Steve Baker: Wycombe’s food insecurity levels are a huge wake-up call. We must renew our vision of Conservative social justice.

3 Aug

Steve Baker is MP for Wycombe, and served as a Minister in the former Department for Exiting the European Union.

On the one hand, it is simple to tell just by walking down the streets of High Wycombe there are people who do not find life easy. It’s probably true of a town of any size across the country. On the other, what did come as a surprise is the Food Foundation’s report, splashed by The Guardian, showing Wycombe had the greatest food insecurity in the whole of the UK. This is not something to dismiss lightly, and we must take this as a clarion call to action. 

The Wycombe constituency has some of the poorest and the richest people in the country, sometimes only living a short distance away from each other. This brings its own challenges. When civil servants are creating public policy and look at Wycombe the overall demographic is one of affluence. It is easy to think that everything is all right. But the constituency contains some areas of true deprivation. People in these areas have worse health outcomes, worse education results, and all the other traditional markers of a hard life. Low pay is compounded with high housing costs which squeeze low-income household budgets to breaking point.

The Coronavirus lockdowns and restrictions have brought these areas into sharp focus. There was a huge strain on working parents on low incomes; they had to continue to work, home educate children and provide more food such as snacks and lunch which were normally provided at school. My caseworkers were speaking to parents with young children who had not yet received their free school meal vouchers, and this meant they were finding it hard to feed their family.

Many people had jobs, but some had no work or a severely reduced income as a result of the Covid lockdowns and restrictions and did not qualify for any of the Government support schemes due to the nature of their employment. These were people who had to ask for help to feed their families for the first time. 

It is clear the lockdown pushed some people to the edge. I do not want to rehash all the things I said about the need for lockdown restrictions to be lifted as soon as it was safe to do so, but these were exactly the sort of people I had in mind when I said it. It wasn’t merely about allowing people to go abroad on holiday; it was about allowing hard working people to manage their everyday lives.

Before I became an MP, I did work for the Centre for Social Justice and I have always had an interest in making sure the least affluent in society are lifted up. For a long time, I have said more money should go into UC; we spend an enormous amount on the welfare state and it should help the people who need it, but this clearly doesn’t always happen.

I have previously lobbied ministers about the five week wait for benefits to kick-in once a new application is made. I know the £20 a week extra on Universal Credit has been welcomed by those who rely on benefits and, ideally, it should be kept. But the amount paid in UC is only one aspect of supporting those most in need. We have not yet broken the cycles of poverty the CSJ identified before we came to power in 2010: it is time now to renew our vision of Conservative social justice.

Charities and public agencies need to work alongside those who use foodbanks regularly or are food insecure to offer life coaching and mentoring. Getting the balance right here will be key. I do not want an authoritarian approach to telling people what to do, but most of us could use a helping hand or sounding board every now and then.

Buckinghamshire Council is working on a project to bring together debt support and advice, helping people get back into employment and addressing local skill shortages and training opportunities, greater take-up of food voucher schemes and better support to access benefits to ensure income maximisation.

All these schemes will help but the best way of lifting people out of poverty, and the knock-on effect of food insecurity, is through work and higher paying jobs. The Government’s Plan For Jobs includes the Kickstart and Restart scheme, and gives support for apprenticeships, traineeships and doubling the number of work coaches to get people back on their feet and into work. 

That’s a great start, but I want long-term prosperity for every one of my constituents. We must unleash the wealth creating potential of our great United Kingdom to secure it.

Gary Powell: Why flying the right rainbow flag matters

23 Jul

Cllr Gary Powell is a former councillor in Buckinghamshire.

Cllr Martin Tett, the Leader of Conservative Buckinghamshire Council, authorised the hoisting of the standard rainbow Pride flag at the authority’s offices on Global Pride Day, June 27th, in line with the Council’s policy on inclusivity. However, the flag that was instead raised, with its superimposed triangular design celebrating inter alia hard-line transgender ideology, was the “Progress Pride Flag”. This design emerged in 2018 and, whatever its original intention, has come to be associated with the militant extreme gender movement. Its ideology champions a version of identity politics that is particularly harmful to lesbian and gay people, to women’s sex-based rights, and to child safeguarding: topics about which I have written previously in these pages.

As a gay man, a conservative, and someone who has campaigned over four decades for fairer treatment and greater acceptance of lesbian and gay people, it is with considerable dismay and horrified incredulity that I have observed the emergence of a new extremist LGBTQ+ movement over the past ten years: one now in full colonisation and cancel-culture mode. This new movement insists aggressively that there is an untestable but objectively real entity called “gender” that is more important than biological sex, and that anyone should be allowed to declare his or her “gender” on the basis of self-identification alone, conferring all the legal and social rights and protections of the biological sex with which that “gender” is deemed to correspond. Where this unscientific insanity is allowed to prevail, it puts men and boys in women’s and girls’ protected environments and categories, and it gives any predatory non-trans-identified man the legally-protected opportunity to pretend he identifies as transgender so he can freely access those spaces with ulterior motives.

