Sam Hall: Conservative lessons from Houchen and Street about how to respond the Greens

11 May

Sam Hall is the Director of the Conservative Environment Network

The dominant stories from last week’s elections were the Conservatives’ hat-trick of English triumphs in Hartlepool, Tees Valley, and the West Midlands, and the SNP falling short of a majority in Scotland. But amid these headline-grabbing results, a new trend emerged: the quiet rise of the Green Party.

The Greens won 88 new council seats across England, including from Conservatives. Yes, they did well in their traditional strongholds, such as Bristol, Sheffield, and around Liverpool, where their main competitor is Labour.

But they also defeated incumbent Conservative councillors across England in places as diverse as Surrey, Sussex, Derbyshire, Stroud, and Northumberland. They won an additional two seats in the Scottish Parliament and an extra member of the London Assembly, recording their highest ever vote share in both contests.

Despite two brief surges around the 2015 general election and the 2019 local elections, the Greens have for decades struggled to break past five per cent of the national vote. But the signs from Thursday are that they are on the rise, and could become an electoral threat not just to Labour, but to the Conservatives too.

The reasons for the Greens’ recent electoral success are varied. Public concern about the environment is at historically high levels, with media and government focus on the issue growing, and climate change impacts becoming more visible. It’s understandable that, as the environment becomes more salient, more voters turn to the party whose defining mission is to save the planet.

Factionalism on the left is undoubtedly boosting the Greens, too. As Keir Starmer repudiates Corbynism, he is pushing some of the party’s more left-wing supporters towards the Greens, who have long supported some of the more radical ideas of John McDonnell, such as a universal basic income. The Liberal Democrats remain toxic to many on the left for going into coalition with the Conservatives. And in Scotland, the Greens provide a more environmentally-conscious alternative to the SNP.

Greens across Europe have benefited from a similar trend. Just a few months out from federal elections, the Greens are currently the highest polling party in Germany, two points ahead of the CDU. Greens are part of the coalition government in Austria, after securing 14 per cent of the vote in the last year’s elections. There was also a green surge in the 2019 elections for the European Parliament, with the green bloc growing from 50 seats to 74.

However, this phenomenon isn’t simply about splintering on the left. Nor is it the case that the Greens are just taking votes off Labour and allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle. As Thursday’s results show, the rise of the Greens threatens both the main parties.

That said, the threat shouldn’t be overstated at this stage: the Greens only control one council, Brighton and Hove (where they are a minority administration), and they still only have one MP. But a response will be needed nonetheless.

First, here’s what to avoid. Counteracting the Greens doesn’t entail copying their policies, which are a bad combination of the unfeasible (net zero by 2030), the unpopular (a meat tax), and the economically damaging (a four day week). But neither should they Conservatives shouldn’t become hostile to the entire green agenda, which is popular with a majority of voters. Nor should they ignore other policy priorities in favour of an exclusive focus on the environment. As James Frayne has argued convincingly on this site, this approach wouldn’t keep the party’s voter coalition together.

Instead, Conservatives should unite behind the strategy that the Prime Minister articulated in his ten point plan for a green industrial revolution, linking net zero to people’s immediate economic concerns. This prospectus has the best chance of binding together the Conservatives’ diverse supporter base and stalling the rise of the Greens.

This strategy has worked well for Ben Houchen, whose tireless advocacy for Teesside is helping to attract many of the UK’s leading net zero investments to his area, from GE’s new turbine manufacturing factory and BP’s blue hydrogen plant, to one of the first carbon capture projects and a hydrogen transport hub. He has been one of the biggest advocates for the PM’s green industrial revolution, including on this site, and was re-elected by a landslide.

The Government should copy this formula in other parts of the country. It should invest in enabling infrastructure, fund large-scale green demonstration projects, and put in place market frameworks to attract private investment in new clean industries, such as battery manufacturing, floating offshore wind, heat pumps, and green steel production.

But while it can unite Conservatives, this approach to net zero is divisive on the left. The red-greens can’t decide if they support ‘degrowth’ as a route to tackling climate change. They debate whether people’s lifestyles must be drastically curtailed, or whether to focus on clean technology. And they are divided over whether to attach radical cultural policies on race and gender to their environmental agenda.

The other main element of the Conservatives’ response should be to implement ambitious but practical environmental policies that improve people’s communities and their quality of life. Here, the Conservatives’ other great election-winner from Thursday, Andy Street, provides a blueprint.

He has overseen major improvements in public and active transport in the West Midlands, reopening rail stations, extending metro lines, putting in segregated cycle lanes, and freezing bus fares. He is showing how mayors can connect up their region, reduce the cost of living, and improve the local environment at the same time.

National government should enable more pragmatic local environmental leadership like this. Ministers could give councils the powers and funding to create and safeguard a new network of wild green spaces (a ‘wilbelt’) around towns and cities. They could devolve more funding to metro mayors to insulate social and fuel poor homes in their regions. And they could fund transport authorities to replace old diesel buses with electric or hydrogen ones, and to install electric charge points along the strategic road network.

The Greens, by contrast, have a poor record of delivery on the few occasions when they’ve been entrusted with office. Remember their failure in Brighton and Hove to arrange the bin collections, which lead to strikes and images of rubbish piled up on street corners. There is a political opportunity here for Conservative environmentalism that sets ambitious targets, actually delivers them, and does so in a way that benefits the economy and people’s standard of living.

