Simon Kaye: The scale of the community and voluntary response to the pandemic was a wake up

29 Jul

Simon Kaye is a Senior Policy Researcher at the New Local Government Network.

We live – as we’re constantly told – in turbulent times.

Even before the arrival of a new viral pandemic and months of self-induced economic coma, changes were clearly on the horizon. Politically polarised culture war, drastic and unpredicted shake-ups of the UK’s constitutional status quo, the slowly-boiling-frog feeling of technological progress, environmental degradation, collapsing faith in democratic institutions, and ever-growing, ever-more-complex demands on public services.

But this turbulence also creates a moment of radical possibility.

The COVID-19 emergency has highlighted a structurally different way of approaching the most serious challenges we face. The thousands of mutual aid groups that have emerged in the last few months – the subject of our new report at NLGN – reflect a general rise in neighbourliness, community cohesion, and attachment to place.

While this is an effect visible almost everywhere affected by the pandemic, there is evidence to suggest that Britain has experienced this effect in a more pronounced way than everywhere else. Perhaps this is because we are measuring from such a low starting-point. The UK is, by many measures, one of the most centralised countries in the world. This was never more visible than in the systematic failure of the centre to respond to the pandemic – with over-centralisation ruining our efforts to set up test-and-trace systems, create useful tracking apps, and work effectively with facilities and resources not under direct government control.

While the current government seems to be alive to the pressing need for modernisation and streamlining at the crowded centre of Whitehall, there had been very little interest in a meaningful devolution and decentralisation agenda which could genuinely ‘level-up’ regional economies and give people a real sense of ‘taking back control’.

Little interest, that is, until now. The scale of the community and voluntary response to the pandemic may have just about served as the wake up call that the centre needs. The Prime Minister has called for new proposals to support and sustain the community response that we have seen as the country turns toward recovery.

There are lessons aplenty in our report on the new mutual aid groups, where thousands of people spontaneously responded to the crisis by supporting their shielding and vulnerable neighbours, sometimes by meeting essential needs for food and medicine, and at other times in a surprisingly sophisticated way that addressed welfare issues too. Our research revealed an extraordinary diversity of approaches and experiences. In many places mutual aid was the only thing that made the government’s ‘shielding’ policy at all workable.

Mutual aid groups show an appetite for self-governance and localism that many thought to be extinct in the UK. They represent a way for people to invest time in the places they live and the people they live near, and improve their lives independently of the state. Many of the groups we spoke to expressed a desire to sustain their newfound local cohesion and spirit of friendly collaboration after the end of the crisis.

Our research shows that the success of these groups often hinged on the special circumstances of the current emergency. This means that, for community action of this sort to continue, ways must be found to create space for the flourishing of flexible, autonomous, and citizen-driven activity at the neighbourhood level.

So how can this be done?

First – embrace the role of local government. In the best cases we observed, councils offered expertise, resources and spaces for mutual aid groups to thrive. They also stood out of the way and allowed these groups the freedom to respond quickly and on their own terms. We suggest that councils work to build up the skills, tools, and culture they need to help facilitate and empower community groups in the future. Of course, it should go without saying that councils will need to be properly resourced if they are to do this important work.

Second, and just as importantly, create the time for people to be better neighbours.

In many places the conditions for these groups’ strength was created by the free time of working-age people who were furloughed or otherwise found they had little work to do. We think it would be appropriate to incentivise employers to allow more free and flexible time for employees – perhaps specifically earmarked for community engagement – so they can spend that time on being good neighbours. Normalising a shorter and more flexible working week, introducing new bank holidays, and increasing statutory holiday time could all help, too.

We don’t long for permanent economic lockdown, of course, but the mutual aid phenomenon does demonstrate that many people will use their free time in extraordinarily productive and pro-social ways. As the economy fires up again, this free time is likely to evaporate – but the needs that the mutual aid groups are meeting will not fade nearly as fast.

Such measures would help begin the work of building up the resilience and fortitude of our communities, and even help replace dependence on top-down systems with meaningful localism and autonomy. We owe it to ourselves to find a very different starting-point before the next big challenge arrives.

Simon Kaye: The scale of the community and voluntary response to the pandemic was a wake up

29 Jul

Simon Kaye is a Senior Policy Researcher at the New Local Government Network.

We live – as we’re constantly told – in turbulent times.

Even before the arrival of a new viral pandemic and months of self-induced economic coma, changes were clearly on the horizon. Politically polarised culture war, drastic and unpredicted shake-ups of the UK’s constitutional status quo, the slowly-boiling-frog feeling of technological progress, environmental degradation, collapsing faith in democratic institutions, and ever-growing, ever-more-complex demands on public services.

But this turbulence also creates a moment of radical possibility.

The COVID-19 emergency has highlighted a structurally different way of approaching the most serious challenges we face. The thousands of mutual aid groups that have emerged in the last few months – the subject of our new report at NLGN – reflect a general rise in neighbourliness, community cohesion, and attachment to place.