LGBTQ+ ideology also promotes the redefinition of homosexuality as “same-gender attraction” rather than “same-sex attraction”, leading in particular to biological men with penises invading lesbian dating sites while claiming to be lesbians, and same-sex oriented people being called “transphobes” and “bigots” when we insist we are only attracted to people of our own sex, not to people of the opposite sex who identify as our “gender”. This attempt to redefine our sexual orientation out of existence is, of course, the very opposite of “gay rights”.

The modern LGBTQ+ lobby also insists, in this social pandemic of real or designer gender dysphoria and transgender identification, that children can give informed consent to puberty-blockers: drugs that almost always lead to cross-sex hormones and that are a passport to sterilisation, lifetime medical patient status, sexual stimulation impairment, and possibly also to drastic surgical procedures. No gay rights activist should ever campaign for measures that are misogynistic, homophobic, and contemptuous of basic child safeguarding. Yet across the West, a sea of LGBTQ+ activists refuse to recognise the serious harm they are causing, and to desist from it. It is staggering that President Biden and his administration rank among the worst gender fanatic poseurs on the planet: an indicator of how serious and widespread the problem is.

As a recently-retired Member of Buckinghamshire Council, it was a cause of considerable surprise and consternation for me to see the Council’s tweet championing that flag, together with the words:

Flying the flag yesterday for #GlobalPrideDay! Showing our support for our LGBTQ+ staff, communities and residents in Bucks. #PrideMonth #LoveWins”

A new flag outside a government building can, of course, be a signal of colonisation, so I wondered whether the ideological capture of the increasingly woke Conservative Party hierarchy by extreme gender ideology had made new inroads. Indeed, the Prime Minister’s recent Pride Reception at 10 Downing Street was one to which Stonewall were pointedly invited, according to Lord Herbert – the Government’s first special envoy on LGBT rights. As many readers will already know, Stonewall is the notorious extreme gender ideology outfit that is regularly slated in quality newspapers. At the same time, the maligned and misrepresented LGB Alliance – the only UK charity dedicated to campaigning for lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) rights while opposing gender extremism – were left off the Pride Reception guest list by the Prime Minister. Proof, if any were needed, that the Government had simply thrown an unreconstructed rainbow genderfest.

Our Conservative Prime Minister is causing immense harm by feting Stonewall: and this, in the face of all the excoriating media publicity and objections to taxpayers’ money being wasted on an organisation that many lesbian and gay people from across the political spectrum are now demanding should be defunded and ostracised.

Even though Lord Herbert has stated there are areas of disagreement, such as on gender self-identification, between the Government and Stonewall, the Stonewall that he claimed “has done brilliant work over the years to promote equality” is the Stonewall of yesteryear: not today. Now, its obsession is to promote extreme gender ideology: so why are the Government and Lord Herbert empowering a rancid organisation that is well past its use-by date and set to cause increasing sickness in the society where its toxic product is consumed – or rather, force-fed? Who on Earth is advising the Prime Minister to behave like a woke apparatchik?

However, amidst all this gloom, at least there was reassuring news concerning the Progress Pride Flag outside Buckinghamshire Council’s offices. Cllr Tett explained to me that he had definitely not agreed to the hoisting of this more controversial version of the Pride flag, that he had taken up the matter with his Comms team, and that he did not intend for this particular flag to be flown again.

So Buckinghamshire has not fallen. Indeed, unlike Conservative Surrey County Council, Buckinghamshire Council is not wasting taxpayers’ money on Stonewall’s much-criticised Diversity Champions scheme, either – which I compare to the selling of indulgences under Pope Leo X. Other Conservative administrations across the country might care to watch out for what flag is raised on Global Pride Days. The LGBTQ+ lobby has been very successful at insinuating its ideology by stealth, under the radar; and watchful eyes are needed in local authorities and everywhere else.

While central Government and Lord Herbert entertain and flatter Stonewall, they are failing to provide our nation with what we desperately need: unequivocal, wise, and courageous leadership, together with action to protect the basic civil rights and liberties of vulnerable groups in the face of an extreme identity politics onslaught. A Government’s first priority should be to protect its citizens from harm.

