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.