Alex Morton: Ministers can have more houses or higher immigration. But they won’t be able to get away with both.

21 Jun

Alex Morton is Head of Policy at the Centre for Policy Studies, and is a former Number Ten Policy Unit Member.

A very large part of the Chesham and Amersham result was driven by the shamelessly and ruthlessly NIMBYist approach of the Liberal Democrats on both housing and HS2.

As Ed Davey put it just before the election, “we are seeing a promising number of Conservatives switching to us, because they want to say no… we don’t want these planning reforms.”

This now-notorious Lib Dem leaflet sets out the strategy: no policies bar opposing development. MPs who campaigned state the issues on the doorstep were new housing and HS2. Pure NIMBYism is a powerful force in the South of England.

So how do the Conservatives tackle the issue? The Government certainly needs to adjust its course – but it cannot ditch planning reform altogether. Ultimately, we still desperately need more homes, especially in London and the South-East where pressures are greatest. The current reforms contain a great deal of good.

But the truth is another issue sits alongside planning, which Westminster is not focusing on, but which sits on voters’ and MPs minds when contemplating new homes: immigration.

The politics of new homes in London and the South is complicated

A critical political argument for new housebuilding is it will protect the Conservatives majority longer term. Homeowners vote Tory, renters don’t. The argument made to Southern MPs is more homes and more homeowners will secure their electoral base.

But, while correct on a macro scale, this argument is not necessarily so on the micro. Many MPs note that the new homes built in their constituencies are often most attractive to, and affordable for, those leaving London. But as London’s housing pressures spill over into the Home Counties, so do London’s political attitudes.

This helps to explain why commuter constituencies like Canterbury and Bedford are becoming marginals: internal migration drives up anti-Conservative ex-London voter numbers. While Brexit accelerated this, between 2010 and 2015 Outer London (the ‘doughnut’ that twice elected Boris Johnson as Mayor) swung from Tory to Labour, even as the rest of the country moved the other way.

In the North, nice new homes often bring Tory voters – as Peter Mandelson noticed revisiting his old Hartlepool seat.  But new housing in the south annoys existing Conservative voters without always bringing new ones.  The conversion process will still probably work longer-term, as new voters relax into home ownership and shed London attitudes.  But MPs understandably think in five or ten year horizans.

Making things worse, many Southern MPs face not Labour, but the Lib Dems or the Greens, boasting to middle-class voters they are pro-immigration (unlike ‘nasty’ Tories), while also shamelessly arguing they will block new homes locally. Labour cannot do this, as it knows that it must deliver if it wins.

Meanwhile, Tory-inclined voters are susceptible to another simple message: new homes are only needed due to migration. They feel the problem is hundreds of thousands of new arrivals a year, who need extra homes, meaning concreting over the South-East.

The current system of housing targets enables a dishonest political debate

So how do Conservatives tackle this problem? This, I am afraid, is where it gets technical. But it first involves admitting voters have a point about immigration.

Currently, Government housing targets are based on a 2014 estimate (using data from 2012-2014) that we are creating 214,000 new households a year. Various tweaks are done to turn this household number into a housing target, including adjustments based on affordability. The end result is a national target for new housing of 297,000 a year.

The 214,000 households figure assumes net international migration (i.e. the difference between those arriving and leaving) of around 170,000 people annually (see here). So, under current estimates, around 37 per cent of all new homes are needed due to net international migration (see here). So the anti-immigration lobby have a point. But even with zero net migration, we would need many more homes.

However, immigration is very clearly pushing up the numbers needed, and has a disproportionate effect in the South. For the key years 2012-2014, around 50-60 per cent of net international migration went to London, the South East, and the East. This pushed up their housing need most. Even pre-pandemic, London’s population would be falling without international migration, but international migration drives it back up, rippling out over time in terms of housing targets across the South.

Why does this matter politically? It shows it is logically absurd for any party to promise both higher levels of net immigration and yet lower housebuilding in the South. But that is exactly what the Lib Dems and Greens do. And they get away with it because of the current lack of transparency around housing need calculations.

We need to include net migration figures in the local plans

We’d need more homes even if with zero net migration – because we have not built enough for years. As I pointed out in my day job at the Centre for Policy Studies, the 2010s were the worst modern decade for housebuilding – and every decade has got worse since the 1960s.

