Richard Holden: We shouldn’t try to win a spending arms race with Labour in this Budget – which we would lose anyway

1 Mar

Fight Fitness Guru, Consett, Co. Durham

During the last fortnight, the white wasteland of frozen fields has given way to the flora of spring in County Durham.  The thaw in the land of the Prince Bishops is being met with a broader feeling in the towns and villages that spring is on the way.  With 20,000,000 vaccinations done and accelerating, as well as the Prime Minister’s roadmap providing clarity for the future, there is a real feeling that the tide is turning.

This week’s Budget must be another step along that road.  However, with so many competing concerns it will be a difficult balance to strike.  To get it right, it’s going to be essential to zoom out and look to where we want to be in a few years’ time.

Our economy has taken a pounding because of Covid-19.  Three hundred billion pounds in extra spending and support, paying people’s wages through furlough and supporting jobs and businesses has been provided.

Three hundred billion pounds extra: that is wartime levels of additional expenditure. For context, it is more than twice the size of the NHS budget annually. It’s an extra £4,500 for every man woman and child in the UK, or about £12,000 for every income-taxpayer in extra spending: money that’s had to be borrowed.

The support has been colossal and necessary. It has protected businesses and jobs and crucially will enable our economy to bounce back as quickly as it can. But this backing wouldn’t have been possible if the Government hadn’t taken the necessary decisions to keep spending under control during the last few years.

Colloquially, this point is made frequently by my constituents, along the lines of: “I’m glad it was you lot in and not Labour. If they’d been in ,God knows what would have happened.”

Which takes me to the political.  One of the biggest gateways to so-called “Blue Wall” voters switching from Labour to Conservative was Jeremy Corbyn. But this wasn’t just because of the terrorist sympathising and antisemitism. Or Keir Starmer’s policy of betraying democracy over Brexit. It was also because of Labour’s economic credibility.

People stopped listening to Labour’s promises when they became increasingly outlandish.  Remember them? Free broadband for all, give WASPI women £30,000 each, cancel student debt and make university education taxpayer-funded. The list went on – all with no plan to pay for it: it was fantasy economics that lacked basic credibility.

This is where we Conservatives now need to be careful, and why Rishi Sunak needs to tread a fine line. We cannot, nor should we wish to, win an arms race with Labour over who can spend more taxpayers’ cash.

We’ve not spent the long, hard yards of the last decade, undoing the catastrophic position Labour left in 2010, to let that credibility go. The reason we’ve been able to support the country through the global pandemic is because we’d had credible spending plans for the last decade. The reason Labour couldn’t win in 2010 is because Labour believed its own hubris about having ‘abolished boom and bust’ and, to nab a much-loved phrase from George Osborne, “failed to fix the roof while the sun was shining.” And the result was the famous note from Liam Byrne, then Chief Secretary to the Treasury: “there is no money left.”

Given such an analysis of where we are, then: what’s next? The budget must focus on three things:

  • Recovery. Allowing the country, especially our hardest hit sectors to bounce back from Covid – and in doing so avoid a massive spike in unemployment.  This week, I led 68 Conservative backbenchers in writing to the Chancellor about support for pubs (massive employers of young people) via keeping beer duty down. It’s vital that he also allows our high streets breathing space regarding business rates. And for families in constituencies like mine, where for so many a car is essential, fuel duty rises, which Conservatives have found hard against for a decade, need to be avoided.
  • Delivery. Keep building towards our key manifesto commitments on public services: more police, more nurses, crucial infrastructure and deliver on the levelling up promise that was made.
  • Credibility. Long-term economic stability with borrowing under control to allow us to keep our debt – and crucially our debt interest payments – under control.  We can’t just hope that interest rates stay this low forever: they won’t. Only a balanced plan will allow the Government the space to deliver on the first two objectives of recovery and delivery.

It’s a tall order, and the Chancellor needs to be clear, honest, and fair in what he spells out. Those who’ve profited during the pandemic and those with the broadest shoulders should take the lion’s share of slack as we now deal with the consequences of it.

As for Keir “Goldilocks” Starmer – naturally, nothing will be ‘just right’.  But he won’t come up with any other real proposals, either. He’s opposed to anything that will raise revenue, but Labour MPs will doubtless demand more spending.  The party is all over the place, with a front bench hopelessly out of its depth, and a broader one so divided as to the way forward that it’s hardly a surprise Sir Keir is unable to get them to agree on anything but to abstain.

So Labour’s economic credibility will remain in tatters. We need ours to remain strong.

This spring in North West Durham and across the “blue wall”, let’s ensure that the growth we see is built to last. Unsustainable borrowing might be Labour’s answer, but it can’t be ours. Without doubt, at some point, winter will come again.

