Wakeford should resign and fight a by-election in Bury South

23 Jan

This week, Guido Fawkes reminded us that Christian Wakeford, the Labour MP for Bury South, co-sponsored and voted for a private members bill in 2020 that would “enable the recall of Members of the House of Commons who voluntarily change their political party affiliation; and for connected purposes.” Wakeford’s Law would have caused a by-election to be triggered if, in a relevant constituency, a petition demanding it, gathered ten per cent of the eligible electors over a period of eight weeks.

Steve Baker, the Conservative MP for Wycombe, spoke against the proposal – as he felt it didn’t go far enough:

“I am in favour of full recall—I prefer to avoid total recall—albeit on a threshold that must be high enough to avoid vexatious political activity. However, I would like to have full recall, by which I mean recall without conditions.”

Anyway, surely in the circumstances that have arisen, Wakeford should resign and fight a by-election. An opinion poll shows a big majority believing this should take place. I haven’t heard any BBC interviewers raise this interesting but unhelpful question with Wakeford or any of his fellow Labour politicians.

Yet surely it’s a subject that must have been discussed by Wakeford during the weeks of clandestine meetings with Labour representatives while plotting his defection. With the current climate, Labour should be well placed to win a by-election in Bury South.

So why do they not seem to relish the challenge? By-election campaigns cost money and Labour is reported to be “on the verge of bankruptcy.” Would the Bury South Constituency Labour Party select Wakeford as their candidate? By-elections, under Labour’s rules, do give power to Labour’s National Executive: “in the case of an emergency, it shall take whatever action that may be necessary to meet the situation.” Would imposing Wakeford be justified as an “emergency” on the basis that the CLP would not acquiesce otherwise? One for the lawyers to ponder, I suppose.

If such hurdles were overcome the by-election campaign might still prove problematic. Bury South has a large Jewish community.  Angela Epstein, one of its members, has written powerfully in the Independent about her sense of betrayal:

“As our new MP, Wakeford swiftly established himself as a sensitive and understanding supporter of a Jewish community still reeling from the Corbyn years. He understood what we had suffered. It makes his willingness to cross the floor even more unpalatable. Yes, Keir Starmer has shown credible and declared intent to stamp out antisemitism within his party. But equally this was a man who campaigned for Corbyn in 2019 and would have worked with him had he become prime minister. During his own leadership campaign Starmer was also reluctant to criticise his predecessor, since he remained popular among the party membership…

“Of course Wakeford’s defection isn’t just a stinging act of disloyalty for his Jewish constituents. Many residents of Bury South will have voted for the 38-year-old candidate as part of the Boris boom – keen to ensure that Labour, with its chaotic agenda of stirring class conflict, ruinous big state ideas and quasi Marxist politics, didn’t have a chance. And yet it hurts so much for Jewish people because we looked to Wakeford as our protector. An assured parliamentary voice who could stand up for this community.”

Labour’s continuing failure to deal with anti-semitism is demonstrated not far from Bury with the disturbing situation in Blackburn.

By signing up as a Labour Party member, Wakeford has undertaken to “accept and conform” to the Party’s principles – including that it is a “socialist” party. Thus far Wakeford has explained his switch to the Labour Party as being prompted by his antipathy to Dominic Cummings, Owen Paterson, and Downing Street drinks parties. But when did Wakeford convert to socialism? Presumably, it took place within the last year – as on January 18th 2021, he wrote:

“Labour – bunch of c****.”

Another puzzle is that a month ago Wakeford was among the 99 Conservative MPs who voted against the Plan B restrictions. Is it not a bit odd that he’s now switched to Labour, who complained the measures did not go far enough and imposed tighter restrictions in Wales? Wakeford might also face disobliging queries about his expenses with the revelation that he was in the top ten MPs for spending on travel and food costs charging the taxpayer £13,899 for this in the last financial year.

So one can see why Wakeford has evidently decided against a by-election. The question is whether it should be his decision. It is a wider question of political accountability. If MPs are sentenced to be imprisoned for more than 12 months they automatically have to stand down. That is reasonable. But in other cases, a recall mechanism should apply. (I would like to see it for Police and Crime Commissioners as well.) I suppose we could still have various standards committees and commissioners to carry out investigations and publish their findings. However, the power would be with the electorate.

Our politics is drifting towards politicians being too beholden to officialdom. The Electoral Commission imposes bureaucratic burdens on political parties while failing to robustly and impartially uphold the democratic process. Peers complained this week of a “sinister” threat to freedom of speech by the House of Lords Commissioners for Standards. Supposedly we are eagerly waiting for a civil servant called Sue Gray to decide if the Prime Minister should be sacked.  Of course, she has no authority to do anything of the kind. She may give a verdict on whether the “gatherings” in the Downing Street gardens were within the official definition of work events allowed under the regulations – or were parties and broke the rules. Ministers and Shadow Ministers continuously take to the airwaves to speak of Gray with great reverence and assure us of their “high regard” for her. But it is the MPs who decide who is Prime Minister. We decide who the MPs are. Those fundamentals should be reasserted and strengthened. The retreat into the prissy obfuscation of politicians relying on officials for moral authority has gone too far. We need to take back control. Giving the people of Bury South their say would be a good start.

Shastri-Hurst selected to defend North Shropshire in by-election

13 Nov

Congratulations to Dr Neil Shastri-Hurst, who has been selected as the candidate to succeed Owen Paterson in North Shropshire (Conservative majority: 22,949).

His website has gone private, presumably preceding a makeover, but previously described him as “a veteran, surgeon, and barrister” as well as “a senior officer within the Voluntary Conservative Party”. The BBC reports that he’s a former Army Medical Officer and “honorary NHS consultant”. He has also contributed to this site.

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.”