Selaine Saxby: The South West is a region of stark inequality

8 Sep

Selaine Saxby is MP for North Devon.

“Levelling Up” must benefit the whole country. While plenty has been written discussing “Levelling Up the North”, far less attention has been given to what it means to “Level Up the South” and in particular the South West, the region I represent. This is perhaps because, taken as a whole, the South West sits around the average on many of the indicators of success that the levelling up agenda may target when compared to the rest of the UK.

But dig a little deeper and it becomes clear that there is vast intra-regional inequality in the South West on a level barely seen elsewhere within the country. As I set out in a new report for the thinktank Onward today, this makes broad-brush regional comparisons and traditional indicators of success unhelpful in discussing the unique position of the South West, and the challenges we face in trying to grow the regional economy. A good example is employment: our unemployment is low in the South West, but this headline statistic hides the prevalence of part-time work (some 27.1 per cent of people) and the relative low pay of those at the bottom of the income spectrum, particularly the level of those on minimum wage.

Indeed, while some 90 per cent of constituencies in the South West have part-time employment above the UK average, the bottom 60 per cent of part-time workers in the income distribution in the South West earn less than their correspondingly-ranked part-time workers in every other region. This is despite the fact that workers here consistently work longer hours than in other regions like the South East. Importantly, this abundance of poorly paid, part-time work is driven by our area’s reliance on accommodation and food services, industries which were particularly hard hit during the pandemic.

In the South West, we also suffer poor digital connectivity, something I know well as Chair of the APPG on Broadband and Digital Communication, and poor physical connectivity, with few jobs within a reasonable drive of people’s homes. The number of jobs within Devon and Cornwall reachable within 60 minutes is two times below the median, and some five times below the median number of jobs within 90 minutes. With public transport, the picture is slightly better, but people in Devon and Cornwall can still reach some 37per cent fewer jobs than the median within 60 minutes on public transport, and 54 per cent below the median at 90 minutes.

This picture may be somewhat unfamiliar to those in the more urban conurbations in the South West, but to those of us in North Devon or other rural and coastal areas, often long distances from any city or motorway, these are very real concerns. With few jobs available within commuting distance, and connectivity in many places too poor to even consider a job requiring an average speed internet connection, people will continue moving away and our skills gap will widen further.

This complex picture of regional average versus intra-regional inequality is further reflected in skills. The South West is roughly average in the UK for qualifications successes, yet in Devon less than a quarter of 20-29 year-olds have a degree, despite the presence of Exeter and Plymouth. The picture is repeated in Cornwall, where the number is some 10 per cent below the national average of 35 per cent. With the South West’s over-reliance on a few low productivity and low wage sectors – retail, accommodation, and food services – this may not appear an obvious short-term problem, but left untackled it stands stark in the face of the Government’s Levelling Up ambitions.

The story of the South West is one of complex inequality that is not easily reflected in traditional interregional figures, particularly around the coast. If the Government is to truly make a difference and level up the country as a whole, the south west cannot be ignored, and indeed deserves a special focus in its own right given the unique situation within which it finds itself.

Bim Afolami: Working from home means a radical culture shift – and it’s here to stay. Here are some of the consequences.

6 Sep

Bim Afolami is MP for Hitchin & Harpenden.

Holidaying in Cornwall this summer, I was struck by how many people I met who had relocated there (or elsewhere in the South West) permanently.

They all wanted a change of pace of life, a larger home in a cheaper area, and could work from home more often than not. Speaking to my constituents over the break, in a sear in which there are a large number of commuters to central London, the overwhelming feedback is that most former daily commuters are trying to restrict themselves to working only two or three days a week in the office, and working from home as much as they can (though some firms are resisting this change). Things have changed a lot in a very short period of time.

I believe that this is a trend that we will have to contend with, because people want more choice about how and where they work. This will have some significant political consequences in the shorter term, and over the longer term may have quite profound economic consequences that we should be wary of.

First, the number of working parents who are more involved with home life is palpable. Many more professional commuter dads (and mums) are more present in the local community – people who previously only saw their local area at weekends (they left early and came back late during the week) are now much more engaged with local issues, and noticing improvements they want to make to their area.

In my experience, many of these voters are highly intelligent and informed about a wide range of issues. But they used typically to consider political issues on a national, macro level. I am willing to wager that these voters are now going to be a little more localised in their perspectives: what their local MP does, and says, will matter more and more to them.

This does not necessarily make these voters more parochial – many people value their MP if they have a high profile and speak sensibly about national issues. Yet overall, I think the impact will be more variation in voting patterns seat by seat, as local issues and the reputation of individual MPs will increasingly drive voting patterns.

