Richard Holden: Knightmare on Starmer Street. Labour loses control of Durham – held by the party for a century.

10 May

Richard Holden is MP for North West Durham.

The Louisa Centre, Stanley, County Durham

At the count in Stanley at 3am on Friday morning after the verification checks on the ballot papers, I realised that I was witnessing the latest stage of the fundamental shift in British politics.

The communities that are not merely the heartlands but the birthplace of the Labour Party are decisively turning their backs on the party which turned its backs on them.

Two weeks ago in this column, I wrote about Keir Starmer and Labour’s five tests from this set of elections in the North East of England. To be fair to the Labour leader, these results cannot all be laid at his door – they have a much longer-term gestation.

However, the man who many thought would be Labour’s knight in shining armour has delivered results even worse than the outlier, “knightmare” scenarios that I suggested a fortnight ago.

Not only did the Conservatives remain the largest party in Northumberland, but they took overall control and, in doing so, took Hartley ward – and kicked out the Labour group leader on Northumberland County Council.

Sir Keir didn’t just fail my Stockton South test (remember: Stockton South was won by Corbyn’s Labour in the 2017 general election), but the excellent campaigning of Stockton South’s MP, Matt Vickers, with together with Ben Houchen, the Tees Valley Mayor, saw the Conservatives not just retain the Stockton South council seats that they’d held, but take all the seats that were up for election, including from Liberal Dems and independents.

Paul Williams, the former Labour MP for Stockton South, handpicked and put on a shortlist of one by Labour HQ, delivered a catstrophic result for Labour in Hartlepool. To lose the seat at this stage in the electoral cycle by that much would have previously been thought impossible, but it’s happened.

With the Conservatives gaining over 50 per cent of the vote in the by-election, and Labour finishing a poor second, it’s clear that, in terms of parliamentary seats, CCHQ now needs to be targeting the North East of England much more broadly for the next election, including such seats as: City of Durham, North Durham, all the Sunderland seats, Blaydon – and even perhaps Gateshead and Easington.

Houchen’s utterly overwhelming victory in the Tees Valley, gaining almost three quarters of the votes on the first round, is the strongest symbol of continued Conservative advance in the North of England. The Conservative gain of the Police Commissioner post in Cleveland is further proof of this. Particularly when the vote from Middlesbrough, widely believed still to be rock solid for Labour in Teesside, came out five to three in the Conservative’s favour.

To outsiders, the loss of Durham County Council by Labour to No Overall Control may not seem quite as totemic as some of the other results. But if anything it’s more so.

The Conservatives increased their number of seats by 14, taking them from the fifth largest group (there are two independent groups) to the position of second largest party behind Labour – in one fell swoop.

Durham is where the Labour Party first gained a county council in 1919 and they have held it ever since. The results overall for the Conservatives are really, really good – particularly in my constituency in North West Durham and in my good friend Dehenna Davison’s constituency in Bishop Auckland.

Scratch the surface, and the results are more impressive still. In North West Durham, we’re now second almost everywhere we didn’t win, from what were often poor third places just four years ago. The increasing vote and vote share was at least 100 per cent, and in some cases, such as in Consett North and in Consett South, the number of Conservative votes went up almost four times.

Even in Weardale, where Conservatives were challenging two long-established independent councillors, we jumped from third place to second place, and came within 85 votes of taking one of them out.

In Woodhouse Grove, in the Bishop Auckland constituency, Conservatives gained two new councillors, and only missed out by nine votes in the working class town of Willington in North West Durham. It’s quite clear that, from this incredible baseline, Conservatives can now make further progress both locally and at the next general election.

These campaigns really came down to incredibly hard graft on the ground. It’s clear that CCHQ needs to look at how we can really capitalise on this with extra resources in the coming months and years.

The results in the North East are not unique. To see Rotherham go from zero to 20 Conservative councillors is mindblowing, as are the exceptional gains in Hyndburn in Lancashire, where the Conservatives held the county council with an increased majority.

But this succes is not just in the North. The gains in Harlow, Dudley, Southampton and elsewhere by the Conservatives show an incredible national picture.

While these results are absolutely stunning, often with significantly increased turnouts, it’s clear that the future of these areas as key battlegrounds will require the promises made by the Prime Minister and the Conservative Party to deliver on levelling up to not only be delivered on in the long-term, but also to show that progress is being made within the next year-to-18 months too.

