Johnson now has the serious task of restoring pride to the working class, failed by Labour

24 Jul

The New Snobbery: Taking on Modern Elitism and Empowering the Working Class by David Skelton

If David Skelton had delayed publication of this book by many more months, he would have had to rename it The New Orthodoxy.

For the lessons he urged in his last book, Little Platoons: How a revived One Nation can empower England’s forgotten towns and redraw the political map, are becoming more and more widely accepted.

That book was reviewed on ConHome in October 2019, and in December of that year Boris Johnson redrew the political map by leading the Conservatives to victory in many of the forgotten towns.

Or the blue remembered towns, as one might now call them. The initiative now lies with the Conservatives.

The “new snobbery” identified by Skelton is mainly a problem for the Labour Party, which needs to regain the seats it lost in 2019, and cannot do so as long as voters in places like Hartlepool, captured by the Conservatives at a by-election held less than three months ago, feel despised by many on the Left.

That astonishing result came just in time for Skelton, who writes:

“Once the scale of the Hartlepool defeat for Labour had become clear, elements of the Left indulged in another round of electorate blaming. One claimed that the problem for the Left was that ‘a huge number of the general public are racists and bigots’ and asked, ‘How do you begin to tackle entrenched idiocy like that?’ Another claimed, ‘We don’t have an opposition problem. We have an electorate problem.'”

Skelton has collected much snobbery of this kind, some of which he quotes in his piece this week for ConHome.

In his book Skelton reminds us that such sentiments are not new. Here is Engels to Marx in November 1868, as newly enfranchised working-class voters supported “reactionary” parties:

“The proletariat has discredited itself terribly.”

Nobody has put it better than Engels. The workers often refuse to behave as progressive middle-class intellectuals instruct them to behave.

Skelton writes in a rushed, clumsy and gloomy tone about the dreadful delusions of the leftie intellectuals, but surely they have more cause for despondency as they contemplate Johnson’s to them incomprehensible success.

Lunatic “woke” nostrums, and attempts by their adherents to usher in a tyranny of virtue, cry out for a new Michael Wharton who helps us laugh to scorn these impertinent attempts to purify our history, language, institutions and the rest.

Earlier this week, I met a peer who has just been on one of the courses where members of the House of Lords are taught how to behave. He took it all with the utmost docility, but at the end asked his instructor whether it was all right to be rude to an Old Etonian.

“Oh yes,” she replied without a moment’s thought.

And perhaps that is one of the things people like about Johnson. One can be as rude as one wants to him and he doesn’t seem to mind.

The Prime Minister has an old-fashioned idea of liberty, as involving a degree of tastelessness; a propensity to live and let live; and a willingness to tease the Puritans, not least by avoiding a culture war fought on their own ineffably humourless terms.

We now have Wharton, not as a columnist for The Daily Telegraph, but as Prime Minister: a man capable of seeing the absurdity of everyone, including himself.

But there is another part of Skelton’s story where gloom is understandable. The destruction of great industries, the loss of skilled trades, the humiliation of proud workers reduced to scraping a precarious existence, is the dismal post-war story in town after town.

The example closest to Skelton’s heart is the closure in 1980 of the great steelworks in his home town of Consett, a topic dealt with at greater length in his previous book.

One of the worst things about the nationalisation after the Second World War of the commanding heights of the British economy was that decisions were no longer taken locally, but in London, where it was easier to pretend that parsimonious investment, limited by Treasury rules and recurrent public spending crises, would be adequate to modernise these grand old industries.

Local pride and ownership were lost. Now everyone owned the plant, which meant nobody owned it, and its future was in the hands of distant politicians and officials who for the most part had no deep knowledge or commitment.

The nationalised industries declined into job-preservation schemes which failed even in their own terms, a series of doomed rearguard actions as the great names of British manufacturing went under.

Just as modern architecture done on the cheap in the 1950s and 1960s led increasing numbers of us to shudder at the idea of allowing anything to be built, so regional policy and industrial policy were discredited by a lengthening record of failure.

In his recent Levelling Up speech, Johnson lamented the “basic half-heartedness” of the 40 different schemes or bodies which over the last 40 years have tried to boost local or regional growth.