The Greens had a good night on Thursday. But by uniting behind Boris Johnson’s green industrial revolution, and replicating the approach of Ben Houchen and Andy Street, the Conservatives can prevent them rising further and can make the environment a winning, unifying issue for the party.

Mark Bridgeman: If Ministers really want to build back greener, they need a sceme to help homes that works

18 Apr

Mark Bridgeman is the President of the Country Land and Business Association, and is a Northumberland farmer.

When the Government announced recently that it was ending its much vaunted £2 billion ‘Green Home Grant’ scheme with just 10 per cent of funds actually distributed, rural communities felt let down – as Government once again over promised and under delivered on infrastructure investment.

Homes in rural areas face particular challenges, so the scheme designed to contribute towards the cost of installing energy efficient improvements in people’s homes – provided the opportunity to reduce their bills and minimise their environmental impact.

As the only significant action to date following from the Government’s vow to ‘build back greener’, these grants of up to £5000 should have represented the start of a process which created real change.

Instead, the scheme was hamstrung from the beginning, and failed to deliver even on its limited scope, being shelved after six months, with thousands of applications for funds left unfulfilled.

The Green Home Grant Scheme failed to make an impact for two key reasons.

First, red tape. Builders complained of having to jump through hoops just to become accredited to carry out Green Home Grant projects. This was a particular problem in rural settings where these firms are typically smaller, and often do not have the scale and financial cushion of bigger urban businesses to gain accreditation. Lack of certification led to a massive backlog of applications, meaning that, even if people wanted to join the scheme, they would have to wait months.

Second, time. With the scheme set up for an initial six months and a one-off payment of up to £5000, few homeowners or construction companies thought it was worth taking on the huge financial and time commitment that rural home improvements require in exchange for this limited government support , against the backdrop of Covid controls and uncertainty,

By proposing that all privately rented homes may need to reach an Energy Performance Certificate rating of C by 2028, the Government has failed to consider the differences between urban and rural housing. EPC ratings are a different beast when it comes to rural homes, many of which were built hundreds of years ago, and rarely have access to mains gas.

One CLA member spent some £40,000 to improve a home’s energy efficiency, only to reach a band E rating, which is the current legal requirement. The shortcomings of the existing EPC system mean that many rural houses will never be able to achieve a rating of C, irrespective of huge investment.

The consequences of pulling the rug out from underneath rural property owners will be severe and far-reaching. For many rural landlords, these mean being forced to sell off property, since they will not be able to recoup the huge expense that bringing their property into line with regulation will entail through rent increases. For many homeowners, it’s a missed opportunity to make a difference to their carbon footprint and reduce their heating bills.

Ultimately, this insistence will see a decline in the rural private rented housing supply, and will push out of the countryside people who are the backbone of the rural economy and are an important part of the social fabric in rural areas.

The failure of the scheme in its current form also slows progress on climate mitigation. More than 800,000 rural homes are heated by oil, and will need to transition to cleaner sources of power in coming years, such as heat pumps. But the Energy Saving Trust estimates that it costs £19,000 to install one pump, with the annual bill saving of using the technology just £20 a year. If Government do not help bring about a green transition for rural communities – which so often are first to suffer the impacts of climate change in this country – then we risk it never happening at all.

We need a new Green Home Grant made available without delay. Significant improvements should be made to its scope and the help available. The amount available from the failed scheme was £5,000. Taking into the account the huge extra costs with upgrading rural homes, this should be doubled to £10,000 for rural properties.

Some £2 billion was initially promised from the scheme, with £1.5 billion part of the Green Home Grant voucher scheme and the remaining £500,000 for the local authority delivery scheme. We believe this amount needs to be doubled, and spread out over five years, giving builders and homeowners the confidence to take part in a scheme that could revolutionise Britain’s homes.

The idea of a grant to directly support ‘building back greener’ is a fine one. But the Government’s willingness to throw in the towel after six months raises more questions than answers. A new, reformed scheme, properly thought through and adapted to serve the whole country, is required if the Government is serious about embarking on a journey to net zero carbon emissions.

I love my new flat. But I’m also sick of moving. We renters need a Greta Thunberg of the housing crisis.

16 Apr

Last week, I moved into a new flat in London. I love it and feel lucky to be able to rent a place that ticks so many boxes, from its location to its comfortable size. I can’t wait to start my “post lockdown life”.

But as I unpacked, and looked at all the heavy furniture I’d carted up the stairs, along with my huge to-do list of administrative tasks, I confess I also thought “I can’t do this again”. That is, move flat (although I won’t have any choice!).

It’s a feeling that so many people have experienced – and not just the young and youngish (I’m 32) – because their housing situation has no permanence. Life is a series of moves with no end date, along with tens of thousands of pounds spent on rent.

Sometimes renters are having to tolerate terrible conditions. Yesterday, for instance, ITV published an investigation into people living in damp and mould-infested council housing. There’s also the news that an estimated 700,000 renters have been served with “no-fault” eviction notices since the start of the pandemic. These are awful events, yet I have to say that nothing surprises me any more.