In some areas of the country, the Conservatives haven’t performed quite as well. Downing Street and CCHQ need to find out why this has ocurred, and learn the lessons not only from the great successes, but also from the places where we didn’t do as well as we’d hoped.

What’s clear from politics is that nothing ever stays the same. Who’d have thought that the narrow victory in the Teeside matoralty in 2017 following Brexit would have not only been the catalyst for a shift in voting, but a shift in poltical culture in the North East? People are no longer willing to accept either MPs or local authority leaders who see their position as a sinicure. Delivery is what counts.

We Conservatives are in government, and have the abilty to really make that happen. If we do so, our political prospects in these areas will just get better and better.

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.

Dehenna Davison: Levelling up means nobody should be forced to leave their home town

27 Feb

Dehenna Davison is MP for Bishop Auckland.

The past year has been tough. Nobody can deny that. The Covid-19 pandemic has taken a toll on us all; affecting society’s health – both physically and mentally – and hitting our economy hard.

We mustn’t underestimate the economic hit Covid-19 has delivered, a hit which has shone a light on many of the economic and social divisions that already existed in our society.

With the Chancellor saying in November that our economic emergency has only just begun, we must now look at how we can ensure we use the recovery in the most effective way to level up our country.

Levelling up is at the heart of what I came into politics to do. When I talk about levelling up, I’m talking about ensuring that whether you’re born in Bishop Auckland or Beaconsfield, Birkenhead or Bath, you have access to the same opportunities.

Right now, we see young people being pushed out of towns to cities like Newcastle, or down south to London, to chase those very opportunities. The Centre for Cities report, The Great British Brain Drain, has shown housing and transport infrastructure are the main barriers to young graduates returning to, or staying in, their hometowns.

Whilst the report focuses on graduates, it’s important to highlight the role inward local investment plays in creating those high-skilled job opportunities for non-graduates, such as through apprenticeships. We need to do more to prove to young people that there are other ways to get a high-skilled job than just moving away for university.

With the Government’s recent announcement on the Green Industrial Revolution, creating 250,000 jobs, we have a real opportunity to create those high-skilled, high-paying jobs in areas like County Durham.

We don’t have to look far to see what investment can do in helping to level up. Just look across to Tees Valley to see the great work Ben Houchen is doing as Mayor. With the South Tees Development Corporation, Tees Valley has been able to secure inward investment and redevelopment, ensuring a strong base for local job creation.

If you’re a young person in 2020, we know it’s tough to get on the housing ladder. Average house prices are more than four times higher now than in the 1990s, but the same has certainly not been the case for average earnings. We need to ensure that young people do not feel frozen out of the housing market. Schemes such as Help To Buy have been lifelines for many, but in many cases, the supply of good quality, affordable housing is also an issue.

The Government’s proposed planning reforms will have a great impact on house building, helping to ensure a generation of young people are able to access the same opportunities of home ownership that their parents had.

However, what is also highlighted in research on why people tend to move towards more urban areas is that it’s not just for a job, but for the overall living experience. People want to live in areas that are attractive, and where there are fun and engaging things to do. For example, in Bishop Auckland, I often receive complaints about the fact that the town doesn’t have a cinema.

But I have a plan. People want vibrant town centres, with a buzz of both day and night life, and good places to socialise. In this sense, investment in public realm works and cultural and leisure assets is crucial. The Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission has stressed the idea of building well-connected communities in towns, where homes are blended with shops and civic buildings to create a real sense of place and community.

The Government is providing the tools for this, with £3.6 billion being invested through the Towns Fund alone. Bishop Auckland is benefiting from this scheme, adding to the cultural investment from The Auckland Project, together hoping to radically reshape the town centre to make it a more attractive place to live and work.

Strong public transport networks are also crucial. It’s all very well creating high-skilled jobs, but if people in certain areas can’t physically get to them, then the full benefit of levelling up efforts will always be limited. We are lucky to be living in a fast-moving technological age, so we need to be exploring options, like on-demand bus services, to provide transport routes in the most efficient and convenient way for consumers.

However, with Covid-19 accelerating workplaces’ adaptations towards working from home, this creates huge opportunities for areas that those working for firms based in major cities may not have ordinarily considered living in. Towns like Bishop Auckland could begin to market ourselves as ‘digital commuter towns’. Why shouldn’t we aim to attract those in highly-paid roles working for Manchester or London firms who are predominantly home-working? Why shouldn’t we aim to have more money being put into our local economy?

