Jonathan Werran: As recent local elections showed, the mayoral revolution has been a success

12 May

Jonathan Werran is Chief Executive of Localis.

The injunction to “live local and prosper” is the order of the day in the aftermath of last week’s local and devolved regional elections. Good quality neighbourhoods, vibrant high streets, decent school provision and abundant high-skilled jobs from a prosperous local economy – everything that instils pride in place should be encouraged.

The Government can go so far in stimulating prosperous communities and productive places through all the funding and policy levers available to the central state. But the role of strong local leadership here cannot be underestimated in galvanizing place prosperity.

For evidence we don’t need to look beyond two of the three goals in the hat trick, starting with Tees Valley and Ben Houchen’s truly astonishing 73 per cent vote share to secure beyond all measure the mayoralty he had narrowly won in 2017. Friday’s success was followed up the next day by Andy Street, who nearly won the West Midlands Combined Authority mayoralty on first round preference alone.

On this basis, where you have mayoral figureheads who combine charisma with pragmatism, and with a sufficient war chest for investment, this is a model eminently capable of setting in motion a virtuous cycle of economic and political success. Seen in isolation, this outcome wholly vindicates George Osborne and Rupert Harrison’s coalition-era hatched devolution revolution plan.

As the former chancellor Tweeted leading up to Super Thursday, what is needed next is for more trust to be placed in metro mayors through further meaningful devolution from Whitehall. Ideally what is called for here are substantive powers over investment and fiscal leeway to inject fuel into to the tank of well-exercised convening powers.

In ConHome’s Saturday reaction, Paul Goodman noted how Houchen’s triumph and ability to deliver from Freeports to Whitehall relocation has unlocked four of Teesside’s six parliamentary constituencies. At local level, Street’s readeption of the West Midlands Mayoral Combined Authority was telegraphed by the gaining of Dudley Council, again pointing to the potency of the mayoral model, when well supported, in delivering political dividends.

However, these Conservative successes must be tempered by the twin failures to retain the combined authorities encompassing Cambridgeshire and Peterborough and the West of England as well as the entrenched position of Labour’s metro mayors. Switching the voting method from supplementary vote to first past the post in future mayoral polls would have made the difference for James Palmer at least.

But any inquest must also consider the future and determine how what is working out so well as bold and pioneering in the West Midlands and North East might translate inside the deep blue wall – where the voting intentions of red urban islands such as Cambridge proved capable of commanding the rural blue seas.

Answers there may come, we hope, in the shape of the Levelling Up White Paper. If the expectation is that we revert to the vision Michael Gove offered up last July in his Ditchley Park lecture, this seemed to be pointing to one of central government rationally dealing with 50 principal players, as the US President does in relations with state governors in the federal system.

It’s very conceivable to see Conservative counties, even those shires which have been against the imposition of an urban mayoral governance model, lining up in principle with this out of party loyalty. Such a move would, by reducing the number of significant players to something manageable, align with Gordon Brown’s suggestion – one backed by Lord Hague – for saving the union by establishing some kind of “permanent forum between the regions and the nations, and the centre of government, which Boris Johnson should chair”.

But in what political economy would any new mayoralties emerge into? Going back to the first formal definition of “Levelling Up”, a term mentioned in yesterday’s Queen’s Speech, we have: “Levelling up means creating new good jobs, boosting training and growing productivity in places that have seen economic decline and the loss of industry – not through a one-size-fits-all approach, but nurturing different types of economic growth and building on the different strengths that different places have.”

Just over four years ago when a formal and interventionist industrial strategy, Localis published a report in which we made the distinction between the “stuck” and the “stifled”. The stuck referred to the places that are still dealing with the fallout of the industrial trauma of the 1980s and the stifled places that are growing quickly but whose growth is hemmed in by their boundaries. We recognised both typologies as of increasing political importance, but the Levelling Up road just taken seems firmly addressed to meeting the needs of the former – and for the latter may be seen as levelling down.

Unfair as it might be, the perception among local leaders in the South East might be that in exchange for financial and political capital being invested north of the Watford Gap, they will be lumbered with the hospital pass of meeting unpopular local housing targets. To obviate this issue, a more spatial strategy for housing might insulate from some of the uproar – but not all.

To what extent pain is inevitable and suffering optional will vary. But as a universal governance model, it’s more than likely that mayoralties would necessarily involve restructuring and reorganisation. Bearing in mind the tensions and rupture between the tiers of local government amid the pandemic response last year, then if the White Paper does come out for it, like Macbeth, ‘’If it were done when tis done, twere well it were done quickly”. If not, not at all.

The evidence shows that when resourced and supported, charistmatic and committed leaders of place like Houchen and Street can lead all before them. For the sake of our recovery, we could do with more of them.

The recent example of Ben Bradley, the Mansfield MP, taking on the duty of leadership at Nottinghamshire County Council is an undeniably bold and imaginative coup which bodes well for the authority’s ability to cut through in talks Whitehall. To quote from the catchy campaign song of failed London Mayoral candidate Count Binface, it’s in such terms that you can see it being hip to be a mayor.

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.

Enver Solomon: There is a wider lesson in Jihyun Park’s Conservative story for the Government’s refugee policy

10 May

Enver Solomon is Chief Exective of the Refugee Council.

As the local election results came in on Friday, there was hope that Bury in Greater Manchester would swing to the Conservatives. It wasn’t to be, but the election had received national attention because one of the party’s proud candidates is not your average Conservative politician.

Jihyun Park, recently interviewed on this site by Andrew Gimson, was the first North Korean ever to stand in elections for the party in this country. Quite a remarkable achievement for a woman who fled the brutal communist dictatorship with her family by escaping over the border to China and eventually by plane to London.