But one way for the Conservatives to change the politics of planning – and show their immigration controls are crucial – is a clearer link between migration numbers and local housing need. The new Planning Bill should ensure that each local plan periodically adjusts housing targets and housing need in line with net migration. This would inject honesty into the housing debate.

As noted, current housing plans are based on net international migration of 170,000 a year. If net migration fell to 50,000, we would need 60,000 fewer homes a year (assuming roughly one home for two new people). If it rose to 350,000, it would mean 90,000 more homes each year.

If the Liberal Democrats, or the Greens, want to argue for more immigration nationally, it should be clear this means more homes in each area. This would fundamentally change the debate in the South. In Chiltern District Council, home to Chesham and Amersham, the difference between annual national net immigration going down to 50,000 or up to 300,000 would be several thousand extra homes in the next ten years. Pro-migration, NIMBY parties would have to choose.

The worst outcome would be higher net immigration and weakened planning reform

The worst outcome for home ownership is higher net immigration plus weaker planning reform. Yet in the wake of Chesham & Amersham, this seems very likely. Currently, annual net migration is running at 281,000 – or around 110,000 more people a year than 2014 projections. This means 55,000 more homes a year since the 2014 projections – more than the entire rise planned last year after the planning reform row.

Higher migration but no planning reform is also the worst possible result for the Conservative Party. It would exacerbate London and the South’s problems – creating new voters who don’t vote Tory through higher migration, annoying existing Tory voters with new homes, but not delivering enough home ownership to capture new voters.

Housing numbers and migration are an example of Morton’s political triangle. You cannot please everyone. Government policy is currently pro-migration (in numbers not rhetoric) and pro-housebuilding. Both positions put off voters in Chesham. Yet ditching planning reforms while keeping higher migration dooms the Tories in London and the South longer term. The best shot for the Conservatives in the South is more homes and lower immigration – and this, not ditching planning reform, should be their next step.

Richard Holden: Levelling up is for voters in the South as well as my constituents in Durham

21 Jun

Richard Holden is MP for North West Durham.

The Village Hall, Delves Lane, Consett, Co. Durham

It’s a bit like the fabled London bus: you wait ages for a by-election, then four come along at once. For the Westminster bubble – the media, politicians, psephologists and the commentariat – these provide much-needed fresh meat for broadcast comment and column inches. They are the perfect base on which all can retrospectively build their latest pet theory, or justify their most recent musing.

Last month, Hartlepool and Airdrie and Shotts were the focus. In a fortnight, the bubble’s eyes will alight upon Batley and Spen. Until then, the Chesham and Amersham result provides nourishment for this week.

Like an oversized Christmas turkey, the result will be dissected and eaten, the remaining meat will sandwiched and eaten cold for days, and the carcass will then be picked over by someone in need a morsel. Finally, the bones will be boiled up for stock, and set aside to form the basis of future fodder.

Today, we’re at the sandwich stage. Edward Davey, a man uniquely blessed both with the appearance and charisma of a microwaved jacket potato, is clearly relishing some rare limelight for the Lib Dems. The dead parrot is very much alive, he cries! And he repeats this on every media outlet going, spreading his orangey-yellow spin-sauce as thick and fast has he can.

Former Conservative Cabinet Ministers, sat on colossal majorities – thanks to our Prime Minister’s clear stance on Brexit, rather than their own failed approach – bemoan this latest by-election result. The reason for it is clear: it’s whatever pet peeve is tickling their fancy, as they charmlessly forget that they’re participants in, not commentators on, politics.

But from the conversations I’ve been having, the general noise from the bubble is drowning out a far stronger signal. In elections, as with opinion polls, you’ve got to look at trends, not individual results. The trend, rather than the by-election de jour is the same as the local election results. The Conservatives continue to perform solidly (unusually so for a party in Government), and you can see just how much trouble Labour are in. And it knows so.

The local elections of just six weeks ago showed Labour going backwards from the hammering they’d got under Jeremy Corbyn in 2017. Hartlepool added to the party’s woes. The trend has been re-enforced in Labour’s unprecedently poor showing in Chesham and Amersham. 622 votes (1.6 per cent) is abysmal, especially when you consider that, under Corbyn in the 2017 general election, Labour came second with 11,374 votes (20.6 per cent of the vote). Starmer, elected in part because it was thought he could win back more of Southern England as well as reverse the losses in the Red Wall, is now looking weaker than ever.

