Jonathan Gullis and Abi Brown: Why the Lords should move to Stoke

23 May

Jonathan Gullis is MP for Stoke-on-Trent North, and Abi Brown is Leader of Stoke-on-Trent City Council

Last week, Michael Gove suggested that whilst restoration and renewal work took place in the Houses of Parliament, that he “would wholeheartedly welcome the relocation of the House of Lords to one of our great cities, and in particular the attractions of the six towns that constitute Stoke-on-Trent”.

This has caused uproar from some Peers and the Assistant Editor of Conservative Home, William Atkinson.

So, we are here to explain why Stoke-on-Trent would make the perfect home for the House of Lords – albeit temporarily.

Stoke-on-Trent was the beating heart of the industrial revolution; from the engineering genius of James Brindley in creating the Trent-Mersey canal, the pits of Chatterley Whitfield Colliery – the first colliery in the UK to bring up 1 million tonnes of coal in a year – to the potbanks of Wedgwood, Spode and Burgess & Leigh.

Historically, Stoke-on-Trent has also played a major role in this country’s democracy. Outside Swanbank Methodist Church in the Mother Town of Burslem on 16th August 1842, Chartist Josiah Heapy was shot dead, alongside others, as they campaigned for the right to vote. Our most famous Stokie, Josiah Wedgwood, helped end the slave trade in this country, creating the famous anti-slavery medallion to garner public support.

But it’s not only our city’s historical importance that says why we should be taken seriously.

Their Lordships will find getting here easier than they may think. It takes 90 minutes to get here by train from London, which will be down to just 60 minutes with the Handsacre Link from HS2. By road, we are connected with the M6 and A50 corridor, and by air, we have four international airports just over 60 minutes away.

We are in the north Midlands, gatekeepers to the Northern Powerhouse and part of the infamous former red wall. There is no better place geographically for their Lordships to be able to get to, from across our United Kingdom.

But above all else, the most important reason why moving the House of Lords to Stoke-on-Trent makes sense, is because we are the litmus test for the government’s levelling up agenda.

The year 2019 was monumental for our city. In May, despite a very challenging backdrop, we went from seven to 15 elected Conservative councillors, going from junior partners in the coalition first formed in 2015, to being the larger group. Since then, with defections from Labour and the Independents, we now have 22 councillors, and for the first time ever, run the council as a majority group.

In December of that year, the blue wave washed across Stoke-on-Trent, turning all three constituency seats Conservative for the first time in our city’s history.

Since then, the ‘Stoke Mafia’, as we are known by some Ministers, has been jointly making our case why Stoke-on-Trent is the perfect place to invest and prove that levelling up can work.

Since 2015, housebuilding has accelerated, averaging around 1,000 homes per year, with 97% on brownfield land. We are the 8th fastest growing economy in England, having already created 8,000 jobs in the last six years, and it was predicted last week that by the end of 2023, Stoke-on-Trent will be the third best place in the UK for jobs growth, outperforming Leeds, Manchester, Birmingham and London. We are also home to one of the UK’s most successful enterprise zones in the country, the Ceramic Valley.

We have been extremely successful in securing major government investment to Stoke-on-Trent.

There is £56 million of Levelling Up funding to unlock new homes, retail and office space and the city’s first arena, which will have an e-sports specialism – the first of its kind outside of London.

Also, £31 million is going to Bus Back Better, which will mean fairer fares, smarter bus routes and a more reliable service. This is in addition to money from the Restoring Your Railway’s fund to reopen Meir Station, and explore the possibility of reversing the Beeching cuts on the old Stoke to Leek line.

The Department for Education has made us a priority Education Improvement Area (EIA) to improve educational outcomes and skills locally, as well as investing £15 million to refurbish Middlehurst School into a new SEND school.

We are getting millions to pay off debt and expand capacity at the Royal Stoke University Hospital; £18 million towards research and development in advanced ceramics, and lastly, thanks to former Stoke-on-Trent resident Priti Patel, we are getting over 500 new jobs from the Home Office.

Unlike the Labour Party which forgot where Stoke-on-Trent was, believing the only Stoke that existed was Stoke Newington, it is this Prime Minister, this Chancellor, this Home Secretary and this Secretary of State for Levelling Up, who are giving Stoke-on-Trent its rightful recognition.

Their Lordships could find no better place to spend their time. We encourage them to come here and listen to people about why levelling up is so important.

Wherever the Lords ends up, Brexit showed that the Westminster bubble must reconnect with the country. The government is right to move parts of Whitehall out of London. Most of all, we must ensure that we don’t just talk of levelling up, but live it.