And when it does, we’ll need to respond to it from a position of strength with flexibility – as we have this time.  The electorate will not forgive us is we don’t ensure long-term credibility. Without it we put both a sustainable recovery from the global Coronavirus pandemic and delivery of our manifesto in jeopardy.

Perhaps the simplest way of putting it on the Budget is: it’s all about economic credibility, stupid. Because come 2024, it certainly will be.

Tim Pilcher: How simple connectivity vouchers can empower Britain’s businesses right now

25 Nov

Tim Pilcher is the CEO of Glide. This is a sponsored post by Glide.

The impact of Covid‐19 on SMEs has been truly staggering, with 9.4 million people placed on furlough by July this year. Many, if not all, SMEs have been forced to change the way they operate overnight and the reliance on connectivity has never been more important. As the Government encourages us to build back better, it’s essential that we give Britain’s businesses what they need to survive, or their very existence could be in danger and the livelihoods of many threatened.

What’s the problem facing SMEs?

SMEs are facing a perfect storm – an unprecedented pandemic and now the impending fallout of Brexit at the end of the year. SMEs are at the heart of the UK’s recovery and economic growth plans, but in order to compete on a national and global stage, they need fast connectivity that works if they are to hope to generate investment in new services and solutions for their customers – and ultimately create job opportunities.

A lack of easily accessible funding to upgrade existing connectivity has meant that gaining fast internet connectivity is still problematic for many SMEs. A successful and efficient, simple, stand alone, non-aggregated voucher scheme to incentivise connectivity already exists – however, demand meant funds were used up quickly plus it is no longer available to new applicants.

The current scheme requires its beneficiaries to be grouped together into areas of demand, which increases the risk that individuals will be left behind. Simply put, either you’re in with your neighbours, or you’re out on your own.

Without Government intervention, local businesses are under threat.

Ultimately, Britain’s SMEs need more support and robust internet connectivity to survive and indeed thrive as they form the heart of the UK’s post‐pandemic and Brexit economy recovery; funding via Government support is needed for those businesses now as many face the risk of closure if they cannot compete in a digital world.

What the SMEs are saying:

“Although I desperately needed better broadband, I couldn’t have upgraded without the voucher scheme. What was great is that the system was so simple. Funding really can’t be a communal thing where businesses have to wait until the whole community agrees – it doesn’t make any practical sense.”

− Eugen Kail, Director, Autozoom

“It is really important for the majority of businesses here to have high speed connectivity to help them expand their business and respond to customers quickly. One of the first questions prospective tenants ask is ‘how good is the internet connection?’.”

− Linda Connelly of Spring Property Management

“Without the support of external funding many companies won’t be able to afford to increase the capability of their internet connections. This will leave them either having to place more employees within the office premises or they will have to scale down their operations either through furlough or redundancies.”

− Steve Voller, Director at MDI Networks Ltd

What can be done?

Fortunately, the solution is pretty simple. We’re calling on the Government to reallocate some existing unused funds from complex schemes, which are expected to be left unspent, into similar, simpler ones to provide immediate support for individual connectivity requirements. Schemes such as the Gigabit Voucher Scheme (GBVS) have proved hugely popular, with around 30,000 applicants successfully improving their connectivity as a result.

While incredibly important to continue to fund schemes to support rural broadband connectivity, we believe the imbalance in uptake compared to funding allocation needs to be set right. As well as funding rural areas, the Government should also consider supporting additional funding for those struggling with connectivity in urban areas. In doing so, it will give SMEs the connectivity they need to survive throughout the ongoing pandemic and into our post‐Brexit environment.

If you believe the Government should intervene and support SMEs to get easier access to funding to support connectivity installation, please register your name here.

Clare Ambrosino: Why One Nation Conservatism can unite the country and win the Millennial vote

21 Aug

Clare Ambrosino is a Communications Consultant and was a Conservative Parliamentary Candidate in last year’s General Election.

It is a common perception that my generation, the Millennials (born between 1981 and 1996), also known as the Peter Pan generation, the Boomerang generation or the Me, Me, Me generation, are principally governed by their desire to live life hedonistically, and place their emphasis on personal pleasure and career rather than buckling down to a life of responsibility.

Certainly, a brief look at the social media profile of anyone born after 1980 (#guilty), will show a lifestyle of holidays, instagrammable rooftop cocktails and a catalogue of material purchases, as well as a penchant for photographing everything ever eaten in a restaurant. This has led many of our parents, who by the age of thirty were already married with kids and a mortgage, to roll their eyes and wonder when we are going to settle down to real life!