Indeed, during my flat hunt I stumbled on some real horrors, which estate agents had insultingly claimed to be fantastic. There was the flat with a shower in the bedroom, and one with the kitchen pretty much next to the bed. Take your pick!

The most common escape from renting is parents who can help with a house deposit. But why should you need Mum and Dad to come to the rescue in “meritocratic” Britain? And what about those who don’t have that option?

The Government needs to wake up and do something about the situation, not least because it has introduced policies that have implications for housing demand, such as scrapping the net migration target.

Similarly, it was the UK’s moral obligation to offer citizenship to up to three million Hong Kong residents. We should welcome them as much as possible. But part of that welcoming process has to include thinking about where they’ll live. I have seen few, if any MPs, discuss how they will accommodate a growing population.

Robert Jenrick, to his credit, has been working hard to get planning applications through for housing – as my colleague Henry Hill has written for ConservativeHome. This is fantastic news, and I have no doubt he realises the seriousness of the problem.

But I also get the sense that many MPs just think “well, it doesn’t affect me, so I’ll think about it later” when they hear another complaint from Generation Rent.

Recently, I watched one MP make a passionate plea in parliament about why we need to protect the green belt. Fair enough, but it would be nice if someone could get as animated about the hundreds of thousands of people nowhere near home ownership. How are people supposed to start a family? Or save? Or cope with taxes going up?

I imagine one reason MPs don’t move on this issue with the same urgency they apply to say, climate change, is because they earn just over £80,000 per year. It takes you out of the most competitive parts of the market, and many also do not live in the South East, where demand is especially high (because so many jobs are there).

Some of the current problems will be fixed by the working from home revolution. It means people can now move out into areas with better housing supply. The Government is also moving the Treasury to Darlington and “levelling up” the North. These are all fantastic steps, as a lot of the issues are to do with an imbalance in supply and demand for properties across the country.

But we seem to have stalled on other matters. There was the Government’s housing algorithm, which was meant to increase the supply of properties. Even if this had been allowed to go ahead, it would have resulted in 300,000-a-year level by the middle of the decade – no way near enough to make Generation Rent “Generation Homeowner” instead.

Another issue, of course, is NIMBYs, who have too much power over housing. Recently locals managed to block a £1 billion Kensington hotel and housing complex. I don’t know the intricacies of why it was stopped, but it’s hardly the first time this has happened. It’s hard not to stereotype these people. Are they the types that sing the praises of free movement under the EU – while stopping any efforts to accommodate a growing population?

I’ve never really wanted to write about or research housing. I have no idea what a good planning policy would be. I’m just someone who thought as a child they would grow up and live in a nice house. I feel lied to in a way, as I expect many other people my age do, when we were told that “hard work pays off” at school. Actually, it just goes towards landlords.

Frankly, no one seems to be taking the issue seriously enough. It’s called a housing “crisis” for a reason. Renters need to channel their “inner Greta Thunberg” to get the issue prioritised. Our futures have been “stolen”, after all, by the inability of policymakers, including Labour, to think about where we’ll all live. A Conservative promise to “Get Housing Done” can’t come soon enough.

Chris Thorne: The perfect green Brexit dividend – properly protected seas

13 Apr

Chris Thorne is an Oceans Campaigner at Greenpeace UK. This is a sponsored post by Greenpeace UK.

Brexit is done, and the UK is now stepping out into the world on its own two feet. Brexit has divided opinions, no doubt, but the UK has left the European Union so we need to seize the opportunities presented to us to make Brexit a success.

Perhaps the biggest opportunity presented to us by Brexit is the chance to become a true world leader in protecting our seas.

For too long now, we have allowed the waters which surround our islands to be degraded by industrial fishing. This in large part was down to our membership of the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy, which made it challenging for the UK to implement stronger restrictions on industrial fishing in our seas, whether vessels hailed from the UK or the EU.

Supertrawlers, vast floating fish factories, regularly stalk our seas, hoovering up unimaginably vast quantities of fish with nets up to a mile long. No supertrawlers are UK owned. Bottom trawlers from the UK and EU rip up protected seabed habitats, undermining the entire marine ecosystem and indiscriminately killing marine life.

Bottom trawling also releases significant quantities of carbon that had been stored in seabed sediments, with a recent study in Nature finding that annually, emissions from bottom trawling are equivalent to emissions from the entire aviation industry. The UK has the fourth highest emissions from bottom trawling globally.

This degradation of our oceans by industrial fishing has serious consequences, not only for the marine environment, but also for our climate and, perhaps most importantly, for our fishing communities.

Simply put, if we allow high intensity industrial fishing to continue throughout our seas unchecked, it will become ever more difficult for our fishers to make a living from fishing. This isn’t Greenpeace sensationalism, this is the scientific consensus.

UK fishers today have to work 17 times as hard for the same size catches as 120 years ago because of industrial overfishing. Two thirds of the UK’s key fish stocks are overfished and severely depletedNorth Sea cod has lost its MSC certification because of dangerous stock declinesBritish mackerel lost its sustainable status in 2019 after overfishing pushed stocks to the brink of collapse. The list could go on and on.

This will have serious repercussions for our already struggling coastal communities. More and more fishing jobs will be lost, our fishing communities will be gutted, and for many of these communities, there will be no coming back.

Thankfully, there is a ready-made solution to hand, and one which this Conservative government has been instrumental in setting up – the UK’s network of Marine Protected Areas.