From the day Tony Blair became Labour leader, the party didn’t go backwards in the by-elections that other opposition parties won all the way up to 1997. Perth and Kinross, and Littleborough and Saddleworth, won by the SNP and Lib Dems respectively in 1995, both saw Labour’s vote share rise, despite the other parties taking those seats from the Conservatives. Moreover, Labour know that talk of ‘electoral pacts’ would be madness for a party that seeks to govern, or for a leader who thinks that they can become Prime Minister.

But Labour now knows that it has a leader who is incapable of winning elections. Behind the scenes, it is looking to change him, and sooner rather than later. Plans are more advanced than is widely known beyond the bubble. Both Lisa Nandy and Angela Rayner have desires for the Labour crown with campaigns ready to go, if not already fully underway.  Andy Burnham’s appetite for the leadership is so blatant it’s even being spoofed on Radio 4 comedy shows.

With Labour about to become embroiled in another testing civil war – the timing of which is dependent on just how badly this downward trend goes in the near future – Conservative MPs, wherever they represent, should cool their boots.

There’s a lot of talk at the moment, but the Government’s planning proposals haven’t even gone out to consultation yet. Everyone knows that the current system’s broken: that it works for large land-banking developers, and does very little to really drive sustainable brownfield regeneration outside the centre of our major cities. So let’s not prejudge anything.

On top of that, levelling up is an agenda for everyone because it’s explicitly not about taking from one to give to another. The clue is in the name: it’s about ensuring the provision across the country is there to meet the talents of our people. It’s as relevant to the lad in Ashford as it is for the girl in Ashington. Both want good further education provision, a good job, in time a home of their own for them and their family, good transport and broadband connectivity.

It’s about tackling the productivity issues our country faces so that we don’t have a hideous situation where we’re having to transfer vast amounts of tax around the country to perpetually subsidise some areas. The drive behind levelling up is instead ensuring that towns, villages and individuals across the country will have the jobs and access to jobs and opportunities that, in time, will enable them to pay a greater portion into the collective national pot as they get better off.

Labour don’t like levelling up because they want client communities who rely on handouts from the centre who will then, with a tug of their collective forelock, say thank you for the hand-out by re-elect Labour MPs. So, let’s not fall into the trap of its North v South drivel.

Now is not the time to be distracted by the noise. Cool heads are required – with our opponents about to plunge themselves into another bout of “the public are bonkers for not voting Labour.” As their leadership candidates jostle for the votes of an overwhelmingly out of touch metropolitan membership, we Conservatives, the party in government, must not be distracted. We need one focus, delivery of our one-nation Conservative agenda, because that’s what the public here in the village hall in Delves Lane today or in the shop next door care about. They will accept nothing less.

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.

David Gauke: Chesham and Amersham. Yes, a realignment is taking place in British politics. But it is likely to happen slowly.

19 Jun

David Gauke is a former Justice Secretary, and was an independent candidate in South-West Hertfordshire at the recent general election.

Conservative MPs should take the Prime Minister at his word. He has told them what he is going to do and they should trust him to do it. He won’t let them down. There. I have said it.

For the avoidance of doubt, I am not talking about promises to level up, prioritise the education catch-up, simultaneously keep taxes and borrowing down while ending spending austerity, avoid new non-tariff barriers with EU trade, prevent new checks on Great Britain-Northern Ireland trade, stop veterans being pursued in the courts, deliver net zero without any pain for taxpayers or consumers, or maintain all existing agricultural standards at the same time as obtaining comprehensive trade deals around the world. Some of those promises might not be kept.

But when the Prime Minister says that he intends to open up on 19 July, I am sure he means it and I think he will be able to do so.

On Boris Johnson’s intentions, nobody should be in much doubt that he is an instinctively reluctant implementer of lockdowns and, if they were, the evidence of Dominic Cummings should dissuade them.

Over the course of 2021, the Prime Minister has been more cautious in unlocking (with considerable justification) but it is worth noting the reasons. Of most relevance is the fact that we have vaccines which are demonstrably the way out of lockdowns without yet further vast numbers of deaths. The existence of vaccines has meant that the end is in sight, but also that the case for caution is strengthened because further deaths are avoidable. It is this insight that has driven our lockdown policy for the last few months, and drove the decision to delay easing once again.