James Blagden: The Red Wall and Blue Fade. Why the main challenge to the Tories remains in the Midlands and North.

28 Feb

James Blagden is Chief Data Analyst at Onward and author of their new report Another Brick in the Wall: Where is the battleground at the next election?

Politics has rarely been more volatile. A year ago, the Conservatives held a double digit poll lead and people talked of Boris Johnson being in power for a decade. Today, the party sits several points behind Labour, with an MRP analysis over the weekend suggesting that half of the Cabinet could lose their seats if an election were held today. The pendulum may well swing back and forth again before the next election.

The challenge is to step back from the day-to-day froth and understand the deep currents reshaping British politics. These forces were exposed in 2019, when the Conservatives won a historic victory on the back of the fall of Labour’s “Red Wall”, overturning decades – in some cases even a century – of Labour dominance. It was a seismic realignment of the British electorate that delivered a historic fourth Conservative term and plunged Labour into existential crisis.

It feels like a long time ago now. With the Conservatives slumping in the polls, a cost of living crisis, and ‘partygate’ eroding trust in the Government, it is the Conservatives who are in crisis. Commentators are getting excited about the prospect of the Tories losing the next election. And following the shock loss of Chesham and Amersham, the focus has started to turn to the traditional Tory heartlands in the South where the Liberal Democrats hope to turn the ‘Blue Wall’ yellow.

In Onward’s latest report, published today, we analysed voting and demographic data from 2019 to work out where the Conservative Party will be most vulnerable in the future, and where it might be able to make further gains given the right strategy. And the truth is that talk of a Southern collapse is premature.

Our analysis suggests that nearly two-thirds of future battleground seats are in the North of England. Only 20 per cent are in the South. So, while the concern over Esher and Walton, Guildford, and Wimbledon is understandable and real, it is also overhyped.

This is not to say that the new Conservative coalition is baked in. It is possible that millions of voters could switch back to other parties. There are 31 seats in the North, Midlands, and north Wales could fall to Labour if the party fails to deliver for those who ‘lent’ their votes to the party in 2019. And that is not counting the dozens of other marginal seats that the Conservatives could lose if their popularity remains low.

But the challenges of political realignment also present opportunities.

There are 36 constituencies in the North of England where the Conservatives under-performed demographic model predictions, suggesting that the Red Wall still has further to fall. This list includes high-profile names like Ed Miliband’s seat of Doncaster North and Yvette Cooper’s seat of Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford. These should be Conservative target seats at the next election.

In contrast to the widespread volatility in the North, continued realignment only puts 12 southern seats at immediate risk, including constituencies like Guildford and Hendon. This is because most Tory seats in the Home Counties are about as Conservative as you would expect given the demographics of the area. They have more homeowners than average, more older voters, are less urban, and so on. Other parties will struggle to make much headway here, without any swing against the Conservatives.

So, most of the action in 2024 will likely take place in the North and Midlands, rather than the South of England. The Government should focus its attention accordingly.

But this does not mean that the Conservatives can become complacent in the South. After all, taking their traditional voters for granted was Labour’s undoing in 2019. Over the longer-term, parts of London and the South East have been drifting away from the Conservatives for years.

The number of seats affected is substantial. There are 35 constituencies, for example, where the Conservative vote has fallen by 10 percentage points more than average since 2015. That’s about one in every ten Conservative seats. This ‘Blue Drift’ is greatest in the Home Counties, including high-profile seats like Witney and Maidenhead, both held by former Prime Ministers.

Some of this drift is a function of post-Brexit realignment. Seats like Dominic Raab’s Esher and Walton have only recently turned away from the Tories, where the Liberal Democrats gained an astonishing 28-points in 2019. We see a similar pattern across most of Surrey, Berkshire and Oxfordshire.

The other half of this story is actually part of a 30-year trend. That the Conservative Party has been polling steadily worse in London and Merseyside is well-known. But Conservative support in areas like East Sussex and Cambridgeshire has been slowly ebbing away since the late 1980s.

If these trends continue, dozens of Conservative strongholds in the South East of England will become more marginal over time.

Could the Conservatives be outsmarted by a Lib-Lab pact? Both Keir Starmer and Ed Davey have suggested they would be open to an informal arrangement. But our analysis shows it would not on its own be enough to ‘get the Tories out’, because of the low starting position both parties find themselves in.

Even if a pact played out perfectly based on existing vote share – so, in seats where Labour came second, all Liberal Democrat voters backed the Labour candidate, and vice versa – the Conservatives would still win 321 seats. The Conservatives would still be by far the largest party in Parliament. It might actually leave the Tories a small working majority, depending on the number of abstaining Sinn Fein MPs.

