Andy Street: How thinking green, and levelling up, can insulate against future cost-of-living shocks

17 May

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

Rising inflation, soaring energy bills, and the spiralling cost of living have led to calls from some to step back from net zero ambitions and the levelling up mission.

This is wrong. I believe we must step into both of these challenges even more determinedly.

Here in the West Midlands, we are particularly affected by increasing fuel poverty, precisely because too many of our jobs are lowly paid – so we must act now to help those who are struggling. However, the real answer is building a more resilient economy for the future.

Crucially, as Conservatives, I believe we must recognise the huge economic opportunities of the green economy: to create well-paid jobs, improve our nation’s energy security, and bring prices down. This is not about tree-hugging or eco ‘virtue signalling’. It’s about pounds, shillings and pence.

Just as there are multiple causes behind the rising cost of living, we must find multiple ways of bringing it under control. I want to use this column to outline how we can do this by tackling the climate challenge, delivering on levelling up, and learning from the successes of devolution.

First of all, however, people need real help now with the rising cost of living. Regionally, we can help in a number of ways – by working to ensure fares on public transport remain low, for example. I have also never used a council tax precept to pay for the office of Mayor.

These may be small decisions, but they are real contributions we can make at a local level.

Nationally, the Government has introduced cuts to fuel duty, is raising the National Insurance threshold from July, has reduced the Universal Credit taper rate, and increased work allowances for the self-employed. Rebates on energy bills will also help.

However, there needs to be more short term help with energy bills, best delivered via the Warm Homes Fund, which provides a way of targeting support.

While I believe the Government is right to reject the idea of reducing VAT on energy – which would simply reward the biggest users – I do expect that the Chancellor will act again before Autumn to help those who are struggling.

The real solution to cost of living pressures, however, lies in schemes like retrofitting, which will cut household bills. Long term, we must think green.

In the West Midlands, we are leading the way in this innovative field. A consortium led by the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) has been awarded £7.5m to make hundreds of social housing homes more energy efficient.

The WMCA’s Energy Capital team works to drive forward innovation, retrofitting old homes, improving insulation, and making the most of the progress in solar power generation.

Again, the Government is encouraging this by reducing tax on renewable technology, including zero per cent VAT on solar panels – and it is in the regions that the challenge is being grasped.

For example, we are spending £2.8 million on retrofitting 300 homes across Coventry and Solihull to make them more efficient, in a scheme that will demonstrate what could be achieved on a much bigger scale.

Last week I also visited Project 80, the UK’s first affordable housing development to satisfy the Government’s new Future Homes Standard being built right here in the West Midlands – where eco building methods are driving bills down by 65 per cent.

This local innovation in the green economy can drive national policy, with the regions providing testing grounds for schemes of differing sizes.

We are pioneering Energy Innovation Zones, to stimulate local clean energy innovation and drive productivity, as well as exports and growth. Four of these zones are planned at Tyseley, UK Central in Solihull, Coventry and Warwickshire and in the Black Country.

Ensuring a more resilient energy future isn’t just about adopting greener solutions and building warmer homes, it’s also about creating better-paid jobs that improve household incomes. Delivering levelling up will support people worst hit by the cost of living crisis, by driving growth in areas that have been ‘left behind’.

But we have to do it, not just talk about it.

Again, addressing the climate challenge can play its part in levelling up, by providing quality opportunities in green manufacturing, retrofitting, electrification, and the digital economy, all of which are being driven locally.

Only last week I opened a new Electric Vehicle Centre at the City of Wolverhampton College, which will help bring the Green Industrial Revolution to life: establishing a UK centre of excellence for the automotive industry while creating high-tech 21st-century jobs, in collaboration with employers.

As Conservatives, it is those employers we should listen to. I recently chaired an Energy Crisis Roundtable, which saw leading companies and business bodies discuss their most pressing energy concerns.

Energy costs are having a powerful impact on industry, a particular concern here in the West Midlands. Another initiative, called ‘Repowering the Black Country’, is developing four zero carbon industrial hubs so businesses can take advantage of clean growth opportunities. We must build on ideas like this, locally and nationally.