He admitted that “for many decades we relentlessly crushed local leadership” because “we were in the grip of a real ideological conflict in which irresponsible municipal socialist governments were bankrupting cities”.

Now, he rejoiced, “that argument is over and most of the big metro mayors know that private sector investment is crucial”.

So we are at last returning to local leadership. That at least is the idea. We can be pragmatic rather than ideological, and can bring everyone together in a particular locality in order to do what works.

Skelton agrees that we should not allow ourselves to get “stuck in the endless trenches of a culture war”.

He observes that the Labour Party “emerged from those great institutions of working-class life: the chapel and the trade union”, but that the proportion of Labour MPs who were manual workers “has fallen from almost 20 per cent in 1979 to less than three per cent today”.

The party has become obsessed by cultural issues, and has forgotten that secure, well-paid work is what matters to its former voters.

Let the Labour Party debate cultural issues to its heart’s content, while the dignity of work is championed by the Conservatives.

Skelton wants to formalise “the partnership between workers and employers” by putting workers on boards, which he thinks would “help to rein in the excesses of executive pay”, and would “increase productivity, enhance retention and promote a long-term focus”, instead of short-term expedients to increase shareholder value.

Every successful Conservative leader from Disraeli to the present day has taken seriously the requirements of the working class, and has thereby triumphed over priggish middle-class Liberals and Socialists who supposed they were the true guardians of the workers. Here is a serious task for Johnson.

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

24 May

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Richard Holden: This first Johnson year demanded tough short-term decisions. The coming second will demand tough long-term ones.

7 Dec

Richard Holden is MP for North West Durham.

The Sarnie Salon, Consett

A week may be a long time in politics, but a year is an eternity. Another truth is that it is very rare that situations arise in politics that have never been encountered before.

But the best-laid plans of twelve months that were expected to be dominated by Britain getting out of the European Union, and starting to level up the country – so delivering on two of the major promises of the election – have been more than overshadowed by the borderless forces of nature.

In North West Durham, with the fells iced with snow, I was thinking about other times when occurrences on the other side of the globe had dealt out a thrashing to well-laid plans.

In 1815, a volcano in Indonesia exploded. Mount Tambora was reduced by five thousands feet in height, as the mountain was blown into the incalculable pieces and up into the earth’s atmosphere in the greatest explosion in a thousand years.

1816 became known as the ‘year without a summer.’ Crops failed, the largest famine in the nineteenth century ripped through the world, and hundreds of thousands died as conspiracy theories abounded.

While today we know more about why and how external shocks happen – facts that won’t stop some of those conspiracy theorists – this doesn’t alter the impact of such events . No-one can doubt that the global Coronavirus pandemic has hit every aspect of our lives, and that its aftershocks will be felt for many years to come.

The disaster that we witnessed in Southern Europe of football stadiums being used as mortuaries and hospitals being overwhelmed has been averted here. The measures that have been taken to avoid that scenario have come at a huge financial cost, as taxpayers’ money has been used to support employees and employers, since businesses were forced to close in the interest of public health to the tune of hundreds of billions of pounds. The other costs, in terms of impacts on education, physical and mental health are not yet fully quantifiable, but will be significant, too.

In the early nineteenth century there was no understanding of what had happened among either the people or the Government. The price of food went, no-one knew why – and there was suspected conspiracy, which led to rioting in the cities. In the countryside, people didn’t know why the sun wasn’t shining. That, by contrast, we know the causes of the problem we’re facing is very helpful – and the recent announcement of vaccines also gives us an end point.

For the overwhelming majority of my constituents, because they have a panoply of facts on hand, the pandemic isn’t political. What they want to see if politicians of allsides working to get out of it.

For our political opponents, their attempts at politicising it are probably the reason that, despite the economic impact, poll ratings are holding up for the Government. Rather than a government-in-waiting, Labour are seen as an opposition that leaves people wanting. In the last year nothing could be clearer than the seeming inability of the new Labour leader to deal decisively with Jeremy Corbyn and Labour’s anti-semitism problems. It is quite clear that the opposition is hopelessly divided.