The combined strength of Labour and the Liberal Democrats in this scenario would only by 257, which is worse than Jeremy Corbyn achieved on his own in 2017. So those who think that tactical anti-Conservative voting is the key to Labour’s victory are just plain wrong. To get anywhere near Number 10, Keir Starmer would need to win back voters in the Red Wall and focus less on the progressive left.

A bigger threat to the Conservatives would come from a resurgent ‘NewKip’ right-wing populist party. Research has already shown that the Brexit Party cost the Conservatives 25 extra seats in 2019 by siphoning off voters that would have otherwise voted Conservative. In effect, if the Brexit Party had stood down in more Leave-voting Labour seats, Boris Johnson’s majority could have increased from 80 to an eye-watering 130.

Looking forward, what could be the impact of disaffected 2019 Conservative voters switching to a new party that occupied the same political niche as UKIP or the Brexit Party? We used our 2019 election survey to work out where in the country this NewKip party would be strongest and how many votes that would cost the Conservatives.

At worst, ‘NewKip’ would cost the Conservatives 53 seats, which would completely wipe out their majority and deliver a hung parliament. The Tories would lose some of their more iconic 2019 gains like Dewsbury, Bridgend and North West Durham, as well as some marginal seats in the South. So, although a credible challenger has yet to emerge – Reform UK are only polling at three per cent – the Tories should watch that space with a keen eye.

If the Conservative Party wants to win again in 2024, the immediate focus should be cementing their gains in the North and Midlands and delivering on promises made at the last election. By leaning into the political realignment, and continuing their advance northernwards, the Conservatives could manage to stave off a disastrous 1997-style defeat.

Build Back Nothing

9 Nov

In news that will surprise absolutely no one, the Government appears to have backtracked further on its planning reforms. Yesterday, Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, said that he would be looking at how “housing need” is calculated, and suggested that some of the assumptions behind the numbers “are probably out of date.”

This has been taken as yet another sign of the Conservatives trying to distance themselves from their original plans for building homes. Only last month Boris Johnson tried to reassure voters at the Conservative Party Conference that “beautiful” ones should only be built “on brownfield sites in places where homes make sense”, in a pledge that will in no way help England meet its housing targets. It was a far cry from a Prime Minister who promised, in his first speech outside Downing Street, that the Tories would give “millions of young people the chance to own their own homes”.

As many know, the Tories are spooked by the Chesham & Amersham by-election result, where Liberal Democrats played on fears about planning reforms in order to win votes. The outcome has been seen as evidence that Conservatives have gone too far in upsetting the Blue Wall, hence they are now trying to make all the right noises about “beautiful” homes and protecting land around the UK. In addition to that, the party will struggle to get any decent reforms past its backbenchers, many of whom appear more upset about the green belt than millions of people needing homes.

Speaking of housing need, Gove warned that “We want to be in a position where people accept and welcome new development.” But the idea that homeowners at large (and backbenchers) will accept, let alone welcome, new developments, to the degree that the country needs them, is something of a pipe dream.

It goes without saying that there’s no easy answer to fixing the crisis – indeed, many articles on this site are devoted to the subject – albeit it is mainly an issue of supply. Yet, as a millennial watching on, the Government’s strategy at the moment seems to be hoping the problem will magically go away, buying time by debating the intricacies of reforms. In the meantime, it has thrown renters a bone by way of a 95 per cent mortgage scheme, an idea that will merely increase demand for homes.

To make any headway, the Government should apply the same energy it has towards achieving Net Zero on Getting Housing Done. It’s interesting that in going green, it has no qualms about upsetting the electorate – from talk of people having to replace their gas boilers, to the Climate Change Committee’s recommendations that the public give up meat. “This is an emergency”, it will say around its eco policies. Yet housing is not so far away – and also affecting many young people’s futures.

Though the Government is concerned about Chesham & Amersham – and the rest of the Blue Wall – its current approach risks another type of electoral disaster, as has been pointed out on several occasions, as those in their 30s and 40s remain infantilised by economic conditions. But Getting Housing Done is not merely a matter of political advances; it’s about a moral duty towards generations, whose hopes and dreams are being sacrificed to keep home-owning England happy. For renters, the Conservative vision cannot continue to be Build Back Nothing.

Is the Blue Wall around London in danger of cracking?

18 Jun

This year’s local elections are at least as good a guide to the future as by-elections. ConHome therefore republish my post-May analysis of the threat to the Conservatives in the South.