After applying for asylum, she was given refugee status in the UK 13 years ago and housed in Bury, where she still lives with her husband Kwang and two sons. Park recently told the Times that when she first arrived in the country, she couldn’t speak a word of English. “We were given this house but there was nothing in it, no furniture, no heating,” she said. “The four of us slept in the living room covered by a single blanket. But everyone helped us. The council. Our neighbours. We will never forget this.”

Park’s story might seem unique. But it isn’t. People fleeing war, persecution, terror and dictatorships around the world are welcomed into the UK every year. Communities and councils across the land from Glasgow to Gloucester support them to set up home, put down roots in their neighbourhood and contribute to the good of the country paying taxes as law abiding citizens.

Many are part of the vast army of people employed by the NHS as doctors, nurses and ancillary staff. Others become academics, architects, accountants business people, lawyers, and lots more. And they often say they are proud that Britain is their home.

For seven decades since the UK signed the UN Convention on Refugees in 1951, the country has given protection to hundreds of thousands of people in need of safety. The Home Secretary, Priti Patel, whose parents came to the UK from Uganda at the time of the dictatorship of Idi Amin is proud of the fact that the UK welcomed many Asian families cruelly expelled from the country. From Uganda to Iran to Bosnia to Afghanistan and most recently Syria people have come to the UK in the knowledge that the country will provide a safe haven for them and their families.

Conservative governments have been at the forefront of upholding this long tradition of providing refugee protection. Most recently, David Cameron when Prime Minister set up the Vulnerable Persons Syrian Resettlement Scheme. Working with the UNHCR 20,000 Syrian refugees have been brought to the UK over the last five years to rebuild their lives.

The Refugee Council has been working with councils in Yorkshire, Humberside, Hertfordshire and London to support them to successfully integrate into local communities. Many Syrians arrived with basic skills but they have found a way to make a real difference, even during the pandemic.

One example is Adil, a Syrian tailor who settled in Sheffield. When lockdown was first put in place Adil was inspired to do something to protect people against the virus. Initially he made 70 face masks, which he donated to his children’s school and his neighbours. He has now gone on to make 500 items of PPE for his local community, including masks and scrubs, purchasing many of the materials himself.

It is safer for people seeking asylum, and arguably less of a challenge to public services, if people arrive in the UK through routes designated as ‘safe and legal’ by the Government. In order to meet the scale of the global refugee displacement need, and deter people from making dangerous journeys to our shores, it is vital these routes must also be accessible for those fleeing persecution.

The Government’s New Plan for Immigration rightly commits to provide safe and legal routes for those who have been uprooted by war and terror.

But it holds back from making any firm commitment on numbers. If another 20,000 refugees were settled in the country during the next five years, it would be the equivalent of only eight in every parliamentary constituency each year. Doubling that number would mean just 16. Global Britain surely has a role to play in providing a home for a fraction of the 26 million refugees in the world today.

The reality, however, is that whether one likes it or not refugees are unable to travel and arrive in our country only via regular means. Apart from refugees who are admitted on a resettlement scheme, such as the recent programme for people escaping Syria, few are able to secure travel documents – usually because the authorities will not give them one, or they lose it or have it confiscated.

Persuading any country to give them a visa is very difficult. For all these reasons, people seek to make spontaneous journeys to safe countries in Europe. They have no choice. Of course, as a country we can’t simply give all these people protection. But what we have always done and should continue to do is give them a fair hearing if they reach our shores, so those who are in genuine need of protection are granted it. At the same time those who aren’t should be supported to return to their country.

Park is a case in point. She arrived on a plane and applied for asylum after getting to the UK. But under the government’s New Plan for Immigration, there is a risk that people like her will be turned away, or only given temporary protection. if they have travelled through another so-called safe country, or don’t make an asylum application entirely in accordance with the government’s rules.

When people come to our country seeking asylum we need a fair and effective system so that everybody in need of protection is given a just hearing. Both compassion and control are important. Let’s continue to welcome people like Jihyun Park, support them to rebuild their lives and contribute to our country. Refugee protection is a great British value that we should be proud to uphold.

Rachel Wolf: Tests for the delivery of levelling up, and levers with which to deliver it

10 May

Rachel Wolf is a partner in Public First. She had co-charge of the 2019 Conservative Manifesto. She was an education and innovation adviser at Number 10 during David Cameron’s premiership and was founding director of the New Schools Network.

The Conservatives have won more stunning victories. Why?

First, the approach that drove the 2019 victory continues to deliver.  Second, vaccines and furlough have rewarded sitting governments: they have demonstrated competence, agility, and a willingness to spend.

The next great test won’t come for a while. Boris Johnson is Merrie England: he is the perfect leader for our summer of freedom. The economy will temporarily boom. Furlough won’t be withdrawn until September. Provided it stops raining, everyone should feel good.

But the Government will be acutely conscious that the next six months is also the last window for policies that can deliver by 2024. They will also know that, by Christmas, any lingering effects of what my partner and ConservativeHome columnist James calls ‘furlough morphine’ will have worn off. Some economic scarring is likely.

In other words, ‘levelling up’ now needs to get real. This is clearly the plan in the next few months, starting with the Queen’s Speech tomorrow, and then leading to the Levelling Up paper.

Truth be told, levelling up is a poor slogan. It has never done very well in our focus groups – people find it confusing and then, when it’s explained to them, mildly irritating. They don’t think they’re ‘levelled down’, they think they’re ignored. Equally, they find the idea that in four years they’re suddenly going to become London and the South East bizarre – it’s not what they want, and they don’t think it’s credible.