For Labour, their situation a year in is compounded by what looks like the Keir v. Jeremy show. I don’t believe that if I walked down the main drag in Crook, Consett or anywhere else in my constituency I could find a single person who could name a member of the Shadow Cabinet and their job title.

For a new MP, the overwhelming international issue of Coronavirus has provided some practical difficulties on the ground, but it has really bound me to the community. Having championed our local pubs and hospitality sector, there is nothing worse than seeing it closed. Seeing the excellent work of our community hospitals and their renewed purpose during Coronavirus has helped get my campaign for a new community hospital to replace it over the line as one of the new 40 that our Prime Minister promised at the election.

It has also shown what strong and wonderful people there are out there in our towns and villages, putting themselves our for others. Remembrance in County Durham matters and, recently, I nominated two people locally for the Prime Minister’s ‘Points of Light’ awards who had raised funds for it: Vera, who has been supporting the Royal British Legion for decades and has earned the sobriquet “Mrs Poppy” for raising over £1 million for the appeal, and Venita, on behalf of a team of over 50 local volunteers, who created thousands of poppies as a memorial to over 200 men of Weardale killed in the World Wars. Nothing drives me on in campaigning for North West Durham more than meeting people who are giving their all for our community every day.

While this year may have been overshadowed by the pandemic, we can now very much see the light at the end of the tunnel. The ruin it has wrought will last, though. Our communities will remember the response that we now make.

So the call to ‘Build Back Better’ will need to prove more than a catchphrase for the electors of North West Durham in 2024. The new community hospital, awaited for decades, is very welcome, as is the funding for a feasibility study into a new public transport link from Consett to the Tyne. But underpinning all of that will be good jobs, a sound economy and public finances that can afford to pay for the levelling up agenda. That economic development needs to be self-sustaining locally as far as possible to be sustainable.

The first year has been tough. The second year will involve real decisions about the long-term and will cast in steel the signs for the future. Crucially, the towns of the North East, left behind for generations by Labour, will need to see their Conservative MPs forging a path to a future that enables them with good jobs, better services, a growing economy and sound public finances to support it. The groundwork is down to the individual MPs, but the direction of the centre will be critical.

Richard Holden: The Japan trade deal, future CPTPP membership – deliverers of wages, prosperity and work to my Durham constituents.

26 Oct

Richard Holden is MP for North West Durham.

Maddisons Cafe, Front Street, Consett

In the year I was born, 1985, Consett had unemployment of 35 per cent – multiples of the average across the country.

The decline and, finally, the end of heavy industry and mining in the hands of a few, nationalised employers, poor management and poorly led, often over-politicised unions brought down the industrial North – and the demise of these industries decimated communities that had been reliant for generations on an increasingly small number of large employers.

By the time of the last election, employment in North West Durham had recovered to around the national average. A significant part of that is down to Nissan and its supply chain in the region.

This is why the agreement that Liz Truss has signed with Japan last week provides a very much-needed good news at a very difficult time, particularly for North East England but, more widely, for the whole country.

Trade deal signings come with plenty of fanfare and diplomatic niceties. But, beneath the pageantry, these agreements are a fundamental catalyst for delivering growth and investment of the type that we will need to ensure that our economy recovers from Coronavirus. This is especially the case for places in the Blue Wall, including my constituency in North West Durham.

The Prime Minister was right when he said trade can help us build back better, and make Britain a leader in modern areas like the green economy, high-tech manufacturing and technology.

The Japan deal is proof that we can strike good trade deals for Britain, despite the derision of arch-Remainers. Britain is out there and we’re winning.

It proves we can go further and faster than the EU in such areas as digital and technology, including enabling the free flow of data, a commitment to uphold the principles of net neutrality and a ban on data localisation that will prevent British businesses from having the extra cost of setting up servers in Japan.

The agreement also goes much further than the EU deal in terms of food and drink. We have secured a deal which benefits our farmers and fishermen as British meats, cheese, and fish will face lower tariffs in Japan.

It also contains over 70 geographical indications – compared to seven under the EU deal – that will mean iconic British products from all over the UK such as Melton Mowbray Pork Pies, Cornish Pasties, Welsh Lamb, Scottish Salmon, and Wensleydale Cheese receive legal protection from cheap imitations in Japan.