Set up over the last decade, the network covers more than 30 per cent of waters around the UK including many of our most sensitive and important marine areas such as reefs, seagrass meadows and kelp forests.

This sounds great, but there’s a catch…

The vast majority of these so-called protected areas at sea, particularly those in offshore waters, have no protections in place against the worst forms of industrial fishing. Supertrawlers and bottom trawlers are allowed to operate in these supposedly protected places with impunity, devastating fish stocks and damaging sensitive seabed habitats which underpin the marine ecosystem, releasing vast quantities of carbon from the seabed.

For example, 97 per cent of the offshore UK protected areas set up specifically to protect the seabed are still subject to bottom trawling. This method of fishing, which involves dragging heavy fishing gear along the seabed, is no different to a bulldozer ploughing through a protected forest on land. It degrades habitats, results in large quantities of bycatch and perhaps most concerningly, disturbs vital blue carbon stores on the seabed.

Supertrawlers can also be found in our protected areas. These high intensity fishing vessels are the largest on earth. They have freezer processor facilities on board, allowing them to stay at sea for weeks or months at a time, catching and processing hundreds of tonnes of fish in a day until their holds are filled with thousands of tonnes of fish. This harms the long-term health of fish stocks and has wider impacts on the marine ecosystem.

Most people would agree that these forms of destructive fishing have no place in areas that are supposed to be protected. However, our investigations have revealed that supertrawlers have doubled their fishing time in UK protected areas year on year since 2016, when the UK voted for Brexit, and earlier in 2021 it was revealed that in 2019 bottom trawlers spent hundreds of thousands of hours fishing in UK protected areas.

It seems that the Government agrees that bottom trawling is not compatible with our Marine Protected Areas, judging by its proposals to close the entire Dogger Bank Special Area of Conservation to bottom trawling, along with one other protected area. This signals that it recognises the problem, and we hope this is the Government’s first step towards turning our network of Marine Protected Areas into a genuinely world-leading conservation programme. However, there’s still a long way to go.

In many ways, the hard bit is already done. The UK has already designated over 30 per cent of our seas as protected, now all it needs to do is step up and properly look after each protected area, beginning with restricting the most destructive fishing operations inside them.

This will protect habitats, boost fish populations and revive coastal communities as fish populations become larger and more healthy, leading to bigger catches for our fishers. It will help keep carbon stored away safely in deep sea blue carbon stores, and it can provide the UK with an almost immediate Brexit win which will deliver real environmental protection.

In a year when the UK is hosting the G7 and the vital Glasgow climate summit, we should be presenting to the world a positive vision of global Britain as a world leader in environmental protection. What better way of doing this than properly protecting our seas?

Race and disparities. A report so commonsensical but consensus-challenging that we’re surprised it was allowed to happen.

31 Mar

“The Conservatives, ethnic minority voters, and the election. Next to no progress”: such was the headline we wrote for Sunder Katwala’s post-poll piece on this site in 2019. The sum of his article was that Tory hopes of a breakthrough among Indian and Chinese-origin voters had not been realised.

The party had made “only modest progress” with them, mirrored by “a modest decline” elsewere – from 24 per cent of the ethnic minority whole to 20 per cent. His piece opened with a stark sentence: “not being white remains the number one demographic predictor of not voting Conservative.”

Henry Hill’s study of the new Tory intake in the Commons painted a similar picture: “at under five per cent of the new intake, the share or black or minority MPs in the Class of 2019 is lower than 2017 or 2015, and the share elected for safe seats is a third of what it was two years ago”.

One response to that last figure might be: don’t look at the share, look at the number – which shows that 22 such MPs were elected in 2019 compared to 19 in 2017.  That figure could be a starting-point for how the Conservatives might do better come the next election than “next to no progress”.

In short words, aim for evolutionary rather than radical change.  Dig in at local level, deploying pavement politics to win council seats in areas with high concentrations of ethnic minority voters.  Find new candidates from among them.  Make progress in Mayoral contests. Build up to challenging for the local Commons seat.

Take up and campaign on causes that matter to such voters: sickle cell disease, among people of an African or Caribbean origin; religious burial among those with a Pakistani or Bangladeshi background. Stress values: family, work and education.

Above all, take the Party’s approach to climate change as a model: just as it doesn’t dispute the challenge of global warming (far from it), don’t quarrel with that of institutional racism: the doctrine that institutions can be judged guilty of it even if individuals within them may not be – especially given the new context of Black Lives Matter.

And alhough while no individual within an institution may be racist, his actions can be recorded as such if they are “perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person”.  That’s the legacy of William Macpherson’s culture-shaping report in the wake of the murder of Stephen Lawrence.

Whatever may be said for or against such a softly-softly approach, some of the new generation of Conservative ethnic minority MPs strain against it – most notably Kemi Badenoch, whose Commons speech against critical race theory last year made waves.

And just as there is a new generation of ethnic minority MPs, so there is a new one of ethnic minority intellectuals, academics, writers, educationalists and police – in terms of approach if not always of age.  One of them is Munira Mirza, Head of the Downing Street Policy Unit.