However, are Millennials really so privileged or is this apparent golden age of opportunity masking the simple fact that our parents, who received free access to university education and were able to buy a home with generous mortgages (sometimes as much as 100% of the cost of the house) shared fundamental values and a belief in society which we do not have?

After all, what better way to get people to buy into the values of a society if they literally buy a stake in it? Is it any wonder that young people today – the first generation unable to buy a home in decades – seem to want to spend as if there were no tomorrow? Could it be that precisely because the thirty some-things of 2020 are unable to buy their stake, that many have become largely disillusioned with traditional party politics, preferring instead the populist and single-policy movements?

Talking to my peers, it seems that many of them don’t see the relevance of traditional values or traditional politics to their lifestyle, and they prefer to live life in the now. They choose the fast hit of dating apps and fun over responsibility and deferred gratification.

Millennials were largely born into carefully planned, child centred families whose high ambitions, encouraged them to aim high and provided infinitely more affirmation than their parents had received. For decades they have enjoyed the lowest unemployment levels on record, and had access to opportunities and luxuries that previous generations did not have, brought by technological advancements and globalisation.

Yet, all is not as idyllic as it seems. Born into a fast changing and threatening geo-political landscape and with old certainties of growing up in question, younger people have become reluctant to commit to saving and planning for the future in the same the way previous generations did.

The twin towers, the war on terror, the credit recession, austerity, the tensions underlying the EU referendum and now, to cap it all, a deadly pandemic all wrapped up into a new recession and culture wars on the side. The lives of Millennials have been set against a backdrop of fear and anxiety, so that it is of little surprise that many, mercifully not all, have turned inward and do not buy into the values which are the pillars of society. ‘Peter Pans’ of both sexes prefer to burn the candle at both ends. They are cicadas, not ants.

The fact of the matter is however, that many, if not most Millennials would love to plan for the future and raise a family, but this is becoming increasingly difficult. According to recent ONS data, overall marriage rates are at their lowest on record, sinking by 45% since 1972, with the average age of marriage being 35.7 for women and 38 for men. High university debts make it difficult to save for the significant deposits now required by banks, and this has led to increased rents and inflated house prices.

Coming into Covid-19, the last standing pillar of stability for young people – that of employment – is now also at risk. This will naturally lead to an exacerbation of an already existing resentment towards the institutions and powers at play.

Now more than ever, the nation needs to be brought together as a whole and we need to make younger people feel that they have a voice which will be listened to. The fall of the red wall in the North was the proof that if people feel that they are being part of the conversation, they will respond. Too many people have felt excluded and unheard – excluded from the decisions of Westminster, excluded from the workforce, excluded from society itself.

The Prime Minister said last week that we can expect to have a “bumpy few months” ahead of us, and we have a “long way to go” until the UK sees a return to “economic vitality and health”. However, one of Britain’s greatest strengths is that its people pull together in a crisis.

The Covid-19 pandemic, whilst causing one of the biggest recessions in our economy, may become an opportunity to reset the way we live and work – the Great Reset, as it was called by the World Economic Forum. The UK should use this time to focus on its strengths as one of the world leaders in the AI and tech sectors, to generate new jobs for the young, retraining existing workers and pushing forward with the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

The UK should also pivot on the rising trend of working from home to encourage people to move out of the city and invest in rural and coastal towns, where homes are more affordable and new investment is much needed for the survival of their economies. What the government can do to encourage this, is to ensure there are favourable conditions for these opportunities to thrive, such as cutting edge broadband connectivity across our rural areas. Our education system too can follow the job demand, so that the community, education institutions and job opportunities are more closely interlinked.

It is always worth looking at the Democrats to see the future direction of the Labour Party. Esteemed Professor Niall Ferguson, in an article for The Atlantic in May 2019 entitled ‘The Coming Generation War’, correctly identified that the Democrats would start to use generational divides as a wedge issue for future elections. Certainly, this appears to be the central strategy in the impressive Democratic presidential campaign. Joe Biden has recently told a virtual town hall with young Americans that “young people have got a kick in the teeth”, effectively communicating how he feels younger voters’ pain.

In the UK, the Labour Party, whilst traditionally relying on the votes of younger people, has yet to articulate the generation crisis they find themselves in by offering any real solutions.

As Conservatives, it should be our priority to be bold and become the voice of this generation by providing a new vision to keep unemployment levels down, and keep the promise of a home owning democracy, which has served previous generations so well. We should allow young people to buy a stake in society and live by One Nation Conservative values. Now more than ever, young people should be reassured they have a stake in the future and nothing will encourage people to feel included as much as home ownership and stability in the workplace.