‘not Corbyn but unknown’ era, and these elections are his biggest – and realistically only – massive test ahead of the next general election. Is he cutting through? Polls say lots of different things, but in the end it’s election results that you really can’t spin and I’ve outlined a few scenarios

  • Keir on Course = Starmer is well ahead of Corbyn and can look forward to rebuilding in the North. All 2019 Conservative MPs are under threat.
  • So-So Starmer: he makes some progress, but there’s a lot more to do. The Blue Wall will be down to the wire at the next general election ,with CCHQ looking at the most marginal seats (such as Wansbeck) for attack, and a broad based defence.
  • Knightmare: Corbyn performed better than Starmer. Labour heading to be a city-centre only party of student politics. CCHQ will be looking to defend the most marginal Blue Wall seats and looking for gains in places like Sunderland, Gateshead and Middlesborough. Labour will be in open warfare.

Starmer’s five big tests

1) Tees Valley Mayoralty

Ben Houchen squeezed in in 2017 on a 21.3 per cent turnout with just 39.5 per cent of votes in the first round (just 481 votes more than Labour), winning in just two of the five boroughs. Literally, fewer than one in ten voters went for Houchen in 2017. All Labour need to do is get their vote to turn out, and they’ll win. If it had been held on the same day as the 2017 general election, Labour would have won easily. This should be a shoe-in for Starmer, but Houchen is fighting hard and has gained local notoriety as a bit of a fighter for Teesside.

  • Keir on Course: Labour gain with 50 per cent of the vote in first round.
  • So-so Starmer: Labour win Tees Valley mayorality.
  • Knightmare: Houchen wins re-election with an increased majority

2) Northumberland County Council.

You think of Holy Island and Hadrian’s Wall. The truth is that 75 per cent of Northumberland’s population is within a ten-miles or so of the border with the really rock solid Labour City of Newcastle. The Council has been No Overall Control, but run by a minority Conservative administration since 2017. If Labour can take it back, they’ll do so by taking seats back in the Blyth/Wansbeck Parliamentary constituencies and piling on votes in towns. Look out for results in South East Ashington, Hartley, and Purdhoe: they are all central to this battle.

  • Keir on Course: Taking back Northumberland with a majority administration
  • So-so Starmer: Labour become the largest party, taking back towns and performing well in South East Northumberland.
  • Knightmare: Tories retain power in NoC Council. If by some miracle the Conservatives gained the council, this would be catastrophic for Starmer, and suggest that under his leadership Labour will do significantly worse than Corbyn.

Top tip – Watch out for the Greens in some seats here. If the radical enviro-socialists perform well in some areas it could help galvanise the Labour left.

3) Hartlepool By-Election.

Held by Labour despite a very high Brexit vote by over 3,500 votes on a sub-60 per cent turnout in 2019. Should be absolutely rock-solid Labour, and Corbyn held it by 8,000 in 2017. The fact that it’s in contention at all is astonishing. Starmer has worked hard to distance himself from his very heavily pro-EU stance, but we’ll see if voters are as quick to forget as he’d like.

  • Keir on course: Labour returned with majority of similar proportions + to Corbyn’s in 2017.
  • So-So Starmer: Labour hold the seat with a majority similar to 2019 on a lower turnout.
  • Knightmare : Labour perform worse than in 2019 or even lose. This shows that the Brexit voters who left Labour in 2019 aren’t returning to Labour en-masse, but are instead going Conservative. This would be a disaster and points to the Tories being able to really push further and deeper in the North.

4) County Durham.

Held by Labour since 1919 and with a good majority of about a dozen in 2017 in the really terrible 2017 council elections for Labour. This is the heartland of the industrial Labour vote. But the Conservatives gained three MPs of the county’s six MPs here in 2019, the more marginal seat of Bishop Auckland, and Sedgefield and North West Durham (my constituency). For the PCVC election, add Darlington to the mix. Traditionally, Labour has always outperformed in the local elections by 10 per cent compared to the general election, so this should be an easy hold of the council with gains possible in places like: Crook (a three seat ward currently one Labour, 2 independent), Newton Aycliffe, and Barnard Castle East (currently two Conservatives, which has been heavily targeted by Labour).

  • Keir on course = Labour hold the PCVC and County Council with an increased majority, taking a number of “Independent”, Liberal Democray and some Conservative seats – including Barnard Castle East.
  • So-So Starmer = Labour hold the Council and PCVC, picking up a few extra seats – especially from the Lib Dems in City of Durham and in North Durham (Chester-Le-Street) from Conservatives and Independents.
  • Knightmare = Labour hold the council by a wafer thing margin or, in the worst case, lose control of the Council for the first time in 102 years, with Conservatives making progress against Labour and Labour- leaning ‘Independents’ in places like: Delves Lane (Consett, NW Durham, currently two Labour), Evenwood (Bishop Auckland, currently one Lab, one Con), and holding seats in North Durham that were gained by small margins in 2017.

5) The “Stockton South Test”.

Stockton South was gained by Corbyn in 2017, but lost in 2019. There are a five Council by-elections this year with Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and Independents defending. Labour will be looking to making big gains in these seats (which were last fought on the date of the 2019 General Election) to see it in play for the next general election.

  • Keir on Course: Vote Share looks much better than 2017 from these results with Labour gaining most of these seats.
  • So-so Starmer: Starmer picks up a couple of these seats with vote shares similar to 2017.
  • Knightmare: Labour only gain one seat or none in what amounts to a re-run of the 2019 election showing that Starmer is underperforming Corbyn’s 2017 result.