Many left-wing people – particularly women – are now even declaring their intention to vote Conservative because of this specific crucial issue, on which the other main parties have sold out completely. If the Government continues with its shifty and pusillanimous appeasement of Stonewall, however, these leased-out votes will be retracted. Furthermore, the years leading up to Brexit should surely have taught the Conservative hierarchy a stark lesson in what happens when they abandon their grassroots supporters. The Conservative Party now risks haemorrhaging votes from grassroots conservatives who abhor spineless creeping capitulation to an extreme gender politics Zeitgeist that is ideologically rooted in the hard left.

We surely did not leave the European Union in order to become Gender Woo-Woo Island; nor for our sovereign Conservative Government to be stuck in timorous thrall to neo-Marxist identity politics.

Johnson puts the case for more localism in England. Now he must deliver it.

19 Jul

The unconvincing plan for growth apart, and the aftermath of Coronavirus not withstanding, ConservativeHome identified three main areas of policy weakness in the Queen’s Speech: social care, the delivery of net zero and English localism.

The first two turn out to be connected to the last – as are the whole country’s future prospects for growth and recovery.  Why?  Because, as David Lidington put it recently

“Whether it’s delivering an industrial strategy, or high quality apprenticeships, or integrated transport or a joined-up plan to implement net-zero carbon, we are likely to get better and faster results, and to encourage innovation and experiment…

…if these things are done by the central government of the UK working in genuine partnership with elected devolved, local and regional leaders…

…who in turn are able both to use their convening power to rally business, education, cultural and third sector organisations and through their endorsement give additional democratic legitimacy to the plan”.

Boris Johnson began to correct that weakness in his speech last week, in which he sketched out what may be taken from the postponed devolution white paper and put into the coming levelling-up white paper.

The nub of the Prime Minister’s case was that the mayoral experiment is working for cities and their suburban hinterland, and that the towns and countryside could do with a bit of it.

“Local leaders now need to be given the tools to make things happen for their communities, and to do that we must now take a more flexible approach to devolution in England,” he said.

Which could mean “a directly elected mayor for individual counties”; or devolution “for a specific local purpose like a county or city coming together to improve local services like buses”.

Ideas on a postcard, please, to our recently-departed columnist, Neil O’Brien. Or, as Johnson put it, “come to Neil O Brien or to me with your vision for how you will level up, back business, attract more good jobs and improve your local services”.

Put like that, the Prime Minister’s case sounds lamentably underdeveloped, open to fresh thinking, or simply cautious, depending on how you look at it.  But he, Robert Jenrick and others will have to make the following decisions.

At the outset, whether or not to push for uniformity, or something very close to it.  Both of the main schemes that would ensure it are out: regional government and an English Parliament.

Labour tried to make the North East a start-up zone for regional government, and the project was duly trounced in a referendum – the event which gave politics early sight of James Frayne and Dominic Cummings.

An English Parliament would institutionalise potential conflict between a First Minister for England, who would run the bulk of the country, and a Prime Minister stripped of responsibility for nearly everything other than foreign affairs, defence and security policy.

Which returns us to the options on Johnson’s table.  He could sit back and wait for local leaders to come to him.  And the map of local government in England would continue to look much like the patchwork we see today.

There is a good case for this approach.  “A bit of local laissez-faire and free choice when it comes to English local governance might not be the worst outcome,” as Johnathan Werren wrote on this site.

The downside is that if that, with so many cooks preparing the broth, nothing much might be served up: experience suggests that county, district, town and parish councils don’t easily come to agreement.

Some senior Tory figures in local government, and elsewhere, are keen on unitarisation – some has already happened (as recently in Buckinghamshire); more is happening (as in North Yorkshire), and more may happen still.

But ConservativeHome finds no appetite near the top of government for an attempt to force amalgamation on unwilling Conservative-controlled authorities: the whips have enough trouble with agitated councillors and backbenchers, thank you very much.

Nonetheless, experience suggests that if the Government wants more local mayors, it will have to push for them – and, if local people are given a say in a referendum, they tend to push back.

Remember May 3, 2012: the day on which ten cities voted for or against new mayors.  Only one, Bristol, went for change.  Since then, some authorities, such as Hartlepool, have voted to abolish their elected mayors; others, like North Tyneside, have not.

There are further problems about political legitimacy.  The Tees Valley has a population of about 1.2 million people.  Kent has one of approximately 1.8 million.  It follows that if an elected mayor can work for it might for the other.

Government sources also named other well-populated counties, such as Lancashire and Warwickshire.  But would it be practicable to  bundle ones with smaller populations together under a single mayor?

One of the problems that is wrecking the police commissioner project is the sense that there is no real local ownership of whoever is elected to the post.  Might not enforced, multi-county, amalgamated mayoralities run the same risk?

But if, to use the Prime Minister’s own example, a county or city comes together “to improve local services like buses”, who or what is to take charge, if not a Mayor?

Mention of an actual service is a reminder not to put the cart, structure, before the horse, services.  The first question is what to make more local.  The second is how to do it.