While this is an effect visible almost everywhere affected by the pandemic, there is evidence to suggest that Britain has experienced this effect in a more pronounced way than everywhere else. Perhaps this is because we are measuring from such a low starting-point. The UK is, by many measures, one of the most centralised countries in the world. This was never more visible than in the systematic failure of the centre to respond to the pandemic – with over-centralisation ruining our efforts to set up test-and-trace systems, create useful tracking apps, and work effectively with facilities and resources not under direct government control.

While the current government seems to be alive to the pressing need for modernisation and streamlining at the crowded centre of Whitehall, there had been very little interest in a meaningful devolution and decentralisation agenda which could genuinely ‘level-up’ regional economies and give people a real sense of ‘taking back control’.

Little interest, that is, until now. The scale of the community and voluntary response to the pandemic may have just about served as the wake up call that the centre needs. The Prime Minister has called for new proposals to support and sustain the community response that we have seen as the country turns toward recovery.

There are lessons aplenty in our report on the new mutual aid groups, where thousands of people spontaneously responded to the crisis by supporting their shielding and vulnerable neighbours, sometimes by meeting essential needs for food and medicine, and at other times in a surprisingly sophisticated way that addressed welfare issues too. Our research revealed an extraordinary diversity of approaches and experiences. In many places mutual aid was the only thing that made the government’s ‘shielding’ policy at all workable.

Mutual aid groups show an appetite for self-governance and localism that many thought to be extinct in the UK. They represent a way for people to invest time in the places they live and the people they live near, and improve their lives independently of the state. Many of the groups we spoke to expressed a desire to sustain their newfound local cohesion and spirit of friendly collaboration after the end of the crisis.

Our research shows that the success of these groups often hinged on the special circumstances of the current emergency. This means that, for community action of this sort to continue, ways must be found to create space for the flourishing of flexible, autonomous, and citizen-driven activity at the neighbourhood level.

So how can this be done?

First – embrace the role of local government. In the best cases we observed, councils offered expertise, resources and spaces for mutual aid groups to thrive. They also stood out of the way and allowed these groups the freedom to respond quickly and on their own terms. We suggest that councils work to build up the skills, tools, and culture they need to help facilitate and empower community groups in the future. Of course, it should go without saying that councils will need to be properly resourced if they are to do this important work.

Second, and just as importantly, create the time for people to be better neighbours.

In many places the conditions for these groups’ strength was created by the free time of working-age people who were furloughed or otherwise found they had little work to do. We think it would be appropriate to incentivise employers to allow more free and flexible time for employees – perhaps specifically earmarked for community engagement – so they can spend that time on being good neighbours. Normalising a shorter and more flexible working week, introducing new bank holidays, and increasing statutory holiday time could all help, too.

We don’t long for permanent economic lockdown, of course, but the mutual aid phenomenon does demonstrate that many people will use their free time in extraordinarily productive and pro-social ways. As the economy fires up again, this free time is likely to evaporate – but the needs that the mutual aid groups are meeting will not fade nearly as fast.

Such measures would help begin the work of building up the resilience and fortitude of our communities, and even help replace dependence on top-down systems with meaningful localism and autonomy. We owe it to ourselves to find a very different starting-point before the next big challenge arrives.

The Government’s speedy response to Spain reflects what happened in the initial stages of the Coronavirus outbreak

28 Jul

Over the weekend there was enormous uproar about the Government’s decision to apply a 14-day quarantine rule to tourists returning from Spain. It did this at extremely short notice, throwing into disarray the holiday plans of approximately 1.8 million people, many of whom also had the added complication of worrying about their workplace rights.

The decision to impose the rule was instigated by Chris Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer, who warned that rising cases in Spain were “statistically significant”, having risen by 6,355 since Friday. Thus the Government felt compelled to act quickly.

On Sophy Ridge on Sunday, Dominic Raab defended the move, saying that a “real time response” was right, and anything else would “muddy the waters”.

This has, of course, not gone down well in Spain, whose tourism industry is highly contingent upon an influx of Brits. Pedro Sánchez, its prime minister, criticised the restrictions, saying that “64.5 per cent of the new cases registered are in two territories” and that in most of the country the prevalence of Covid-10 was “very much inferior to the numbers registered in the United Kingdom”.

Indeed, it is mainly Catalonia in the north-east and nearby Aragón that have seen spikes in infections. Either way, the rate of the infection for the country now stands at 35.1 cases per 100,000, compared to the UK which stands at 14.7 (according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control), hence the newfound concern.

It’s not only the Spanish prime minister who is unhappy about the news, but the travel industry too, which will struggle immensely as a result of the uncertainty it creates.

It has already been reported that large numbers of trips to France, Italy and Greece have since been cancelled, a trend which is likely to grow after Boris Johnson warned today of a second wave across Europe.

The decision could inadvertently exacerbate social inequalities, which the Coronavirus crisis has already highlighted, as those in low-paid, on-site jobs, will be unable to self-isolate versus, say, bankers working from home.

The Government has said that they will be offered universal credit to those whose income is impacted, but the practical implications of being off work for two weeks is not always something the state can mitigate. Furthermore, it could be said that the Government’s move contradicts its own desire to get people back to work on August 1, given all the risks involved.