The Indian/Delta variant has disrupted the plans, because it is evidently much more transmissible and a single dose is less effective than against earlier strains. This has not resulted in abandoning the vaccine strategy but raising the thresholds. In broad terms, the Government has moved from being satisfied in unlocking, when 80 per cent of adults will have had the benefit of one dose and 60 per cent two, to moving up the thresholds to roughly 90 to 95 per cent and 80 per cent respectively.

A fair proportion of the Conservative Parliamentary Party is sceptical that the July unlocking will happen, presumably because they think that cases and hospitalisation will be high when the decision will be made. If that were to be the case, that might also suggest the decision to delay the June unlocking was wise.

But July 19 does – at this point – look like the right date. We will still get the benefit of summer, the long school holidays will reduce transmission and the vaccine programme will be very nearly done. Assuming that the vaccines work – and the evidence continues to be very encouraging – and we are not struck by a variant that looks as though it will escape the effects of the vaccine, the case for unlocking at that point will be very strong. I think he will do it.

– – – – – – – – – –

I have written elsewhere about the Chesham and Amersham by-election. It is a constituency I know well, having represented the neighbouring seat of South West Hertfordshire for some years, and I live just a short walk from the constituency boundary. The two seats have much in common.

During the course of the 2019 general election campaign I had lots of encouraging conversations – usually in Berkhamsted High Street – in which people would wish me luck before declaring that they lived in Chesham and could not vote for me. Presumably, most of those voters went Liberal Democrat on Thursday.

I have for some time argued that we are undergoing a political realignment.  As far as the Conservative retreat from the Home Counties is concerned, I think that is more likely to be apparent in by-elections before we will see it in general elections, because it is seen as risk-free to vote elsewhere. In 2019, the soft Conservative vote stayed Conservative because of the fear of Jeremy Corbyn, whereas no such threat exists in a by-election.

Even accepting all of that, the result seems to have caught most observers by surprise. Given that I am almost a local, a few people asked me if I had expected it, and I confess I hadn’t (a sharply reduced Conservative majority – yes; a comfortable Liberal Democrat majority – no).

However, on reflection, the only person in the constituency I had spoken to in the last week was the nice man from the Amersham branch of Majestic, and we didn’t discuss politics.

– – – – – – – – – –

As someone who is happy to defend Boris Johnson’s decision to delay the next stage in easing the lockdown, I do think he has rather got away with causing the delay in the first place. I listened to PMQs this week (as it happens, driving to receive my second dose in Watford Town Hall) and Keir Starmer asked a series of questions on the delay in restricting travel from India.

The Prime Minister responded with a series non sequiturs and evasions. Pakistan and Bangladesh went on the red list on 2 April, India (where cases were far higher) not until 19 April (and implemented four days later). I have not seen a good explanation for the difference in approach.

It is clear that the Delta variant was seeded in the UK because of extensive travel with India over that period. Despite our superior vaccine rollout (although the gap is closing by the day), the UK now has more cases per head of population than anywhere in Europe

At some point, the Government is going to have to explain what happened. If not, people will only assume it was because the Prime Minister did not want to abandon the chance to make a trip to India. It is a serious charge and deserves a serious response.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Chesham and Amersham by-election may be uncomfortable for the Conservatives but that is likely to be as nothing compared to the Labour discomfit if they lose Batley & Spen. In large part, this looks likely to be as a consequence of George Galloway’s campaign, and his criticism of Starmer for being insufficiently critical of Israel.

Assuming Labour loses, I wonder if the approach the Labour leadership should take is to lean into the issue and argue that – whatever the electoral consequences – the Labour Party under Keir Starmer (in contrast to his predecessor) will take a mature and balanced approach to the Middle East, and not put political expediency above responsible diplomacy.

I am not sure that is entirely true (there seems to me to be too much pandering to radical anti-Israel sentiment as it is), but it might not be a bad issue to be debating the wake of a by-election loss. Frame the debate as Starmer against the Galloway/Corbyn worldview.

As it is, Labour is in an impossible and ghastly position. It is either seen as too anti-Semitic to be elected or, in some places, not anti-Semitic enough.

Is the Blue Wall around London in danger of cracking?

18 Jun

This year’s local elections are at least as good a guide to the future as by-elections. ConHome therefore republish my post-May analysis of the threat to the Conservatives in the South.

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.