At the roundtable, business leaders also outlined the powers they would like to see transferred from Whitehall to our region to strengthen industrial resilience.

The message is clear: we must be bold in devolving the powers to allow the regions to innovate.

We can shape greener transport networks that are cheaper to run. We can build future-proof homes and retrofit older ones to make them warmer and more cost-efficient. We can develop a skilled, better paid workforce. We can regenerate our areas with future energy needs in mind.

The cost of living crisis is being driven by many factors. Short-term help is vital as families and businesses feel the pinch.

But by pressing ahead with future-proofing schemes, delivering on our levelling up mission, and empowering the regions to innovate, we can help to insulate our nation, long-term, against future cost of living concerns.

Anvar Sarygulov: Conservatives must make simplifying the welfare system an urgent priority

16 May

Anvar Sarygulov is the Head of Research at Bright Blue.

With the public struggling financially, reports that Cabinet ministers are looking to find new ‘non-fiscal’ ways to combat the cost of living crisis were met with a significant degree of derision.

But it is good for Conservative ministers, and the departments they lead, to take a long, hard look at how to better use existing schemes which are already in place to support those on low incomes.

A particular area for improvement is the headache-inducing, byzantine quagmire of disparate state benefits, grants, and payments that support the most vulnerable in our society.

Currently, many government schemes which could be playing a key role in supporting families through this current crisis have low levels of take-up. Part of the challenge of increasing take-up is the significant administrative hoops low-income families need to jump through to access them.

First, they must be aware of their existence, and then also submit pages of personal information that the Government for the most part already holds. This creates an unnecessary administrative burden not only for the claimants, but also for the state.

For example, take Healthy Start vouchers. They provide weekly food vouchers worth between £4.25 and £8.50 to low-income mothers, from their tenth week of pregnancy to the fourth birthday of their child. In March 2022, this NHS-administered scheme had a take-up rate of 72 per cent in England and Wales.

That means that almost 150,000 households in need were not receiving a significant sum of money that could alleviate the need to visit a food bank – even though the Government holds most of the information needed to automate claims for the vouchers.

It is not only the state’s offer to help with costs of birth that are afflicted by low take-up, but also its offer to help with the costs of death.

The Funeral Expenses Payment, which provides help for costs of a funeral for those on low incomes, paid out on average £1,838 in 2020-21. But before the Covid-19 pandemic, the number of awards steadily decreased, from 40,000 in 2006-07 to 25,000 in 2019-20, despite the number of deaths increasing in the same period.

It is certain that there are low-income families out there who are missing out on thousands of pounds of support at a very difficult point in their lives, because of lack of awareness or the complex 25-page form.

There are also substantive concerns about the take-up of the support offered through the recently-introduced Household Support Fund, which provides low-income households with ad-hoc grants or vouchers through their local authority. Rishi Sunak committed a further £500 million to this Fund in the 2022 Spring Statement.

Each local authority, already greatly stretched in terms of resources, is responsible for the design and rollout of their own scheme. There are also barriers for low-income people to access it, who not only need to be aware that the Fund exists, but must also then submit information about their financial status.

The growth of the social security system over many decades has led to the accumulation of layers upon layers of complexity to address new and emerging needs. But the labyrinthine nature of our welfare system is now hurting both the government and those it is supposed to support.

In this context, the Conservatives need to be proud of the core achievement of Universal Credit: simplifying six disparate in-work and out-of-work payments scattered across three government departments into one streamlined benefit. Now they need to boldly continue their work in reducing complexity.

Rather than continuing to bolt-on new ways to support people, like the Household Support Fund, and growing the administrative behemoth that is our social security system, the Government needs to think much more about how it can use the existing benefit systems and information databases to provide simplified help to people who need it.

The changes to the Warm Home Discount scheme being introduced this year, which will use government-held property, benefit and tax data to automatically identify low-income households most in need of help with heating bills, is an example of what ministers should be doing across the social security system.

Getting more people to take-up existing schemes will not be sufficient to tackle the cost-of-living crisis given its scale: with inflation forecast to peak at ten per cent this year, but benefits only rising by 3.1 per cent this April, the outlook for low-income households is dire.