Although the guidelines will put a dent in many holiday plans, there is some good news at least. According to The Telegraph, ministers are trying to cut the quarantine time for those coming back from Spain to ten days. This move will presumably be extended to other destinations – all the more important as countries such as France and Germany have also seen rises in Coronavirus cases.

Ministers want to reduce the quarantine time by testing arrivals from high-risk countries eight days after they land (Coronavirus takes five to seven days to incubate). If they test negative they will be allowed to come out of self-isolation two days later. This plan should cut almost a working week off the self-isolation period, and as scientists’ understanding and ability to test Coronavirus, hopefully these testing plans can go even further.

One thing that is also worth pondering is whether the risk of quarantine rules were inevitable, too, given that countries are now much more effective at testing. Fears about a second wave may be exacerbated by the fact that governments can better detect the virus now.

Though there is anger at the Government, Raab was right to say that advanced notice of the Spanish quarantine would have caused confusion in the travel industry (though it has happened as a result of the decision too).

Part of the Government’s fast response to what was happening in Spain reflects what happened at the beginning of the UK’s Coronavirus outbreak. A study by researchers at Oxford and Edinburgh University has found that most cases in the UK could be traced back to Spain (34 per cent), France (29 per cent) and Italy (14 per cent), as opposed to China.

So it could be said that there is a “once bitten twice shy” element to the newly imposed quarantine. And had the Government not done anything, it would no doubt be accused of callousness by the usual armchair epidemiologists.

As for what happens next in travel? Like much of the Coronavirus crisis, it’s anyone’s guess.

Andy Street: One, two, three – it’s a hat-trick of coming Conservative Party conferences for Birmingham

28 Jul

Andy Street is Mayor of the West Midlands, and is a former Managing Director of John Lewis.

For years, the Party conference season was synonymous with the seaside. With the Commons in recess, delegates headed to places like Blackpool, Bournemouth and Brighton, to shape policy in the midst of seaside rock and ‘kiss me quick’ hats.

All that changed in 2008, with a bold decision that sent an important message about Conservative commitment to urban, modern Britain. The conference came to Brum. Last week, I was delighted when Amanda Milling returned here to announce that we will be hosting three more conferences – in 2022, 2024 and 2026.

It was an announcement that was greeted with real excitement. Birmingham is a hospitality city, with exhibition and conference venues that have made us leaders in “business tourism” in the UK.

Holding the Party Conference brings great benefits, both economic and more symbolic ones.

Firstly, of course, Conference brings income to the host city – estimated to be worth £20 million for each conference. This is great news for the region’s economy and jobs as we attempt to safely restart the economy post lockdown.

Major conference and exhibition venues like the NEC and ICC directly employ many thousands of local people, and the West Midlands’ hospitality sector also supports a region-wide supply chain, from hotels, restaurants, bars, events companies, and marketers. This vital sector was brought to a complete halt by Coronavirus. It is no wonder last week’s announcement was so well received, coming hot on the heels of the Prime Minister’s announcement that exhibitions could reopen from October 1.

Secondly, the return of Conference to Brum gives us an opportunity to underline our region’s relationship with and connection to Government – bringing, since 2010, the whole Government to the region. Much has been said about the need for Government to escape their South East bubble to connect more with communities north of Watford. By relocating to Birmingham for Conference, ministers will see first-hand how their investments, guided by devolved decision-making and local expertise, are helping level-up the economy.

Thirdly it gives us the chance to showcase the City and wider region. While the traditional warm Brummie welcome hasn’t changed, delegates and the media will notice plenty of visible improvements to Birmingham. They highlight the renaissance that has transformed the Second City in recent years and is set to continue.

When delegates arrive in 2022, a better-connected Birmingham will still be buzzing with the afterglow of the summer’s Commonwealth Games. Trams will have once again become a familiar sight, running past the Conference venue, the length of Broad Street and out towards Edgbaston. We will have seen further huge improvements in the City’s transport network – with the complete rebuilding of University Station (winning Government funding last week).

New, first-generation Sprint bus routes, which months before shuttled international spectators between Commonwealth Games venues, will be bringing people to a city centre transformed by the completion of the £700 million Paradise development. By 2022 Birmingham’s bold, bright new future will be firmly here.

Finally, the location of the annual conference reiterates the political importance of the UK’s cities to our party. When David Cameron moved our annual conference from the traditional seaside setting to our great cities it underlined the party’s ambition to win again in urban Britain. After all, until 1997 those cities contributed an important cohort of MPs and Cabinet Ministers to Conservative Government.

However, that drive to win back urban Britain has proved an elusive challenge, despite the election victories of 2010 and 2015. Even when the “red wall” was breached in 2019 Labour bastions in Manchester, Liverpool, Sheffield and Leeds proved resistant. Indeed, of these cities, only Leeds has conservative councillors.

For this entire period, the only Conservative MP in any of our great cities was Andrew Mitchell in Sutton Coldfield. But it was in Brum that the break-through came. In 2019, for the first time since 1987, the Party gained a big city seat – Birmingham Northfield. This was a hugely important and symbolic win for the Party, showing we can win in cities again.