It helps provide critical continuity for businesses and secures many thousands of British jobs, not least those at the Nissan plant down the road, where many of my constituents’ work and which I recently visited with the International Trade Secretary.

And the Japan deal is just the start.

It is a signal not only of our capability as an independent trading nation, but also of our intent to strike great deals around the world and move well beyond the EU – particularly with Commonwealth countries and parts of the wider Pacific.

British industry, innovation and intellectual leadership shaped the world of international commerce that we recognise today. The work of Smith, Ferguson, Cobden and political giants like Robert Peel established Britain as the world’s pre-eminent trading nation, and set the stage for the creation of the international rules-based system a century later.

This Government’s ambition is to reconnect with that heritage, and re-establish Britain as a pre-eminent global trading nation that looks well beyond its own shores.

Leaving the EU gives us the chance to do that, and to lead the world in areas like the green economy (with hydrogen set to play a major role down the road in Teesside) services and technology.

The Japan deal is an important staging post in that journey. As well as driving economic growth across the country, it paves the way for us to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), one of the world’s largest free trade areas, covering 13 per cent of the global economy (and growing), comprising 11 major Pacific nations.

Membership of CPTPP is vital to our future interests and vision for Global Britain and, more broadly, we must decrease our reliance on large dictatorships whose ‘actions short of war’ – like intellectual property theft and cyber warfare – leave us under permanent attack.

By joining a high standards agreement with countries who play by the rules, we will strengthen the global consensus for free and fair trade at a time of heightened global uncertainty and rising protectionism – keeping markets open and trade flowing. Increased trade and connections with such countries is vital not only in economic terms, but also in geo-political and strategic terms.

Diversifying our trade and supply chains will also help our economy become more resilient to future shocks, and put us in a stronger position to reshape global trading rules alongside like-minded allies, including old friends such as New Zealand, Canada and Australia.

Strategically, this diversification is an exciting part of the Government’s plan to put Britain at the centre of a network of modern free trade deals, making us a hub for services, technology and cutting-edge manufacturing and green technology.

Ultimately, CPTPP membership delivers gains that would be impossible as part of the EU. And do so in a way that doesn’t impinge on our sovereignty. There is no ECJ, no harmonisation of domestic regulation and no ceding of sovereign powers.

All of this matters. Trade – and the notion of Global Britain – can seem divorced from the everyday worries and priorities of people here at home. But at its heart, trade is a powerful way to deliver the things people really care about.

It means more opportunities for local people, higher-skilled jobs, better standards of living, and happier, wealthier, more vibrant local communities in places like North West Durham, building on relationships abroad, as with Japan, to deliver local jobs so that we never again return to the bad old days of decay and decline that ultimately cost jobs and communities.

Liz Truss, who I recently spent time with on the production line at Sunderland, and the Government are working hard to secure CPTPP accession, and am pleased to see that a lot of the groundwork has been laid already – including exploring membership with all eleven countries in line with the official process.

Britain is at its best when it is an optimistic, outward-looking nation that engages with the world. CPTPP membership is the next logical step in the fulfilment of that vision.

It will show the world we are back as an independent trading nation and that we are not only a major force in global trade, but a major force for good across the globe.

Richard Holden: Access to cash. Here in County Durham, it matters to voters. Sunak should help to guarantee it.

28 Sep

Richard Holden is MP for North West Durham.

“Cash is King”. In the City of London that means liquidity, numbers on paper – but what it boils down to is freedom of action when things get tight.

For many of my constituents, it means something slightly different: it means hard currency and it means control. When I’m away in Westminster, I rarely use notes and coins. Transactions happen at the touch of a card or, more likely, at the push of a few buttons on my phone.

In the ‘real world’ of my constituency, though, cash is still very important. Recently, while I was queueing outside the Golden Fish Inn on Delves Lane to pick up fish and chip, mushy peas and some cans of pop for the team who’d been out leafleting, I remembered that the chip shop is still cash only. A quick dash across the road to get some money from the cash machine and all was well.