Overall, the local elections in England have produced great results for the Conservatives. They have enjoyed high-profile victories for the mayoralties in the West Midlands and Tees Valley, and seen gains in councils across the north.

But whilst they currently benefit from a divided opposition, Tory strategists would do well to remember that a realignment can be a two-edged sword. As the party focuses on broadening its appeal to a new coalition of voters, it risks alienating parts of its traditional base.

This is the basis for what some are starting to call the ‘Blue Wall’: more than 40 constituencies “which have been held by the Conservatives since at least 2010, where Labour or the Liberal Democrats have overperformed their national swing in 2017 and 2019 and where the Conservative majority is below 10,000”, as Matthew Goodwin explains. If CCHQ isn’t careful, these could follow those London seats where the party was competitive, or even won, in 2010 but is deep underwater now.

Some results from the weekend, such as the Conservatives’ loss of control in Cambridgeshire, are already being held up as examples of this trend, which as our Editor reported yesterday were described by one pollster as “big red flashes which under someone better than Starmer could cause chaos”.

But what is the situation in other Tory heartlands, such as the Home Counties?

In Hertfordshire, the party retained overall control but lost five seats – including that of David Williams, the council leader – whilst the Liberal Democrats made gains. It was a similar story in the Isle of Wight, where the Tories lost four seats and their leader.

In Kent, the Tories fell from 67 seats to 61, whilst Labour and the Greens advanced.

Buckinghamshire was electing a unitary authority for the first time, so there is no direct change, but according to the Bucks Herald “their lead over other parties has slimmed down slightly this time”, again whilst the Lib Dems gained ground.

On and on it goes. In Surrey, the Tories fell from 61 seats to 47 at the expense of the Lib Dems and various independents and residents’ associations.

In Oxfordshire they lost seven seats whilst the Lib Dems gained seven, leaving the two parties almost neck at neck at 22 councillors to 21.

They lost three councillors in East Sussex, and eight in West Sussex.

And despite the Conservatives advancing across the North, its a different story in one of the areas where they have traditionally done well: they lost four councillors to Labour in Trafford, cementing the Opposition’s control over what was once ‘Manchester’s Tory council’ by picking up Ashton upon Mersey, Daveyhulme, and the village of Flixton.

Whilst local trends don’t necessarily presage Westminster ones (Watford has a Conservative MP and not a single Tory councillor), Sir Graham Brady’s majority in Altringham and Sale West was halved in 2017 and contracted again in 2019, even as the party made gains elsewhere. Might it be that this prosperous suburban area, which returned a Conservative MP even in 1997, might drift out of the Tory column over the next decade?

Naturally, it doesn’t follow that all of these results are part of some grand pattern. Local issues will invariably be in play, and some of it may be the sort of backlash against a ruling party that one normally expects to see in ‘mid-term’ contests such as these.

For example in Tunbridge Wells, the LibDems caused much excitement by seizing control of the borough council. But all five of the wards at county council levels remained in Tory hands.

But the example of Oxfordshire, where the party held 51 out of 73 seats in 2009 ,but has been on a downward trajectory ever since, suggests that CCHQ can’t take such comforting explanations for granted. And by the time it becomes obvious that a council is properly trending away from the party, the best moment to take action will have passed.

Down the line, this would have implications for general elections if London overspill and sky-high house prices see more seats follow Brighton and Canterbury into the Labour column – a prospect which is reportedly already concerning Tory MPs.

But will it be enough to spook those MPs into doing what’s necessary to fix it? The Government is right to believe that its hold on the ‘Red Wall’ rests on expanding home ownership. But it has so far failed to overcome the self-interest of southern MPs and get them accept the blunt fact that the same thing is true of the ‘Blue Wall’ too. Somehow, ministers need to get sufficient houses built to put home ownership and family formation within reach of young professionals.

It will take much greater study to assess the true nature and scale of the problem. But the party needs to be across it and prepared to act. The sorry state of the Labour Party shows just how badly the voters can punish those who take their homelands for granted.

It’s too soon to judge how the boundary review will impact the next election – but it’s fun to try

8 Jun

There was some excitement in this morning’s papers about the impact of the proposed reforms to constituency boundaries. Suggestions that Ben Wallace, the Defence Secretary, might lose his seat have made headlines.

Expert psephologists are being rather more cautious about projecting any partisan impact of the changes. These are, after all, only initial proposals. Whilst MPs won’t get an opportunity to vote the Boundary Commission’s eventual map down, the parties do now have an opportunity to feed back.