Yes, Covid-19 has presented many challenges, but it has also presented opportunities. As we focus on a recovery that aids levelling up, we need to look at ensuring that young people have multiple reasons to want to stay in their hometowns. That they’re able to aim for local, high-paid jobs, or opportunities from further afield that the digital age makes possible. That they’re able to settle down in the streets they grew up in, and they enjoy spending their free time where they live.

This is how we will truly deliver on the mission to level up.

This is part of Bright Blue’s essay series, Centre Write.

John Stevenson: Property tax reform is key to levelling up the country and the Conservatives’ electoral chances

3 Feb

John Stevenson is the Conservative MP for Carlisle.

The 2019 general election was won and fought on a clear mantra of “getting Brexit done”. Now that we have left the European Union and as we eventually emerge from the pandemic, it is time for the Prime Minister to re-focus on his mission to level up the UK.

Let’s be in no doubt that the Conservative Party’s electoral chances in 2024 depend to a large extent on whether people across the UK, and especially in the “Red Wall”, feel and see the benefits of this agenda. This was always going to be the case, even before the outbreak of Coronavirus. The pandemic has simply underlined some of the economic and social issues that have existed in Britain for too long. As a result, the task of levelling up has become more urgent.

The first challenge to overcome is one of definition. Who can explain what levelling up actually means? I understand work is going on behind the scenes to do exactly this. This needs to happen at pace alongside a clear set of metrics which can track progress on measures to which people can relate, from local healthcare and educational outcomes to unemployment levels and spending power. By regularly assessing progress in each of these metrics, locally accountable political leaders can identify specific challenges that are relevant to their community and put in place relevant improvement plans.

Second, the public are going to want to see results. Alongside the progress tracker, the Government and local MPs are going to require specific examples which they can use on the doorstep to show that constituents, their families and their communities are better off as a result of voting Conservative.

Brexit and then Covid have limited the amount of time and resource the Government can spend on working up specific policies which can be delivered before the country next goes to the polls and which chime with the electorate. Major infrastructure programmes are needed but these are often projects that take years to initiate and have little traction at a community level until final completion. As the saying goes, all politics is local.

Of course, the state of the public finances is also a huge problem for the Government. Any change of policy has to therefore be assessed on whether it delivers against a clearly defined vision of levelling up, whether local people can see and feel the benefits in their everyday lives, and whether it is cost-neutral or (ideally) a revenue raiser for the Treasury.

This is why a fundamental reform of property taxation is so appealing and could form a key component of the Government’s efforts to level up the country. The current system is out of date, confusing, unpopular, unequal and most importantly unfair. The Chancellor has acknowledged the need to make the system fairer and property taxes would be the ideal place to start.

The two obvious examples which irritate people from every walk of life are council tax and stamp duty. Council tax is based on property values from 1991 – 30 years out of date. That means that someone living in a house worth £100,000 pays around five times more tax as a share of property value than someone living in a home worth £1 million. Just 29 per cent of the public believe that council tax is calculated fairly and only 26 per cent believe that their own bill is set at the correct level.

Council tax has failed to keep up with the substantial increase in property values, especially in London. This has deprived the Treasury and local councils of much needed revenue and meant that lower income households outside the capital are paying more as a proportion of their home’s actual value than they should be. This has a profound impact, through no fault of their own, on their disposable income.

Stamp duty is a property tax which is an attack on aspiration and ownership. By taxing property transactions, stamp duty discourages homeowners from moving – be it an older couple downsizing or a growing family upsizing – that would lead to more efficient use of the country’s housing stock. The fall in transactions ultimately results in fewer new homes being built because the market signals, to which housebuilders respond, are distorted. Rishi Sunak’s stamp duty holiday to date has mitigated this damage, and wholesale abolition would be an even more potent remedy.

A fairer system would be to completely abolish both council tax and stamp duty and replace them with a new property tax which reflects the current value of people’s homes. A proportional property tax if you will. By setting that tax rate at 0.48 per cent the campaign group, Fairer Share, has calculated that over three quarters of households would be instantly better off.

The average household would see an additional £435 a year in their back pocket, while in some areas of the country such as Bishop Auckland and Bolsover the average household could respectively be £900 and £750 better off each year. Importantly the revenue raised would be split between central government to redistribute across local authorities in the form of grants, and local authorities would take a proportion of the overall rate.