However, reducing complexity will still substantively benefit thousands of low-income households who are currently missing out on vital support, and it will be through simplifying bureaucratic demands and harnessing the power of technology that the Conservatives will make a difference and increase take-up.

Sanjoy Sen: When it comes to North Sea oil, we’d be better off leaving the politics out

6 May

Sanjoy Sen is a chemical engineer. He contested Alyn & Deeside at the 2019 general election.

The North Sea windfall tax is proving a headache. The Cabinet is rumoured to be split: Kwasi Kwarteng (needing investment) is in firm opposition, whilst Rishi Sunak (needing revenue) seems not to have ruled it out.

Labour, meanwhile, finally has a policy to attract householders reeling from soaring bills. And in Aberdeen, where things are actually supposed to happen, confusion reigns.

Since the taps started flowing in sixties, the North Sea has coughed up over £300 billion in tax revenues. (Unsurprisingly, opinions vary somewhat on how well it has been spent.) In that time, successive chancellors have adjusted the offshore tax regime in response to global oil price movements that they can’t predict, let alone control.

But what is the impact of constant tweaking – and are there alternatives which could deliver higher returns? And perhaps even de-politicise the issue?

How does tax impact the North Sea?

Anyone who has worked in North Sea oil understands how quickly things can change – and the importance of continuity. The late noughties was a period of high oil prices (over $100 a barrel by 2008) prompting a flurry of activity; not bad for an ‘ultra mature’ sector once predicted to be finished by the millennium.

Such a booming sector would have been irresistible to any chancellor, let alone Gordon Brown, who launched his Supplementary Charge in 2002. George Osborne ratcheted this further and by 2011, British fields were subject to a 62 per cent marginal rate – as a minimum.

Older fields (think Brent, Forties, Ninian) were also subject to Petroleum Revenue Tax and paid out at an eye-watering 81 per cent. Even the Guardian got worried about falling investment in fossil fuels.

But by 2015, the barrel price had dipped below $40 and tax rates went unchanged. Contracts were cancelled and redundancies swiftly followed. Prior to the recent upturn, things have been tough in Aberdeen for almost a decade. As recently as 2020, the future of the entire sector was in doubt, with many of my former colleagues forced to relocate or retrain.

(As an aside, it’s perhaps worth reflecting how a slightly earlier downturn might have impacted the SNP’s economic argument ahead of the independence referendum.)

Needless to say, prolonged heavy taxation did erode industry’s appetite for investment, especially in exploratory drilling, the lifeblood of any production basin. Whilst the major Laggan-Tormore gas discovery came on-stream in 2016, little else has followed.

And recently, environmentalism has further deterred new investment, almost forcing Shell out of Cambo. The North Sea is well past its millennial peak and has its work cut out to deliver its remaining barrels quickly to improve national energy security.

How do we tax North Sea oil – and do others do it better?

As the North Sea faltered, tax rates were finally trimmed and currently stand at (a still substantial) 40 per cent. Corporation Tax is levied at 30 per cent offshore, considerably higher than the mainstream rate (19 per cent) and is ring-fenced against losses elsewhere.

So, with oil (and gas) prices rocketing, the Chancellor stands to take a handy £8 billion this year.  Given the current headlines, a further windfall slice might be tempting.

But previous experience encourages caution in taking more and more. The Government needs major players to deliver on investment pledges, such as BP’s £18 billion and Shell’s £25 billion, needed for both oil extraction and the energy transition.

Multi-nationals can invest anywhere and the UK needs to remain competitive – and predictable.

Whilst the uncertainty of when rates will change (and by how much) has created issues in the North Sea, the basic principle of taxing profits remains the most progressive.

By contrast, a plethora of alternatives have been deployed globally to extract value from natural resources. Some countries have opted for state participation and production sharing contracts, although the record of national oil companies is patchy to say the least.

Others have auctioned off production rights, trading long-term value for up-front income. Royalties (essentially a share of every barrel produced) can prove sub-optimal as they fall on revenues, not profits; widely used elsewhere, the UK has long discarded these.