Historically, the Conservatives have not always handled this process well. Anthony Seldon, in his book Major: A Political Life, noted how in the 1990s: “weak local organisation and coordination led to the fumbling of the opportunity presented by the Boundary Commission review.”

With discipline breaking down as the post-Thatcher era began, apparently there was at least one instance of two associations turning up to a boundary meeting with separate barristers. As a result, an anticipated 40-seat gain for the Tories ended up being a mere five.

There may be a lesson there for today. Not because of a similar risk of association infighting – the process is, like everything else, much more centrally organised these days, and is in the hands of the veteran Roger Pratt at CCHQ. But because there’s also another reason not to jump to conclusions about “the biggest shake-up of boundaries in decades”, which is that the old logic of the reforms has been rather overtaken by the 2019 election.

When the plans were first mooted under David Cameron (alongside the unsaleable intention to cut the number of seats), equalising constituency sizes hurt Labour, which won large numbers of disproportionately small seats, and thus boosted the Conservatives. But with the Tories having broken through in a lot of those seats at the last election, that happy outcome is now much less certain.

And when we examined this question as part of our ‘Securing the Majority’ series last summer, some MPs also warned that a serious boundary shake-up could wipe out the first-term dividend newly-elected parliamentarians often enjoy.

So a full picture of the partisan impact of the changes will have to wait. But it nonetheless interesting to take two snapshots of the battlefield – one in the ‘Red Wall’, and one in the ‘Blue Wall’ – and prognosticate a little. Follow along at home with this very handy interactive map, courtesy of Election Maps UK.

Blue Wall

For the latter, let’s look at true-blue Buckinghamshire. All seven seats here returned Conservative MPs at the last election, and most by comfortable margins. What impact are the proposed changes likely to have?

Overall the county gains a seat, rising to eight. This has been done by carving the new seat of Princes Risborough out of the southern parts of the Aylesbury and Buckingham constituencies.

Despite this Milton Keynes notionally loses one, with Ben Everitt’s seat of Milton Keynes North, already a county constituency, shedding its remaining territory in the town and becomes Newport Pagnell, likely to be rock solid. Meanwhile Buckingham would absorb parts of the old Milton Keynes South to become Buckingham and Bletchley. Given that Greg Smith enjoys a majority of over 20,000, this is unlikely to cost him much sleep.

Milton Keynes South, what’s left of it, becomes just Milton Keynes. As a more urban seat it is likely to be closer to Labour than it was, although Iain Stewart’s comfortable majority of 6,944 ought to see him through.

Aylesbury changes shape quite dramatically, shedding a swath of southern territory. The new seat is much more concentrated on the town itself, and may also therefore be more competitive for Labour.

Both Chesham and Amersham and Wycombe remain roughly the same, although the latter becomes ‘High Wycombe’ – a rare example of the Boundary Commission’s enthusiasm for longer names being a force for good. It is the county’s most marginal seat and will probably continue trending away from the Party. On the other hand, Beaconsfield becomes Marlow and South Buckinghamshire for no obvious reason.

Overall then, little for CCHQ to complain out. These changes might put one or two seats slightly closer to the opposition, but this is probably offset by creating a new, quite safe Tory seat.

Red Wall

Now let’s look at an offensive battlefield: South Yorkshire. The Conservatives made a handful of gains here in 2019, but there is plenty of scope for growth – especially in the wake of the dramatic results at the locals, which saw the Party go from zero seats to 20 on Rotherham Council.

According to local sources, “winning all three Rotherham seats on these boundaries is a decent prospect.” Minor changes to Alexander Stafford’s seat of Rother Valley are unlikely to make much of an impact, Rotherham itself becomes “slightly more winnable”, and Wentworth and Dearne loses the Dearnes (the area with the weakest Tory vote) and is reborn as Rawmarsh and Conisbrough.

Doncaster Central (Labour majority: 2,278) becomes Doncaster Town by taking part of Don Valley that is “very good for us” – in fact local Tories suggest that “on these boundaries we should be looking to win it.” The consequence is that Don Valley itself may be harder to hold, although Nick Fletcher should probably be OK. Likewise, minor changes to Penistone and Stocksbridge are apparently unlikely to cause Miriam Cates much difficulty.

Elsewhere there is churn but less change: the rejigged boundaries in Barnsley will apparently produce broadly similar results to the status quo, as will alterations to Ed Miliband’s seat in Doncaster North (although this remains winnable). Likewise, nobody seems to expect any exciting results from a relatively conservative reshuffling of Sheffield.