More importantly it has given the people of Northfield constituency a dedicated, effective and sincere champion in Gary Sambrook. Gary has already proved tenacious in fighting for his area – and is pushing, for instance, for further regeneration of the former Rover factory site at Longbridge. Much has already been done to reclaim what had been a derelict eyesore for many years – but Northfield’s new MP is determined to create even more jobs and opportunities there.

Birmingham also sets the pace when it comes to Conservative representation on local authorities in urban Britain. Unlike the other big cities of Manchester, Liverpool and Sheffield, the Conservatives have run the council here in recent memory and retain a strong, influential base of councillors, led by indomitable campaigner Robert Alden.

In the last local elections Labour’s majority across a city of ten parliamentary constituencies comprised just 4483 votes – less than 500 per constituency, a tiny majority. Indeed, when you consider that my own majority averages 135 in each constituency, it shows how closely fought elections are in our area.

There is a real possibility that when delegates arrive in Birmingham for the conference in 2022, they will be visiting a growing city of more than a million people with a Conservative-led Council. If we are serious in our ambition to be a party that reflects a modern and diverse Britain, achieving this outcome must be a reality.

Amanda Jenner: A “Devolution Revolution” in Wales will help politicians better connect to their communities

28 Jul

Amanda Jenner is Welsh Conservative County Councillor for the Trewern, Buttington and Middletown ward.

The Conservative Party is a broad church, a place where both common ground and respectful difference of opinion can be found within its membership on a whole host of issues.

This is particularly evident in Wales, where the Welsh Conservatives welcome those who believe that devolution has the potential to work for the whole of the country, as well as those who are anti the Welsh parliament and are understandably “devo-sceptic” due to 20 years of a now languid Welsh Labour, which even at best has been lackadaisical to most of Wales outside of the M4 Corridor.

Recently, Paul Davies, the Leader of the Welsh Conservatives in the Senedd, spoke passionately on the need for a “Devolution Revolution”. This was Calon Lân music to many of our ears and I hope that as part of this Revolution, we fully embrace the idea of localism.

Arguably one of the grounds for devo-scepticism is that decision makers down in Cardiff have lacked the appetite to address many of the issues that occur in Mid, West and North Wales. One example of this was their recent National Development Framework consultation, which identified priority areas for large-scale energy development, without sufficient consideration of the impact this would have on local tourism businesses or associated tourism assets, such as National Trails.

There are some within the Welsh nationalist camps who like to spin this devo-scepticism as a nonsensical idea that Welsh Conservatives are all Anglophiles above all else, who want to copy and paste England’s policies and culture, and enforce them upon Wales.

In the run up to the 2021 Senedd Election, the Welsh Conservatives must bat this ludicrous notion away. Yes we can learn from across the border, but it takes local knowledge and understanding to decide whether to apply, adapt or ignore policy and models used elsewhere.

As a county councillor in Mid Wales, I know my patch. I know that an all singing and dancing remote online learning system, is worthless for some of my residents who can’t get a decent broadband connection. I know that that my residents are alarmed that a minister in Cardiff will be making the decision on whether to develop a large-scale incinerator in a rural area, just a few hundred metres away from a primary school. I know that it is costly and complex to deliver public services in a rural area and that often, we have to think outside of the box.

Localism is a conservative value. As a Conservative, I want to conserve and safeguard the local things around my community that are loved. I want to see the children in our local schools encouraged to have aspiration and to become resilient and responsible adults who have the confidence to seize the local opportunities around them.

I want Welsh language and Welsh culture to be naturally embraced and to grow organically. I don’t want to see the Welsh language forced upon every nook and cranny of Wales, including upon those communities whose traditions and cultures may not have the Welsh Language embedded in them.

At the heart of localism is an appreciation of the significance of community spirit, which has been so commendable during the Covid-19 pandemic. Localism gives a nod to our wonderfully diverse Welsh culture and traditions. Localism encourages local solutions to local problems and would require local decisions for local developments, no matter their size.

In Wales, the decision on whether to approve developments over a certain size is made by a Welsh government Minister. I would like to see this power devolved to local government. Further, in the wake of Covid-19, in order to get the economy back on its feet, local knowledge of business, jobs and opportunities, is fundamental. As argued recently in the LGA magazine by Councillor James Jamieson, the Chairman of the LGA, I too would like to see local government ownership of the employment and skills agenda.

Those who continue to strive for an independent Wales surely cannot shun the idea of localism. Isn’t one sentiment of their movement, the desire for decision makers who understand the needs of those who are impacted by their decisions? Perhaps I am becoming an idealist here, but isn’t “localism” the pacifying solution for all?

What I do know though, is that we cannot carry on with the same old lacklustre Welsh Labour business as usual. I hope that as part of this “Devolution Revolution” we Welsh Conservatives look to de-centralise parts of the Welsh Government and to divert resources more directly to frontlines by empowering local decision makers.

Of course, to responsibly do this, we need to ensure that local authorities are funded fairly and transparently – something which is long overdue a thorough examination in Wales.

Ed McGuinness: Getting everyone back to work will save the economy

27 Jul

Ed McGuinness is a former Chairman of Islington Conservative Federation, founder of Conservatives in the City and stood for Hornsey & Wood Green at the general election.