But the danger of ‘levelling up’ is not that it confuses voters, but that it confuses policy. Too many seem to equate it with transforming regional productivity, affecting every town in provincial England and Wales, within a Parliament. Obviously if that’s what voters wanted, they would be disappointed.

Of course regional productivity and innovation are vital, and longer term work should begin. But there are also shorter-term gains. Here are some important ones, some obvious levers, and ways to measure progress.

The high street test.

People care deeply about where they live. They ‘measure’ decline by their town or city centre. Here’s what you hear time and time again: shops boarded up; graffiti on the cenotaph; drug addicts; no monthly market; no decent playground.

In other words, it’s depressing to be in, feels mildly unsafe, and there’s nothing to do.

  • Levers: Business rates; soft infrastructure (local museums, libraries, playgrounds); events including markets and protecting green spaces; incentives for lower margin, often civic enterprises from soft play to youth clubs to sports. Decent bus services. Core public services in the town centre.

It is crucial that ‘economic investments’ (many of dubious effectiveness) do not trump these. Yes, it becomes easier to sustain this kind of infrastructure when people are wealthier. But it is worth remembering that many of these things existed when people were much, much poorer.

  • Tests: vacancy rates. Footfall. Number of events. And, of course, what people tell you about their town.

The safety test

Under-reporting of crime is a big problem, and there is reason to believe it disproportionately affects the Red Wall. Burglary, shoplifting and vandalism are particular problems.

Fraud, too, is a national problem with unequal consequences. Pensioners in Red Wall seats who may own their own homes but have very modest savings and no private income are particularly exposed to losing their life savings. Meanwhile, specific estates suffer from low police presence, and deprived coastal communities and small towns are the targets of County Lines.

In other words, crime is a particular issue in particular ways in these places.

  • Levers: the extra police will help. We also need to change the way in which Home Office funding is allocated and put more emphasis on localised funds like the Safer Streets Funds (which pays for things people want like CCTV). We need a massive, revived focus on fraud – it is getting insufficient airtime and attention.
  • Tests: the obvious source is surveyed crime, but the government also needs better ways to measure crime than annual face to face interviews,

The Opportunity Test 1: Skills and Jobs. 

Training and apprenticeships are a huge priority for working class people. They want local training opportunities – ideally leading to local jobs. We know there’s huge untapped demand for technical level skills in the labour market, and that many adults want to retrain. It remains one of the great challenges of our system.

  • Levers: the Queen’s Speech will create a proper lifetime learning entitlement. Now it needs more funding and less bureaucracy (which is already blighting other skills entitlements and apprenticeships).

On jobs, big changes will be long-term. As well as incentives for private sector investment, the public sector is an opportunity. People want trained people to stay or return home. A start – and one of the most popular things universities can support – would be incentivising public sector graduates (like teachers, nurses, and doctors) to stay in areas where recruitment is a challenge.

  • Tests: number of adults in retraining. Reduction in skills shortages in ‘technical’ roles. I’d include reduced reliance on foreign skilled labour in specific areas (such as parts of construction, who are presumably going to see investment, and therefore job opportunities through net zero and transport).

The Opportunity Test 2: Schools

Schools perform less well in many Conservative target areas. In the past, I would have said this was a moral imperative, but not an electoral one – school quality wasn’t a big vote winner. But I think there’s now greater desire from parents (and we’ll be publishing a report with the Centre for Policy Studies on this in the near future). They are more aware of how their children are doing, how far behind some of them are, and how differently schools responded to the pandemic.

  • Levers: incentives for teachers to go to underperforming areas. Renewed focus on academies and free schools. Ofsted inspections with a focus on standards. Continuing the drive on behaviour. There should also be new focus on the most gifted through programmes in schools and more academically selective sixth forms.
  • Test: Ofsted ratings (including number of failing schools); percentage getting five good GCSEs in core subjects (called the EBACC).

Finally, an overall measure: retention of people and inward migration – in other words, do people want to stay and move to the towns of England? It is implausible that this will transform in a few years, but you might start to see a little movement towards the end of the Parliament (and post-Covid home working will accelerate this effect if places are nice to live in).

You will no doubt have issue with many (if not all) of these levers and measures. There are some omissions (most obviously health). But my point is that it is possible to generate and measure progress within a few years. The job won’t be done, but people will see the path. That shouldn’t diminish the importance of the longer-term, even harder job of thinking through regional growth and productivity. But if you don’t get these areas right, Johnson and the Conservatives won’t be given permission to carry on.

Robin Hodgson: In half a century, our popuulation will have increased by over 50 per cent – not counting the Hong Kongers. Is this sustainable?

7 May

Lord Hodgson is a Conservative peer.

It is quite understandable, and indeed an attractive reflection of our nationally tolerant attitudes towards new arrivals, that the UK public takes a relaxed view of an increased number of arrivals from Hong Kong – a combination of an understanding of our moral debt and the reputation of the Chinese as industrious and hard working underpins this.

But this short term decision has not been factored in to considerations of the longer-term demographic implications. No-one doubts the positive impact of some immigration, the worry is about scale. When the Blair Government opened the doors to large scale immigration in the late 1990’s the population of the UK was 58.1 million, it is now 66.4 million, an increase of over 8 million.

The Office for National Statistics latest projection for 25 years from now is another increase of five million – before allowing for any substantial number of arrivals from Hong Kong. So in half a century, the population of the UK will have increased by over 20 per cent.

The Government’s short-term arguments focus on the economic advantages – usually measured by growth in GDP. But growth in total GDP is a poor measurement: median GDP per head gives a clearer measurement of economic performance across the whole population. The fact that it has increased little in the last ten years shows that the major beneficiaries of recent demographic change have been the better off amongst the existing population and the new arrivals themselves – and good luck to them.