The voters of Chesham and Amersham remind the Prime Minister that he is mortal

18 Jun

The voters of Chesham and Amersham have given their message loud and clear. One of the safest Conservative seats has been lost to the Lib Dems. A Conservative majority of 16,223, only 18 months ago, was overturned yesterday to become a Lib Dem majority of 8,028.

But, er, just what was the message?

If it was to abandon HS2, why vote for the Lib Dems – a Party which supports the astonishingly expensive transport scheme?

Were voters protesting against “Freedom Day” being delayed on the grounds that continuing with restrictions is disproportionate? Or has Dominic Cummings alarmed them that the Government is too complacent and that lockdown should have been longer and more draconian?

Are the residents of beautiful villages in the Green Belt warning against “concreting over the countryside” with ugly planning developments? Or after a year where house prices have sharply risen, are aspirational younger voters showing their frustration that under a Conservative Government the dream of home ownership remains just that?

Amidst this array of grievances, the Yellow Army entered. The Lib Dems are very good at by-elections. The first “upset” was their victory in Orpington in 1962 – in their previous incarnation as the Liberal Party. In the decades that followed such “shock” triumphs have become a staple of the political diet.

The Lib Dems are shrewd at detecting where victory is viable and then in throwing everything at it. It is not just a question of manpower – though bussing in cheerful and dedicated activists has been important. It is more sophisticated than that. Protest votes are wooed with the soothing message that the Government will not be overturned. The Lib Dem vote harvesting machine of contradictory messages is carefully honed to suit the whims of each household. A pious tone is combined with shameless opportunism and base dishonesty.

This boost does come at an important time for the Lib Dems, however. The local elections were disappointing for them – partly because coronavirus restrictions thwarted their chance to gain an edge from targeted campaigning. Some recent opinion polls have had the Green Party ahead of the Lib Dems.

Against that background, the Prime Minister might be tempted to shrug off the result. That would be a mistake. The electorate of Chesham and Amersham is telling him something important:

“Remember you are mortal.”

Or, as the Prime Minister would be more likely to mutter to himself during his next jog around St James Park with Dilyn:

“Memento Mori.”

The G7 Summit went smoothly. Perhaps a little too smoothly. A bit too much of a smug mutual admiration society. All these world leaders flying in – Boris Johnson on a private jet from London to Newquay – to then lecture us about climate change and issue targets that (if taken remotely seriously) would mean very considerable costs and restrictions for ordinary families. At the Summit we would saw ostentatious elbow bumping by these international statesmen on arrival – but then we saw them putting arms around each other at the grand looking soirées. The numbers seemed to exceed the limit the rest of us are obliged to observe at our more humble gatherings. They know how to count in the Chilterns. All the swanking and swaggering might have seemed a bit much. Such irritations would be less likely to sway votes at a General Election.

Then there is the southern discomfort over “levelling up.” Ambiguity has been allowed over quite what the policy objective means. This has allowed resentment to fester in the South that it means money being taken from them to give to the North. As with the indignation at the assumption in Critical Race Theory of “white privilege”, it rankles that those in the South are assumed to be rich and thus undeserving of training schemes, or road improvements, or whatever other goodies are on offer.

Yet the whole point of “levelling up” was supposed to a retort to the socialist idea that we are in a “zero sum game” where resources are fixed and the only means to help the poor is to take from the rich. The term “levelling up” was not invented by Johnson.He took it from Margaret Thatcher. The Right Approach, published by the Conservative Party in 1976 stated:

“Conservatives are not egalitarians. We believe in levelling up, in enhancing opportunities, not in levelling down, which dries up the springs of enterprise and endeavour and ultimately means that there are fewer resources for helping the disadvantaged. Hostility to success, because success brings inequality, is often indistinguishable from envy and greed, especially when, as Alexander Solzhenitsyn has pointed out, it is dressed up in the language of the ‘class struggle’.”

That same clarity needs to be restored.

A final thought. The person who should be most relieved this morning is Sir Keir Starmer. That might seem perverse. Labour only got 622 votes in the by-election – that put them in fourth place coming in behind the Green Party. The Lib Dem campaign must have squeezed their vote very hard. As recently as the 2017 General Election, we had Labour coming in second place in Chesham and Amersham with 11,374 votes.

But what matters for Sir Keir is the Batley and Spen by-election in a couple of weeks. If Labour lose, as many expect, could it prove a tipping point? Could Labour descend into recriminations and division, forcing the resignation of Sir Keir? The Chesham and Amersham result makes that less likely. It will be easier to explain away…just one of those by-election “upsets.”