Whilst not a windfall tax, the Australian system includes a feature with a broadly similar effect. Targeted at offshore mega-projects, the Petroleum Resource Rent Tax ‘super tax’ applies once certain thresholds have been cleared. Its key advantages are that it only targets developments that can afford to pay more and kicks in when appropriate, not as a knee-jerk reaction to events.

Needless to say, it isn’t much loved by the owners of mega-projects, nor by those who don’t understand why all fields aren’t paying it all the time.

But whilst this discussion focusses on raising oil revenues, not using them, it’s impossible to ignore the global poster boy, Norway. And whilst there is much that is positive in their oil model, myths abound.

The trillion-dollar savings fund is so carefully protected that other taxes (on income and purchases) need to stay high and thus drive up living costs. And most Norwegians still pay to see their GP.

Meanwhile, its world-leading electric vehicle take-up is subsidised by those horrible hydrocarbons: 100 barrels of crude (emitting 40 tonnes of CO2) are exported to pay for an EV that saves just one tonne.

The UK’s arrangements for oil and gas taxation have been far from perfect but in many respects are the least-worst option. They would a work a lot better if the rises weren’t so dramatic and, more importantly, the cuts weren’t so slow.

But they’d work better still if we left the politics out.

Ryan Bourne: It’s time for the Conservatives to deliver on childcare deregulation

4 May

Ryan Bourne is Chair in Public Understanding of Economics at the Cato Institute.

Can any rational person comprehend the emotive, knee-jerk reaction that always follows modest proposals to relax minimum staff to child ratios for childcare?

Here are mandates, the details of which barely anyone can recite, introduced within the last two decades, which vary substantially across the world, and which some pleasant countries don’t impose at all.

Yet every time Conservatives suggest even limited deregulation of a sector that everybody moans produces services that are too expensive, they generate a Pavlovian response that implies today’s exact regulatory details are all that protect children from imminent danger.

Milton Friedman called this reactionary impulse the “tyranny of the status quo” – referencing the reflex-blocking coalition of politicians, bureaucrats, and interest groups.

Given the weight of theory and evidence is on the liberalising side here, Tories should have the courage of their convictions, using today’s circumstances to finally overcome such forces.

Reform of staff:child ratios was rebuffed first when Liz Truss’s efforts were blocked by Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats. This time, as the Conservatives scramble for ideas to reduce living costs, blowback comes from Labour and the nursery trade bodies.

A rather minor proposed change is to allow carers of two year olds to look after up to five children at a time (as in Scotland) instead of four. Yes, all the hand-wringing about “endangering children” arises from plans for England to match a policy already implemented north of the border.

The economic case against tight staff:child ratios in childcare is well-grounded. With binding restrictions in such a labour-intensive sector, the costs of supplying childcare to a given number of children grows as more staff are required.

There’s also reduced flexibility to accommodate for staff absences or to deliver care for an additional child in unusual situations. This all raises prices by restraining childcare availability.

In the US, where ratios vary by state, researchers consistently find that loosening ratios by just one child across age groups is associated with prices that are six to 20 percent lower. Given a full-time childminder or nursery care place for a two year old averages £11.8k or £13.2k per year; that’s equivalent to annual savings of £710 or more.

Quite simply, when you cut the profitability of childcare, the number of providers falls. This might occur directly by raising staffing costs, or indirectly, as tight staff:child ratios reduce the revenue-earning potential of workers, restricting wages available to obtain better staff.

Either way, the regulation makes childcare less productive, so fewer providers operate.

Crucially, research (again from the US) has found that the resultant closures are almost all concentrated in low-income areas. Less availability and higher prices are regressive, forcing poorer households to use other forms of informal care or forego important labour market opportunities entirely.

Given England has about the tightest staff:child ratios in Europe for two year olds, the Government focus on loosening requirements for that age group is understandable.

But the truth is, this logic pushes against having such top-down regulations at all. Denmark, Sweden and Israel have no such restrictions. A lot of people who preach the idea of evidence-based policy, and think themselves internationalists, seem strangely unread and parochial about this.

Instead, their objections either reek of the special pleading of large, formal nurseries who don’t want the competition of a more pluralistic sector, or to the busybody tendency that desires one’s own preferences being imposed on everyone.