Second, with less commuting, there is a certain amount of spending that is not going to return to cities, and will instead be spent in affluent commuter towns in the Home Counties. Towns such as Hitchin, Tunbridge Wells, Ascot and Sevenoaks will thrive even more, and the propensity of local people to spend more of their money locally has increased, is increasing, and will continue to do so. People feel more connected with their local areas, and they are spending less money in London and other major cities.

What will be the political impact of these changes? In the short term, I fear that they may strengthen the existing divide between affluent areas and less affluent ones. Major cities will be a small net economic loser. This will perhaps slow or even reverse the rise in property values in our cities, which will perhaps lead to more young people, and more people in lower earning professions being able to live in the centre of cities like London.

Third, the environment will continue to grow in importance as a critical issue. The voters will increasingly focus on their own experience of the green spaces near where they live and reducing local air pollution; for most voters, the environment will not primarily be considered in an abstract sense about getting to net zero or reducing carbon emissions.

New large housing developments or new major roads over green fields will become even more unpopular. This is why the Government’s policy of introducing “biodiversity net gain” is so important. It is an opportunity to show the public, particularly in the Home Counties and in other areas outside major cities, that we can actually improve the provision of nature in their local area.

When the policy starts to bear fruit, people will know that we are serious about the environment in a way that directly matters to them. I think that the implementation of this policy should be sped up, and by doing so we can demonstrate our environmental credentials faster and in a more impactful way. I wrote about this a few months ago on this site.

As a Conservative politician, I instinctively take the view that the Government’s job is to support people’s aspirations and aims for themselves, their families, and their local areas. Many millions of white collar workers prefer to work a lot more from home; especially commuters who previously used to dread their commutes, whether by train or car; and there is mounting evidence that this shift is particularly pronounced amongst women.

However, we must be careful about the impact of this over the longer term. If accountants, solicitors, marketing executives, or insurance underwriters demand to work from home in Hitchin or Oxted, why can’t the firm hire someone with similar skills on half the pay in Hyderabad or Odessa? Even in situations where having a high standard of written English is fundamental to the job, technology for real time translation services is developing extremely quickly.

We know from the 1980s and 1990s how societally and economically difficult it was to lose millions of manufacturing jobs – let us beware of inadvertently accelerating the same process for services jobs, which would have an even more widespread and profound impact. Also, as my friends and colleagues Claire Coutinho and David Johnston have argued, younger workers lose out from the shift to home working – since they frequently don’t just lack space at home but also lack connections to help them develop the employability skills and social capital they need for the workplace.

We need to support the aspirations of all those who want more control over when and where they work – and more home working is inevitably here to stay. Yet in responding to this trend, our policies also need to take the interests of everybody fully into account, and bear in mind the longer term interests of the country as a whole.

Bella Wallersteiner: As a parliamentary staffer, I’m appalled by the double standards on who has to wear a mask

25 Jul

Bella Wallersteiner works as Senior Parliamentary Assistant for a Conservative MP.

After England moved to step four of the Government’s roadmap for lifting Covid restrictions, Lindsay Hoyle, the Speaker of the House of Commons, confirmed that face masks were no longer mandatory for Members of Parliament from July 19. Instead, MPs are being “encouraged” to wear face coverings while moving around the wider Parliamentary estate.

Unfortunately, the same discretionary freedom has not been afforded to parliamentary staff for whom mask-wearing remains compulsory. Unions have been quick to point out the unfair and divisive nature of one set of rules for MPs and another set of rules for people working in the engine room of our legislature.

Before the summer recess, a significant number of Conservative MPs celebrated “Freedom Day” by ditching face masks in the House of Commons for the final Prime Minister’s Questions. And who can blame them? Many of us are desperate to say good-riddance to masks, tear down the bossy and infantilising signs which remind us to practice good hygiene (like washing our hands), remove the pointless one-way systems (we all know how to maintain social distance after 16 months of practice) and dismantle the entire edifice which has given birth to a micro-industry of excuses for disruption “due to Covid”.

And, yes, I am aware that we have all been through a lot since the pandemic started, and need to respect personal choices as not everyone is ready to return to “normal”. If wearing a mask makes some people feel safer, then that is their right and I would not belittle “brainwashed sheeple” as some freedom crusaders have done.

My concern is that once again our legislators seem to think that it is acceptable to have one rule them, another for Parliamentary staffers who must continue to wear face coverings. Until now, the decision to wear a face covering has been a legal requirement, not a matter of personal choice.