However, for the young person on a zero hours contract, for a member of a minority community in a low pay, low prospect job or for an over 50 struggling to find a job at all the picture is not so rosy. And this is before the externalities. Of course, the short term focus is on the potential increase in pressure on hospitals, schools and public services generally.

But there are more serious underlying long term trends. For example, we shall run short of water – particularly in the South East – over the next 20 years. And we have to think how we shall be able to feed ourselves in an increasingly uncertain world. Public concern about damage to our environment and our ecology is rising.

There is no way we can expect to house five million more people without the inevitable result increase in urban sprawl – further damaging both. The figures suggest we will have to build over an area the size of Bedfordshire by the 2040’s. New building arouses intense opposition wherever it is planned, and nowhere more than in Tory held shire seats.

The United Kingdom is rich in many, many ways but it is poor in one critical way: we are short of space as a result of us being a small, already relatively crowded, island.

There is an urgent need to establish a cross-departmental body within government to analyse and weigh up these many factors in a transparent evidence-based way. I have long suggested that an office for Demographic Change – on the lines of the Office for Budget Responsibility – would be a good first step.

No-one can fail to feel sympathy for the people of Hong Kong, or indeed for the millions of refugees around the world. But our wish to help needs to be balanced by a consideration of the country we shall be leaving to future generations: demography is indeed destiny.

Peter Saunders: The myth of social immobility. Those who champion meritocracy are pursuing something we’ve basically already got.

6 May

Peter Saunders is a former Professor of Sociology at the University of Sussex (where he is still Professor Emeritus), and a Professorial Research Fellow at Civitas. He is the author of Social Mobility Truths.   More details at his website.

When an idea takes hold in politics, it can be extraordinarily difficult to shake it.

For 20 years, politicians of all parties have been convincing themselves that social mobility rates in Britain are extremely low, that we compare badly with other advanced western countries, that few children from working class backgrounds get good jobs, that the professions and our top universities are largely closed to people from humble origins, and that opportunities for bright working-class children are even worse today than they were in the past.

None of this is true, but these claims have been repeated so many times that nobody seems willing to question them. We are locked into what Professor John Goldthorpe calls a ‘spiral of hyperbole.’

In 2019, Civitas published my book, Social Mobility Truths. What follows is a summary of some of the evidence reviewed there (for more detail and full sources, refer to the book).

First, social mobility in Britain is widespread. The government’s own Social Mobility Commission accepts that 65 per cent of people born to working-class (routine and semi-routine worker) parents are upwardly mobile (more than one-third end up in professional-managerial positions). Just as important, 40 per cent of those with professional-managerial parents fail to retain this status. Changing your social class is more common than staying put.

Secondly, the huge twentieth-century expansion in the size of the middle class is coming to an end. Upward mobility is therefore becoming less common than it used to be (while downward mobility is becoming more common). But this is only because so many of us today are already in the middle class. It does not mean there are fewer opportunities for youngsters than there used to be. There are as many ‘good jobs’ as ever.

Thirdly, Britain’s social mobility rate is around the European average. The claim that we are international laggards originated with economists working for the Sutton Trust who looked across countries at how far parents’ incomes predict their children’s incomes. But statisticians at London’s Institute of Education have shown these income estimates are wrong and systematically biased, and the OECD has warned about problems comparing income data from different countries. A 2019 review by Bukodi and Goldthorpe concludes: ‘There is no evidence whatever of the UK…being a low mobility society’.

Fourthly, it is true that middle class children are twice as likely to get middle class jobs than working class children are. But we should not assume that this is due to class privileges and blockages. Even in a perfect meritocracy (where occupational positions were allocated purely on the basis of talent and hard work) there would be a strong association between parents’ and children’s achievements, because talent is to a considerable extent passed on in the DNA children inherit.

There is huge political resistance to accepting this, yet we know that cognitive ability, measured by IQ testing, is at least 50 per cent heritable. Recent research also shows that propensity to work hard (measured, for example, by conscientiousness scores on psychometric tests) is quite highly heritable too.

Fifth, unequal educational achievement by children from different social class backgrounds is largely (though not entirely) explained by differences in average ability levels between them. Analyse all the factors that might affect children’s educational performance, and you’ll find that IQ test scores are far stronger predictors than all the social and environmental factors (parental class, parent’s education, parents’ income, parental encouragement, parental interest, enrolment in a private school, etc.) put together. On average, cognitive ability is higher among middle class children than working class children, and that is the main reason they tend to do better in school.

Sixth, top universities do not discriminate against lower-class applicants. Quite the opposite: youngsters from poor backgrounds who get to university generally have lower GCSE and A-level scores than other successful candidates. Nor are top universities biased in favour of private school entrants. The reason privately-educated kids get into Oxbridge in disproportionate numbers is that they are, on average, brighter. This shouldn’t really surprise anybody (after all, these kids generally have very successful parents). Yet this is a truth which seemingly must never be acknowledged.

Seventh, like educational achievement, occupational achievement is also driven primarily by innate ability. My own analysis of the social class destinations of eleven thousand UK children born in 1958 showed that (controlling for all other variables) their IQ scores at age 11 were by far the best predictor of where they would end up. This one factor accounted for half of all the explained variance in outcomes.

Social advantages and disadvantages do play some part in shaping people’s lives. Some children enjoy an ‘inside track’ when it comes to careers (children of doctors, for example, are more likely to enter the medical profession). Some grow up in neglectful or abusive homes which undoubtedly blight their lives. Britain is not a perfect meritocracy. But it is broadly meritocratic, for ability and motivation are the key drivers of success in our society.