Growth in GDP, from an economic perspective relies on three key areas. The first is labour; both population growth affecting its size and the participation rate. The latter of which will surely take a hit from this crisis. The second factor is capital investment in the economy and with the Government’s long-term investment plan this may very well be somewhat addressed. The third factor is known as Total Factor Productivity, productivity improvement or technological advancement. Normally in economics it is addressed residually (as capital and labour are fairly quantifiable), but generally, whilst we are holed up in our houses, especially the younger generations, the ability to be productive, to innovate as part of a social group, is limited. The bottom line is economic growth may jump around for a few months, but longer term will flat-line.

Boris Johnson’s rallying call of “build, build, build” follows well known and tried Keynesian economic principles, but putting aside that a British New Deal package comparable to that in the 1930s would actually cost north of  £700 billion, “shovel ready” infrastructure projects are rarely so in the United Kingdom. One can only look at the High Speed 2 rail link project which has been ongoing since 2009, the Heathrow expansion project, ongoing since the same year, and even the Channel Tunnel, arguably a huge success, took 18 years from agreement to completion. It would likely take a herculean effort, much like that seen in the early weeks of the Covid-19 response to expedite even the most minor infrastructure projects. Whilst this will be necessary for medium to longer term growth, a short-term booster shot is necessary to mitigate the risks of a permanently smaller economy.

Whilst the levelling-up agenda could perhaps see a step-change in the national economy, the wealth generating ability of London’s financial and multinational corporations is a capability that needs to be protected and nurtured if there is to be any economic recovery at all. London contributes between one quarter and one third of the entire economic output of the country, a population greater than the next 13 largest cities combined, and 11% of the UK’s tax revenue – a considerable and much needed source of cash as we emerge from this crisis. We have already seen some positive news with regards to the future of financial services in the post Brexit City which offers some security, but to get London’s economy firing again, benefitting not just the South East but the rest of the country. We must either adapt very quickly or risk a lasting hit to one of the world’s global economic command centres.

To do this people must get back to work – a simple aim, but complex in execution. The challenges are overarching twofold. First psychological and personal, people are genuinely concerned that they might get ill and naturally do not want to travel in close proximity (as is almost inevitable) in London and other city transport networks. The second, whilst fed and influenced by the first is separate, and is practical and organisational. In order to comply with new social distancing office space and transport has had to readapt to the point where it is impossible at the moment to have 100% capacity. Some offices in Canary Wharf have indicated a 50% capacity cap on open plan offices which seen have seen desks normally fit for six now only fit for one or two.  We must address both these issues when it comes to returning to work. By addressing the latter, a proof of concept is deliverable which will go a long way to alleviating the former, psychological concerns.

It is clear that accepting the current situation as the ‘new normal’ is not a solution. It would see not only resilient industries face collapse, but also highly operationally levered sectors like hospitality; fast food and tourism fall away alongside second order effects of rental and credit defaults. Therefore, the risks must be managed and mitigated. Practically those travelling should be encouraged to wear facemasks, wash their hands and observe social distancing, but we must change our working habits fundamentally, in the short term if we are to succeed.

Younger workers should be encouraged to return to the office more quickly than the manager class. The damage to younger people’s careers from Covid-19 has been highlighted in the potential loss of hospitality, retail and other feeder professions, but younger people who work in an office environment need social interaction and personal networking with colleagues, which is of huge importance to younger staff. Development through social interaction is not just a theory isolated to infants, but extends throughout all growth phases of life. Not only that, but younger people are generally less well paid and as such live in accommodation ill equipped for a healthy working environment lacking the space for a home office or a separate room for working. The active psychological damage of an absence of delineation between work and personal life, alongside the passive damage caused by separation from peers, will have a damaging effect on younger people if they do not return to work imminently.

There also needs to be a reform of the working day. If, as it is at the moment a 9-to-5 day, it is natural that rush hour falls either side of these, considerably so in London and other cities where commuter towns exacerbate the effect. London transport should run a rush hour service, therefore increasing capacity across the system, throughout the day, Companies, particularly those who work in close proximity to one another and are served by a limited number of transport links, for example in Canary Wharf, should collaborate to reassign their working day and stagger start and stop times and more importantly enforce them. An additional point of assistance would be to alter market opening hours from 9.30-4.30 as advocated by the Association for Financial Markets in Europe and the Investment Association, but not accepted by the LSE in the most recent review. This would lose the overlap with Asia, which is arguably not statistically significant, but would retain the lucrative overlap with US market whilst allowing more time, particularly in the morning, for commuter travel.

The Government must remember the importance of London and other cities’ regional influence on productivity – a problem in the UK even before Covid-19 – without which the entire country could level-down. By focussing on only the short-term operational aspect, large office-based London businesses may see a slight recovery, but support industries around them may collapse which will lead to longer term pain. On this occasion, working together to protect the centre is protecting the rest.

Damian Green: Here are our One Nation ideas for reviving post-Covid, post-Brexit Britain

27 Jul

Damian Green is Chair of the One Nation Caucus, a former First Secretary of State and is MP for Ashford.