All this changed when the Prime Minister told the public that they are no longer legally required to wear masks from July 19 (in spite of Professor Chris Whitty, Chief Medical Office for England, advising that masks should be worn as a “common courtesy”). A confusing miasma of different rules in different settings means that transport operators and some shops have decided to make face coverings mandatory which could bring them into conflict with equality legislation.

The Government has succeeded in making the face covering a daily battle ground between libertarians and those who believe that it is irresponsible to dispense with all protection at a time when nearly 50,000 people a day are testing positive for Coronavirus.

I have stopped wearing my mask in virtually every setting – but as a parliamentary staffer I will be required to carry on wearing one at work. This is just another example of how Covid “guidance” has broken down and become illogical. The Government needs to make up its mind – wearing a face mask should be either mandatory or discretionary, it cannot be both.

I drew attention to this contradiction on social media and Steve Baker, MP for High Wycombe, wrote to the Speaker about this blatant discrepancy in the rules. The Speaker confirmed the House of Commons’ position which is that the Speaker has “no power to prevent democratically elected members from coming on to the estate or in to the chamber when the House is sitting. As such, there is no meaningful way to enforce a requirement on members to wear a face covering.” Sadly, he would not be drawn on the issue of Parliamentary staff being required to wear face coverings at work. In solidarity with staffers, Baker will continue to wear a face mask around Parliament.

The next battleground in the fight for freedom and equality will be the so-called “vaccine passports” for domestic events. The Speaker has rejected the use of Covid passports for MPs around Parliament, but has made no mention of staffers. Vaccination passports will discriminate against people based on decisions they have freely made and threatens the foundations of our liberal society. I have been vaccinated against Covid-19, a personal choice, but I would never stigmatise anyone who is unable to be vaccinated to or chooses not to be vaccinated.

But rules are there to be interpreted in subjective ways as we saw when foreign VIPs were exempted from the burden of travel quarantine to attend the Euro 2020 finals. Who can forget the scenes from the G7 gathering in Cornwall where any pretence of following social distancing rules were dropped quicker than you can say “Build Back Better”.

Fortunately, there are MPs willing to stand up to this discrimination and unfairness. Rumours of a vaccine passport being a condition of entry for the annual Conservative Party Conference in Manchester in October have led to a number of Conservative MPs saying they will boycott the event. I have already confirmed publicly I will not attend conference if such discriminatory measures are in place.

The Government so far has presented the pandemic as an “all in it together” chapter of national solidarity. However, this has led to people being branded selfish for visiting family members living overseas or simply going abroad with their families for a summer break after 16 months of self-incarceration. This sort of intolerance is harming the UK’s reputation for nurturing a culture of individualism and self-regulation.

Ministers have enjoyed wide public support even from those horrified by a level of authoritarianism which has not been seen in this country since the time of Oliver Cromwell. It has been borne on the belief that it would be temporary and, once the vaccines were rolled out, dispensed with forever.

But now an “us vs them” dynamic has emerged which is threatening to upset public trust and Parliament is just a microcosm of this phenomenon.

Credibility and honesty will be critical in completing the immense effort we have all undertaken in response to this crisis. Dominic Cummings has shown us what happens to a government’s health message when those responsible for it fail to adhere to their own rules. We have stopped people from leaving their homes and seeing their dying loved ones in the name of being “all in this together”. The Government must restore confidence by pressing ahead with releasing all lockdown restrictions for everyone.

Freedom Day was supposed to be the moment when the country would be liberated from the tyranny of Covid. Instead, we are in danger of entering a two-tiered Orwellian society where “all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.”

Iain Dale: Starmer is right to appoint one of Blair’s former advisers. But if other MPs can’t see that, Labour are doomed forever.

25 Jun

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and the For the Many podcast with Jacqui Smith.

The RT-watching conspiracy theory creating nutters have been in full flow this week. The fact that journalists were on board HMS defender means, according to them, that the Royal Navy deliberately provoked the Russians into firing warning shots and dropping bombs in the path of the ship to warn it to keep out of Russian waters.

It never ceases to amaze me how and why these disgusting individuals always take the side of any country – usually Russia – which gives a totally different version of events to our own. There’s a word for people like them.

On one of our Cross Question shows we invited Rivkah Brown from Novara Media onto the panel. She started asserting that the Americans see Britain as a sad little country that they no longer take any notice of, and Biden had made that clear at the G7 in Cornwall.

It was total bollocks of course and he never said any such thing, or even intimated it. At that point I’m afraid I lost my presenter impartiality and asked: “Where do you get this rubbish from?”

Of course whenever you ask them to justify themselves and provide some evidence they can never do so, so all she did was splutter. Why is it that the Left still don’t comprehend that it’s attitudes like this that help them continue to lose elections. The British people don’t like it and never will.