Others include some of the commissioners of the Government’s Commission on Race and Ethnic disparities, such as Tony Sewell, its chair.  Or, elsewhere, business people, like Trevor Phillips, who has contributed to this site.  Or doctors such as Raghib Ali, another contributor, and an adviser to the Government on Covid and disparities.

Raghib’s thinking foreshadows that of this latest report, published yesterday.  “Racism still blights too many lives today,” he wrote for ConservativeHome last year, and the Commission takes up where he left off.  The first of its 24 recommendations is: “challenge racist and discriminatory actions”.

Others include “teaching an inclusive curriculum”; “investigate what causes existing ethnic pay disparities”; “create police workforces that represent the communities they serve” and “increase legitimacy and accountability of stop and search through body-worn video”.

So far, so conventional – and none the worse for it.  But just as Raghib went further, acknowedging ethnic disparities but dismissing systemic racism, so this report goes further, too, as it comes to similar conclusions.  The picture it presents is one of a slow, attritional but persistent advance.

Above all, it dismisses the view of ethnic minorities as always disadvantaged compared to the white majority – to be bundled together under the acronym BAME: a homogeneous lump in which the African-origin and Chinese-origin experience, say, are treated as much the same.

Here is an extract from the report which gives the flavour: “education is the single most emphatic success story of the British ethnic minority experience. The Commission notes that the average GCSE Attainment 8 score for Indian, Bangladeshi and Black African pupils were above the White British average”.

No wonder, in the context of its findings as a whole, that the Commission joins the list of those who find that BAME label conceals more than it reveals: British Future, of which Sunder is the Director, says that “it is better to use words, rather than acronyms”.  The Centre for Social Justice wants the term dropped.

But it goes almost without saying that opposing racism, and suggesting ways of combatting it, won’t be enough for those whose commissions, jobs, sincures and votes are founded on the doctrine of social regress, rather than social progress; on victimhood rather than agency; and on institutional racism rather than persistent racism.

There is a Victimhood Blob just as there is an Education Blob, and it fears that where new thinking goes today, the electorate will go tomorrow.  No wonder the attack on the commissioners is already turning, in some quarters, personal and unscrupulous.  The stakes are too high for it to be otherwise.

We wonder whether their assessment is correct.  It may be that this report marks a historic turning-point in race relations in Britain, with the Tory-voting white plurality is especially receptive.  Or it may be that the structural racism narrative is too well entrenched, too dug in after 25 years, to be shifted by a single Government.

Without the commitment of Mirza herself (already a target of Far Left unreason), we doubt if the report would have been commissioned.  Boris Johnson’s technique is to wait for Woke to over-reach, as in the case of the Churchill statue assault, before committing himself, rather than strike questingly into its intellectual territory.

Perhaps the best way of looking at the report is to shake oneself free of these political, tactical considerations, and simply ask: is the Commission right – for example, in saying that unconscious bias training should be scrapped?  In its view that all ethnic minorities don’t move forward at the same pace?

In essence, the report argues that the three biggest determinants of life chances are family, education and work.  This seems to us to be so unrebuttable as, ultimately, to be certain to win through.  Which doesn’t mean that the report is perfect: we are not sure that it has got to the heart of the problems for black people in relation to crime and justice.

Nor does it follow that because a report has analysed a problem accurately, the Government will act appropriately.  British governments are notorious for being among the most indiiferent to families in Europe, with the noxious consequences that Miriam Cates described on ConservativeHome earlier this week.

Perhaps the “review to…take action to address the underlying issues facing families” recommended in the report will turn the tide.  At the level of words, perhaps with deeds to come, this is the most consensus-challenging, bold and implication-rich Government initiative to date.  We can’t help being surprised that it was allowed to happen at all.

Richard Holden: This spring’s local elections. For levelling-up to work, we need local councils and leaders who back it.

29 Mar

Richard Holden is MP for North West Durham.

Constituency Office of Richard Holden MP, Medomsley Rd, Consett

The leaflets are landing on doorsteps. The Risograph is working overtime. Walk routes are being updated. First-time council candidates – a heady combination of apprehensive and excited – are getting to know each other on WhatsApp as they make friends with people in other wards. Experienced candidates impart nuggets of wisdom, ‘war stories’ and experience on our zoom calls. Labour’s keyboard warriors fight on , but there is very little sign of life in the party of Jeremy Corbyn and Keir Starmer on the ground.

These elections are taking place in a way that is like nothing I’ve known in two decades of campaigning – after over a year of gruelling Covid-19 restrictions and under the shadow of a virus whose lingering presence, even as Britain’s phenomenal vaccine programme knocks case numbers and deaths down, is still a real concern for many. It’s not been a normal year, and it’s not going to be a normal election.

As a new MP, I can barely remember a time that I wasn’t having to try and help those struggling with Covid-19 or the impact of measures to control it. The long tail of Coronavirus will continue in various guises. Many months of delayed operations and stifled economic growth need to take place. The impact on the education of children will last for years, especially for the poorest, even with the welcome efforts of the Government at top-up tuition. The Government debt taken on to support the people, jobs and businesses through the pandemic will stay for decades.

It is in that context that Rishi Sunak came up with a big offer to business: unprecedented tax relief to try and drive investment and help to deliver knock-on productivity gains. The Treasury and Department of Trade moves to Teesside and the new freeport are massive economic boons, too, for the North East. These moves are not just about the jobs – though that’s the main part. It’s about showing that we both care and want to do something about the problems faced by our new voters in the ‘Blue Wall’.

