Laurence Robertson: Horseracing relies on support from bookmakers, but the industry’s work on safer gambling is just as important

28 Dec

Laurence Robertson is the Conservative MP for Tewkesbury. This is a sponsored post by the Betting and Gaming Council.

For horseracing fans like myself, Christmas isn’t just about exchanging gifts and filling up on turkey before the Queen’s Christmas Day broadcast – it also ushers in a National Hunt bonanza.

On Boxing Day alone there were no fewer than eight race meetings, with the highlight being the King George VI Chase at Kempton Park.

As we cope with the latest Covid wave, I believe that sport takes on an even greater significance, providing a welcome distraction from the pandemic, at least for a few hours.

As the MP for Tewkesbury, with Cheltenham Racecourse in my constituency, I am also well aware of the huge economic contribution that racing makes to the local area. And across the UK, it supports 85,000 jobs and contributes £3.5 billion to the economy, as well as being a source of great pleasure to millions of fans.

But like other sports, racing has suffered as a result of the pandemic, lockdown and the absence of fans, depriving it of much-needed revenue. That’s why the support provided by the regulated betting and gaming industry is so important. Horseracing receives around £350 million in sponsorship, media rights and the betting levy from bookmakers, which has proved to be vital during the pandemic.

The close relationship between betting and horseracing is well known, with having a flutter being an intrinsic part of the racing experience for many people. That’s why I’m pleased that every racecourse in the country is committed to promoting safer gambling and signposting the wide range of help and advice that is available. As the Racecourse Association says: “Bookmakers are longstanding and key commercial partners of the sport and provide the opportunity for further promotion of safer gambling to a large audience.”

It’s not just the sport of horse racing that benefits from the betting and gaming industry’s financial support, of course. The English Football League and its 72 clubs receive around £40 million from the regulated industry, while snooker, rugby league and darts receive millions more from the same source.

But it’s not just a case of signing a cheque once a year, welcome though that is. The industry is also keenly aware of its responsibilities when it comes to promoting safer gambling.

Take SkyBet’s sponsorship of the EFL, for example. As part of that arrangement, the operator has put in place a £1 million five-year safer gambling education programme for all 72 clubs, delivered by EPIC Risk Management. As well as that, players’ sleeve badges also promote responsible betting, while digital perimeter boards promote TalkBanStop for one minute every match.

It was also great to see perimeter advertising at a recent West Ham v Spurs match given over to the Betting and Gaming Council’s new Take Time To Think campaign, which promotes the use of safer gambling tools.

In addition, BGC members ensure that at least 20 per cent of their TV and radio adverts are safer gambling messages, meaning the millions of armchair fans enjoying live sport over the festive period are made aware of the help and tools that are available.

The most recent data from the Gambling Commission – which showed problem gambling rates falling from 0.6 per cent to 0.3 per cent in the 12 months to September – suggest that the work the regulated industry is doing to promote safer gambling is having an effect. I’m very pleased to see this.

Nevertheless, there is always more to do, and I look forward to the publication in the New Year of the White Paper as part of the Government’s Gambling Review. While a review is undoubtedly needed, I hope that nothing is introduced which puts at risk the vital financial support the industry provides to our much-loved sports, or indeed damages the equally important safer gambling work which runs alongside it.

Mitchell Goldie: Along with MPs, parliamentary staff need better protection as they go about their work

30 Oct

Mitchell Goldie is the Senior Communications Officer for Iain Duncan Smith.

Following the tragic death of Sir David Amess, I – along with the rest of the UK – was thinking of his family as they reeled from the shocking news. I could also not stop thinking about his staff who turned up for a normal days work, to help constituents in a drafty church hall, and then saw their boss stabbed to death in front of their eyes.

The Prime Minister rightly paid tribute to the staff of Members of the House of Commons last week at Prime Ministers Questions, recognising it is often they who are on the receiving end of the abusive phone calls, open the hate mail and monitor the death threats on social media. This should not be an accepted part of the job.