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The appointment of Matthew Doyle as Sir Keir Starmer’s new Director of Communications has sent the Left into apoplexy. Why? Because he’s close to Tony Blair. Yes, the man who led Labour to three election victories.

The word Blair is considered a total anathema to anyone further left that Jess Phillips – i.e. most of the Labour Party. They cannot see any good that he did in 10 years as Prime Minister. And again, until they decide to revise that opinion they will keep on losing.

The trouble is, a weak opposition and a weak Labour Party – and that’s what we have at the moment – enable the Government to get away with things that ordinarily they shouldn’t.

I’ve described the current cabinet as the weakest in my lifetime, with very few transformational figures sitting round the cabinet table. But look down the list of Labour Shadow Cabinet members and it’s even worse.

Most of them are barely names in their own households, let alone known among voters. How many of them are capable of developing the kind of sensible but radical policy agenda that they will need to put to the electorate in less than two years time – yes, I mean May 2023.

Very few. It’s all rather depressing.

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And then we come to the Liberal Democrats who are understandably triumphant in the wake of their victory in the Chesham & Amersham by-election. Wouldn’t you be, if you were part of the “yellow peril”?

I’ll admit, like most of the punditerati class I didn’t see it coming. It’s a long time since the Lib Dems won this type of by-election, and they did it very skilfully, even without the guidance of Lord Rennard.

They concentrated on two issues – HS2 and planning laws – and did them to death in their literature on the doorstep. And it worked for them, even though they were campaigning against policies they actually support. No change there then.

One swallow does not a summer make, though. They got one per cent in the Hartlepool by-election and I doubt they’ll do an awful lot better in Batley & Spen. The long-term consequences of this by-election, if there is one, will be to entrench the view among Lib Dem strategists that they should regard the Tories as their prime enemy or competition, and squeeze the Labour vote in southern, eastern and south western constituencies.

But they need to do it in a way which doesn’t frighten off moderate Tories who, for whatever reason, have tired of Boris Johnson.

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I’ve been writing this column for a decade or more now. That amounts to more than 500 diaries. I’m sorry to say that this week’s column will be my last. All good things come to an end, and I think now is the time to end it.

It’s my decision to do so, and I am also giving up my weekly media review column on Reaction. Why? Well, I’ve just signed a contract for another book and I have to deliver the manuscript by January 31 2022, and frankly there are only so many hours in the day. I need to commit much more time to the book and this frees up two mornings a week.

It’s important for me to be open about that because I don’t want anyone to think there’s been any falling out. ConHome is a brilliant site, led by the excellent Paul Goodman and Mark Wallace. I’d like to thank Paul in particular for allowing me to write the column for so long and for being so supportive. And I’d like to thank you all for reading my words each week. I know that from time to time, I’ve tested your patience.

I’ve said to Paul I’ll happily contribute the occasional column or chair conference events, and I’d like to continue to support the work of ConHome where I can.

So as someone once said, that’s it. The end. Goodbye.

Iain Dale: Very little shocks me. But Cummings’ text message reveal was truly disgusting and morally bankrupt.

18 Jun

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and the For the Many podcast with Jacqui Smith.

Negotiating a deal with the DUP and Sinn Féin can’t be anyone’s idea of a dream job, but Brandon Lewis, the Northern Ireland Secretary has enabled it to happen in record time. I’ve no idea how he did it, given the personalities involved, but however it happened, it surely has to be welcomed by everyone across the political spectrum, both in Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. Let’s hope it lasts.

However, with the resignation of Edwin Poots as leader of the DUP after only three weeks last night, it’s entirely possible that the new First Minister, Paul Givan – an ally of Poots – might feel duty bound to fall on his sword too. My instinct is that Sir Jeffrey Donaldson is likely to be the next DUP leader and he’s on record saying that he thinks the same person should hold both posts.

The elections to Stormont next year are certainly going to be interesting. Between now and then the whole sorry situation with the Northern Ireland Protocol has to be sorted. Surely a piece of cake for a man who negotiated a power sharing agreement! Sorry, Brandon.

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Anyone who has worked in politics will have some fairly fruity exchanges in historic texts on their mobile phone. I certainly have built up a whole library over the years, although it has to be said mine tend to be in emails rather than texts. My former colleagues at Biteback would regularly suggest we published a volume of my “special emails”. I well remember one to Michael Winner, where I basically told him never to speak to any of my staff again, after he called our young female PR assistant a “c***” on the phone.

One suspects he would have got on well with Dominic Cummings. Very little shocks me, but to reveal text exchanges with the Prime Minister like he has is truly disgusting. Morally it’s bankrupt, ethically it stinks. You can argue a public interest point all you like, but it is still wrong. If ministers can’t communicate confidentially with their advisers, how can they possibly do their jobs properly?