The extraordinary thing is, though, that when commentators try to explain the educational and occupational achievements of children from different class backgrounds, they almost always ignore ability differentials completely. There is a wilful refusal to look at the evidence, and there is a lot of bad faith around.

Politicians are complicit in this, for it is much easier to tell voters that the system is rotten and that you know how to fix it, rather than acknowledge that the system is remarkably open, and the reason their child has failed to secure a top job is because he or she simply isn’t bright enough, or didn’t work hard enough. Hence the familiar political rhetoric: we live in an ‘elitist’ and ‘closed shop’ society; talented working-class kids are unfairly ‘blocked’; universities and employers are ‘biased’ in their selection procedures.

This relentlessly depressing and pessimistic stream of ill-informed propaganda is having two disastrous effects. First, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you’re young, and you get told often enough by the leaders of your country that your chances of succeeding in life are slim, you’ll eventually give up trying. And secondly, it results in an unending stream of government initiatives which achieve little yet which perversely end up undermining meritocracy with quotas and targets, rather than enhancing it.

Politicians who champion meritocracy are pursuing something we’ve basically already got. In today’s Britain, talent and hard work easily trump social class background. We should be telling our children this, rather than filling their heads with Marxist fairy tales about unfair privilege and class bias. Maybe then, even more of them will go on to fulfil their potential in the future.

Shrey Srivastava: Why young people should reject the folly of modern monetary theory. Along with everyone else.

5 May

Shrey Srivastava is a student at the London School of Economics and a private investor. He writes at shreysnotepad.com.

The old proverb goes: “A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they know they shall never sit”. But what becomes of societies whose young – by dint of myopia – leave old trees unwatered for future generations?

I fear the newest brand of economic heterodoxy ‘modern monetary theory’, or MMT, puts us at risk of exploring that question practically. Put simply, it argues that as the monopoly issuer of currency, a country such as the UK can simply generate the money to finance its deficits. National debt thus should not be prohibitive for government spending in a sovereign currency. The constraint on spending therefore becomes not deficits or debt but inflation, which taxes can then tame.

Essentially: print as much as you want! – just don’t cause inflation. What could go wrong?

In the olden days, I gather this type of idea would have been fringe at best, along with sentiments like republicanism or Welsh secessionism. One does not need a ‘Generation Z’ lecture to see the paradigm shift. Low latency communication and global diffusion of ideas – through social media, of course – can turn heterodoxy to orthodoxy before governments can blink, much less act.

The US, a mecca of fringe ideas, is as usual leading the pack on MMT. Joe Biden’s $6 trillion spending plans embolden MMTers, already buttressed by the bulging budgets of Trudeau and others across the globe. Curiously, both use the phrase ‘build back better’ in their marketing.

They are certainly building back. Whether it is ‘better’ is anyone’s guess.

To be clear, countercyclical fiscal policy should be encouraged to an extent. With low interest rates, investing in previously neglected sectors and areas is prudent. The risk arises from feeble efforts to ensure the debt taken on can be serviced in the future, without hyperinflation.

For example, Biden proposes financing his fiscal largesse by raising the capital gains tax rate. However, a Wharton study suggests the wealthy would inevitably avoid 90 per cent of the change. Logically, either he needs bolder taxation (inadvisable, given the US is coming out of a pandemic) or to corral his spending. We all know the chance of him reining in Uncle Sam without external intervention. Because apparently, deficits don’t matter.

But what if the Federal Reserve financed Biden’s deficit spending?

Unfortunately, the Achilles heel of money printing is that the Goldilocks amount, or indeed how much will generate excessive inflation, is unclear. It is a question predicated on that most whimsical of things: human sentiment. Societies from the Weimar Republic to modern Venezuela have and will continue to struggle with this conundrum.

And once inflation arises, reversing course is difficult. Businesses shut down or relocate, unemployment soars and we enter an economic contraction. Those of us who were alive in the 1970s – when Britain was the ‘sick man’ of Europe – know something about these ramifications. History may not repeat, but it could certainly rhyme.

This pernicious flavour of economic thought may have captured the US palate, but that is no reason for us to follow suit. Young people like myself historically have found these sorts of ideologies attractive at first glance; equally, the change starts with us. We benefit from an impressive credit rating, and thus low risk premia on UK government bonds. That, in addition to zero interest rate policy, is responsible for our cheap borrowing costs. Budget control has indeed gone out of fashion since the departure of the erstwhile Prime Minister, David Cameron. Nevertheless, remember that decades of sound economic management are why this country is trusted to service its debt.

At a national debt hovering around 100 per cent of GDP, the UK is not yet Japan (with a national debt over 200 per cent of GDP) but we are getting there. Sunak strikes the right chords emphasising fiscal prudence, but he knows that he is ultimately bound by the electorate. This is where voters come in.

The profligacy of incumbent governments before an election is well documented. It is also tempting given all we have been through (soaring house prices, a global pandemic scuppering employment prospects, et cetera) to accept unsustainable cash injections into the real economy as a voter ploy. It then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Political parties feel the need to out-spend each other – or at the very least, overspend – to gain a majority (see: 2019 UK general election, 2020 US election). They may rationalise their economic policy as worthy price for their other pledges to be implemented. Spending plans go up.

Over time, some combination of rising inflation, a lowered credit rating, and a stymied economy are likely outcomes. Such is the tale of every economy throughout history that printed excess money to fund government expenditure. An undervalued monetary tenet – central bank independence – falls by the wayside as the Bank of England essentially becomes a vehicle for monetising government deficits. The youth are most affected as the generation left to pick up the pieces.