Which takes us to the mayors in place already.  Consider Ben Houchen in Teesside.  He already controls education for people over 18.  Wouldn’t it make sense for this to be joined up to that provided to people over 16 – given the stress he places on skills?

Andy Street made the same case for the West Midlands in a recent column on this site.  Why not go further, and let Houchen, Street and some of the other mayors pilot more local control?

For example, they could retain a slice, say, of airport passenger duty, vehicle excise, and VAT.  Douglas Carswell and Daniel Hannan recommended the full devolution of the last in The Plan, opening the door to tax competition between local authorities.

Johnson said that counties could “take charge of levelling up local infrastructure like the bypass they desperately want to end congestion and pollution and to unlock new job or new bus routes plied by clean green buses because they get the chance to control the bus routes”.

“Or they can level up the skills of the people in their area because they know what local business needs.”  The Prime Minister was careful to add that “we need accountability”.

But the thrust of his case was there are fewer “irresponsible municipal socialist governments” and that “most of the big metro mayors know that private sector investment is crucial”.

Johnson has no experience of running a major domestic department.  His sole government experience at Cabinet level was in the Foreign Office.

Nonetheless, he has been mayor of the biggest city in the whole country, serving two terms.  He will need to draw on that experience as he decides which localist options to take.

One thing is certain – though it won’t be what anxious MPs and councillors want to hear.  If the mayoral experiment had needed existing councils’ and sitting councillors’ agreement to happen, it wouldn’t have happened.

So since the Prime Minister wants more localism, and rightly, he must ready himself for a row – to add to the one already raging about housing and planning.  One can’t serve up a muncipal omelette without breaking eggs.

Bob Blackman: Voters are understandably wary about planning reforms. Here’s why a street plans scheme is a viable alternative.

22 Jun

Bob Blackman is MP for Harrow East.

I have worked in local politics for over 30 years: 24 as a councillor leading Brent council, or the Conservative grouping there, and 11 as MP. My seat, Harrow East, is about nine miles away from Chesham and Amersham, with two Conservative constituencies in between – one of them the Prime Minister’s own constituency of Uxbridge and South Ruislip. While Harrow is more suburban than Buckinghamshire, we treasure the fields and green open spaces in the area no less and are no more willing to see them concreted over.

The notion that everyone is Conservative about what they know best is a pretty good summary of the results in the Chesham and Amersham by-election. Given the impression that planning changes would lose them control of development in their green and pleasant land, voters reacted with a protest vote, in good by-election tradition.

This does not mean, however, that locals are opposed to any and every bit of development that happens. Most of my constituents understand that the country needs more homes, and that some development must happen in their area. What they object to is development foisted on them, and which they feel they have no control over. They are worried when even members of our own party say that local democracy will be overruled to force through new development.

The Housing, Communities, and Local Government committee, on which I have sat since 2010, has a Tory majority and yet our report on the upcoming Planning Bill, or at least on those bits of it that have been released to the public or heavily signposted, could be described as “wary”. Many of us do not want to force sprawling new developments on places that cannot cope with them, leaving both new and existing residents badly off in terms of congestion, school places, and access to natural amenity.

The party may find itself at an impasse. We know that the country needs more homes – so people can live closer to the best jobs and afford to buy a home and raise a family. We know that the Conservative Party needs more homes – as homeowners with families always end up being the ones who vote for us. However, if more homes mean building over the landscapes that our voters hold dear, it may risk our core voters in places like Chesham and Amersham turning on us.

I think there’s another way. Earlier this year I contributed to a Policy Exchange paper called Strong Suburbs which outlines an extension to neighbourhood planning called “street plans”. These would allow individual streets, when a large majority of homeowners agree, to give themselves permission to increase the size of their houses. They could add bedrooms for children, granny, or a lodger, or even turn a large semi-detached house into two larger terraced homes. In many areas the value uplift, after building costs, could be several hundred thousand pounds for every homeowner on the street.

There are encouraging signs that this alternative to towers on the skyline, or building over fields, can carry a wide coalition of supporters. Six Tory MPs, including me and my colleague David Simmonds, whose constituency lies directly between mine and Amersham, have endorsed the idea. So has Tony Burton, the key inventor of neighbourhood planning, and chairman of the London branch of the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE). The idea also boasts the support of the London Forum of Amenity and Civic Societies, with more than 100,000 underlying members. Indeed, CPRE’s Hampshire branch recommended the report as part of its submission for the Winchester local plan.

These point the way to a compromise solution on housing, where we make it easier to build, but give local communities the final say, directly, about what goes where. Streets that want to retain their existing character can vote to do so. Those that opt to build more can do that, reaping the benefits, just as many homes opt for more limited loft extensions under the current system. This means that we will be developing places that are already built on and protecting green fields and other natural spaces. Locals always have the final say and cannot have their wishes overridden by the local council or Westminster.