From a political perspective, 97 per cent of households located in the “red wall” seats in England that the Conservatives took from Labour at the last election, would be better off. Traditional Tory seats would also fare well from this policy. In the Chancellor’s own constituency of Richmond, Yorkshire, 92 per cent of households would be better off to the tune of £600 while in South Cambridgeshire the average household would save £350 each year.

Obviously, creating a fairer, more transparent, and up to date property tax system would also mean that some households would end up having to pay more every year to reflect the current price of their home. That is why it is important that any such policy protects these people, who through no fault of their own or indeed through their own renovation work, have benefited from their home increasing in value.

To that extent, Fairer Share is proposing a monthly £100 cap on the total increase any one household could pay which would disappear at point of sale. At the same time – and to help those who are cash poor but living in a high value property – the new tax could be deferred until there is a change of ownership meaning that they wouldn’t lose out financially from the policy.

Replacing council tax and stamp duty with a proportional property tax is the right thing to do for millions of people up and down the country. This reform would have an impact beyond the regional. Ten years of low interest rates have led to increasing asset prices making houses unaffordable for the young and potentially driving them into the arms of the opposition. A solution needs to be found to protect the votes of tomorrow.

Politicians are still chastened by the memory of the negative reaction to the bungled and unpopular poll tax. And since then, council tax and stamp duty have become so unpopular that politicians are anxious about even raising the topic.

But “politics” can no longer be the excuse for failing to implement meaningful property tax reform. The changing political landscape may well be the catalyst for reform. It is the right thing to do from a political perspective, demonstrating that fairness is at the heart of everything the Conservative Party stands for.

With the next election beginning to loom on the horizon, this is a policy which will work on the doorstep and become the perfect flagship policy for the Prime Minister’s vision of levelling up the country.

Michelle Donelan: The Government’s new Turing scheme will open up the world to British students

28 Dec

Michelle Donelan is Minister of State for Universities.

When things become too familiar, it can be comfortable to sit back and enjoy their benefits, never stopping to consider whether the old, established parameters still meet the needs of the present day. The thought of losing it becomes a wrench. Even if what is being offered in exchange is clearly better, the original has acquired a totemic nature that goes far beyond its present value.

Such can be the only explanation for the cries of dismay from some quarters that greeted the news last week that the UK government would be establishing a new global Turing scheme for students, following our decision not to continue participation in the EU’s Erasmus+ scheme.

I can understand why some people feel this way. Many prominent commentators, newsreaders or academics may have used Erasmus, or perhaps their children or friends did. It is easier to imagine what you know, than to visualise the benefits of what is being brought in. However, the simple reality is this: if anyone was creating a student exchange scheme for Britain today, would they really settle for Erasmus+?

Why would we wish to limit an exchange programme to the EU, when the fastest growing, most vibrant and dynamic countries are increasingly found in Asia and Africa – not to mention our old allies in North America, Australia and New Zealand? Some forward-thinking universities have already established exchange programmes, and even campuses, outside of Europe, and I commend them for that, but they deserve our full and whole-hearted support, not exclusion from the Government’s principal funded scheme.

It is also the case, unfortunately, that Erasmus’s benefits went overwhelmingly to students who were already advantaged. The language barrier meant that it was very hard for students not already studying a modern foreign language to take part, to flourish at their chosen university and get the most out of the academic experience. A 2006 study found that of those taking part in Erasmus from the UK, 51 per cent were from families with a high or very high income.

In 2014-15, those with parents in managerial or professional occupations from the UK were taking part in Erasmus at a rate 50 per cent higher than those whose parents had working class jobs – and the gap was widening. Of course, no-one would wish to prevent such students from studying abroad; but where Government support is concerned, surely it should be about ensuring all students have a fair and equal shot at studying abroad or going on an exchange.

That’s why the Government’s new Turing scheme will explicitly target students from disadvantaged backgrounds and areas which did not previously have many students benefiting from Erasmus+, making life-changing opportunities accessible to everyone across the country. It will be backed by over £100 million, providing funding for around 35,000 students in universities, colleges, on apprenticeships, and in schools to go on placements and exchanges overseas, starting in September 2021.

The programme will provide similar opportunities for students to study and work abroad as the Erasmus+ programme but it will include countries across the world and will deliver greater value for money to taxpayers. And it will be named after one of our greatest British scientists: Alan Turing, a pioneer of computing and cryptography, a hero of the Second World War and who himself studied abroad as a Visiting Fellow at Princeton.