Although that Pandora’s box is not yet open, the alarmism serves a purpose. The tide is shifting in favour of MMT: the economic version of an internet-driven, instant gratification culture. However, indubitably, being able to call on the electorate to fix the issue is both historically anomalous and a very good thing. As a certain Winston Churchill proclaimed, ‘democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.’ Within our feted democracy, we can chart our own destinies.

Going beyond realpolitik and blame games, politicians reflect the views of their electorate. Our job as custodians of democracy is squaring the circle: demonstrating the compatibility of voter franchise in the internet era and long-term policymaking. Any thriving democracy holds representatives accountable not only for current progress, but also for what they leave for future generations.

Clearly, MMT sacrifices long-term stability for illusory short-term wealth. It is not necessary to be an Osborne-style deficit hawk to acknowledge this. So spend, yes. ‘Level up.’ But always remember to water the trees previous generations planted. Leave MMT in the past: our children will thank us for it – that is, if we do not thank ourselves first.

Gavin Rice: Local pride flourishes in Hartlepool – for all the damage wrought on residents’ lives and livelihoods.

5 May

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

The Conservative are pursuing a clear tactic of expectation management with regard to the hotly anticipated by-election in Hartlepool, with the Prime Minister reminding activists of “the psephological reality [that] it’s a massive, massive challenge.”

Unseating Labour would require a 4.4 per cent national swing towards the government during the middle of a Parliament – which would be very unusual. Yet this week’s extraordinary poll by Survation, however, which gave the Tories a 17-point lead, is clear sign there is yet all to play for, and that a win may still be on the cards in this seat in the heart of the Red Wall – a win that could spell the death knell of Labour’s “Hampstead and Hartlepool” coalition once and for all.

The County Durham constituency voted for Brexit by a majority of over 69 per cent  – the highest of anywhere in the UK. The Brexit Party’s Richard Tice took 25.8 per cent of the vote in 2019, with most analysts agreeing this came primarily at the expense of the Tories rather than from Labour; it’s unlikely Tice’s continuity outfit, Reform UK, will perform similarly.

If Hartlepool turned blue it would be a shock, but it would signal the continuation of a trend set by the likes of nearby Sedgefield and Bishop Auckland. While Labour has dominated in general elections but much less so in local government; its last spell of control over the borough was from 2010-19, and the council is currently Conservative-led.

Hartlepool is working-class, Lord Mandelson’s previous incumbency notwithstanding. The town itself represents most of the constituency, with some outlying suburbs and villages. It lies on the North Sea coast, 10 miles from the Tees estuary, and was formerly a major exporter of County Durham coal. It used to build ships, too, including the world’s second oil tanker, completed in 1886; it was once considered sufficiently important that it was the first part of the UK to be attacked by German ships during World War I.

With the passage of decades and the tide of deindustrialistion the industries that once sustained Hartlepool gradually disappeared, with the last ship yards closing in 1961. During the 1980s, Hartlepudlians endured unemployment rates of 30 per cent; 630 jobs were lost with British Steel in 1983, followed by thousands more as industrial decline was completed.

Unemployment remains a serious problem – the constituency currently has a Claimant Count of eleven per cent, nearly 30 per cent above the current UK average. A shocking 26 per cent of households are workless, with local demand for labour far below the national average. Only 55 per cent have a Level 3 qualification (A-level or above), and only a third have some form of higher education.

According to the director of a local charity speaking to the Centre for Social Justicde, the town has never recovered from the disappearance of local manufacturing, with many now consigned to working in call centres or other unstable, low-skilled work, with many on zero-hours contracts.

There was a fair amount of local investment under New Labour but this was stopped under the Coalition government, with the onset of austerity.  The town has high levels of mental illness and depression, with many unfit for work: the disappearance of a local supply of jobs has driven this epidemic, precipitating a vicious cycle of worklessness.

“Working gives you a purpose – a reason to get out of bed. If you haven’t got that purpose, what have you got in your life?”, he said. There are many families dependent on benefits with little to no aspiration; those that want something better tend to depart for Leeds.

With the decline of manufacturing one of the biggest employers now is the local NHS hospital – this follows a pattern of public sector replacement of private sector jobs that is common throughout post-industrial regions. Another significant proportion of Hartlepool workers are employed in hospitality and catering sectors.

Hartlepool also experiences serious social problems. The charity director reports a close correlation between unemployment and drug addiction, adding with irony: “we have the cheapest drugs in the country by far”.

Health figures bear this out:  Hartlepool has one of the highest rates of drug-related deaths in the country, with 46 fatal poisonings recorded between 2015 and 2017, far in excess of the British average. There are high rates of crime and anti-social behaviour, with further problems caused by reoffending on the part of Hartlepool’s resettled prison population.

Family breakdown is another major challenge, and his charity, which deals with homelessness and job support for the unemployed, has found that many in need of a roof over their heads have been made homeless due to a broken home. Data from the Healthy Relationships Partnership confirms the high level of relationship break-up in Hartlepool, reporting that of the children taken into care, in 80-90 per cent of cases involving abuse or neglect parental separation lay behind it.

Urban decay and low-quality housing remain an endemic problem, though there are more affluent private housing estates on the outskirts; improving housing is a high priority for Hartlepool voters, second only to a wider availability of stable, good quality jobs. The deterioration in the physical environment serves as a visual representation of the town’s economic decline.

Hartlepudlians do, however, retain a strong sense of local pride and attachment to their community. There is a desire for prosperity to return, rather than just opportunities to ship out. Data from a CSJ survey shows that residents of Hartlepool, like with many similar post-industrial constituencies, report high levels of community strength (measured by sense of security, interconnectedness and heritage) coexisting alongside high levels of material deprivation. Interestingly, this sense of community strength has not been undermined by Hartlepool’s high levels of social breakdown.