If the idea works, it will be because it gives full control to the local people who are affected most by development. Instead of bearing only the burden of housing, they share in the benefits it delivers, and control the shape and form it takes. If we give power back to communities in this way, we can create a new generation of homeowners, without letting down our most loyal voters.

Reports of Johnson’s political demise are greatly exaggerated

20 Jun

Vote Leave‘s successor was Change Britain – a name that says much about the country’s decision to leave the European Union five years ago.

Brexit was a vote for economic as well as constitutional change: to shift from a model based on financial services, high immigration and London’s hinterland to one more favourable to manufacturing, lower migration and the provinces.  You might call it “levelling up”

If you doubt it, look at this constituency-based map of the results.  West and South of London, you will find a kind of Remain Square.  Its eastern boundary is Hertford and Stortford, more or less.  Its western one is Stroud.

Its northern frontier ends at Milton Keynes and its southern one at Lewes.  Admittedly, this square has a mass of holes punched into it: much of Hampshire, for example, voted Leave.  And some of the Remain majorities within it, like some Leave ones, were narrow.

Levelling up is a term of art.  It can mean enterprise zones, freeports, better schools, improving skills, devolving power – none of which necessarily imply rises in or transfers of public spending.

But to some in that Remain Square, and elsewhere, it is coming to mean taking money in higher taxes from people who live in the south and transferring it to people who live in the north.

This truth would hold had the Chesham and Amersham contest never taken place.   Obviously, it was a lousy result for the Conservatives – for the Party to lose a by-election without seeing it coming, let alone by some eight thousand votes.

There should be a searching post-mortem. But why would any canny voter back the establishment in a by-election?  Isn’t it best to send it a message – namely: “don’t take our votes for granted”?

In the north, that establishment is still Labour.  Hence Hartlepool.  In the south, it’s the pro-levelling up, Red Wall-preoccupied Conservatives.  Hence Chesham and Amersham.  Now on to Batley and Spen.

Come the next general election, the Liberal Democrats won’t be able to concentrate their resources in a single seat, as they did last week.  Nor will they necessarily be the opposition front-runner in the Remain Square, or elsewhere.

Which suggests that last month’s local elections are a better guide to the future than last week’s by-election.  Crudely speaking, they found the right-of-centre vote uniting behind the Tories, and the left-of-centre equivalent divided between Labour, the LibDems and the Greens.

ConservativeHome will take no lectures from anyone about the potential threat to the so-called “Blue Wall” – to the seats within the Remain Square that we identify.  Henry Hill published an analysis of it on this site on May 11, which we re-ran last Friday in the by-election’s wake.

But the good news for Boris Johnson is that the Blue Wall is crumbling more slowly than the red one.  So time is on his side rather than Keir Starmer’s, which is why we still believe that the Prime Minister will be pondering a dash to the polls in 2023.

The bad news for him is that no party can hold a monopoly on much of the country forever.  Tony Blair had one even more extensive than Johnson.  He got three terms out of it (which will encourage the Prime Minister), but Labour eventually ran out of time and votes.

Its backing melted away at both ends.  In the blue corner, their new-won support from 1997 eventually returned to the Tories or went LibDem.  In the red one, their base was eaten away not so much by economics as by immigration and culture.

The medium-term danger to Johnson should start kicking in – unless inflation speeds the process up – in two to three years, when the vultures from post-Brexit and post-Covid spending really start coming home to roost.  He may well be on a second term by then.

But at that point the Prime Minister could find himself trapped in what William Hague, referring to potential British membership of the euro, described as “a burning building with no exits”.

The cornerstone of Government economic policy to date is “no return to austerity” – which we crudely interpret to mean questionable control of the country’s public finances.

This being so, the only weapon left for Ministers to deploy is tax rises: and the tax burden is already forecast to hit the highest level since the late 1960s – 35 per cent of GDP by 2025/26.

We all have a way of reading into by-election results whatever we want to read into them.  Undoubtedly, HS2 was a factor in Chesham and Amersham.  So was planning.  Above all, Blue Wall voters were asking for what Red Wall ones are getting: a little bit of love and attention.

Beyond that, anti-lockdown campaigners claim that the result was powered by opposition to shutdowns.  Pro-aid ones assert that Buckinghamshire’s voters stand behind the 0.7 per cent.

Those suffering from Johnson Derangement Syndrome, such as Dominic Grieve, claim that Buckinghamshire’s “sophisticated” voters see through the Prime Minister.  But if so, why did they chuck Grieve out of Beaconsfield less than two years ago?