There has been a flurry of comments about One Nation Conservatism, and what it means in the 2020s, over recent weeks. This is very timely, as for many years the One Nation tradition was linked with pro-European views, to the point where views on Europe seemed to become its defining characteristic.

Those times are clearly past, and one of the aims of the One Nation Caucus of Conservative MPs is to set out a new set of policy priorities, both in domestic and international policy, which we want the Government to adopt. We hope that we are pushing at a reasonably open door, as the Prime Minister has always described himself as a One Nation politician, and certainly his levelling up agenda is absolutely in that tradition. His description of himself as a “Brexity Hezza” may have been rejected by, well…..Hezza, but nothing is easy these days.

Getting the country back on the track it voted for last December is the task for the next four years, and One Nation ideas will play a central role in the successful pursuit of that project. The last thing the Conservative Party or the country needs is a continuation of the Brexit divisions. If the only thing that matters is how you voted in 2016, we will never move on. So through the summer and autumn the One Nation Caucus will be publishing a series of policy papers designed to set out a full agenda for government in the post-Covid period.

The first of these papers is Restarting the Economy, which brings together six MPs from various intakes to address the central issue of our times. Stephen Hammond is the lead author, and he emphasises the importance of a relentless focus on levelling up to extend growth beyond London.

Key proposals in the paper include the development of new local economic bodies to drive growth, expanding the number of planned freeports, and creating technology adoption funds to support the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The report also suggests a number of policies to protect people on low incomes, including suggestions for ending consumer rip-offs, and proposals for managing repayments of Covid business loans, recommending an approach similar to the Student Loan scheme.

Each of these is a meaty idea in its own right, and the full paper is available on the One Nation website. But this array of economic ideas is only the start of the wider project to position Conservative ideas at the heart of the national political debate post-Covid.

Labour may be under new management but one of the features of the Starmer era so far has been the avoidance of any policy discussions. This is clearly a conscious tactic, but while Labour pursues it there is a space to fill in shaping the public mind. It is often observed that intellectual regeneration is more difficult inside a governing party, but it is not impossible, and is absolutely necessary if conservatism is to have another successful decade.

The financial crisis, Brexit, and Covid-19 have been three black swans that have swept aside the original plans developed the last time the Conservative Party was in opposition. They have incidentally also swept aside Tony Blair’s fond idea of making the twenty-first century “the progressive century”, by which he meant the New Labour century. How does that look in 2020?

So now is exactly the right time for One Nation Conservatives to think hard and set up debates. After the economic paper our next publication will be on social mobility, how we can bring it back, and why we must not think about it in traditional terms. Following that we will be publishing a paper on the environment, showing how capitalism is not the enemy of achieving carbon New Zero, but the only way of reaching it.

Future papers will look at Britain’s place in the world, covering trade and aid, and specifically what the new configuration of the Foreign Office and DfId offers in the realm of making our aid spending (which One Nation Conservatives strongly support) more effective in the future. We will also be taking a hard look at schools and what they can do better to spread opportunity, and at the new world of work.

It is very pleasing that all cohorts of the Parliamentary party have contributed to these papers. Former Ministers have worked with many members of the 2019 intake on the individual ideas, proving that there is no shortage of new thinking on the back benches, and that One Nation ideas are alive and well in the rising generations within the party.

Whether or not you think of yourself as a One Nation Conservative, I hope you will welcome the fact that those of us who are in that tradition want to contribute publicly to the key debates that will dominate the coming decade. The public will of course judge the Government mainly on its actions. But every political party needs to demonstrate that it can apply its principles to new circumstances. In a world that changes as fast as this one constant intellectual regeneration should be our goal. The One Nation recovery papers are a contribution to that.

Amanda Milling: This year, the Government laid strong foundations for our levelling-up agenda

24 Jul

Amanda Milling is the Member of Parliament for Cannock Chase and co-Chairman of the Conservative Party.

They say a week is a long time in politics, and in a year, well, a lot can happen. But when Boris Johnson spoke on the steps of Downing Street as Prime Minister for the first time exactly a year ago today, absolutely no-one could have predicted the course of events that would unfold.

Coronavirus has been an unprecedented crisis that has required an unprecedented response. Who would have thought a year ago that the Government, a Conservative government no less, would be directly paying the wages of over nine million workers?

We make no apology for that, and our response to Covid-19 – to save lives while protecting our economy and people’s livelihoods – has been one of the most comprehensive in the world.

And while the machinery of government has rightly been focused on getting our country through this pandemic, we have not lost sight of the promises we made to the people of this country. At the last election, many people who had never voted Conservative before put their faith in us for the first time. And even in the depths of this unprecedented crisis, honouring that faith has remained at the core of what we do.

We are a Government and a Party that is determined to make good on our commitments and repay the voters who lent us their votes, no matter the turbulence that might hit along the way. When reflecting on the year passed since Johnson became Prime Minister, we have kept to our commitments and made remarkable strides forwards.

We said we’d get Brexit done, honouring the biggest democratic vote in our nation’s history, and we did. We broke through the endless parliamentary deadlocks and on the 31st January 2020, we delivered on the mandate the people set us to leave the European Union.

And we also set out an ambitious and wide-ranging domestic agenda, to level-up our country and forge prosperity for every region and nation of the UK.