Iain Dale: The student said men are physically stronger than women. Now she’s been referred to the Student Disciplinary Board.

21 May

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and the For the Many podcast with Jacqui Smith.

On Wednesday, Ryan Stephenson was selected as the Conservative candidate in Batley & Spen. The way some Tories are carring on, it’s already in the bag.

This is dangerous talk. Hartlepool is not Batley & Spen. Not all northern constituencies are the same. Indeed, this used to be a Conservative seat, with Elizabeth Peacock representing it from 1983 to 1997.

Since then, it’s been fairly solidly Labour, although at the last election the majority was reduced to 3,525. That year, an independent candidate, Paul Halloran, polled more than 6,400 votes, the majority of which seem to have come from Labour, if you compare the 2019 result with that of 2017.

Will Halloran stand again? I’ve had a look at his Facebook page, and he’s certainly strongly hinting that he might. However, if Jo Cox’s sister, Kim Leadbeater, gets the Labour nomination – the party is selecting on Sunday – that might put him off.

Labour seem to have learned their lesson from the disastrous imposition of their candidate in Hartlepool from a shortlist of one. This time, the local party will have a selection of candidates to choose from.

Everyone is assuming that Leadbeater is a shoo-in, but one should always remember that local candidates, though often seen as a real advantage by commentators, usually have local enemies. And local Labour Parties are usually a hotbed of plotting and chicanery.

Finally, it appears that George Galloway will be throwing his Fedora into the ring. He will try to win the substantial Muslim vote, which would normally be expected to row in behind Labour. The result of this by-election could well depend on how successful Galloway is.

For that and many other reasons, this by-election is likely to become the most well covered by the media for many years: indeed, this site carried a report from Andrew Gimson yesterday. Put your seatbelts on and hold tight.

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The other by-election on the horizon is Chesham & Amersham, on June 17th. The Conservative candidate, selected a fortnight ago, Peter Fleet, has a majority of more than 16,000 to defend.

On the fact of it, the seat doesn’t look like the place where political earthquakes take place, but stranger things have happened. I was listening to the LibDem podcast this week (so you don’t have to), and they certainly have their dander up and think they can win it.

They base this on the fact that the seat had a 55 per cent Remain vote (or at least did in 2016). I’m not sure how relevant this is any longer. I mean, ‘Bollocks to Brexit’ worked for them so well in 2019. The vaccine rollout has certainly converted many people to the Brexit cause as well.

But complacency is the enemy of victory, and Conservative strategists should certain not rest on their laurels.

– – – – – – – – – –

Yet another example of the world going completely mad. A student at Abertay University, Dundee has been referred to the Student Disciplinary Board because in a seminar on Gender, she had the temerity to state that men are physically stronger than women.

This is obviously a thought crime and, in true Orwellian style, she must be banished to the Student Disciplinary Board for correctional training. And they say there is no need for a Free Speech Bill (Universities) Bill…

– – – – – – – – – –

Looks like the West Ham Variant will be hitting Europe in August… Come on You Irons!

– – – – – – – – – –

For the last three and a half years, I have hosted an hour-long panel show called Cross Question on a Wednesday evening on LBC. It’s similar in format to Any Questions or Question Time  with the main difference being the questions come from our callers.

We had to pause it during lockdown, because we couldn’t have four guests in the studio. But, since the beginning of March, we’ve had them all on a giant Zoom wall, and it’s worked rather well.

I deliberately keep the tone light and discourage too many heated confrontations. If people talk over each other on Zoom it sounds far worse than it does if they’re physically present. What I have found is that this engenders an atmosphere of positivity, with panellists agreeing with each other surprisingly often.

As well as big name politicians and commentators we’ve also used the show to try to discover new talent too. This week, we had Ndidi Okezie, chief executive of UK Youth on. She was an absolute revelation, with original things to say on every subject we covered. And we covered a lot of ground.

The show has been so successful that from next week we’re going to be doing it three times a week (Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday), live from our new studio in Westminster.

On Monday, we have a very tasty first panel with Diane Abbott, Sarah Vine, Polly Toynbee and Brandon Lewis. Our challenge is to keep up the quality of the guests, given that we’ll have three programmes to fill every week. And the great things is, as well as listening people are able to watch via the Global Player or Youtube. That’s modern radio for you!