We must also never forget Andy Pennington, an aide to the Liberal Democrat MP Nigel Jones, who was stabbed in January 2000 as he tried to protect his boss from an armed attacker who stormed the constituency office in Cheltenham armed with a sword. Andy died from his injuries, an unspeakable tragedy.

I was elected as a Councillor for a ward in Waltham Forest, where I grew up and went to school, a few weeks after my 19th birthday. As part of this role, and working for an MP myself, I am no stranger to the daily abuse that elected politicians and their staff experience as part and parcel of the role.

Behind every MP there is a whole team of people who work, often way beyond their paid for hours, for every constituent. These may be the constituents who slammed the door in their bosses’ face during the election campaign, but if they turn up to a surgery or call the office, no matter who they voted for, the MP and their team will do their utmost to help them.

The work MPs staff do is beyond party politics and my colleagues and I throw ourselves into each new case – whether that be chasing someone’s immigration application, working with the local authority to prevent a family being made homeless or securing much needed SEND funding for a child.

MPs may be able to deal with abuse shouted at them in the street, but their staff have learnt to expect it and deal with it too. It was staff that during the election campaign of 2019 opened the dead and decaying rat that was sent to Sir Iain Duncan Smith’s office as part of a vicious campaign by the hard left. It was staff that worked alongside MPs during the evacuation of Kabul to reassure constituents all through the bank holiday weekend and who worked to get their family members out of the country as it imploded.

All those who work in Parliament understand what a privilege it is to work so closely with elected politicians, to walk along the historic corridors and to maybe catch sight of the Prime Minister as you grab some lunch. A privilege or not, it shouldn’t negate the fact that the role can be overlooked and undervalued.

There are quirks of the system which mean long service and experience is not always rewarded. Staff who work for one MP then move to another often find the benefits they thought would be automatic, such as sick leave and maternity pay, do not transfer.

Moving to work for a new MP is seen as a completely separate contract meaning a minimum number of weeks have to be reached before these benefits are accessible again. My colleagues and I see this job as a vocation, but if our boss loses their seat our jobs are gone overnight too. Job security can be very precarious especially for those working in marginal seats.

While decisions are made about what more can be done to protect MPs as they go about their constituencies, attention should also be given to their staff who are also a target.

MPs’ staff play a vital role in the functions of our democracy and they deserve to be acknowledged and protected.

Over the last two weeks, I and many others have had to have difficult conversations with our loved ones about the danger posed to us because of the jobs we do. We are all reeling from the shocking events and are counting the cost of playing our part to protect and defend democracy. I hope we won’t be forgotten when the dust settles on this tragedy.

Richard Holden: Why Labour’s grip on seats like mine weakened. And how we can strenghten our own everywhere.

24 May

The Lazy Hollow Café & Patisserie, Mason St., Consett

Uma is, I’d guess, in her 50s. She’s buoyant, a good baker, and clearly one of those people who is not just hard-working, but also puts her heart and soul into everything she does.

A teaching assistant at a state comprehensive for the last quarter of a century, in December she took the plunge – “while I’m young enough”, she tells me – and decided to take on a café in Consett town centre. Duringg the final assembly at the school in which she worked, she tells me how she wept ,and speaks with real passion and care for the children she helped over the years.

I don’t know (and doesn’t ask) whether she voted for me or not. She gives me a little tour, and we have a couple of photos. Then we settle down to coffee and (the excellent cake she’s made), and just chat.  About education policy – an area of mutual interest – her new business and the challenges she’s facing, and the prospects of the largest town in my constituency.

She’s so positive and proud about what she and her team have done to this former job centre and amusement arcade, which is now a lovey café. And so they should be: it is fabulous.

Uma doesn’t fit the narrative that has developed of the normal Northern working-class voter that the media has portrayed as the “switch voter” that cost Labour the “Red Wall.” As a recent YouGov poll suggested – to the astonishment of many commentators – they’re pretty much like everyone else in the UK.