On the face of it, a rosy outlook for the Party. But of course, South Yorkshire is an area where the old electoral map survived the last election. There are others, such as South Wales. But the impact of the reforms could be quite different elsewhere.

The Government must deliver more homes, and they must be in the South

28 May

The Conservative Party may currently be in its electoral pomp, but it has a big structural problem: the long-term and short-term interests of much of its coalition are badly misaligned on one of the biggest issues facing the nation. Housing.

In the long run, more and cheaper housing means more Conservative voters. This is because it allows people to acquire assets and a degree of personal security – i.e. something worth conserving.

It also makes it more affordable to settle down and start a family, which American Steve Sailer has persuasively argued is one of the most significant factors that helps push voters rightwards. He suggested in 2008 that a successful conservative party should “position itself as the party of more weddings and more babies”, whilst casting the opposition, “with some accuracy, as the party of dying alone.”

We may perhaps have already seen this in action. The Economist first published the ‘Barratt Box’ theory of the Red Wall, which posits that the Tories broke through across the North not because of some new cultural link to windswept town centres but because affordable housing has simply allowed the processes which traditionally turn out Tory voters to take their court.

But in the short run, more and cheaper housing scares off existing Conservative voters, sitting on fabulous property wealth in leafy parts of the country and quite prepared to defect to the Liberal Democrats or the Greens (or indeed the alphabet soup of localists and residents associations) if either looks more likely to ‘Keep X Special’. When I recently looked at the danger of cracks in the ‘Blue Wall’, anger at development was the issue that very often explained local Tory setbacks, including in the Hertfordshire town where I grew up.

This is the context in which the battle over the Government’s planning policy is taking place.

Anyone familiar with the history of Conservative efforts to undo the huge damage wrought by the Attlee Government’s awful planning reforms are likely to be pessimistic. John Myers, of London YIMBY, wrote for us recently about how effectively Tory backbenchers have seen off Robert Jenrick’s various predecessors. Sam Bowman fears that they have already defanged this latest effort by scaring ministers away from ‘street votes’, a proposal to stuff homeowners’ mouths with gold I wrote about previously.

Some of the arguments advanced by the Conservative rearguard have indeed been breathtakingly disengenous. Whilst there was a fair point to be made about the previous algorithm not assigning enough new houses to (Labour-held) urban areas, it is nonsense to suggest that building in the South is a betrayal of ‘levelling up’.

Whatever economic interventions the North needs to succeed, mass housebuilding isn’t it. Homes there are already for the most part very affordable. As I said before, it’s an odd definition of ‘levelling up’ that pushes the Party’s new voters into negative equity to give Theresa Villiers a five-year lease on Chipping Barnet.

In fact, some argue that more affordable housing in the South means less disposable income being consumed by banks and landlords, leaving more to spend on goods and services and thus expanding the market that northern businesses can sell into.

(It is a sign of how divorced from reality the arguments against housebuilding have got that a recent Times report stated that: “the government’s formula assumes that more homes are needed where prices are higher.” It is remarkable that this would need stating.)

But others in the housing policy space are less pessimistic. First, because even without Street Votes (an extremely experimental policy) they think that zoning for growth on its own could be a significant win, especially if policy “draws inspiration from the idea of design codes and pattern books that built Bath, Belgravia and Bournville”, as Jenrick wrote last year.

Moreover, Boris Johnson’s victory in the Red Wall doesn’t just illustrate the dividends of affordable housing – it may also create more political space to deliver it. A large majority, secured outside the Conservatives’ traditional map, gives the Government more wriggle-room both to face down the shire rearguard and indeed to weather the loss of some of those seats for a cycle or two, before the NIMBY backlash is overcome by the influx of grateful new homeowners (being personally handed their keys by the Housing Secretary, ideally).

None of this guarantees success. Ministers could and should do much more to drive building in Sadiq Khan’s London, both to try and salvage the Party’s position in the capital and to prevent spillover doing to more commuter seats what it has already done to Brighton and Canterbury. The Prime Minister may feel the short-term cost of people being angry at him is not worth a long-term benefit the Party – not to mention several generations of younger voters – will probably only enjoy after he has left office.

For all that, however, it does appear that the Government at least grasps the seriousness of the issue and is prepared to try and do something about it. And that’s a good start.

Is the Blue Wall round the Home Counties in danger of cracking?

11 May

Overall, the local elections in England have produced great results for the Conservatives. They have enjoyed high-profile victories for the mayoralties in the West Midlands and Tees Valley, and seen gains in councils across the north.

But whilst they currently benefit from a divided opposition, Tory strategists would do well to remember that a realignment can be a two-edged sword. As the party focuses on broadening its appeal to a new coalition of voters, it risks alienating parts of its traditional base.