Tom Spiller: Celebrate our election wins. But to keep winning we need to equip activists with tools that work.

15 May

Tom Spiller is the former President of the Conservative National Convention and chaired the 2017 party conference.

What a fantastic set of results our Party had in the May 2021 elections.

I have no doubt that these historic achievements are only possible because of the efforts of our voluntary activists – some of whom travelled to Hartlepool and Tees Valley from as far afield as Dorset, South London, and Shropshire, in gruelling day trips.

Time to reflect

The road to the next General Election – whenever that may come – is now well and truly open, and our party must put serious thought into both holding the new ground that it won in 2019 and 2021, and maintaining its position in long-held territory, some of which now looks weaker than we would like.

Our first challenge will be defending the late Dame Cheryl Gillan’s seat in Chesham and Amersham. Then we face the challenge of gaining Batley and Spen – a seat which we narrowly won in last week’s local elections.

Some suggest that the political phenomenon of “realignment” is a two-sided coin – but it does not need to be. We can never rest on our laurels and, as a party, we always need to think for the long-term. Therefore, we must carefully analyse the unexpected results in (amongst others) Oxfordshire, Cambridgeshire, and Sussex, to see what lessons we can learn.

Ask the activists

Earlier this year I conducted an online survey that asked Conservative associations across the UK what support they needed to get ready for the 2021 elections and – to borrow a well-used phrase – build back better, following the lockdown era. (Click here to watch a short video summarising the results.)

I received just over 580 responses to my survey, which came from every nation of the UK, and every region in England. The answer was resoundingly clear and twofold: unsurprisingly, lockdown had a significant detrimental impact on their resources, and they were hungry for campaign-focused practical training.

Time for training, training, training

As many will know, this year our party intends to open the CCHQ Northern campus in Yorkshire.

This represents a fantastic opportunity to channel resources and support to Blue Wall associations that need them. Indeed, we must do that if we are to maintain our Parliamentary majority, to hold onto our freshly-won councils and PCCs, and to further widen the battlefield. However, this can only be done via a proper collaborative partnership with activists on the ground who have vast experience of their local political terrain. And we must all now insist on this.

I know from personal experience that this approach would be hugely beneficial. Last year I hosted an online webinar for first-time associations chairs, and I can tell you that of the 112 attendees, the majority were from the Midlands and the North.

With a particular focus on digital

Another striking feature of this year’s results, which was also echoed in the survey results, was the critical impact of well-executed digital campaigns – after all, for much of the lockdown era, digital campaigning was one of the few tools available to us. This forced many to both innovate and evaluate the approaches they had been taking to date.

But as my survey showed – in the run up to the short campaign, regardless of geographical location, all associations felt that they need more help with campaigning – and, in particular, digital.

The power of digital campaigning cannot be underestimated. A hardy team of volunteers might be able to leaflet a couple of polling districts in an afternoon – but a well-crafted digital messages could well reach thousands of voters with the click of a button.

The example of Ben Houchen

By now everyone will have heard of Ben Houchen’s fantastic achievement – he won the Tees Valley Mayoral race in the first round by winning 73 per cent of all votes cast. A key feature of Ben’s campaign was a relentless focus on digital campaigning. The content that he created ranged from easily-shareable, unspun endorsement videos sourced from small local businesses (click here to view) and construction workers (click here to view) helped by the projects he has made happen, to more heartfelt rallying cries for Teessiders to pull together to get the economy back on track after Coronavirus (click here to view).

If we are to maintain our position in both newly-won and long-held political territory our party must now engage with associations all over the country (especially those with newly-elected chairs) and with a focus on training, particularly in effective digital campaigning. And once again – this is something that I intend to insist on.

Time for a change in approach

This is something that is based in data. I know what the party activists want because I asked them and they told me. This bottom-up, data-led approach should be the basis for all allocation of the party’s resources. If we are going to win the elections of the future we need to equip our activists with the tools that work.

Iain Dale: Until Labour stops telling voters they’re wrong, racist, or stupid, it will continue to decline

14 May

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and the ‘For the Many’ podcast with Jacqui Smith.

I rarely do a lot of preparation for an interview. Sometimes, the more preparation you do, the worse an interview is. Some interviewers war game every interview they do. I don’t. I find such an approach stultifying. It often just leads to you writing down a list of questions, and then asking them in the order they’re written down in.