So we make no special claim about what happened in Chesham & Amersham last week, other than to take some of the more exotic claims with a lorryload of salt.

But we do make a forecast about what will happen there and elsewhere within the Remain Square in future – regardless of whether or not the seat, like Newbury and Christchurch and Eastbourne and other Liberal by-election gains of the past, duly returns to the Tory column.

Namely, that the good voters of Chesham and Amersham won’t tolerate more tax rises for long.  Not that voters in Red Wall or provincial English seats would do so either.

But the private sector in the Remain Square is relatively big; employment in public services relatively smaller; exposure to property and pensions taxes relatively bigger.

Sooner or later, Johnson and Rishi Sunak will have to revisit the other side of the financial sustainability ledger: spending control.  With over a third of it going on pensions and healthcare, that will mean tough choices, in Chesham, Amersham – and everywhere else.

As for the Prime Minister’s prospects, we are where we were before. He can have all the Turkmenbashi statues he wants, and more, for getting Brexit done – and for saving the country from metaphorical if not literal Dreyfus affair-style strife.

ConHome believes that he should have his chance to “Change Britain” (with a majority of 80, he has earned it; anxious backbenchers please take note) while having little confidence that he actually will.

What’s left of this term risks being frittered away in bread, summits, and circuses, Roman-style.  The possibility is frighteningly plausible.  We devoutly hope that we’re proved wrong, as we sometimes are.

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.

Daniel Hannan: Super Thursday’s results weren’t a victory for conservatism, but for our leader: Brexity Jezza

12 May

Lord Hannan of Kingsclere is a Conservative peer, writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.

It was, as every pundit rushed to explain, an incumbency vote. The Conservatives held England, Labour held Wales and the SNP held Scotland. In a crisis, people rallied to the regime.

Yes. But let’s spell out, in full depressing detail, precisely what kind of regimes they were rallying to. They were rallying to free stuff. They were voting gratefully for administrations that were ladling out grants, subsidies and interest-free loans. They were cheerfully endorsing the idea of being paid to stay at home.

Indeed, they had little option but to vote for these things. Who was offering an alternative? What politician, in the current mood, wants to be the gloomster reminding everyone that accounts must be settled? Who feels like being a Cassandra, droning on about how the debts of the past 14 months will drag us down for years to come? I mean, look what happened to Cassandra.

The rise of big government is paradoxically bad news for Labour. Boris Johnson has always had a thing about bridges, airports and other grands projets. Even before the pandemic hit, the man who once described himself as a “Brexity Hezza” was starting to unscrew the spending taps. But the lockdowns altered the fiscal terms of trade utterly and irretrievably. Not so much Brexity Hezza now as Brexity Jezza.

Corbynistas are claiming belated vindication. “You see? There was a magic money tree after all! Your guy is spending more than our guy ever promised!” Yes, he is. And that is precisely Labour’s problem. How can Keir Starmer – how can anyone – criticise the government for not spending enough? The usual Labour line, namely that they’d be more open-handed than those heartless Tories, is redundant.

If it can’t attack the Government on fiscal policy, what else can Labour go for? Sleaze? Yeah, right, good luck with that. The country decided early on that it was fond of the PM. Sure, he might be seen as a bit chaotic, but he is doing things that people like. At a time when he is leading the UK through a world-beating vaccination programme, moaning about a redecoration that is not alleged to have cost taxpayers a penny is not just pointless, but self-defeating. Labour has made itself look unutterably small during a crisis. Wallpaper for Boris, curtains for Keir.

Green issues, then? Again, forget it. The PM has embraced the eco-agenda as wholeheartedly as any head of government on the planet. Labour would, as voters correctly perceive, pursue the same agenda, but in a less cost-effective and market-friendly way.

With economics, sleaze and environmentalism off the table, Labour is left only with the culture war. Oddly, this is one of the few issues that unites Corbynites and Starmerites. The trouble is, it doesn’t unite them with anyone else. The two Labour factions squabble furiously on Twitter, but both are leagues away from the patriotic working people who used to be their party’s mainstay.

As Khalid Mahmood, the Birmingham MP, put it after the result: “A London-based bourgeoisie, with the support of brigades of woke social media warriors, has effectively captured the party”. Mahmood was the first British Muslim MP, and is generally happy to take up causes for his co-religionists outside Birmingham. But he has little time for identity politics – at least, not in the deranged form that the British Left seems hell-bent on importing from the United States. In common with most Brits of all ethnic backgrounds, Mahmood a patriot, proud of having had ancestors in the Merchant Navy in both world wars. That his love of country should set him at odds with the Labour leadership is telling.