It’s clear that both the First Lord of the Treasury and the Second Lord of the Treasury “get it”. Short term, the plan is about recovery from Covid-19: getting jobs back and the economy moving again – which they’ve also got a plan for with Kickstarter and support for apprenticeships double.

And for the longer term, jobs in the next industrial revolution are coming down the track: batteries for our car industry and wind power for our transport and electricity. This big push to drive private enterprise to invest now is crucial, because we all know that only productivity gains can lead to real wage increases and the much talked about ‘levelling up’.

As we escape the shadow of Covid-19 we can see that much has changed but some things have stubbornly remained. In many parts of the North, moving back to the status quo ante – pronto – seems to be the order of the day from Labour. The debate over the coal mine on the West Coast of Cumbria brought this home in recent weeks.

To give you a bit of necessary background, Cumbria is a joint Labour/Lib Dem administration. Labour lost overall control in 2017 and formed a coalition (despite the Conservatives being by far the largest party). Labour retained control with their three tribes of Corbynites, Brownites and few Blairites, in what is a perpetual internal struggle.

To the mine itself. Robert Jenrick, the Housing, Communities and Local Government Secretary, has taken a lot of heat, but it’s clear that what’s really behind the palaver is vacillation among the Labour/LibDems who are running the council. Cumbria County Council has now put forward the proposal only then to decide to re-consider it no fewer than four times. Jenrick has done everything he can to let the council decide, but in the end its vacillation created a national controversy. A dangerous precedent.

Labour weakness and division doesn’t just stop at doing everything possible not to make a decision on bringing 500 really well-paid jobs in Cumbria. Look across the other side of the country and you see it caught up in another culture war with itself in Leeds.

West Yorkshire wants to rival Greater Manchester as the engine room of the North of England. Leeds is back in the premiership, and everyone’s longing for the old rivalry on the pitch and, more generally, some healthy competition across the Pennines.

But Labour politicians locally can’t even agree on whether to expand Leeds Bradford Airport. The Labour-run Council has, eventually, passed a proposal, but the local Labour MPs (more concerned about their own membership than their voters) have gone against it. Hilary Benn and Alex Sobel, amongst others, literally asked the Secretary of State to call in a decision by the local Labour council.

Scratch the surface anywhere in the North and you’ll find Labour in mini-civil wars everywhere. What does this mean for other big projects? The A1(M) upgrade? New train lines? The A66/68/69/74? Are we going to allow vacuous, vacillating, virtue-signalling Labour Councils to kibosh our levelling-up agenda?

Contrast Labour’s approach to Ben Houchen’s in Teesside or Andy Street’s in the West Midlands; pro-enterprise, and willing to work with the Government. Interestingly, Andy Burnham seemed to be too, during his early days of wanting to get stuff done but his rivalry with Sadiq Khan over who will be the next Labour leader has seen him go from pragmatic local leader to disingenuous leadership contender, in lock step with Starmer’s personal poll rating.

What I’m driving at is that for levelling-up to work, we’re going to need to see local authorities and local authority leaders who want it to work.   The sad truth is that many local Labour councils and local bureaucracies don’t want it: they’re scared of it. In County Durham, it would create further upheaval in the system of sinecures that, sadly, local council positions have been for 102 years. They don’t want to risk ‘levelling up’ – they’re happy with a lazy the politics of grievance. After all, it’s served them well for decades.

Meanwhile, when faced with big political calls, the Prime Minister tends to make the right ones. On running for Mayor. On Brexit. On standing for the Conservative leadership in 2019, doing what many said was impossible, and getting Tory MPs to back him. (I remember this ,because when I joined his campaign you could get six to one on him to make the ballot.) On the general election. On the vaccine.

He’s making a big call on the economy now – the big push to level up. This is his big bet on Britain.  To deliver it though we need strong aligned local leadership. Mid-term elections always hammer the party in power, and we’re coming from the 2017 local election high point and a year of Covid. Getting Conservative 2019 voters to come out again is the challenge on which the ability to deliver the agenda now rests. We’ve fifty days to show them it does.

Gavin Rice: The Conservative campaign in Hartlepool kicks off today. But will Johnson deliver for his new working class voters?

29 Mar

Gavin Rice is Head of the Work and Welfare Policy Unit at the Centre for Social Justice.

All eyes are now on Hartlepool, with the first by-election poll showing Labour’s lead down to just three per cent.  The Conservative campaign opens today: whether the party can flip the seat, which hasn’t voted for a Tory candidate in six decades, is being viewed widely as a litmus test for the strength and permanence of the party’s 2019 incursion into the North East and West.

There is a lot to live up to. After thousands of voters overcame multi-generational hatred for the Tories to “lend” Boris Johnson their vote, the Prime Minister made a solemn commitment to govern in their interests, saying: “I will repay your trust”.

It’s now imperative that the Conservatives do repay it, and are seen to do so. This will involve giving priority to concrete remedies to the poverty that for many Red Wall voters has become a fact of life.

The Centre for Social Justice has compiled a list of 205 deprived towns, using the Index of Multiple Deprivation, as an indicator of Britain’s communities most in need of “levelling up”. We have also mapped them electorally by parliamentary constituency.