In the end, if Cummings thought the Prime Minister was so useless, why did he stay in his job? I’m sure there are many valid things Cummings has to say, but actions like this undermines any remaining credibility he enjoys. Mind you, he undermined himself earlier this week when he informed us we would have to pay to his Substack account (or should that be Shelfstack?) if we wanted the full unvarnished details of his thoughts on this, that and everything. Again, morally bankrupt.

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From a PR and organisational viewpoint the G7 was an unalloyed success. The pictures that emerged from it were simply outstanding. Whoever had the idea to hold the summit in Cornwall, and whoever did the “advance” work deserves a medal at the very least. The backdrops to virtually every event were breathtaking, and will have done the Cornish tourism industry a huge amount of good in the medium term.

Substantively, I’m not sure the summit achieved a huge amount behind the things which had been agreed in advance. The media were desperate to ramp up a row over the Northern Ireland Protocol, and Macron did his best to help them, but it never really materialised. Joe Biden showed he was the adult in the room by not playing ball, and avoided playing up to his voters of Irish descent in the US.

The Irish lobby in Congress is something to behold and you have to filter anything the American government says on Ireland through that prism. The Irish embassy in Washington DC is one of the most powerful influences on US administrations of both colours. Rhetoric on Ireland on Capitol Hill doesn’t always match the reality of the US government’s position.

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The issue of vaccines in care homes is one that has gradually risen in prominence up the news agenda, and rightly so. I cannot for the life of me understand how a care professional would not take a vaccine which by definition reduces the risk for the people they care for of getting Covid or dying from it.

Vaccines can never be 100 per cent effective, so no one can ever be completely protected. In a phone-in on Wednesday I spoke to a care home owner in Bournemouth who said that 60 per cent of her staff hadn’t had the vaccine and she wasn’t remotely bothered. Astonishing. She said proper PPE was far more important and it wasn’t up to her to persuade her staff to take a vaccine, it was up to the Government.

I’m afraid she got the rough edge of my tongue. For me it comes down to something very simple. If I had a close relative in a care home, I would not want them being cared for by someone who hadn’t been vaccinated. I don’t think that’s unreasonable. And for that reason I support mandatory vaccinations for care home workers.

Chris Skidmore: If “Global Britain” wants to succeed, it must increase its spending on innovation and research

11 Jun

Chris Skidmore was Universities Minister twice between 2018-2020, and is Co-Chair of the All Party Group on Universities and Chair of the Res Publica Lifelong Education Commission. He is MP for Kingswood.

Boris Johnson knows that narratives matter. Levelling up, taking back control, building back better may seem slogans, but they point to a vision of a post-Brexit Britain that is free to renew itself for the 21st century.

Central to that vision is also the UK as a “global science superpower”, a phrase first coined by the Prime Minister in 2019, yet which now has more than a ring of truth in its utterance when we look at the UK’s commitment to investing in research to uncover a Covid vaccine, and as a result to continue to lead the world in its vaccination programme.

It’s clear from his arrival for this weekend’s G7 meeting in Cornwall that the vision of Britain as a global centre for science and technology remains undimmed. The Prime Minister chose to showcase the UK’s future horizontal space launch site at Newquay on his arrival in Cornwall— made possible thanks to a multi-million pound government investment in partnership with Virgin Orbit, in a few years’ time, space launch into low earth orbit will be a reality, and along with vertical launch sites at Sutherland and the Shetlands, promises to give the UK the first launch base in Europe.

Yet when it comes to overall spending on science, research and innovation, if we look at the other countries attending the G7, and compare the UK’s current investment, both in terms of total investment but also as a proportion of GDP, we need lift off soon.

Currently the UK spends around 1.7 per cent of its GDP on R&D. Yet the US and China are heading towards three per cent GDP, Japan spends 3.2 per cent, Germany is planning to reach four per cent. Only Italy and Canada are behind the UK in terms of R&D investment in the G7. Outside of this group, other countries are pushing even faster still. South Korea is already at 4.5 per cent and Israel higher still at 4.9 per cent.

Of course the Government has committed to spend 2.4 per cent GDP by 2027 on R&D — what was the OECD average back in 2017 — indeed the recent government commitment to double public R&D spending to £22 billion by 2024/25 has certainly given the commitment a boost. Yet by the time we reach July 13 in a few weeks time, 2027 is just 2,000 days away. Four years have so far past, with R&D activity having only risen around 0.2 per cent of GDP in this period. With five and a half years to go, we cannot afford to continue on the same trajectory. Even the OECD average that was the benchmark for the 2.4 per cent strategy has risen to probably over 2.6 per cent.