The culture war is where Labour is weakest. Corbyn was more or less openly anti-British, siding automatically with any nation against his own, regardless of the issue. Starmer at least sees why this is unpopular, and does his best to be photographed from time to time with flags. But, coming late and awkwardly to patriotism, he offers a slightly cringe-making version. The country at large – not just Labour’s old base, but the 80-plus per cent of us who think that, with all its faults, Britain has been a benign force down the years – senses his inauthenticity. As I write, opinion polls suggest an 11-point Conservative lead.

The combination of social liberalism and extreme internationalism that Corbynites and Stamerites share is, outside a few cities with big universities, unpopular. That may change over time, of course. The historian Ed West, rarely a man to look on the bright side, believes that demographic change will eventually align the electorate with Labour’s purse-lipped culture warriors. The population, he glumly notes, “is going to be more diverse, more urban, more single, more university-educated and more impoverished by rental prices” – all trends that help Labour.

Perhaps so. Indeed, as Henry Hill noted on this site yesterday, the one region of England where the Conservatives have started slipping is my old patch, the South East. Local election results saw reverses in Kent, Surrey, Sussex, Oxfordshire and (by extrapolation from the new boundaries) Buckinghamshire. But, to be brutally frank, it makes little difference. Under the first-past-the-post system, the Tories can slide a lot further in the Home Counties without endangering more than three or four MPs. For the next couple of election cycles, at least, the Long Awokening won’t much matter.

No, far more alarming is the way in which fiscal conservatism has simply disappeared, an early casualty of the lockdowns. Even as the country reopens, there is almost no talk of cutting spending back to where it was, let alone of starting to repay our debts. Just as after 1945, a collective threat has made us more collectivist. We crave big government. We feel we have earned a pay rise, and we vote accordingly. The Labour Party may have had it; but so, alas, has the free market.

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.

Harry Fone: Parish councils can waste money too

26 Jan

Harry Fone is the Grassroots Campaign Manager for the TaxPayers’ Alliance.

The TaxPayers’ Alliance is well-known for scrutinising spending in the higher tiers of local government such as unitary, county, and city councils. However, over the past few weeks my inbox has been inundated with emails from concerned ratepayers detailing the largesse of their parish and town councils.

These lowest tier authorities are typically not subjected to the same rigour and scrutiny as their larger counterparts – they are not in the scope of the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman, for example. Indeed, this makes a lot of sense; odds are it would not be efficient to constantly monitor all of England’s approximately 10,000 parish and town councils.

But that doesn’t mean they should be able to get away with wasteful and inefficient spending. For the current financial year, 2020-21, £596 million will be raised through parish precepts which is £42 million higher than the previous year. Based on a band D property, the highest precept was £334.96 (Bodmin) and the lowest just £0.27 (Surfleet).

On average, the charge is £69.89 which may seem small when compared to four-figure council tax bills. But try telling that to a family on a low income – it’s enough to pay for a week’s worth of food. Add to this the parlous state of the country’s finances and every penny of public money matters.

On one end of the scale, Chearsley Parish Council in Buckinghamshire is set to purchase 10 high visibility jackets to be customised with the embroidery of the village emblem at a total cost of £540. Is it necessary that the emblem be added to the jackets? The same number of ‘non-emblemed’ jackets would only cost £200.

Again, critics will argue that such spending is trivial when compared to the millions and billions wasted by successive governments. Whilst true, what really enrages ratepayers is the seemingly thoughtless attitude towards their hard-earned taxes. How can we trust public officials and elected representatives to look after the pounds if they can’t look after the pennies?

At the other end of the scale, just like their larger counterparts, parish councils are borrowing large sums from the Public Works Loan Board (PWLB). Between 2015 and 2020 parish and town councils took out loans totalling £106.5 million. In the last two years alone that figure is £53.9 million across 180 councils. Ten parishes borrowed £1 million or more.

The loans can be used for a variety of reasons – Huntingdon Town Council borrowed £6.7 million to fund construction of a crematorium. Some parishes are engaging in commercial ventures. Pailton Parish Council in Warwickshire has borrowed £525,000 from the PWLB to try and resurrect its village pub which has been closed since 2013. £250,000 was used to purchase the pub and the remaining cash to cover the costs of refurbishment. The council’s business plan states the risk of the venture failing is low because they “visited & corresponded with other local establishments, who are doing very well.” – sounds like they enjoyed a good pub crawl to me.

Just like we have seen in Croydon and Nottingham if the investment isn’t profitable, residents will end up footing the bill through higher taxes. An extraordinary general meeting of Pailton council revealed that the precept would have to increase by £107.23 (Band D) if the business gamble failed – a rise of 161 per cent. Such a huge hike would not require a referendum. Currently, there is no cap on increases for parish and town councils – although the government is set to revisit the issue in the near future after attempting to introduce legislation in 2016.

