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.

Johnson’s quiet shift to a more permissive migration policy

29 Oct

In the run up to last year’s general election, one of Boris Johnson’s most significant promises was to reduce immigration if the Conservatives won a majority. 

He spoke about the Government’s proposed new Australia-style points-based system, saying that “numbers will come down because we’ll be able to control the system”, adding that he felt it was not “right… to have an uncontrolled and unlimited approach”. 

With that being said, some may have been confused last week when the Home Office reduced its £35,8000 minimum salary threshold for migrants wanting to settle in the UK by almost 30 per cent – in a move that should surely boost numbers. 

The threshold was first introduced by Theresa May in 2011 when she was Home Secretary, and had been tasked with reducing net migration to below 100,000 (something that was never achieved, incidentally. Net migration to the UK has not been under that figure since 1997).

Under this Government, however, the net migration target has been abandoned, and now migrants on salaries of £20,480, but with enough points under a new Australian-style immigration system to take on jobs with occupational shortages, will be able to settle in Britain after six years to become citizens. 

The new rules come into effect on December 1, and follow the Home Office’s decision in January this year to scrap the £30,000 minimum salary threshold for people arriving after Brexit. 

Given May’s concern with numbers, the latest policy marks a significant shift for the Conservative Party on immigration, although it has created little noise in the media. Indeed, the change to the salary threshold was only spotted after Oxford University’s Migration Observatory went through a 507-word rule book, leading to accusations that changes to the threshold had “quietly slipped out”. 

So why is it that the Government has chosen to implement this policy? And what does it tell us about the future of immigration in the UK?

There are a number of perspectives you could have on the change of the salary threshold. The first is that it isn’t actually all that unexpected, given that thresholds for post-Brexit work visas were already lowered. 

As Sunder Katwala – Director of British Future – puts it on Twitter, the drop in threshold is “an obvious piece of tidying up”. It means that there won’t be such a big gap between someone’s salary and the increase they need to stay in the UK. It encourages citizenship, above anything else.

The next thing to say is that it gives the Government much more flexibility over skills shortages in the UK. The previous salary thresholds (£30,000 for getting a job and £35,000 to settle) were a blunt instrument to achieve net migration targets. There are lots of skilled workers the Government wants to attract to the UK, whose roles do not meet this salary threshold. The Australian-style system is much more nuanced, allowing the Government to make targetted decisions depending on the needs of the economy. 

The obvious counter argument to this, of course, is that the Government shouldn’t be recruiting from elsewhere; it should be getting UK citizens into jobs where there are shortages, particularly given how quickly unemployment is rising. This has been Donald Trump’s approach in America, who has essentially ground migration and travel to a halt in order to promote domestic employment.  It is also the thrust of Andrew Green’s articles on this site.

Even so, there has to be a degree of realism about the UK’s employment landscape. Take agriculture. Despite big recruitment campaigns to encourage domestic workers, the National Farmers Union revealed that only 11 per cent of seasonal workers in the 2020 were UK residents, and the country needs thousands more to come by next summer. In short, by lowering thresholds, the Government has much more flexibility to fill occupational shortages.

Migration Observatory has called the reduction in the threshold “the final nail in the coffin of the net migration target”, but the other point to bear in mind is that migration isn’t at the levels it once was because of the pandemic. As Katwala suggests on Twitter, the Government has accidentally hit May’s under 100,000 target. He says that from looking at the Office for National Statistics figures, “[N]et migration has almost certainly been negative this year.” 

Recent events, along with the fall in the pound (an unappealing prospect to workers wanting to be here for a few years, save up money and bring it back to their home country) have changed this area, and the Government will strategise accordingly.

And what does all this tell us about Johnson? It shows, at the very least, he has a completely different view on immigration to May, which was clear when he first abandoned net migration targets. He is averse to using numbers in this respect – perhaps viewing them as an arbitrary measure of how successful an immigration system is.

Many will see his latest policy as more evidence that he has been, and will always be, liberal on immigration. Throughout his career this has been apparent. 

During his time as the Mayor of London, for instance, he called for an “earned amnesty” for an estimated 400,000 people living illegally in London. He was particularly keen that they should be able to gain citizenship after years in the city.

More recently, the Government pledged to admit three million Hong Kong residents into the UK following China’s decision to impose new draconian security legislation.

And in September, the Prime Minister reversed a decision made by May (in 2012 – when she was Home Secretary) that forced oversea students to leave four months after they finished their degrees. They will now be able to stay in the UK for two years after graduation.

In losing the thresholds, Johnson is not only better able to make way for his policies on international students and those fleeing Hong Kong, but projecting his personal philosophy; his open attitude to immigration, and his commitment to fairness.

On the latter point, the new policies could be said to be an extension of the “levelling up” agenda, as the Government is creating parity on the requirements for EU and non-EU migrants coming to the UK (the former of which had more leniency under free movement).

Has Johnson fulfilled his pledge to “take back control”? It is a statement he has said repeatedly over the years. But talk to anyone, and it becomes obvious that there is no clear cut view on what he would do with that control if it was gained, as it now has been.