We only need to look ahead at the pack pulling ahead in this global technological race. Joe Biden has already placed research and innovation at the centre of his “building back better” strategy. In March 2021, The White House announced that as a part of its American Jobs Plan, it was requesting Congress to authorise $180 billion in federal investment designed to advance US leadership in critical technologies and American research.

It’s clear why R&D is the industry of choice. According to a 2020 report by Breakthrough Energy on the Impacts of Federal R&D Investment on the US Economy, if the federal government were to increase its investment into R&D to at least one per cent of GDP by 2030, then that investment would support 3.4 million jobs. Additionally, this continued investment would be projected to add $478 billion in activity to the American economy with a projected $81 billion in tax revenue windfall.

As the United States seeks to increase its investment into innovations driven by R&D, the German government has also pledged to both increase its tax allowance for companies investing in research, but also increase its central funding to the tune of €2.5 billion. This investment is specifically designed to target funding for electricity mobility, battery cell production and safe charging infrastructure. Additionally, the German government has announced that it was looking to provide a €1 billion bonus programme targeting “forward-thinking” manufacturers and suppliers, specifically in the automotive industry. In 2018 alone, the German government invested the staggering sum of €105 billion into R&D.

Elsewhere, China also announced a serious increase in R&D investment during the Fourth Plenary Session of the 13th National People’s Congress in March 2021. The announcement that it will be increasing investment in R&D by more than seven per cent every year over this Five-Year Plan, with expenditure on basic research rising by 10.6 per cent in 2021 alone. These investments are yet another signal that China is seeking to dramatically increase its domestic technologies such as for example artificial intelligence, quantum information, semiconductors, biotechnology and deep space capabilities, most of which are currently dependent on international suppliers.

In the wake of the pandemic, with many economies and sectors seeking to innovate and change their working practices, to reform their business, now is the time to double down on R&D investment, especially when we recognise where the rest of the world is heading. Even I have come to doubt whether 2.4 per cent, the OECD average at the present time, will be sufficient for the scale of change that is coming in the 2020s and into the 2030s.

The success of “Global Britain” now depends on matching countries that have transformed their economies towards innovation and research. I would now go further— and suggest if we wish to keep up with our G7 colleagues, the forthcoming Innovation Strategy should set a definite timetable for three per cent, and beyond to 3.5 per cent of GDP being spent on R&D. To fail to achieve this in contrast to the other major world economies be setting ourselves up to fail.

Derek Thomas: With the eyes of the world on Cornwall, the Government must think again on aid cuts

4 Jun

Derek Thomas is MP for St Ives.

We are experiencing a global pandemic, not just a national emergency. When the UK hosts the G7, in my Cornwall constituency next month, it will be a key turning point in history.

With the major economies of the world starting to get on top of the virus through effective vaccine roll-outs, we will be looking to kickstart the global economic recovery and to build back better from interconnected the crises.

The triple emergency faced by the world is one where climate, Covid and inequality require a joined-up response that can only rise to these challenges if countries agree to work together. Carbis Bay should witness the rebirth of multilateralism and a re-establishing of the global rules-based system.

Thankfully, the world already has a plan: the 17 global goals of sustainable development which the UK backed at the UN. But the pandemic has pushed global progress backwards in 2020, with the World Bank estimating that at least 150 million people have been pushed back into poverty.

Vaccine equity is now a crucial priority. And global vaccine distribution is in our national interest: otherwise new variants of the disease will keep on breaching our defences.

Simply pledging our surplus vaccine doses to the World Health Organisation’s Covax facility will not make us safe. As Unicef UK remind us: “vaccines can’t distribute themselves.” Developing countries need clinics, with healthcare staff, cold chain logistics, fridges, trucks, and warehouses.

Aid invested now represents excellent value for money. The GAVI alliance, which will immunise 300 million children and save eight million lives, has been evaluated to provide a return on investment of $54 for every $1 spent.

The business case from the World Bank shows that if every girl on earth had 12 years of quality education, women’s earnings would rise by $30 trillion. Yet if we fail to get girls back into school after they have been closed by Covid-19, the world will see a $10 trillion loss in economic output. And the funding of modern methods of contraception allow women to avoid unplanned pregnancies and establish their economic independence.

That is why I am opposed to the Government breaking the promise we made in our manifesto to stand by the 0.7 per cent aid commitment. As the Prime Minister who met that target the last time the UK hosted the G7, David Cameron, said: “this is a promise we don’t need to break.”