My best interviews are invariably ones where I don’t have a single piece of paper in front of me. Yes, it’s risky. Freewheeling always is. But at the age of 58 and three quarters, I know what works for me and what doesn’t. However, there are exceptions to this rule and last night (as you read this) I will have interviewed the Israel Ambassador to London, Tzipi Hovotely, and conducted a phone-in.

I defy anyone to pretend they have a 100 per cent understanding of the Israel/Palestine situation, and everything that has led to the current unrest. So I am writing this column a little earlier than usual on Thursday morning to give me a little more time to read up on the situation.

I don’t call it preparation: I call it avoiding making a tit of yourself, and getting a key fact wrong. I don’t and won’t hide the fact that I am a supporter of Israel but, boy, does it make it hard for its advocates sometimes.

And this is one of them. I was slightly surprised when the Ambassador agreed to take calls from listeners, but delighted at the same time. As a presenter, I know it’s the calls from listeners that can often be far more difficult to handle than the questions from a professional interviewer.

If you missed the hour last night, you can catch up with it on the Global Player or the LBC Youtube Channel. And, next week, we’ll repeat the experience with the Palestinian Ambassador, Husam Zomlot. However balanced you try to be on this subject, though, there will always be people who accuse you of being biased and ignoring one viewpoint or the other. Such is life in the modern social media world.

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In my weekly email newsletter on Sunday I wrote:

“You can tell an awful lot about a politician by how they react to an election defeat. This week we learned that Sir Keir Starmer is neither a lucky general or is cool under fire.

His interview on Friday afternoon was a textbook classic of how not to react. He looked like a rabbit in the headlights and didn’t seem to comprehend the scale of what had happened.

He promised to take “full responsibility” himself. Twenty four hours later, we learned he had sacked Angela Rayner, the chair of the Labour Party and its campaign co-ordinator.

Given Labour’s problems seem to be a lack of ability to reach out to northern working class voter, it didn’t really seem a good idea to sack a norrthern working class woman.”

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The week hasn’t exactly improved for the man whose name is now invariably preceded by the word ‘beleaguered’. I find it genuinely perplexing to understand what has happened to Sir Keir since Christmas. During hhis first nine months as Labour leader, he established a positive reputation, and many Conservatives thought that at last they faced an opposition leader that the electorate could imagine as an alternative Prime Minister.

Since then, it’s all gone to pot. And last week’s elections demonstrated how, if not why. Labour had the odd positive result but, overall, they were a disaster. To lose the Hartlepool by-election by a country mile, to lose the West Midlands Mayoralty by a large margin, to come a bad third in Scotland and to lose 322 local council seats was quite the hattrick.

Again, there was little understanding in the Labour Party as to why it had happened. Judging from the lame reshuffle ,Starmer then conducted it was all Valerie Vaz’s fault.

The comment of a defeated northern Labour council leader sums up Labour’s problem. He said: “I hope the electorate don’t live to regret what they’ve done.” Effectively he was saying: it’s not us, it’s you. Too many people in the Labour Party think the electorate must be stupid and thick to vote the way they do. “We know what’s best for you,” they think subliminally.

Grace Blakely, the Tribune columnist, is a living example of this phenomenon – middle/upper middle class intellectuals who think they know how best to improve the life of the peasants – and woe betide those peasants if they don’t take notice of them.

What we are experiencing is another form of ‘peasants’ revolt’: ordinary people are telling their previous lords and masters that they are quite capable of judging things for themselves, thank you very much. They don’t need to be told they’re wrong, racist, or stupid. And until the Labour Party understands that, it will continue to decline in electoral popularity.

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The slow rise of the Greens is something most of the media has largely ignored. They gained a good clutch of council seats and an extra seat on the London Assembly. They have beaten the Liberal Democrats to be the third party in many of the major contests.

If I were the LibDems and Labour I’d be worried about this, since the Greens are becoming the home of the ‘plague on all your houses’ vote, as well as those who are disillusioned with Labour and the LibDems.

However, they also gained quite a number of seats from the Conservatives. So electoral strategists in all parties would do well to monitor the Greens locally.

If they ever started to build the kind of grassroots local networks that the LibDems did during the 1980s and 1990s, they could become a much bigger electoral threat than they currently are. Expect them to double the number of candidates they field in local council elections next year. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if within five years they had got more councillors across the country than the LibDems.