The results are revealing. No fewer than 38 of the constituencies containing deprived towns are 2019 Conservative gains – all in the Midlands, North East and North West. All of them are marginal, meaning the government’s stake in making a real difference in these places is electoral as well as moral.

Many more are narrow Labour holds such as Hartlepool, again in the Red Wall. It’s generally accepted the Conservatives have long-term problems in London, the cities, spa towns and middle-class suburbia. They will need more working-class seats in former Labour territory to offset these losses. There are positive signs, with the party taking a 25-point lead among working-class voters, but also policy choices that are much more concerning.

The recent decision by the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) to “call in” the planning application to open a coalmine at Whitehaven in Copeland constituency is astonishing if it indicates where the Tories’ hearts lie.

Such decisions are normally made by the local authority, and the Secretary of State, Robert Jenrick, initially pledged not to intervene. He later U-turned, however, taking the decision out of Copeland County Council’s hands and returning it to central government. After an outcry from the likes of Greenpeace, the project has been earmarked for a public inquiry and kicked into the long grass.

The decision – taken in reality, no doubt, by Number Ten – looks shamelessly political, prioritising green optics over Northern livelihoods – the very opposite of what Johnson should be doing. But clearly 500 or more well-paid jobs in Whitehaven cannot compete with the fact that Britain is hosting COP26 in November, when a brand new coalmine (the first in 30 years) could present plenty of opportunities for media embarrassment. The decision also came – rather suspiciously – three days after the visit to the UK of John Kerry, the US’s replacement for Al Gore as chief climate guru.

Refusing to open a commercially viable new mine seems extremely ham-fisted, given the lost opportunity and disappointment this will cause to exactly the constituents the Conservatives need to be defending – and, yes, Whitehaven is one of CSJ’s “205”. Not so long ago the party was pursuing an explicit Cumbria strategy; the Whitehaven decision seems a long way from there.

Given what could be at stake, there has been no regard for trade-offs. Mark Jenkinson, the MP for Workington (another former mining constituency), has argued that producing coking coal domestically could even cut emissions by eliminating the need to ship to Britain from around the world, meaning the carbon footprint – if any – would be minimal. In contrast, the local and symbolic impact of saying “No” to Whitehaven is enormous.

The Conservatives do not enjoy a good legacy in the North when it comes to closing mines. The way the closure of the pits was handled, and the tragic social aftermath in which two generations were consigned to unemployment, has left a lasting scar. Even John Major has admitted that the party “got it wrong”. But at least Thatcher’s closures were motivated by economic reality. This time it’s about displaying green credentials for perceived political gain.

Whether this is in fact a political gain should be reconsidered, fast. The Red Wall absolutely cannot be taken for granted: a 2020 Channel 4 poll of voters in 45 Red Wall seats found that 16 per cent of 2019 Conservative voters didn’t know which way they would vote now, with seven per cent saying they will definitely go back to Labour. Indeed, Labour took a Red Wall poll lead in December. Given how marginal these seats are, these are numbers that should cause unease in CCHQ.

Painting a picture of local stagnation George Bell, a veteran of the National Union of Mineworkers, said that in Worksop, which switched to the Tories for the first time since 1929: “a lot of [the work] is low-paid, non-unionised work…the electricians, brick works, timber yards and other industries that used to service the mines are all long gone”.

These are the communities the Conservatives need to win and hold. Their top 20 targets for 2024 are almost all in the Red Wall. These include Wansbeck, Hemsworth, Normanton Pontefract and Castleford, Chesterfield (Tony Benn’s former constituency), and Oldham East and Saddleworth. In each of these the Conservatives only need a small swing. Every one is in or near former mining country.

The Government must accept that chasing a green-only economic agenda at breakneck speed is a policy that sits in clear tension with the solemn commitment to regenerate Britain’s post-industrial regions. Net zero and levelling up are competing objectives. This is a contradiction within the party’s thinking, and the sooner there is honesty about it, the better.

Unfortunately, this policy clash speaks to a deeper cultural divide within the party between Cameroons and the new Boris consensus. David Cameron did incredible things for the party, making it electable again after 13 wilderness years. But his electoral strategy – chasing middle-class votes, parading environmentalist credentials (“Vote Blue, Go Green”), and taking the fight to the Liberal Democrats in England’s leafy suburbs, ultimately resulted in Coalition. In 2015 he pulled off a majority, but one much smaller than Johnson did when the Red Wall fell.

Cameron’s autobiography, “For the Record”, makes plain that the former leader remains convinced of the merits of what he calls the “centre ground”, with social liberalism and climate change its core priorities. This Westminster centre – as research shows – is in fact not the centre ground of British voters at all.

Whitehaven may seem like a local issue, and indeed it should have been. Whitehall’s intervention has made this a national question, revealing a deeper existential conflict within the Conservative Party. Is it the party of bourgeois ideological preoccupations, or of British workers? Were our former mining communities right to place their trust in the party? A good signal of the true answer to this lies in whether they open this mine. Let’s hope Johnson doesn’t let his new voters down.

Presenting ConservativeHome’s Spring Conference online fringe events

17 Mar

We’re very pleased to announce that, following the success of our online fringe events during last year’s Conservative Party Conference, ConservativeHome will be putting on a programme of free, online fringe events during the Conservative Party’s Spring Conference, on Friday 26th and Saturday 27th March.