This is the basis for what some are starting to call the ‘Blue Wall’: more than 40 constituencies “which have been held by the Conservatives since at least 2010, where Labour or the Liberal Democrats have overperformed their national swing in 2017 and 2019 and where the Conservative majority is below 10,000”, as Matthew Goodwin explains. If CCHQ isn’t careful, these could follow those London seats where the party was competitive, or even won, in 2010 but is deep underwater now.

Some results from the weekend, such as the Conservatives’ loss of control in Cambridgeshire, are already being held up as examples of this trend, which as our Editor reported yesterday were described by one pollster as “big red flashes which under someone better than Starmer could cause chaos”.

But what is the situation in other Tory heartlands, such as the Home Counties?

In Hertfordshire, the party retained overall control but lost five seats – including that of David Williams, the council leader – whilst the Liberal Democrats made gains. It was a similar story in the Isle of Wight, where the Tories lost four seats and their leader.

In Kent, the Tories fell from 67 seats to 61, whilst Labour and the Greens advanced.

Buckinghamshire was electing a unitary authority for the first time, so there is no direct change, but according to the Bucks Herald “their lead over other parties has slimmed down slightly this time”, again whilst the Lib Dems gained ground.

On and on it goes. In Surrey, the Tories fell from 61 seats to 47 at the expense of the Lib Dems and various independents and residents’ associations.

In Oxfordshire they lost seven seats whilst the Lib Dems gained seven, leaving the two parties almost neck at neck at 22 councillors to 21.

They lost three councillors in East Sussex, and eight in West Sussex.

And despite the Conservatives advancing across the North, its a different story in one of the areas where they have traditionally done well: they lost four councillors to Labour in Trafford, cementing the Opposition’s control over what was once ‘Manchester’s Tory council’ by picking up Ashton upon Mersey, Daveyhulme, and the village of Flixton.

Whilst local trends don’t necessarily presage Westminster ones (Watford has a Conservative MP and not a single Tory councillor), Sir Graham Brady’s majority in Altringham and Sale West was halved in 2017 and contracted again in 2019, even as the party made gains elsewhere. Might it be that this prosperous suburban area, which returned a Conservative MP even in 1997, might drift out of the Tory column over the next decade?

Naturally, it doesn’t follow that all of these results are part of some grand pattern. Local issues will invariably be in play, and some of it may be the sort of backlash against a ruling party that one normally expects to see in ‘mid-term’ contests such as these.

For example in Tunbridge Wells, the LibDems caused much excitement by seizing control of the borough council. But all five of the wards at county council levels remained in Tory hands.

But the example of Oxfordshire, where the party held 51 out of 73 seats in 2009 ,but has been on a downward trajectory ever since, suggests that CCHQ can’t take such comforting explanations for granted. And by the time it becomes obvious that a council is properly trending away from the party, the best moment to take action will have passed.

Down the line, this would have implications for general elections if London overspill and sky-high house prices see more seats follow Brighton and Canterbury into the Labour column – a prospect which is reportedly already concerning Tory MPs.

But will it be enough to spook those MPs into doing what’s necessary to fix it? The Government is right to believe that its hold on the ‘Red Wall’ rests on expanding home ownership. But it has so far failed to overcome the self-interest of southern MPs and get them accept the blunt fact that the same thing is true of the ‘Blue Wall’ too. Somehow, ministers need to get sufficient houses built to put home ownership and family formation within reach of young professionals.

It will take much greater study to assess the true nature and scale of the problem. But the party needs to be across it and prepared to act. The sorry state of the Labour Party shows just how badly the voters can punish those who take their homelands for granted.

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.

James Blagden: The Government cannot assume its majority is safe. It must continue to win over “Contract Conservatives”.

3 Dec

James Blagden is a researcher at Onward.

The day after last December’s election, the Prime Minister thanked those who “lent” their support to the Conservative Party. People who had never voted Conservative before, in places that had never returned anything other than a Labour MP, gave Boris Johnson their vote. But how many ‘”lent” votes were there, who are these temporary Tories, and can they be persuaded to stay?

The commentary this time last year was not about lent votes but “tactical voting” – the idea that voters would tactically coordinate and switch their votes to block a specific party. Remain United, People’s Vote and Best for Britain all attempted to persuade campaigners to align behind Remain parties and built websites to help them decide who to vote for.

But most of the evidence suggests that this kind of tactical voting – voting to block a particular candidate – simply didn’t happen. Labour suffered a historic collapse and the Liberal Democrats defied expectations in the wrong direction.