Not all parishes charge a precept though. Around 1,000 are so-called “non-precepting parishes” and raise revenue through other means such as car parking charges, room hire, and even local lotteries. Perhaps more should use these methods. After all, they could be considered a form of voluntary taxation and might even raise more funds. Parishes might also be discouraged from borrowing huge sums of money for risky investments. The removal of the precept, a virtually guaranteed source of income, could well lead to greater fiscal prudence.

It must be said that parish and town councils play an important role in the upkeep of an area and ensuring that residents’ needs are met. Likewise, I suspect that in the majority of cases most are well run with sound finances. But based on the examples above and with tens of millions of pounds in borrowed cash at stake, I suspect many ratepayers will wonder if more oversight is needed.

Faye Purbrick: Don’t split Somerset in half

16 Dec

Cllr Faye Purbrick is the Cabinet Member for Education and Transformation on Somerset County Council

In 2009, Conservatives ended 16 years of Lib Dem control on Somerset County Council and set about doing what good Conservative authorities do; delivering efficient local public services and value for money. Of course, there have been challenges along the way, but we’ve balanced the books and are now in an enviable position with decent reserves and a stronger financial position than probably any other county council, despite Covid-19 pressures.

And we want that to continue. We also want to go further and be able to make sure that Somerset plays a leading role as we emerge from the effects of the pandemic, particularly in creating and attracting jobs and businesses with the long-term investment and infrastructure that we will need. The events of the last year have illustrated that local government has a key role to play in supporting local communities. But they have also shown the limitations of the current system with unnecessary boundaries, duplication and inefficiencies.

Let’s be very clear, this is not about district vs county. Indeed, the county council and the four districts (one Conservative and three Lib Dem) are agreed on one thing; that the current two-tier structure has run its path and is no longer fit for purpose.

The options therefore come down to a choice between one single council for Somerset, ‘One Somerset’, supported by the county council, the majority of MPs, local businesses, the Police Crime Commissioner and a majority of the people of Somerset who favour an end to confusion, duplication, and the generation of savings to reinvest in frontline public services.

The alternative proposal, backed by the districts, would in effect see a Berlin Wall placed down the middle of the county splitting it into small, rival East/West unitaries whilst creating a separate “Alternative Delivery Model” for children’s services, a shared services company, and an elected mayor/combined authority sitting over the top. It would therefore replace the existing five authorities, each with their own staff and separate cultures, with, five organisations, each with their own staff and separate cultures. Not only would this create confusion, it would disrupt existing county services (notably care for vulnerable adults and children) whilst each east/west unitary would struggle to be able to exist, serving a population smaller than the figure government believes is a credible entity. And that is before we start to look at the discrepancies in deprivation between East and West, twice as bad for those living in the West of the county – not just a split in our county but a blocker to aspiration and levelling-up.

A single unitary model has worked well in those areas that have adopted it in recent years including Dorset, Wiltshire, and Buckinghamshire. It is favoured by partners in the police, probation, and health service who care little about local government boundaries. It would allow Somerset to have a unified single voice, critical in attracting inward investment, and would join up local public services.

On every test, a single council delivers over the alternative five organisation approach; greater and quicker savings that can be reinvested back into public services with lower costs of implementation.

It would also deliver a boost to local democracy by creating a network of local community networks, working with local parish and town councils and at the heart of neighbourhoods and communities. People identify with their local village or town and their county and want to see services delivered at those levels; in fact, they just want to receive great quality and value, local services. And that’s what the One Somerset proposal would give them.

We have submitted a business case to the Secretary of State to do exactly this, but we are also setting out a series of clear commitments to the people of Somerset over the coming months to ensure that One Somerset delivers on what they want:

  1. No disruption to local services as we change, and a promise to keep residents fully informed.
  2. We will protect those front-line staff working with vulnerable people across the county.
  3. Council tax will not increase because of moving to a single unitary council.
  4. Physical, face-to-face council contact points across the county.
  5. One telephone number and one website to access ALL council services.
  6. Improved services for our vulnerable residents including housing, adults’ & children’s services.
  7. Improved services for our children and young people, including education, training, jobs and transport.
  8. More local decision making by our town and parish councils and new local community networks.
  9. Closer relationships with partners including the NHS, police, education, and the voluntary sector to deliver better services.
  10. And finally, we will not split Somerset in half, divide communities, lose our proud identity, or weaken our standing on a local, regional and national level.

What we are offering is simple and based on good Conservative philosophy: a blueprint for better services, better value for money and reduced bureaucracy, no artificial boundaries – and certainly not splitting our great county in half as we look to rebuild our communities and country following Covid. That’s what Conservatives stand for and that’s what we will deliver if we are given the opportunity to continue the journey that we started in 2009.