Of course, none of this is to decry Erasmus+: undoubtedly, those who took part in the scheme benefited from it. However, the fact is that it is simply too limiting for the global Britain that we aspire to. Of the hundred best universities in the world in the QS World Rankings, only twelve are in the EU. If we have stayed with Erasmus+ it would have cost several hundreds of millions of pounds to fund a similar number of exchanges, not have been global in nature and continued to deliver poor participation rates for young people from deprived backgrounds.

In the future, we will see young people from Bolsover and Bishop Auckland studying in the Ivy League; entrepreneurs from Dudley and Derbyshire learning from the dynamic economies of Malaysia, Vietnam and Indonesia; and our best budding engineers from Hastings and Hartlepool inspired by world-leaders at MIT or the Indian Institute of Technology. The Turing scheme exemplifies the spirit of Brexit, opening up our opportunities, our hearts and our horizons to the whole world.

James Frayne: Big tax rises would make Tory campaigning impossible – in Red Wall seats as well as traditionally blue ones

1 Sep

James Frayne is Director of Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion.

In my last column, I suggested that the best hope for the Conservatives in building an effective campaign infrastructure in newly-won Northern and Midlands seats was by developing a new business-led coalition in these places.

Many of these towns and small cities have no activist networks of any description, and new voters come from families that openly despised the Tories a generation ago. Practically the only truly culturally Conservative people here – in the North East, the far North West and South Yorkshire – are businesspeople. Businesspeople are relatively large in number and are trusted by their local communities; they would be a perfect launchpad for a new Conservative Party.

It’s early days, of course, and details are yet to emerge, but news of a major assault on British businesses via higher taxes would make such a campaign totally impossible to run. It would be a massive set back to Conservative plans to become a regional party.

If reports are to be believed, amongst other things, the Treasury is considering significantly raising Corporation Tax, as well as Capital Gains Tax (CGT) and taxes on pension payments.

“Corporation Tax” is badly named; it’s a tax on pretty much any significant business, not on “corporations” – but, while larger businesses have both the resources and the endless budget lines to be able to minimise profit and keep corporation tax bills down, SMEs just have to lump it.

And increases in CGT and pension payments will put fear into small businesses, because they ultimately allow business owners to take a lower income now in the hope and expectation of being able to enjoy pay-offs in the future – with their currently lower income supporting their ability to employ others.

All of this would be a bad idea politically at the best of times. But doing it now, just when businesses have been struggling very badly, would be unbelievably risky. It’s not just high street retailers that have bit badly hit; vast numbers of firms have been hit either directly by the logistical difficulties of running a business while social distancing is required, or by a collapse in the confidence of their customers, or both.

New, higher taxes would make it harder for businesses to earn a living, and they would also make redundancies more likely and the scrapping of recruitment plans much more likely. Many businesses will be looking to develop a decent financial cushion over the next year or two – with at least six months’ operating costs in the bank – having been scarred by how close they came during lockdown to oblivion.

They would not be able to generate such a cushion with higher taxes on their profits. (Some businesses are also complaining that this comes on top of Brexit – something else that they would sooner not manage).

Aren’t these businesspeople effectively locked-in to the Conservative Party? Where would businesses go to vote? It’s true to say there are many, many businesspeople across the Midlands and North that would be very unlikely to vote Labour – on the basis the Conservatives would pretty much always be better for them.

But we’re not talking about simply securing their votes for future elections; we’re talking about trying to energise businesses so that they became local recruiters, fundraisers and campaigners for the Party in places where there are no activists. They simply won’t do this if the Conservatives turn them over. Again, if the businesspeople of Rotherham, Doncaster, Barrow, Workington, Bishop Auckland and so on aren’t going to create a new Conservative campaign network, who on earth is going to do it?

While major tax rises on business would make the growth of new regional Conservative Party much more difficult, I strongly doubt it would retain any medium-term popularity with the public either. Public opinion polls always lag behind business polls – and these are showing extreme concern about the state of the economy.

The public would catch up when reality bit and growth slowed and redundancies rose; at that point, the public would see that raising taxes on employers doesn’t help anyone. So where should the Treasury look? There are already suggestions they are being strongly encouraged to look at spending cuts first; only when they have exhausted what’s reasonable morally, economically and politically should they turn towards tax rises.

Anand Menon: Our latest research finds that the Conservatives are divided on economics, but united on culture.

30 Jun

Anand Menon is Director of the UK in a Changing Europe.

Dominic Cummings must be rubbing his hands with glee. As more and more questions are raised about what some are calling the ‘lethal amaterurism’ that has characterised the Government’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis, the country spent most of June distracted by furious arguments about race and statues.