The Conservatives must anticipate further losses in the South if Britain’s political realignment along new tribal lines is set to continue – and a Tory win in Hartlepool would be a strong indicator that it will. Economically left-behind places with a strong local identity, regional pride and an attachment to place are precisely where the party must prove itself.

Hartlepool’s voters have been alienated by a southern, Remain-supporting Labour leadership, with local residents lamenting Labour’s metamorphosis from a party of the industrial working class into one led by an anti-Brexit lawyer from London. The Tories should provide a foil for this metropolitan shift, embracing instead a new politics of place.

On Brexit and on the social value of community the Tories should be Hartlepudlians’ natural home, but they are crying out for an economic transformation that restores prosperity and dignity to a constituency experiencing serious social decline. This decline has not eroded residents’ pride – only their environment and their livelihoods. Hartlepool is ripe for a fresh injection of hope. The Conservatives need Hartlepudlians’ votes: the government must deliver radical policies to effect regional regeneration, and make something truly meaningful out of the promise of levelling-up, if the party is to earn that vote.

John Baron: When our troops depart Afghanistan, they leave the dream of ‘liberal intervention’ behind

4 May

John Baron is MP for Basildon and Billericay.

After 20 years, Joe Biden is drawing the United States’ longest war to a close. All remaining US troops will leave the country by 11th September 2021, along with the 7,000 troops of other nations, including Britain, whose presence in Afghanistan without their American allies is unsustainable.

This brings to a close another misguided intervention. The lessons of Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria need to be heeded as we come to realise that, while always maintaining our guard against terrorism, the greater danger to our security was always potentially hostile nation states.

Biden is the fourth US President to oversee the war in Afghanistan, and as Vice-President was noted for his attempts to dissuade Barack Obama from his troop surge at the beginning of his first term. It appears he has not deviated from his views that an ongoing military presence is unlikely to achieve a winning position any time soon.

My parliamentary career has been punctuated by my resistance to overseas military deployments, largely driven by my concerns that we, in Britain and in the West more generally, have a tendency to rush into situations without fully understanding the situation on the ground, what we wish to achieve or how we intend to do it – and therefore do not resource operations correctly and have no clear exit strategy. These interventions also served as a distraction from greater dangers elsewhere.

Afghanistan is unfortunately a strong example of this. I did not oppose the initial intervention after the terrorist outrages on 11th September 2001 – it made good sense to rid the country of the relatively small number of international terrorists who had made the country their base. The initial light deployment of special forces, backed by friendly Afghans and 21st-century technology, was successful. Those in al-Qaeda who stood and fought were quickly destroyed, and many of the survivors quickly crossed the borders.

However, once this had been achieved, rather than winding up the mission the British Government and its allies greatly expanded the scope of the deployment to include wholesale reform of Afghanistan and Afghan society in pursuit of goals such as human rights, western-style democracy, and the rule of law.

This drift into nation-building, which I strongly opposed, required the defeat of the Taliban who, though brutal in their dealings with the Afghan people, had never been our enemy – it was al-Qaeda, not the Taliban, who attacked on 11th September.

The international troop deployment was never sufficient to hold the whole country, nor seal its porous borders – an essential part of fighting any insurgency.

Meanwhile, the international community, led by the United States, undermined any diplomatic negotiations with the Taliban with unrealistic and impossible preconditions. Insisting on the Taliban laying down their arms and accepting the new Afghan constitution before even agreeing to any talks, as the US did for many years, meant that no substantive progress was possible. It was Donald Trump who finally began the process of negotiations that have led us to this point.

In now announcing that the US will pull out of Afghanistan by September, come what may, Biden has provided little incentive for the Taliban to keep to any agreement with the Americans – some strategic patience on their behalf perhaps confirming the glib assertion that ‘the West may have the clocks, but we have the time’.

Though the President and other international allies have pledged to support the Afghan Government, it remains to be seen how well they will be able to resist the predations of the Taliban without the presence of foreign troops. Indeed, the present deployment of some 10,000 NATO troops, including 2,500 American and about 750 British soldiers, largely on training duties in support of Afghan Government forces, is seemingly holding the line with very small international casualties in recent years, even as their Afghan allies are losing a significant number of men.

It is clear that British commanders are unnerved by the announcement of the American withdrawal, which suggests a concerning lack of communication between allies, amid concerns that a hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan might mirror the hasty US troop withdrawal from Iraq in 2011, which left the Iraqi Government exposed when Daesh attacked a few years later.

Nevertheless, I am pleased that the military deployment in Afghanistan is coming to a close and that the laudable but misguided ideology of ‘liberal interventionism’ has largely faded into obscurity. This has taken some time – as Leader of the Opposition, David Cameron once correctly observed that it is impossible to drop a fully-formed democracy out of an aeroplane at 40,000 feet, but this did not prevent him as Prime Minister from attempting military interventions in Libya, Syria and Iraq, largely without success.

However, Theresa May’s 2017 assertion in Philadelphia that ‘the days of Britain and America intervening in sovereign countries in an attempt to remake the world in our image are over’ suggests this experience has finally been definitively heeded, a fact underlined by her careful and limited involvement in the international air strikes against the Assad Government later that year.

There will always be a role for British forces to play a role on the international stage, but the idea of wholesale ‘regime change’ for altruistic reasons, as we attempted in Afghanistan for too long, has had its day. Time now to focus on greater dangers.

David Skelton: Yes, social mobility is important. But jobs in the professions aren’t the only ones that matter.

4 May

David Skelton is the author of Little Platoons: How a revived One Nation can empower England’s forgotten towns and redraw the political map.

