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.

Ted Christie-Miller: Everything must change if Britain is to hit its Net Zero target. How are we going to manage it?

5 Jan

Ted Christie-Miller is a Senior Researcher at Onward and is leading the Getting to zero research programme.

The existential necessity of reducing our carbon emissions, and the level of cross-party consensus in Westminster, can sometimes obscure how hard it is going to be to get there. This is a policy that will require drastic changes to human behaviour, industrial processes and the homes we live in. We need a more grown up conversation about getting to zero.

Politicians, understandably, tend to emphasise the opportunities. The Prime Minister’s Ten Point Plan and last month’s Energy White Paper painted an exciting vision of a jobs-rich, cutting-edge future that could benefit Britain’s lagging regions. Voters largely agree: YouGov recently found that a majority of all age groups, regions, genders, party voters and both sides of the Brexit vote want to see Britain leading the world on climate action. Environmentalism is no longer woke metropolitanism but good politics. On the campaign trail last year in Workington, I witnessed a hustings dominated by small nuclear reactors and offshore wind.

But despite the consensus on climate, the sheer scale of the challenge is underappreciated. Over the next 30 years everything needs to change: the food we eat, the cars we drive and the way we heat our homes. As Onward uncovered last year, we need to treble the number of plumbers just to have the capacity to change out old boilers and quintuple the rate of energy efficiency improvements to insulate our housing stock. We also need to build more than 500 electric vehicle charging points a day, according to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders.

As with all industrial transformations, the costs will not be evenly spread across the country. As new Onward research out today finds, the regions which have lagged most in recent decades stand to be hardest hit: 42 per cent of jobs in the East Midlands are in high emitting industries, 41 per cent in the West Midlands, and 38 per cent in Yorkshire and the Humber and the North West – compared to just 23 per cent in London and 34 per cent in the South East. In total, more than half (52 per cent) of high emitting jobs are located in the North, Midlands and Scotland. The risks of this turning into another North-South divide are acute.

Despite this, much of the existing spending on net zero programmes is going to more prosperous regions. New analysis from Zap Map shows that London and the South East received 45 per cent of new charger capacity in the past year. There are 63 public chargers per 100,000 people in the capital, more than double the average of the rest of the UK. Given the reliance on cars outside of London, and the high levels of public transport investment in the capital, this feels back to front. The Department for Transport itself estimates that people are 27 per cent more likely to have a car if they live in the West Midlands or the North West than in London.

The new BritishVolt gigafactory in Blyth announced last month demonstrates the potential for net zero to be a net positive. Whether it’s offshore wind in the North Sea, carbon capture clusters in the Humber or electric vehicle manufacturing in the North East, there are a sea of economic opportunities to come over the next three decades. But we cannot kid ourselves that this will be a seamless transition, and for many workers the journey from a carbon emitting job to green industry will be tough. If politicians are going to take voters with them, we need to be honest about the trade offs and develop policies to help those who stand to lose out.

This is why the Government’s combined agendas of net zero and levelling up are so crucial. If the synergies of the two missions can be found and the policy is creative, thoughtful and practical, the Government does not have to choose between the two. Net zero can and must be the key to unlock regional growth in the UK and a prosperous future for all of us.

Alan Mak: A new tech scrappage scheme will boost productivity

2 Jul

Alan Mak is MP for Havant and Founder of the APPG on the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crash, governments around the world including those of Japan, Germany and the US responded to calls to help struggling car manufacturers by introducing popular scrappage schemes. After new car registrations declined by 30 per cent in the UK in the first quarter of 2009, the schemes saw demand bounce back, while dirty, polluting old cars were consigned to the scrapheap.

Now there is media speculation about a new car scrappage scheme – drivers will be given up to £6,000 to swap their petrol or diesel cars for electric ones – designed to provide a shot in the arm for the UK electric car manufacturing sector in the wake of Coronavirus.

Yet focus should also be given to how the Government could launch a similar scheme to help factories and businesses investing in the latest technology. We must use this period of recovery to press the fast-forward button on helping our businesses to improve their performance by adopting new technologies quickly, accelerating processes that would have otherwise taken many years into a much shorter period.

Just as the Government ushered a brand-new fleet of cars onto our roads a decade ago, a new scrappage scheme should be introduced for old and obsolete IT, tech and machinery. By particularly focusing on the adoption of robotics, it would achieve the dual ambitions of boosting productivity, and giving our businesses the cutting edge in international markets post-Brexit.

More British firms need to follow in the footsteps of innovators such as Ocado, who have created one of the most advanced automated warehouses in the world. Ocado’s newest fulfilment centre uses automation to pick 200 items per hour of labour time using its hive system – far outstripping traditional supermarket competitors.

As the Fourth Industrial Revolution accelerates, for British manufacturers and suppliers to keep up with international competitors, they must upgrade the machinery and software that is powering the workplace.

Yet automation and the adoption of new technology is an area where the UK needs to improve if we are to boost the nation’s productivity and economic growth after Coronavirus. Research published by the International Federation of Robotics shows that the UK has a robot density of 71 units per 10,000 employees – below the world average of 74 units – ranking us 22nd globally. Europe’s most automated country, Germany, has more than 300 units per 10,000 employees.

Whilst the critics will always fear job losses from automation, as we recover from Coronavirus, we can create high-wage employment through robotics. I’ve visited factories, such as Harwin’s manufacturing site near my own constituency of Havant, that have successful re-trained factory workers as high-skilled robot operators. We must rebut trade union leaders and others holding back change and hindering the adoption of new technology.

Just as a car scrappage scheme was brought in to safeguard the car manufacturing industry and protect demand in its vast supply chain, a tech scrappage scheme also has the potential to boost the fast-growing UK tech and robotics sector. Businesses that could benefit include Tharsus, the Blyth-based robotics company that supplies Ocado’s automated warehouse, which is now one of Europe’s fastest growing technology firms.

While individual businesses know the products that are right for them, a tech scrappage scheme can and should promote world class British engineering and high-end manufacturing by creating more demand.

Every UK business could benefit from upgrading technology and IT, but key to the success of the car scrappage scheme was incentivising people into the new car market by making them more affordable. To be eligible, the car had to be at least ten years old and many of those taking part in the scheme would never before have bought a new car. The same must be implemented for a tech scrappage scheme. The Government needs to target the least productive SMEs that have never before invested substantially into the latest robotics, software, automation or information technology.

Research published last year based on a survey of 2000 business owners showed that 46 per cent of small business owners believe technology is more important to their business than people. Just as we incentivised car owners into the market, a new scrappage scheme will give SMEs the confidence to make the tech upgrades their businesses need.

There would be environmental gains too. Just as polluting cars were taken off the road through scrappage, businesses would have the opportunity to replace diesel-fuelled machinery with cleaner and more energy efficient alternatives.

As our country bounces back from Coronavirus, and the focus shifts from health emergency to economic recovery, the Government must continue to focus on not only supporting businesses in the short term but arming our businesses to be ready for the long term impact of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Our economic recovery must be both green and digital – a scrappage scheme for IT, tech and machinery achieves both goals.

This is the third in a three-part series on how to boost our economy after Coronavirus.