But, if that’s the case, three questions remain unanswered: first, why did these towns and villages continue to vote Labour for so long; second, why did they switch to the Conservatives and, third, why did they do so now?

So: why did they vote Labour in the first place? I think there are three historic differences in the political culture – the Red Wall ‘Holy Trinity’ that has slowly broken down over decades making these areas more similar to the rest of the country than before. Large unionised industries that re-enforced social class differences had an influence in everything from housing for the retired to the social clubs people went to of an evening; religion, via the non-establishment combination of Methodism and Roman Catholicism (both socially conservative – to varying degrees – but economically left-of-centre); and a traditional Labour Party of the people that was both of and in touch with these communities.

Over the last 60 years, especially since Wilson’s “White Heat of Technology” was accompanied by the pit closures of the late 1960s (people forget that Wilson closed more pits than anyone else) the beginning of the real decline in the traditional religious underpinnings took place.

These continued in the background for decades, but the break with Labour took longer. The party received a brief fillip in the early years of Tony Blair, but the break soon accelerated as ‘New Labour’ seemed to take votes but provide little in return. Many people stopped voting – and the Liberal Democrats made some moderate progressm, though rarely enough to more than dint in large Labour majorities.

Then followed a significant shift to the Britain-hating far left under Jeremy Corbyn – and the betrayal over Brexit further jolted these communities politically, too. On top of this, Labour just took their own voters for granted with too often lazy MPs (or at least MPs more interested in working on their interests rather than those of the communities they were supposed to serve) and that real, final, community orientated link between MP-Labour Party-constituency which had looked wobbly for a long time was broken.

All this can explain the move away from Labour: but why go Conservative – and why now? Well, it’s been a long, long process. The truth can be heard on the doorstep of seats like mine.

Many people barely saw a leaflet at election time, never mind between elections. And if they did get a leaflet or a knock-on-the-door they weren’t getting them from Conservatives. Conservatives were moribund, inactive and weren’t providing that alternative on the ground people were increasingly craving.

Votes spread out to the Liberal Democrats, Independents, UKIP and, sadly, to the “Won’t vote.” It was only in 2017 that the Conservative Party really realised that things could change in these seats, and started putting more effort in. That year saw a marked shift following Brexit towards the party. We must now use those results as a springboard to consolidate current constituencies, and push forward to more areas.

Moreover, there are these sort of former traditional Labour voters in every seat in the country. Ask any Conservative MP who campaigns hard in their patch. Traditional Labour wards in these areas – previously thought difficult to win – are now likely the strongest Conservative areas of these seats. These voters are there if people want to find them.

I read largely anonymous comments from some of my colleagues in other more ‘traditional’ Conservative parts of the country who put forward a variety of factors as to why seats were lost recently. Some put it down to national policy challenges but, given gains across the country from Cheltenham to Plymouth to Harlow to Delves Lane in Consett, and even Shaun Bailey in London trimming Sadiq Khan’s majority in what was meant to be the ‘heart’ of Labour, it’s clear that, actually, campaigning is what counts.

Given the national circumstances almost all seats we held could have remained Conservative if greater efforts had been made. I can see from the results across County Durham that the better the campaign, the better the result. For the first time in over 102 years, Labour may soon no longer run County Durham Council because of campaigning Conservatives.

Perhaps my thoughts are best summed up by one colleague from the South East England, apoplectic upon returning to Westminster having lost a council seat held by the Conservatives for generations. He said that he’d been telling his sitting councillor of ten years to campaign, but they kept brushing him off telling him they had “important meetings at County Hall to attend” – well, that councillor won’t be attending County Hall at all any more.

The Labour activists on the ground may still believe that someone’s so-called “class” defines their politics. That’s absolute nonsense and any Conservative who is idiotic enough to believe it needs their head examined. The “Holy Trinity” of why people voted Labour has broken down in the ‘Red Wall’ and elsewhere.