The UK is the only G7 country cutting aid. Britain remains the fifth-largest economy on earth, and yet the Government have chosen this moment to make the largest cut in aid, not just in our nation’s history, but the largest cut in aid by any country at any point in history.

When we adopted the Global Goals in 2015, we said that we would commit to ruling out poverty, ending hunger, providing good health and wellbeing, ensuring access to education, delivering gender equality, providing clean water and sanitation, and giving greater access to decent work and economic growth. Those are just seven of the 17 goals and they all offer real hope, opportunity and improved life chances for women and girls around the world.

Our international aid has led the war on forced labour among migrant women and started to crack down on human trafficking. Foreign aid has led to African women finding a market for their camels’ milk and been essential in the fight to end violence against women and girls in Lebanon. British money is critical in addressing the displacement of women due to conflict, climate change and, more recently, the Covid pandemic.

Charities and civil society have come together to form a new coalition called “Crack the Crises”. They are calling on the Government to demonstrate leadership on the global stage. The coalition unites nature, development, climate change and social justice groups with a shared strategy: urging a just and green recovery. Members range from 100-year-old global organisations to local start-ups, and across the country, thousands of people are taking part in the #WaveOfHope to signify their support. Global leaders should hear their calls.

Carbis Bay will not be the last word but the opening chapter, with world leaders gathering again in the autumn in Glasgow for COP26. If the UK, as hosts, are to meet the historic magnitude of the demands of these global challenges, we must lead by example: setting ambitious climate targets and reversing cuts to aid. The eyes of the world are upon us. We must rise to the occasion.

Some key contests will show if the “red wall” has been truly demolished

26 Mar

Those who have been carefully studying the earlier instalments of local election analysis, will have noted that Labour will find it easier to make gains on seats last contested in 2017 (when they did very badly) than those where the previous elections were in 2016 (when Labour and the Conservatives were broadly neck and neck.) The county council elections come under the first category. The Police and Crime Commissioner elections, and those for district councils, come under the second. That leaves us with the single tier councils, unitary authorities, and the metropolitan boroughs – these are the councils destined to be the dominant model for local government in the coming years.

Here it is difficult to give a sweeping prediction. First of all, because in some of them only a third of seats are up for elections. Secondly, because while most were last contested in 2016 – and thus will be challenging for Labour to improve upon – some are from 2017, so it would be hard for Labour to do any worse.

Demographic change adds to the uncertainty. Trafford is traditionally regarded as an important battleground between Labour and the Conservatives. Yet there is quite a substantial Labour lead there at present – 36 Labour councillors to 20 for the Conservatives. With only third of councillors up for election, the scope for dramatic change is limited. As the seats were last contested in 2016 there should be scope for Conservative gains. Trafford has become more middle class but not small business owners and the sort of middle class voter inclined to back the Tories. Instead, they are the secretariat middle class – university researchers, public sector administrators, and so forth – a category more likely to have socialist allegiances.

Brighter prospects for the Conservatives may be found in Dudley. Labour and the Conservatives have 36 seats each. Only a third of seats are being contested – and there are a couple of independents. But given this was last contested in 2016 it would be disappointing if the Conservatives did not gain overall control. Walsall Council is already narrowly in Conservative hands – the expectation will be to see the majority increased.

Plymouth may be tricky for the Conservatives due to local splits. The dispute, which has resulted in some councillors elected as Conservatives now sitting as independents, seems to concern speed limits. Labour hold a narrow lead on the Council at present and a third of the seats are up for election. They were last contested in 2016 – which should have given the Conservatives an opportunity. The close of nominations on April 8th may give a sense of the consequences of the infighting in terms of independent candidates standing.

Due to the extraordinary General Elections results in December 2019, we have some local authorities with Conservative MPs but no Conservative councillors. How effective have these new Conservative MPs been at building up a campaigning machine and talent spotting good council candidates? The “red wall” has already been breached. Will it now be demolished? Lord Hayward, the Conservative peer and elections expert, says:

“The 2017 local elections saw the Labour bastion Northumberland fall. Labour also lost a large number of seats in Durham – mostly to independents. Both those councils have all their councillors up for election again. So the test for Labour will be whether they can recover or whether the trend from the General election is confirmed. 

“Sheffield may be difficult for Labour. In some places, they will be worried about the Green Party and the Lib Dems. But we also have wards in Sheffield, on the north western fringe, with a Conservative MP – Miriam Cates the MP for Penistone and Stocksbridge. So could we see the first Conservative councillors in Sheffield for a long time?