In fact, while many did lend their votes to non-ideal parties, this was contractual not merely tactical. In 2019, reluctant votes for the Conservatives were not just votes against challenger parties, but votes in return for a specific outcome.

In No Turning Back, Onward’s major analysis of the post-2019 electorate, we find that one in five Conservative voters supported the party despite it not being their ideal choice. Why? Mostly to “get Brexit done”. A majority (56 per cent) of these “Contract Conservatives” said they were voting to deliver Brexit, compared to 34 per cent of other Tory voters.

Contract Conservatives were more likely to have backed Leaving the European Union in 2016 (87 per cent) compared to other Conservative voters (74 per cent). In a sign of their antipathy to Jeremy Corbyn, they were also three times as likely as other Conservatives to say that they were voting to stop a party they disliked from winning.

But their political allegiances are febrile and there is reason to believe this group are not yet secured. 64 per cent said that they would ideally support the Brexit Party – and 34 per cent had voted UKIP in either 2015 or 2017.

Nor were Contract Conservatives too enthusiastic about the Conservative Party itself: only a quarter (25 per cent) voted for the party because they thought the Conservatives offered the best policies or had the leader who would be the best Prime Minister – compared to 57 per cent of the rest of the Conservative coalition.

But irrespective of their motivations, the Conservatives’ new voters have remarkably similar values to those already loyal to conservatism. In fact, they almost exactly overlap with other Conservative voters across both the economic and social dimensions. Both groups want politicians to be tough on crime and immigration and to invest in and support communities and local economies.

They are not particularly small-state or free-market: a majority support tax rises to pay for the NHS and boost public spending. They want a Government that regulates more rather than less and pushes businesses to do more to retrain workers in this country rather than bring in labour from abroad.

In the areas that they differ, these voters are dragging the party left on economics and right on culture – away from the coalition that David Cameron built. Contract Conservatives are more in favour of cutting the foreign aid budget than other Tory voters and more likely to think that immigration has made the country worse overall.

They are slightly more egalitarian and less meritocratic: 70 per cent think there are always opportunities in this country if you’re willing to work hard, compared to 83 per cent of other Conservatives. Both groups strongly believe that, as a society, we should encourage people to take more responsibility for themselves, but Contract Conservatives are less likely to think that unemployment benefits are too high (63 per cent, compared to 70 per cent of other conservatives).

The electoral impact of this cannot be overstated. This group of contract voters is roughly equal to 3.2 million people. Without these electors, the Conservative national vote share would have been 33 per cent in 2019, rather than 45 per cent, and their majority would have halved from 80 to 42.

Because millions of people voted Tory despite the Conservatives not being their ideal choice, the Party managed to net an extra 19 seats. These include Blyth Valley, Sedgefield (Tony Blair’s old seat), Great Grimsby and Wakefield. Overall, contract voting was decisive enough to alter the result in 63 constituencies – many in the Conservatives’ favour and with the largest swings in constituencies that had the highest support for Leaving the EU. In Bassetlaw and Great Grimsby around seven in 10 people voted for Brexit. Contract voting boosted the Conservatives by an extra 15 per cent in both of these places.

But this exposes the vulnerability of the 2019 Conservative coalition. If, in four years’ time, these contract voters feel let down or the Government has failed to deliver for them, then many of the iconic Conservative gains could fall back to Labour. The margin is very thin. As little as a 4.3 per cent swing from the Conservatives to Labour would be enough to generate a hung Parliament in 2024.

Given the link between the 2016 referendum result and the 2019 Conservative landslide, it is essential that the Government gets Brexit done. But that begs the question: What will replace Brexit as the central motivation for Contract Conservatives to keep voting Tory? If Brexit is resolved, why vote Conservative?

The Spending Review last week demonstrated that the Chancellor sees public services investment and levelling up as the two key policies that can fill the gap. He is right to focus his firepower there. Ultimately voters wanted to “get Brexit done” in order to invest in the NHS or boost regional growth, not just to leave the EU.

The challenge for the next three years is to show them that the Government has a plan for doing so after we leave. The Government’s increased NHS investment and new National Infrastructure Bank – something Onward called for – are important downpayments on that message.

The critical point is that the Conservatives cannot assume that the majority is safe. In fact, the softness of the vote and the changing nature of the electorate means it looks superficially large and could easily be lost. This means that the party has no option but to deliver on its promises, to level up left-behind places, and in doing so consolidate a new coalition that can endure. There must be no turning back.

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

17 Nov

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A relentless focus on making change happen

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

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

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