But for many in my community – particularly those on tight budgets, pensioners, and people trying to manage their way out of debt – cash is what they live by. It’s easy to manage because once it’s gone, it’s gone. You can take £20 to get some shopping for the next few days, or take £10 out with you to get a few pints (yes, London readers: you really can get ‘a few pints’ for £10 in Consett) and go home not having spent more than you intended to. Access to physical cash remains crucial.

There has been a big shift under Covid-19, and the Golden Fish Inn is now unusual. Shops and businesses which were ‘cash only’ are fewer and further between.

Even my Wolsingham local, the Black Lion (where during the election campaign the regulars didn’t bat an eye as the Education Secretary and I grabbed a couple of pints, picked eggs and played pool poorly one evening) a staunchly cash-only wet pub until lockdown has now got a card machine. But in North West Durham generally it’s cash-and-card, not just card. Card only is exclusive of those in the most need, as the recent transformation away from cash in Sweden has shown.

The issue of access to cash was highlighted a few weeks ago, when I got a call from a small local shop in Billy Row, a small village near Crook in the south part of my constituency. The shop is basically open from first thing until late evening, seven days a week, provides essentials and has a cash machine inside.

It also has a post office counter, open dor much more restricted hours. Post Office Ltd had got in touch with them to say that the contract with the cash machine operator had expired, and the machine would be coming out for good in a matter of months. The result, the shop keeper told me, was that it would probably end the business and the shop in the village.

Why? Because a lot of local people budget use cash, and they don’t want to only be able to withdraw it at certain times on certain days from the Post Office counter, when to check the balance means it being printed off and passed over before they know if and how much they can take out.

It also means the workers who swing by on their way by in the morning to pick up a can, paper, packet of fags and grab some cash for lunchtime wouldn’t carry on doing so. And for the pub across the green, it means a lifeline for the business (being able to deposit and do basic banking) and access to cash for customers would go too.

A short, local campaign, a bit of local media, touching base with LINK (who were superb) and a few letters to senior management all helped – and the Billy Row cash machine will stay.

But it got me talking to people about how important cash is more broadly. I discovered that in one of the least affluent parts of my constituency, the only nearby cash machine charges £2 a go. That’s a lot to get access to your own money when you’re on a tight budget, and just want to grab so cash to pay to top up your electric meter, pay your hairdresser or grab some bits and pieces from the local shop or sandwich shop. So I’m now campaigning to get a free-to-use machine there to replace it and reduce what has been called in some quarters the ‘poverty premium.’

In the months since I was elected, it’s often these day-to-day issues: cash machines, speeding, unadopted roads, street-lighting, potholes, low-level crime and anti-social behaviour that I’ve noticed my Labour predecessors didn’t try (or at least not very hard) to do anything about.

Either they felt it was beneath them (and too many Labour councillors think these issues are beneath them still), or they were too busy concentrating on planning the revolution to deal with the issues that mean so much in people’s everyday lives.

Throughout the global pandemic, the Government has stood up in an unprecedented way to support jobs and businesses across the country. My constituents know that nothing comes for free, and that the colossal short-term support that has been provided to save jobs and businesses cannot be provided in the long-term.

The broader levelling-up agenda – the defining mission of this Government – needs to be the focus, and delivering on key manifesto promised on hospitals, police numbers, nurses and doctors must be the overarching focus post-Coronavirus.

But now that the budget is delayed until spring, we have a window of opportunity for the Chancellor and his team to also step back, and target support for schemes and policies that can really deliver those smaller changes that make a difference to families and communities in the ‘Blue Wall’, and also pockets in every constituency.

Not all of it needs to cost the earth – and in some cases, need not cost anything. Access to cash is one of these issues in the broader Treasury remit, and needs to be looked at. With a bit of time, we can drill down into the long-term issues that make communities feel left behind, isolated, ignored and yes, ripped off.

By listening to them, rather than talking at them, we can avoid the fate of our Labour predecessors across the newly Blue constituencies by getting things done on the ground that make an immediate difference to people’s lives, alongside our broader ‘levelling up’ agenda.

Richard Holden: The Government must hold firm and stay on course as the Commons returns this week

31 Aug

Richard Holden is MP for North West Durham.