This has moved the debate on from Boris Johnson’s chief advisor’s unique approach to optical health. More importantly, a debate about values rather than health outcomes suits the Government down to the ground.

The referendum of 2016 polarized the country along values lines (between social liberals and social conservatives) rather than along the left-right cleavage that traditionally structured political competition.

Source: British Election Study

Nor was this a one-off phenomenon. The values division laid bare by the referendum went on to shape the nature of subsequent electoral competition. Think back to last year’s election.

The fact that the Conservatives won seats like Wakefield, Bishop Auckland and Workington, or that they won by 21 per cent among working class voters is testimony to the realignment that had taken place in our politics.

So too is the fact that in seats where over 60 per cent backed leave, the Tories increased their support by an average of six per cent, whereas in those seats where more than 60 per cent voted Remain, the party’s vote actually fell by three points.

The argument over statues that has been such a central part of the Black Lives Matter protests in this country has mobilized that same division. And it is terrain on which the Conservatives are relatively well equipped to fight.

Recent work carried out by the UK in a Changing Europe compares the attitudes of MPs, party members and voters, by asking each group a series of questions about fundamental ideological attitudes. The findings are revealing.

When it comes to social values, the Conservative clan looks relatively united. Even more importantly, on values they are far closer to those crucial voters who switched from Labour in 2017 to the Conservatives in 2019 than to Keir Starmer’s party.

But when it comes to the politics of left versus right – questions like whether ‘there is one rule for the rich and one for the poor’, and the idea that ‘ordinary working people do not get their fair share of the nation’s wealth’ – the picture could hardly be more different.

Conservative MPs are to the right of both their own party members and Conservative voters, and significantly to the right of those 2019 Labour-to-Conservative switchers. Labour, on the other hand, is not just far less internally divided but considerably closer to those lost voters.

Looking forward, then, the Conservatives have an interest in maintaining a focus on values. Think of it this way. On the (feigned) threat to Churchill’s statue in Parliament Square, the Conservative Party spoke with one voice and rallied behind Boris Johnson. When it comes to the economic response to Covid-19, the party’s backbenches are increasingly restless.

The easing of lockdown will focus attention firmly on economic recovery. How these issues are framed then takes on crucial importance. We face another decade in which political life will be shaped by the impact of an economic crisis.

The Conservative narrative may well seek to major not on the details of the economic response – on how great the role of the state should be, or how we pay for ballooning deficits – but on arguably more ‘ephemeral’ concerns.

Conservative commentators are already queuing up to point out that it is surely no longer a priority to publish gender pay gaps, or to ‘suffer a little for the sake of the planet.’ Others argue that fads like the war on plastic have been made redundant by the virus.

It seems Number 10 is, in the short term, planning a number of ways of triggering values divisions. The Sunday Times reported that the Government is planning to scrap plans to allow people to change their legal gender.

Other reports suggest that some in Downing Street are encouraging the Prime Minister to launch a ‘war on woke’. The hope is clearly to profit from profound values divisions within Labour’s electoral coalition and detatch voters who might, if it really were all about the economy, stupid, support the centre-left rather than the centre-right.

For Labour, then, the key will be to find a way to nullify this strategy. Paul Mason has rightly argued that the party must focus on coming up with a more convincing narrative about reshaping the role of the state in the economy, as a means of uniting a coalition that has fractured over the last decade over values questions.

The party now has a leader that the public, including Leave voters, find broadly convincing – and one who is going to be less easy to label as an unpatriotic ultra-liberal.

A narrative about economic fairness unites Labour and has the potential to tap into the ideological attitudes of the median voter.

The Government’s current plans to emerge from lockdown will create millions of economic losers, and the Conservatives look set to incur significant governing costs.

A laser like-focus on the economy and on the steps needed both to recover from the post-lockdown slowdown in such a way as to tackle the numerous inequalities that the pandemic has highlighted could command broad support, not least among those voters that fled the party last year.

As the recent Labour Together review of the 2019 election concluded, Labour could win by building support for a ‘big change economic agenda’ that neutralises cultural and social tensions.

Whatever happens, the relative impact of the two cleavages – left vs right and social liberal vs social conservative will be crucial. The relative success of each side in imposing its own agenda on the political debate will help determine who ultimately triumphs.

This article is a cross-post from the UK in a Changing Europe’s website.

Read the Mind the values gap report here.