During the last election, we all had to endure the age-old Labour lie that the NHS would not be safe in our hands. It was as wrong seven months ago as it was when they trotted it out 38 years ago.

It is this Party and this Government that enshrined into law the biggest-ever cash boost for the NHS, investing an additional £33.9 billion in frontline services every year by 2023-24, the largest and longest funding settlement in the history of the Health Service. And when the NHS needed additional resource to cope with the coronavirus, we provided it.

And we are making good on our commitment to recruit more doctors and nurses too: there are now 12,000 more nurses and 6,000 more doctors in our NHS since a year earlier.

I also know many of you and my parliamentary colleagues were subject to local schools cuts campaign run by the National Education Union at the last election. Yet it is this government that is boosting funding in our primary and secondary schools by £14 billion over the next three years, so that every child can get a good education.

And just last month, the Prime Minister set out our ambitious ten-year plan to rebuild schools throughout England, with £1 billion for the first 50 projects.

Safety on our streets was another area where we pledged to take action, and we have. Recent rates of knife crime have been a major concern, particularly in London, where the Labour Mayor refuses to take responsibility. I am pleased that we have already recruited an additional 3000 police officers as part of our manifesto pledge to put an extra 20,000 officers on the streets.

We also know that transport and infrastructure is key to driving our future economic growth and success, but that particularly in our Northern cities and towns, good transport infrastructure has been too often lacking.

As someone who used to live in Leeds, I was delighted at Grant Shapps’ announcement yesterday of £589 million to kick-start upgrade work between York, Leeds, Huddersfield, and Manchester, to speed up trains and boost reliability by electrifying much of the line and doubling the number of tracks on congested stretches. This comes on top of the money we have already pledged to upgrade rail and roads across the country.

Finally, I know that for many the cost of living is a major concern. In April, this Government gave the National Living Wage its largest cash boost to £8.72 – giving nearly three million people a well-earned pay rise. This week we also gave millions of hard-working public-sector employees, such as our armed forces, doctors, police, and teachers, an above-inflation pay rise, on top of what we’ve already given to nurses in the NHS.

Over the last year, in the face of adversity, a remarkable amount has been achieved. Yet we cannot be complacent. We still have much to do to honour our commitments and level-up our country as we emerge from the greatest crisis of our times.

But the last year should give us confidence that we can, and will, achieve our mission.

Amanda Milling: This year, the Government laid strong foundations for our levelling-up agenda

24 Jul

Amanda Milling is the Member of Parliament for Cannock Chase and co-Chairman of the Conservative Party.

They say a week is a long time in politics, and in a year, well, a lot can happen. But when Boris Johnson spoke on the steps of Downing Street as Prime Minister for the first time exactly a year ago today, absolutely no-one could have predicted the course of events that would unfold.

Coronavirus has been an unprecedented crisis that has required an unprecedented response. Who would have thought a year ago that the Government, a Conservative government no less, would be directly paying the wages of over nine million workers?

We make no apology for that, and our response to Covid-19 – to save lives while protecting our economy and people’s livelihoods – has been one of the most comprehensive in the world.

And while the machinery of government has rightly been focused on getting our country through this pandemic, we have not lost sight of the promises we made to the people of this country. At the last election, many people who had never voted Conservative before put their faith in us for the first time. And even in the depths of this unprecedented crisis, honouring that faith has remained at the core of what we do.

We are a Government and a Party that is determined to make good on our commitments and repay the voters who lent us their votes, no matter the turbulence that might hit along the way. When reflecting on the year passed since Johnson became Prime Minister, we have kept to our commitments and made remarkable strides forwards.

We said we’d get Brexit done, honouring the biggest democratic vote in our nation’s history, and we did. We broke through the endless parliamentary deadlocks and on the 31st January 2020, we delivered on the mandate the people set us to leave the European Union.

And we also set out an ambitious and wide-ranging domestic agenda, to level-up our country and forge prosperity for every region and nation of the UK.

During the last election, we all had to endure the age-old Labour lie that the NHS would not be safe in our hands. It was as wrong seven months ago as it was when they trotted it out 38 years ago.

It is this Party and this Government that enshrined into law the biggest-ever cash boost for the NHS, investing an additional £33.9 billion in frontline services every year by 2023-24, the largest and longest funding settlement in the history of the Health Service. And when the NHS needed additional resource to cope with the coronavirus, we provided it.

And we are making good on our commitment to recruit more doctors and nurses too: there are now 12,000 more nurses and 6,000 more doctors in our NHS since a year earlier.

I also know many of you and my parliamentary colleagues were subject to local schools cuts campaign run by the National Education Union at the last election. Yet it is this government that is boosting funding in our primary and secondary schools by £14 billion over the next three years, so that every child can get a good education.

And just last month, the Prime Minister set out our ambitious ten-year plan to rebuild schools throughout England, with £1 billion for the first 50 projects.

Safety on our streets was another area where we pledged to take action, and we have. Recent rates of knife crime have been a major concern, particularly in London, where the Labour Mayor refuses to take responsibility. I am pleased that we have already recruited an additional 3000 police officers as part of our manifesto pledge to put an extra 20,000 officers on the streets.