The Baa, Edmundbyers, Co Durham

In Edmundbyers they came en masse – well, en masse for a small village. It was the 30th or so stop out of 50 on my constituency summer surgery tour of the communities of North West Durham. Fifteen or so constituents were gathered, questions and comments at the ready, on village green.

As at other stops, some came to raise specific local issues. Some came to mention national policy. Many just came to meet their MP; put a face to the name, or to get the measure of someone they sometimes see on local telly or in the paper, who they elected last year. And, of course, many constituents just wanted to get a couple of things off their chest.

The interactions reminded me of visiting The Grey Horse, Consett for my “ask the candidate” session back in November. That “ask the candidate” was an interesting event because I came under very heavy questioning from the start.

What I learnt from the interrogation I got then, aside from a couple of Labour activists who’d been sent along, was that the toughness wasn’t really directed at me; I was just the person stood there who was taking years of pent up frustration. A deep frustration that came from years of resentment, not with me or even the Conservative Party, but with politics generally; at not having had any opportunity to speak to and question their elected representatives, or those seeking election, before.

This was rammed home time and again on my summer tour and, perhaps more tellingly still, when I attended a parish council meeting and was informed by those present, including by a Parish Councillor who’d been on for the best part of half a century, that no previous MP had ever reached out them, let alone attended one of their council meetings.

In many of the villages I visited in the last fortnight people said things like “I’ve never seen or heard of my councillor, never mind my MP in my village before.” Speaking to so many people in my constituency over the summer has reminded me of the deep sense of detachment many have felt from those they elected to represent them over many years, but also the impact an active local MP or councillor can make to people’s feeling of dislocation.

That initial reaction, as I found at The Grey Horse, is just that – a reaction. It’s the first thing that happens when presented with someone who you’re then able to ask a question of. What it isn’t is a response to you or a guide in any way to how people might vote or how they necessarily really feel.

I learnt several weeks after my grilling at The Grey Horse that people had been impressed by my clarity, honesty and the fact that I’d turned up in a heavily Labour part of my constituency without a massive entourage; that I had stood my ground and given as good, if not better, than I’d got. In fact, a good number of those present had their vote tipped in my direction on the strength of that session when compared with the other candidates they saw.

As MPs leave their constituencies at the end of the summer recess and head back to Parliament, it will serve us well to remember the difference between the initial reaction and the response, especially to those who seek to discern what the public want from polling them.

There is frustration out there at everything relating to the global Coronavirus pandemic. There is an acknowledgment that the support the Government has provided to the economy has been substantial and will need to be paid for. There is still, rightly, a lot of fear out there about the virus, but also a desire that we don’t let it unnecessarily continue to impinge on our lives more than is necessary.

The next few months in politics in the run up to Christmas and though the new year are going to be challenging. There are major issues on the table. Our future relationship with the EU negotiations, which are likely to go down to the wire. There are also multiple complex international trade negotiations with Japan, the US, Australia and others.

There’ll be a very difficult budget for our Chancellor. And a Fisheries Bill that’ll set out our post-EU fishing regime as well as other contentious legislation. These will all be set in the context of the ongoing impact of the global Coronavirus pandemic on jobs and the economy.

Internationally, the situation with China and Russia is increasingly charged. The United States faces what is set to be a potentially both bruising and close Presidential election. Even normally calm Japan, an increasingly crucial international partner and ally, is in the midst of a change, following the departure of their respected Prime Minister.

As all these things play-out, we Conservatives must not get distracted too by the initial reaction because things will be choppy. We’re in a political battle for the long-term future of our country. What’s important is the leadership we show as we look to where we want the country to be in the years ahead. In early 2016, who’d have imagined we’d be where we are now? In fact, at the general election eight months ago who’d have imagined we’d be where we are now?

What we’re crafting together in Parliament is a response to the question at the next general election: “who do you want to be governing the country for the next four or five years?” to the people in The Grey Horse in Consett and on the village green at Edmundbyers. There are many staging posts as we slowly make our way there, and through the first anniversary of the general election.

In the tumult of the next few months, the adage that a week is a long time in politics will be seen again to be all too true, but we’ve got to hold firm to delivering a very clear response to the only question that matters – one that will be answered way down the line in the ballot box.