Click here to see details of our full line-up of speakers and topics. We do hope that you can join us for discussions ranging from the reform of business rates and the future of the asylum system to the Government’s plans to fulfil its promises on levelling up and net zero, featuring guests including Sajid Javid, Robert Jenrick and Paul Scully.

As ever, ConservativeHome’s journalists will also be putting your audience questions to our special guests.

All of our events will be broadcast for free on the Conservative Party’s conference website, the ConservativeHome YouTube Channel and via Zoom. Zoom signup links for all events can be found on our listings page.

Neil Hudson: We have every reason to feel excited about the Government’s ambitious Turing scheme

12 Mar

Dr Neil Hudson is the Conservative Member of Parliament for Penrith and The Border. Neil is a veterinary surgeon and is a Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy and Fellow of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons.

As an MP who has worked as a university senior lecturer, I don’t mind admitting that I was a disappointed when I first heard that the UK would not be taking part in Erasmus+. Although the scheme wasn’t perfect, it still was an amazing opportunity for our students. I’d seen first-hand how it could create opportunities which broadened their horizons – and I worried about our ability to create a domestic alternative that would truly match its ambition.

The importance of students being able to exchange experiences in different institutions is a win-win for them and academics. I know from personal experience that when your students are placed in international institutions and vice versa this is a great way of fostering teaching and research collaborations in both places. In the midst of a global pandemic, it was too easy to see that this could have been deprioritised.

The reality is that international partnerships have never been more important to universities. International students – essential not just for the diversity of outlook they bring to campus, but for the financial contribution they make – have proved unexpectedly loyal during Covid-19, averting vice-chancellors’ worst-case scenarios.

But it cannot be taken for granted that this will continue, especially as Asian universities rise up the world rankings and the US seeks to once again become a more welcoming studying destination. Academic conferences, a staple of building international networks, have looked very different over the last year, with fewer opportunities to forge the personal connections on which partnerships are made.

For universities, this can be particularly challenging. An international outlook is part of their core ethos. From Covid-19 to climate change, it is increasingly clear that the problems facing our world require international solutions. And as a former university academic and admissions dean, I know first-hand that opportunities to meet people from other cultures and to travel abroad are seen as highly important by students when deciding where to study, or in inspiring them to reach their full potential.

It’s for this reason that I’m delighted that the Government has moved so quickly to set up the Turing scheme. It is a genuinely ambitious offer that has been described by Universities UK – no lovers of Brexit – as “a fantastic development”. And in some areas, I am relieved to say it is even better than Erasmus+ was.

Some of the criticisms that have been thrown at the scheme can only be described as inaccurate, misrepresentations of the facts by those not wanting to give something new and ambitious a chance. The monthly cost of living allowance for both schemes is comparable: 370-420 Euro for a typical student under Erasmus+ compared to 390 – 443 Euro (£335-380) for Turing, with similar uplifts for disadvantaged students.

Importantly, under Erasmus+, only those who went to non-EU countries – three per cent of UK participants – received support for travel, whereas in Turing, all disadvantaged students will receive travel support – not just for flights, but for visas, passports and travel insurance – wherever they are going in the world. The suggestion that Turing participants will have to pay tuition fees is also incorrect: mutual fee waivers will be negotiated by each university partnership, as is absolutely standard for HE exchange schemes around the world. This argument also underlies the flawed thinking that the UK should pay for both inward and outward mobilities: an exchange is a partnership, to which both sides contribute, just as all country participants in Erasmus+ paid towards its costs.

There are some ways in which the schemes are different. The most disappointing for me personally is that Turing only includes students, not academics or teachers. I know colleagues in HE who will feel this painfully. But equally, I recognise that academics have many other opportunities to travel abroad and, as a Conservative MP committed to the levelling-up agenda, I recognise that we should focus taxpayers’ money on creating opportunities for those who otherwise would not have them, not supporting those who could access support another way.

And set against this are the tremendous advantages of Turing. Most obviously, there is the ability to travel anywhere in the world, not just Europe. European countries will always be our friends and partners, but this scheme will open up new opportunities in Europe, North America, Asia and Australia to name but a few. Providing the opportunity to study at the Ivy League, Singapore, Japan, or to forge partnerships, friendships and collaborations with our Commonwealth allies, is something our students will grasp with both hands.

Less talked about, but also important, is the greater flexibility that Turing offers in terms of the length and format of exchanges. The typical average six-month duration of Erasmus+ exchanges meant that the scheme was dominated by certain subject areas such as languages.

To take my own subject, veterinary medicine, it is difficult in a professional degree to spend a whole year abroad – but far more feasible to go for an eight-week study or clinical work placement. Although year-long exchanges will still be available, the greater flexibility and increased choice of destinations will open up demand to a much wider variety of students from different disciplines, which can only be a good thing.

In short, from an initial position of scepticism, I have found Turing to be an unexpected bonus. It is another example, like the fantastic trade deals we have signed, our hosting of COP26 this year or the ambitious relaunch of our

international education strategy, of how for this Government “Global Britain” isn’t just a slogan, it’s a strategy. And it’s one which I know our world-class universities and ambitious students will embrace.