No doubt many voters saw immigration control as a numbers game, others say it is about “control over who comes in” – something afforded under the Australian points system. The Government seems to believe the new system will achieve both. Whatever the case, by all indications it’s a far more sophisticated way of managing UK immigration than salary thresholds.

Simon Thomas: Curfews would be economically disastrous for casinos; the Government must have a rethink

16 Sep

Simon Thomas is chief executive of The Hippodrome Casino in Leicester Square. This is a sponsored post by The Hippodrome Casino.

Boris Johnson opened the Hippodrome Casino in 2012, when he was still Mayor of London. It was therefore pretty ironic that he should be the one to effectively close our doors when, as Prime Minister, he announced the nationwide Covid lockdown in March.

We were glad to play our part at a time of national crisis, but were obviously delighted to finally be given the go-ahead to reopen again last month, along with casinos across England. It was recognition of all the hard work that had gone into making sure we were Covid-secure for the safe return of our staff and customers.

The measures we have put in place – from hand sanitisation stations and strict social distancing rules to Perspex screens sophisticated track and trace procedures – are the best in class among the whole entertainment, hospitality and leisure sector.

Opening our doors again meant that we have been able to make a contribution to the UK’s economic recovery, at a time when it has never been more vital. As Johnson showed when he cut the ribbon for us eight years ago, the Conservative Party understands that without businesses like ours providing good jobs and paying tax, there would simply be no economic recovery.

But while we are able to provide a top-class service for our customers again, things are definitely not back to normal. Across the casino sector, attendances since we re-opened varies between five and sixty per cent of pre-Covid levels. This is partly because of the 14-day quarantine rules, which have drastically reduced the number of tourists who come to these shores, and who make up a significant chunk of our traditional clientele. So clearly, our recovery is fragile.

That’s why talk of nationwide 10pm curfews for hospitality and leisure businesses as the number of Covid cases rises again has caused such alarm among our sector. Put simply, such a move would put our very existence – and the jobs of our 14,000 employees – at risk.

To understand why, you need to appreciate the unique nature of our business model. Unlike other sectors, we are hugely reliant on night-time trade. Casinos generate 50 to 70 per cent of their income after 10pm. If we were ordered to close our doors at that time, there would be no point in opening them at all. Such a curfew would be economically disastrous for casinos like mine, placing a huge question mark over our continued viability.

Given the high quality of our Covid security measures and the make-up of our customer base, such a move would be – in my opinion – utterly pointless. The average age of a casino visitor is 48, so if the purpose of a curfew is to halt the spread of the virus among the young, restrictions in our venues would seem illogical. In addition, most of our players are either on their own or in couples, well within the “Rule of 6” announced last week by the Prime Minister.

If ministers are still determined to go down the curfew path, night-time restrictions should only be imposed in parts of the country where Covid cases are high, rather than use the blunt instrument of a nationwide shutdown. Another possible approach could be to prevent us selling alcohol post-10pm. This would obviously be far from ideal, but certainly preferable to making us close our doors entirely.

However, if the Government did choose the nuclear option of a nationwide curfew, they would have to rethink their decision to end the furlough scheme next month, otherwise we would have no option but to authorise a wave of redundancies. Throughout lockdown, the furlough scheme was a vital lifeline, allowing us to continue employing thousands of men and women we would otherwise have had to let go.

Any further government-imposed restrictions on our ability to trade would need to be accompanied by some form of government support for the businesses affected. I fully appreciate that the taxpayer cannot continue to subsidise the wages of employees indefinitely, but the Chancellor should give consideration to sector-specific support to prevent the recession developing into something far, far worse.

The Hippodrome Casino is an iconic venue which has been around since 1900 and survived two world wars, the three-day week and other national crises. We now need the Government to respond in a positive way to ensure we are still trading after this one. If Johnson really is concerned about the health of our city centres, he simply cannot ignore our pleas for help.

Conservatives have always understood the importance of a healthy business sector creating the jobs and providing the tax revenue upon which the whole country relies. In these extraordinary times, we need the party to once again recognise our contribution to the economic – and physical – health of the nation, and do all it can to ensure our continued survival.

Tony Devenish: The Greater London Authority is undermining localism

14 Jul

Tony Devenish is a member of the London Assembly for West Central.

Older ConservativeHome readers will remember when Neil Kinnock used his Party Conference speech to attacking the dysfunctional Liverpool City Council. In recent years, a handful of other councils have failed to protect vulnerable children or to manage their budget prudently. On each occasion, the Government of the day “calls in the inspectors”. Usually parachuting in former senior local government officers.

There appears to be less precedent for what to do with failure from a regional devolved administration. As a proud localist I welcomed the reforms from Blair/ Brown to Cameron/Osborne. Long overdue attempts to stop running the entire United Kingdom from one square mile in SW1. I am delighted to see many devolved authorities flourishing under dynamic leadership, regardless of party political label. Supported by their teams of local government staff. Andrew Street in the West Midlands, Ben Houchen in Teesside, and Andy Burnham in Greater Manchester, are just three positive examples.