We also know that transport and infrastructure is key to driving our future economic growth and success, but that particularly in our Northern cities and towns, good transport infrastructure has been too often lacking.

As someone who used to live in Leeds, I was delighted at Grant Shapps’ announcement yesterday of £589 million to kick-start upgrade work between York, Leeds, Huddersfield, and Manchester, to speed up trains and boost reliability by electrifying much of the line and doubling the number of tracks on congested stretches. This comes on top of the money we have already pledged to upgrade rail and roads across the country.

Finally, I know that for many the cost of living is a major concern. In April, this Government gave the National Living Wage its largest cash boost to £8.72 – giving nearly three million people a well-earned pay rise. This week we also gave millions of hard-working public-sector employees, such as our armed forces, doctors, police, and teachers, an above-inflation pay rise, on top of what we’ve already given to nurses in the NHS.

Over the last year, in the face of adversity, a remarkable amount has been achieved. Yet we cannot be complacent. We still have much to do to honour our commitments and level-up our country as we emerge from the greatest crisis of our times.

But the last year should give us confidence that we can, and will, achieve our mission.

As one epidemiologist calls school closures a “mistake”, did the decision lack adequate debate?

23 Jul

In early May, readers of ConservativeHome may remember that this site was critical of teaching unions, several of which had campaigned against schools reopening.

In a joint statement, some of them accused the Government of “showing a lack of understanding about the dangers of the spread of coronavirus within schools”, and encouraged teachers not to “engage in planning meetings”.

ConservativeHome felt the unions were wrong for several reasons, one being that their moves came across as politically opportunistic.

The Government was always going to have a much tougher time convincing people to come out of lockdown – than go into it – and some members of the Left have capitalised on this, stoking fears so as to obstruct the Conservatives’ plans.

The second issue is that, despite accusing the Government of “showing a lack of understanding”, unions seemed utterly uninterested in scientific data on the safety of reopening schools, nor what was happening around Europe, where such moves had gone ahead successfully.

While there are still a huge number of unknowns about this virus – and no one should make bold proclamations either way – the evidence appears more in favour of showing that children do not get – or transmit – the virus as severely as adults.

Hence why I wrote in May: “Adult to adult contact seems the big danger”, and pointed out that the World Health Organisation had said that “serious illness due to COVID-19 is seen infrequently in children”.

Furthermore, one study by the Health Information and Quality Authority concluded that “children are not substantially contributing to the spread of COVID-19 in their household or in schools”.

Now that we are further along in the crisis, this position has become more openly discussed. Yesterday The Times had an interview with Mark Woolhouse, a leading epidemiologist and member of the Government’s SAGE committee, who said: “[Children] are probably less susceptible and vanishingly unlikely to end up in hospital or to die from [Coronavirus].”

He also said: “There is increasing evidence that [children] rarely transmit. For example, it is extremely difficult to find any instance anywhere in the world as a single example of a child transmitting to a teacher in school. There may have been one in Australia but it is incredibly rare”, and he added that there “are certain environments where this virus transmits very well and children are not present in these environments.”

So what does this all mean? First of all, it’s worth saying that, no matter what the Government, unions, Labour Party or media did or said, a huge number of parents decided for themselves that they didn’t want their children to be present at school. 

The Government had been fairly firm about keeping schools open in the beginning of the pandemic, but lost its nerve after families started removing their kids from schools regardless of what they were instructed to do.

It’s difficult to say whether closing schools was the right thing to do; it will be one of the questions brought up in a future inquiry, which Boris Johnson has promised will go ahead.

One thing, it seems to me, about this inquiry, is that many are expecting it to show that the Government was not cautious enough. Members of the media no doubt think that the Government should have ordered lockdown weeks earlier, and that schools should have been shut down sooner, and so forth.

But, what’s been missing from mainstream debates, and may come out in an inquiry is evidence for a more hawkish position; questions about whether Britain’s safety measures – and indeed measures elsewhere – have been proportionate to risk.

On schools, for instance, the Government should have been challenged much more from the Labour Party about whether they should have closed at all.

Not least because let’s consider the risks. If children do not get Coronavirus severely, or transmit it much to adults – if at all, the decision to close schools looks like it’ll lead to worse outcomes.

Research from University College London’s Institute of Education has even shown that around 2.3 million children either did not learning at all or less than one hour a day.

There will be other terrible consequences, such as parents struggling to keep work (due to childcare arrangements) and more children at risk of domestic violence.

The list of negatives is very long, but these arguments received little attention, and anyone who questioned the schools closures – and lockdown generally – was portrayed as uncaring.

The Labour Party’s complacency over school reopenings – essentially letting the unions speak on their behalf – was shocking given what a terrible economic impact it will have on many families.

I’m not saying that all MPs had to be pro-reopening, incidentally, but there should have been two sides to the debate, one pointing out the educational and economic consequences.

As we approach September, there will probably be even more complaints about schools trying to get started. But the Government, and the opposition, must take Woolhouse’s words – and wider scientific perspectives – on board. In fighting Covid-19, we have been too knee-jerk at times in deciding the right thing to do.