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

29 Mar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chris Whiteside: Why Britain’s first new coal mine for decades should open in the ward I represent

23 Feb

Chris Whiteside MBE is County Councillor for the Egremont North & St Bees division of Cumbria County Council, and also Deputy chairman (political and campaigning) of North West England region of the Conservative party.

ConservativeHome readers will know of the controversy over proposals for Britain’s first new coal mine for decades, in Copeland, West Cumbria.

I am county councillor for the division which includes most of the application site.

Almost to a man and woman people in the vicinity are in favour, while almost all the opposition comes from people living many miles away. The most vocal opponents live on the far side of the deepest and longest lakes, and the highest mountain, in England.

Copeland

Copeland moved from the red to the blue column two years before the rest of the former “red wall” seats, but is typical of traditional communities in Northern England which voted Labour for generations but finally lost patience with that party while it was led by Jeremy Corbyn.

When elected to Cumbria County council, I was the first Conservative councillor in history to represent parts of my division. Voters in West Cumbria who elected Conservative councillors like me, and Conservative MPs like Trudy Harrison and “Workington Man” Mark Jenkinson, lent us their votes. We have no more automatic right to their continued support than our Labour predecessors had. Local people expect us to fight harder for them than those predecessors did.

We will.

The historical context

I was a student during the 84-85 miners’ strike. With Iain Dale, I was a ringleader of a campaign to sack a Labour student union president who misused used union resources to support the strike.

I now have more sympathy for comments made to me in 84-85 by students from traditional mining communities – like the area I now represent – than either I or those who made them would have imagined possible at the time. Particularly about affluent middle-class people from many miles away trying to take jobs from a less affluent community which they knew little about and probably couldn’t find on a map.

Woodhouse Colliery is expected to provide 518 jobs and fifty apprenticeships in a community which includes some of the worst pockets of deprivation in Britain. Spending will also boost the local economy and supply chains, on ONS multipliers providing a further estimated 380 jobs.

The facts about the mine

The proposed mine will not produce coal to burn for energy. It is specifically restricted, in the proposal itself and planning conditions, to mining coking coal to make steel, mainly for the British and European steel industries.

If you want more renewable energy, you need steel – It takes lots of steel to make a wind turbine. Britain needs steel for many other purposes too.

Currently there is no economic way to make new steel without coking coal. More than 85 per cent of scrap steel in Europe is already recycled so there’s limited scope to increase the 39 per cent of steel currently coming from recycling.

Ironically, the same Lib-Dem MP who leads opposition to the mine also calls for more steel to be made in Britain. Only a Lib-Dem could so comprehensively face both ways at once as to call for more steel to be made here while effectively working to ensure it’s made with imported coal. Most coal used by British and European steelmakers today comes from the USA or Russia.

Technology will change. There may be improvements which remove need for coal: or in carbon capture technology to use coal without damaging the environment. But the steel which this country needs in the immediate future will be made with metallurgical coal.

Better to make that steel in Britain and Europe with coal mined in an environmentally sensitive way here, than to use steel made with coal from Russia and America, often strip-mined in the Appalachians and shipped over the Atlantic.

Council votes about the mine

Councillors have voted for the mine three times: all three votes demonstrated cross-party support among Conservative, Labour, Lib-Dem and Independent councillors. Two votes were unanimous. At the third meeting, one councillor from each of the three parties went against but there was a four-to-one margin in favour including majorities of votes cast from each party.

It’s nonsense to suggest that councillors who voted for the mine hadn’t considered the environment, didn’t know what they were doing, or can’t be trusted to make the decision. Such comments are an attack on local democracy.

The council’s officers went through the proposals in exhaustive detail during a process which lasted literally for years. Each report to committee ran to hundreds of pages describing all the objections and every imaginable issue, including lengthy consideration of the impact on Britain’s carbon footprint. A hundred conditions were attached, including a time limit of 2049, the year before Britain’s target to go carbon neutral. Another condition limits greenhouse gas emissions.

Before voting on the plans, councillors listened to hours of presentations from officers and representations from objectors and supporters.

Most of those who attack the committee sound like the bloke in the pub who, because he’s read an account in a tabloid newspaper of a court case lasting weeks, is confident he knows better than the jury who sat through the whole thing.

The latest developments

When Robert Jenrick declined to “call in” the mine and said the decision should rest with Cumbria County Council, most people expected permission would swiftly be granted in line with the October decision. Instead the council is putting it back to committee for a fourth time.

The objection the council received to granting permission is public domain because the group responsible, South Lakes Action on Climate Change (SLACC) – published it on its website.

SLACC argue the decision should be revisited because, since it was made, the advisory committee on climate change published proposals for the UK’s sixth carbon budget.

That document comprises recommendations to ministers, as those who study it will quickly find. Although anyone reading the letter from SLACC’s solicitors who didn’t know better might get the impression that it’s already legally binding, it isn’t.

Fifty Conservative parliamentarians and local government leaders, including most of the MPs representing Cumbria, the mayors of Copeland and Tees Valley, and many “Northern Research Group” MPs wrote to the Leader of Cumbria County Council on 18th February supporting the mine. Their letter made a convincing case that SLACC’s arguments misrepresent the sixth carbon budget.

Conclusion

This saga raises deeply concerning issues. It shows how vulnerable Britain’s planning system can be to high profile, articulate pressure groups even if they have negligible local support.

Anyone who has a serious objection to a proposal should be entitled to have their concerns properly investigated, once. But when similar points are brought up again and again, there comes a point when we are witnessing the attempt to frustrate a democratic decision through delay.

But delay is not the best way to decide whether planning proposals should go ahead. Delay from those who can’t win a democratic vote but use every trick in the book to obstruct what they cannot defeat is the worst of all.