It is profoundly painful for me to conclude that the Greater London Authority is in very real danger of undermining localism. More importantly, it is in danger of letting down Londoners at a time of a global health and economic emergency.

The foundation of the problem is the Greater London Authority Act (1999) which, like much of the “soundbite” agenda of Tony Blair, failed to adequately think through the consequences. The GLA which this year celebrates its 20th anniversary has prospered despite “cracks in the foundations”. Papered over by the professionalism of its local government staff; its Assembly Members, most of whom are steeped in London Borough public service. And especially by the “larger than life” personalities of the two senior politicians who each served London for eight years’ as Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson, supported by first-rate Deputy Mayors. Most of whom were the calibre of a Cabinet Minister.

Success, let us be clear must have clear outcomes: Livingstone, Mayor from 2000 to 2008, successfully improved the bus services, built council homes, clamped down on pigeons (this may appear a niche point but these “flying rats” were a real health and tourism nuisance). He trod the “fine line” of opposing the Government when necessary and working in a grown-up partnership to win the 2012 Olympics.

Johnson, Mayor from 2008 to 2012, successfully cracked down on violent crime, helped make London the global epicentre for housing; delivered the Olympics, and championed business and wealth creation. This was when London faced the health, economic, and social consequences of potential increased unemployment. Like Livingstone, Johnson “batted for London” with No 11 Downing Street. Both Mayor’s began the task of placing our Environment at the centre of successive national Government’s priorities. So today it is very clear that the GLA is responsible for four key areas of public policy in London: crime, housing, transport, and our environment. Much of grassroots delivery remains with the London Boroughs.

Since 2016, something serious has gone wrong. Khan’s major culpability is his failure to build a collegiate team in over four years. City Hall is not a happy place. In fact, many call it “toxic”. Many people loathe Khan’s attitude that he simply is never wrong. That is the private view of many London borough leaders – Labour as much as Conservative and Lib Dem. It’s a view shared widely across local government staff and across a wide spectrum of other public and private stakeholders.

I have worked with the public sector for 31 years. I have been an elected London Borough councillor for 15 years. Many public sector staff do tend to change jobs with alarming frequency. But I have never seen the “revolving door” spin so fast as it has done since 2016 at the GLA. Khan has lost numerous Deputy Mayors and advisers, including his first Deputy Mayors for both Housing and Transport plus his Commissioner for Transport. The loss of dozens of senior staff is telling.

Khan’s outcomes can also be measured.

  • Violent crime : before the lockdown crime figure dip – major crimes were at a ten year peak. Khan is all but invisible when it comes to keeping Londoners safe.
  • House building has collapsed in London pre-Coronavirus. One of the most transparent outcomes of the revolving door of GLA staff is over half of the nearly £5 billion of taxpayers money allocated to the GLA over three years’ ago to build affordable housing has not been spent. Rob Jenrick’s Ministerial letter on the London Plan, 13 March 2020 was so damning on Khan’s performance that for once even Khan was nearly apologetic in his response.
  • Transport is beyond doubt Khan’s biggest failure. Khan blames Coronavirus for Transport for London requiring a £1.6 billion bailout. More will probably be required in October. The reality is the four year record of mismanagement. Crossrail is two years’ behind schedule or is it three? Khan cannot say. Our economy is the loser.
  • On the Environment, the third Mayor of London has prioritised expensive tax-raising anti-car projects over fast tracking electric buses. The latter is one of the few imaginative policies to come out of City Hall since 2016, thanks to Shaun Bailey AM , the Conservative Mayor of London candidate.

During our current health crisis, Khan as Mayor failed to show the leadership that Londoners took for granted under Livingstone or Johnson. Khan avoided the London Assembly for six weeks earning the label “the missing Mayor”. To quote one London Borough Leader (not a Tory) “Sadiq Khan added little at the Gold Command London Emergency meetings. He sat there, mostly silently, like a work placement intern”.

London Councils in partnership with Government have performed well since 23rd March. My thanks to London NHS and all our public services and our key workers. But this shows why the failures of the GLA can no longer be tolerated.

Khan calls for social distancing yet rams through increases to the Congestion Charge which will make the tube and bus network crowded as people return to work. He appeases the transport unions – which adds to the cost of running the oldest and most expensive underground rail network in the world. Few believe Transport for London is an economic going concern. Union “absenteeism” during Coronavirus has been proportionately three times greater than any other public sector workforce just like their pre-Christmas near annual strikes. Never a squeak out of Khan.

London needs a fully functioning transport network (the arteries of our economy) as we ease our way out of coronavirus so London remains the engine of the UK and global economy as we all get back to work. Jobs, jobs, jobs has to be our mantra. Faith groups, pensioners, residents, and businesses are contacting me in record numbers because City Hall simply does not “get it”. If the Mayor and the Greater London Authority cannot do their job, the Government and London Councils will have to call in the inspectors and wave goodbye to a superfluous City Hall.