What counts is campaigning because, as that YouGov poll suggested, voters whether in the North of England of East London are not dissimilar. They want people out there and fighting for them and they’re open to voting Conservative if we’re prepared to put the effort in on the ground.

Lib Dems local election effort will focus on the districts

23 Mar

Among the abundance of elections taking place in May are those in 59 district councils. There would have been a few more. But no council elections are taking place in Cumbria, Somerset, or North Yorkshire, due to plans to establish unitary authorities in those areas. Those proposals reflect a trend elsewhere. It is a quiet but fundamental change that has had little attention – due to it having taken place over several decades. This year we see the emergence of North Northamptonshire Council and and West Northamptonshire Council with unitary arrangements for that county. Last year it happened to Buckinghamshire. The year before that it was Dorset. In 2009 we saw it take place in Wiltshire, Shropshire, Cornwall, and Cheshire. It has resulted not only in fewer councils, but also in fewer councillors. In 2005 there were over 22,000 of them in the UK. By 2019 it was down to 19,647. If only MPs at Westminster had made equivalent progress in reducing their own number.

Anyway, there are still enough district councils still in existence to keep the psephologists busy – though the electoral drama is constrained by most of them only contesting a third of their seats and thus limiting the potential for the number of councils that can see a change in political control.  The last time these seats were contested was in 2016. As I noted yesterday, that year saw Labour doing relatively well – compared to what the current opinion polling suggests of their present standing.

Burnley in the red wall (or “blue wall” as it should now be regarded) will be one to watch. Labour had already started to lose some seats to independents. But the Conservatives start from a low base with four councillors (of which, I gather, only one seat is up to be defended this time.) Labour have 22, of which they are defending nine.

By contrast, if Labour are picking up more support from a certain type of middle class voter, might they see gains in Worthing? It is not far from Brighton and Hove…

Other Labour/Conservative battles are in Amber Valley and Cannock Chase (where the Conservative Party Chairman Amanda Milling will take a particular interest). In both places, Labour start with a narrow lead. There is also Pendle – which has all the seats up for election – where there is a Labour/Lib Dem coalition. Yet the Pendle constituency has a Conservative MP.

But in more of these councils, the real contest is between the Conservatives and the Lib Dems. Will the best indication be the local election results of 2019 – where the Lib Dems did so well? Or the General Election, a few months later that year, where they got so resoundingly trounced? The opinion polls currently have the Lib Dems on around seven per cent. About the same as they were doing in the opinion polls in 2016. When it comes to real votes, in these local elections they will probably do much better. But then they did in 2016 when they won 15 per cent of the projected national vote share.

Lord Hayward, the Conservative peer and elections expert, says:

“If the Lib Dems don’t make progress on 2016 it will be a disappointment to them. In those places where they got new councillors elected in 2019 they will have tried to get dug in. So they will be looking for further gains. St Albans is somewhere they will be looking to gain where it is currently under no overall control.”

Cheltenham has half the seats up for election. The Lib Dems are already in control of the Council. Yet the Parliamentary constituency has a Conservative MP.

Perhaps too much focus on the established parties is the “old politics.” The last time we had local elections – in 2019 – the Conservatives did very badly. But independents and assorted residents associations gained almost as many seats as the Lib Dems. Usually, the catalyst turned out to be planning developments. Objections would be made to the high-handed manner in which such schemes would be put forward – arrogant bureaucrats engaging in purely sham “consultation” and “engagement”. However, the real problem was that the new homes proposed were ugly. Given that cutting off the supply of new housing would also prevent difficulty, the Government has proposed that councils should go ahead with housing development – but that it should be beautiful. Those new rules have yet to come in. Some councils have already got the message. Others have not. That is quite likely to result in some uneven electoral consequences which will only make sense once the local circumstances are investigated.