My old school, near Consett in County Durham, overlooked the site of the former steelworks. When I attended the school during the early 1990s, life still seemed to be overshadowed by the closure of ‘the works’, which had thrown thousands of people out of work. The 1970s buildings and temporary prefabs have gone now, with the school demolished and moved to a shiny new building near the town centre. I often think of the school, though, when I consider the complexity of the debate about social mobility.

So many of my hugely talented schoolmates weren’t able to fulfil their potential at a time when the school only averaged 12 per cent of pupils achieving five or more “good GCSEs”. Those who did want to pursue professional careers had no choice other than to go “up and out”, maybe to Newcastle and often to London.

Plenty of people also didn’t want to leave their friends, family and roots behind, despite the lack of economic opportunity in the town and the gradual depreciation of alternatives to academic education. The school also reminds me that when education reform works well it can be transformative, with the school moving from “failing” to being a model of school improvement.

Social mobility is a complicated issue and can’t be approached in a myopic way. Improving social mobility is essential for a fairer society in which we allow everyone to make the most of their potential. But social reform should have more than one string to its bow, which is why levelling up and creating quality jobs for everyone is so crucial.

It’s essential to improve access to the professions for people from all backgrounds, but it’s also crucial to ensure that the debate about social mobility doesn’t become one of escape for a few with only one route to a fulfilling career, but one of dignified, high quality, fulfilling jobs for everyone.

Social mobility – still a closed shop?

In reality, not enough structural change has been achieved and many professions remain closed shops. Analysis of various top professions, such as banks and accountancy firms shows that seven per cent of the population continues to be massively over-represented, with 35 per cent of recent recruits in finance and 60 per cent of financial leaders coming from a private school background.

The AHRC have declared an “arts emergency” because of the lack of working class representation in cultural industries. The Sutton Trust and the Social Mobility Commission found that about 40 per cent of what they described as the elite attended fee-paying schools, including 44 per cent of top newspaper columnists and two thirds of senior judges. Those from better off backgrounds are still 80 per cent more likely to end up in professional jobs than those from working class backgrounds.

Education reform has brought about notable improvement, but there is still much more to be done. The gap between disadvantaged 16 year olds and other pupils is over 20 per cent, and a much higher proportion of schools deemed inadequate or needing improvement by Ofsted are located in the most deprived areas.

Whereas some 45 per cent of 18 year olds now attend university, that figure falls to 29 per cent for those on free school meals and to only five per cent for the top third of universities. For white, working class boys, the figures are even more shaming, with only 13 per cent  going on to university. There’s even a class gap for those young people from working class backgrounds who make it into professional occupations, earning 17 per cent less than those from more privileged backgrounds.

Opening up the professions should undoubtedly continue to be a key goal of social progress. And the responsibility there lies with government, universities and employers. It’s for government to continue pushing ahead with education reform, but also ensuring that this is relentlessly focused on the most deprived areas. This should also include measures to make sure that the best teachers are incentivised to teach in those areas that have been most left behind.

Universities and employers also have an important role to play, which means making sure that the ubiquitous topic of diversity doesn’t ignore socio-economic class. Vogueish, but flawed, concepts like “white privilege” shouldn’t stand in the way of business and academia redoubling their efforts to increase representation of those from poorer backgrounds. Many “entry” jobs now require degrees in a way that wasn’t the case a number of decades ago and professional services firms should also consider how to expand apprenticeship programmes and increase the number of entry routes not requiring a degree.

Escape or empowerment? Remembering those left behind

It seemed for a while that social mobility was the only big idea of some social reformers, but taken in isolation it only represents half of the trick. Social mobility is insufficient if it means that the talented few should be able to leave their home towns and join the managerial elite, with scant attention being given to those left behind. A shallow approach to social mobility, which portrays professional careers as the only means of economic achievement and advancement, risks fuelling a sense of snobbery towards those who haven’t achieved this success and resentment amongst those struggling to make ends meet.

In many ways, it was this myopic approach that created the lingering resentment and anger that led to Brexit. As philosopher, Michael Sandel argued in his excellent The Tyranny of Merit, an obsession with helping a few to rise, combined with a meritocratic ideal that argues success is self-earned and failure self-inflicted, has created a sense of hubris at the top and humiliation at the bottom.

This is why Levelling Up is as important a project as improving social mobility, and the two should work together. It should not be taken as a given that someone who wants to succeed in the professions should have to leave their home town – social mobility should not always equate to geographic mobility.

Building strong, dynamic local economies is an important part of ensuring that social mobility does not equate to a brain drain. The ‘Levelling Up’ fund is an important starting point for this and government should also provide the tools to local people and local authorities to help them achieve an economic transformation. Major professional services firms should consider whether they can geographically diversify.

As well as creating the opportunity for the growth of professional jobs around the country, considering Levelling Up alongside social mobility also means that there should be a rethink about what “success’ equates to in a modern economy. The post-Blair route of higher education leading on to a professional job is of limited utility to many young people, some of whom have found the promised “graduate dividend” to be elusive. Considering how we can have a technical stream that has equal esteem to an academic stream could work in tandem with a push towards innovation and manufacturing to create a high-skilled, high-wage, high-productivity economy that is much more regionally balanced.

A multi-dimensional approach to social mobility

Social mobility is important. But social mobility alone is not enough.  Opening up the professions to people from disadvantaged backgrounds should be only one part of a broader remaking of the economy. This should include ensuring that people in all jobs are treated with dignity and respect and the elevation of technical education and apprenticeships, so that there are multiple, equally valid routes to economic mobility. Levelling up, enhancing social mobility and promoting a reindustrialisation of the economy can, taken together, create an economy that allows everyone to flourish