“Sandwell has Conservative MPs but no Conservative councillors. Rotherham has no Conservative councillors but part of it is represented by Alexander Stafford the MP for Rother Valley. Doncaster does already have a small number of Conservative councillors. Will they have more given that there is now Nick Fletcher as the Conservative MP for Don Valley?”

“The greatest interest will be in Black Country and South Yorkshire. These are places that would have be ignored in previous local elections due to being so monolithically Labour.”

Milton Keynes will be worth looking out for, as it is pretty evenly divided between the Conservatives, Labour, and the Lib Dems. Elsewhere the Lib Dems start from a generally weak position. They will be making an effort in Wokingham where they have made some quiet progress in the past.

One caveat to all the elections covered this week. I have tried to look at the state of the parties in current opinion polls as a clue to how they might perform, relative to the actual votes cast in the local elections of four and five years ago. But in local elections older people are more likely to vote. The Conservatives already had a big lead among older voters in 2016 and 2017. But there has been some polling suggesting that the Conservatives relative advantage in that group compared to the population generally has increased. That may be part of a continuing trend. Or it may be that the “vaccination bounce” has a greater impact among the old. It might give the Conservatives a bit of an extra edge – especially in places like Cornwall with a significant number of retired people.

Next week I will consider some of high profile contests for directly elected Mayors.

Andrew Mitchell and Douglas Alexander: It’s time to ‘crack the crises’ on Covid, injustice and climate change at this year’s G7

1 Feb

Andrew Mitchell MP and Douglas Alexander are both former development secretaries (Mitchell: 2010-12, in David Cameron’s cabinet. Alexander: 2007-10, in Gordon Brown’s).

When President Biden comes to Britain it’s up to the Prime Minister to make sure he sees a country he can do business with. As the new president told the world in his inauguration address: any one of the “cascading crises” that the world now faces “would be enough to challenge us in profound ways. But the fact that we face them all at once, presents this nation with the gravest of responsibilities.”

Yet we cannot, and should not, expect America to save the world. As the 2021 President of the G7, Boris Johnson will have to do more, in the words of a new campaign launching today, to “crack the crises” and bring all the other countries behind a shared plan to tackle Covid, injustice and climate change.

Without global leadership, the G7 has been paralysed since 2018. With Donald Trump signing up to a communique at the end of the Vancouver summit only to trash the agreement on Twitter on the flight back to Washington, the writing was on the wall. The following G7 summit in Biarritz didn’t even have a communique for leaders to sign up to, and the one due in Camp David was cancelled by the host: Trump.

So when Biden comes to Britain, and the eyes of the world alight on Carbis Bay in Cornwall in June, the stakes could not be higher. With half of the economies of the world in recession and the IMF describing the economic impact of Covid as the worst since the Great Depression of the 1930s, global growth this year will inevitably be driven by China and India. We need both to kick-start the global economy in the same way the G20 London Summit did in 2009 and tackle global poverty as the UK did by meeting the UN’s 0.7 per cent aid commitment at the G7 summit in Lough Erne in 2013.

With the World Bank predicting that 150 million people have been pushed back into poverty since the start of the crisis and will be living on less than £1.50 per day, now is not the time to cut aid and turn our backs to the world. The secondary impacts of Covid are hitting the poorest hardest, both at home and abroad. The role of leadership is to put first those who have fallen furthest behind.

It isn’t hard to see what is driving this new spirit of solidarity. From applauding NHS frontline workers while rejecting anti-vax disinformation and vaccine nationalism, to standing for racial justice and demanding a just transition to net zero, we have all had a year where we have had to act local but also think global. For this was the year that Britain answered the call of a 23-year-old footballer and a 100-year-old veteran. Amid the tragedy and the horror, of both the pandemic and the recession, Britain has found a new hope.

This new hope has brought together organisations representing more than 10 million people across the UK, uniting to demand concerted action on Covid, climate change and help for struggling communities at home and abroad. The new coalition, “Crack the Crises”, is calling on the UK government to demonstrate leadership on the global stage. The coalition unites nature, development, climate change and UK social justice groups with a shared strategy: urging a just and green recovery. Members range from 100-year-old global organisations to local start-ups.

Of the crises which Biden listed in his inaugural address, the one we have the most optimism about is “America’s role in the world.” The others: “a raging virus. Growing inequality. The sting of systemic racism. A climate in crisis,” will require a global response. His call to the citizens of his own country is a rallying call to the citizens of every country: “Will we rise to this occasion? Will we meet our obligations and pass along a new and better world for our children?”

The answer starts in Carbis Bay, in Cornwall, England. But it also has to run through the COP climate summit, in Glasgow, Scotland. The eyes of the world are on the United Kingdom and the only way to Crack the Crises is with a unity of purpose which we must rediscover again.