– – –

Having been on the ground in North West Durham during the last few weeks, it’s clear that Labour are moving heaven and earth locally, with voters now facing a “Labour Versus Conservative” battle in most council seats that had traditionally been more of an open contest.

Having knocked on hundreds of doors, Starmer is rarely mentioned unprompted. When asked “what do you think of the new Labour leader?” – then “Brexit” ,as well as being associated with Corbyn at the last election, are the only things that are mentioned.

He certainly isn’t “cutting through, and where he has made an impact, it certainly isn’t to popular acclaim. One politically switched on (and furious) family who voted Lib Dem at the last general election (formerly Labour because they couldn’t stand Corbyn) that I met in Lanchester Ward this time are now “probably conservatives” after seeing the vaccine programme rollout going well.

Their 22 year old son (who was pro-Remain at the time, but too young to vote, and who is now is glad we’ve left) and works locally said that Starmer’s attacks during the pandemic showed him to be a “typical opportunistic London lawyer happy to cash in on any argument about anything.”

If Starmer is to avoid the “Knightmare” then it will be down to motivated left-wing Labour activists getting out their party’s base in a low turnout set of elections, rather than any enthusiasm for Labour’s leader. And if so, however Starmer’s spinners from Southside present the outcome, they’ll still be shackled to the same problems in a general election as they faced in 2019.

Houchen has won a freeport for Teesside. Will the voters reward him?

1 Apr

On Tuesday I noted that most of the areas represented by the Mayor of the West Midlands were not traditional Tory territory. That applies even more so when it comes to Tees Valley. That covers the five local authorities of Middlesbrough, Stockton-on-Tees, Redcar and Cleveland, Hartlepool, and Darlington. Together they constitute the Tees Valley Combined Authority. Yet on May 7th 2017, we saw Ben Houchen, the Conservative candidate, elected as the Mayor of the Tees Valley. The margin of victory was almost as narrow as Andy Street’s in the West Midlands. In the first round, Houchen won 39.5 per cent of the vote, compared to 39.0 per cent to his Labour opponent. The second round then saw transfers added from UKIP and Lib Dem supporters. This saw Houchen elected with 51.1 per cent, with his Labour opponent on 48.9 per cent.

In 2017, the local election results extrapolated into a projected national lead of 11 per cent for the Conservatives over Labour. So if one was to be a desiccated calculating machine, the conclusion would be that current opinion poll leads for the Conservatives below nine per cent indicate that Houchen will be defeated. But that would discount regional variations. Just as the Conservatives have been doing relatively badly in London, when it comes to Teesside they are on the up.

Among the soundings I have taken, the Conservatives are rather bullish about Houchen’s prospects. Of course, the political direction anticipated in Hartlepool has already been much discussed. But the General Election of 2019 offers plenty of encouraging stats. The Conservatives not only gained Darlington but had a majority of over 3,000. The same happened in Redcar. Stockton South was gained and with a Conservative majority of over 5,000. Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland was not just held by the Conservatives, but with a majority of over 10,000. Labour hung on in Stockton North – but only by a thousand votes. In other words, though Labour only needs a tiny advance on their 2017 result to win, if we take 2019 as the guide, then Labour would need a significant recovery.

While Houchen’s victory was a shock, his credentials as a candidate were pretty solid. Though he was young to take on such a formidable role – he is still only 34 – Houchen had already qualified as a solicitor, founded a successful international sportswear business, stood for Parliament, and served as Leader of the Conservative Group on Stockton-on-Tees Council.

As Mayor, perhaps his greatest national significance has been in championing freeports – a theme he has written about for us. Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, had argued in 2016 that Brexit gave an opportunity to make use of them. However, with the grey men in Whitehall always looking out for “administrative difficulties” it is important to having vigorous backing. Not just for such reforms to be introduced, but to do applied in a bold and radical way – rather than emasculated when it comes to the small print. Eight freeports were announced in last month’s Budget, including one in Teesside.

Houchen says:

“I passionately believe that a Teesside Freeport can be a jobs dynamo, a roaring engine of economic growth, and a flag-bearing project for Global Britain. There are huge opportunities for job creation here. The wide package of tax reliefs, simplified customs procedures and streamlined planning processes freeports will benefit from can bring in the investment needed to unlock Teesside’s latent economic power.”

Freeports fit in with Conservative principles when it comes to “levelling up”. That is because they rely on the confidence that, if the state gets out of the way, then the free market will prove effective at widening prosperity. Not that Houchen is entirely fanatical in following free market ideology. He brought Teesside Airport back under state ownership.

Houchen is the Chairman of the South Tees Development Corporation – the first Mayoral Development Corporation outside of Greater London. It covers a 4,500 acre site in Redcar – including the former SSI steelworks site. Houchen has pledged to use his powers to “kickstart” economic development on the site.

The Devolution Deal negotiated included transport infrastructure and adult education and training.

There was a low turnout last time which makes the result harder to predict. Many former Labour supporters felt let down and abstained in 2017 as a way of signifying their disillusion while retaining an antipathy to the Conservatives. What will they do next month? Some may return to the Labour fold, feeling that their old Party has been taught a lesson and has removed Jeremy Corbyn. They may note that Labour seems to have accepted that Brexit is now the reality and do not propose we rejoin the EU. Others may be less forgiving. Having been neglected and taken for granted by Labour for all those years, they might grudgingly concede that the Conservatives are making a bit of an effort on their behalf. My prediction is that enough of them will agree that Houchen has kept faith with them to secure a second term.