But… these ratios aid child development, no?

Doesn’t having fewer children per staff member lead to more staff-child interactions and better child development?

Labour’s Bridget Phillipson argued so, but actually, there is little evidence that’s true. Meta-analyses on these types of regulation have found “small, if any, associations with concurrent and subsequent child outcomes.”

This conventional wisdom ignores the potential for higher wages to improve quality and the possibility that higher prices caused by these regulations drive poorer households towards more informal care or even out of work, also affecting children’s development. One cannot just look at the sample of kids who continue to access more expensive care.

Aren’t parents opposed to these changes?

Online parents often claim to speak for all in opposing this deregulation on safety grounds. But providers in a market face strong incentives to give parents the assurances they desire.

Some centres would therefore no doubt advertise they are sticking to the pre-reform ratios, or even develop private accreditation – these rules are only minimum standards, after all.

Parents, not governments, should judge the features that constitute childcare quality. Research analysing Yelp reviews suggests high- and low-income households have different average preferences on this. Richer families tend to be more concerned about childcare as a learning environment. Poorer families worry more about its availability and price.

A government policy for tight ratios amounts to imposing richer households’ preferences to the detriment of poorer households’ needs. Deregulation allows the market to offer various price-feature bundles to suit different families’ wants.

Don’t only the rich use formal childcare?

Torsten Bell, of the Resolution Foundation, implies deregulation won’t help those really struggling, because just 44 percent of poorer parent households use formal childcare, compared with 69 percent of those earning over £45k per year.

This is still a large chunk of the population, however, and at least one of the reasons fewer poor people use formal childcare is precisely because such regulations reduce its availability and raise its price.

Arguing that lower usage rates by poorer households are a reason not to deregulate is as silly as those who think, having constrained housing development around London, that it’s not worth building new properties there because the rich will inevitably buy them.

Isn’t this a distraction to the real cost of living problem?

The strongest argument for not using political capital on this now is that childcare deregulation will not solve the near-term inflation problem driven by overly expansionary macroeconomic policy and heightened energy prices, which is undoubtedly true.

But the art of politics entails pushing for worthy reforms when opportunities arise.

Our current inflation woes are a good time to reflect on how a range of government policies raise the structural level of prices in regressive ways across important sectors, even if these regulations can’t explain the recent living standards squeeze.

As Henry Hill noted, government subsidies and the professionalisation of childcare over two decades have significantly driven up costs of provision, with deeply unsatisfactory results.

Loosening ratio regulations and occupational licensing requirements would not solve all these problems. But it would be a helpful first step to restoring a bit of market sanity to a sector being gradually destroyed by unthinking, cumulative government interventionism.

Robert Halfon: Before polling day, a reminder of the good this Government has done

4 May

Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.

With sincere apologies to the Editor of ConservativeHome, if there was ever a nickname for this wonderful website, it might be ‘Conservative Groan’ or ‘Conservative Moan’.

“The Government should do this, the Government should do that”. “The Government have got this policy wrong.” “No – they’ve got that policy wrong”. “The leadership is Un-conservative”. “No – now it’s too Conservative”.

You get the point. As a regular columnist on this site arguing the case for x, y and z, I should know!

But in February I wrote a column urging the Tory Westminster village to remember our hard-working councillors and activists who are working day and night to keep our councils Conservative.

The loss of Tory councillors does not just mean poor local government, but also a real hit to our activist base in constituencies. When a councillor loses their seat, we often lose their family and friends too. Fewer activists equals less leafleting and campaigning which hits all MPs come election time.

Sadly, in the past few weeks, whilst our activists have been hard at work waging the ground war, canvassing street by street, the war for the airwaves can be best described as too cloudy to wage. Some Conservatives have been taking aim at each other, or lobbing grenades into the political mix.

In order to counter, this as we go to the polls tomorrow it is worth a reminder not just the known fact that Tory Councils cost the public less with lower council tax, but of some of the good things the Government have done, particularly in spreading opportunity.

The Lifetime Skills Guarantee giving adults a new chance to get valuable qualifications. The 1.9 million children in good or outstanding schools. The fuel duty cut on top of the eleven year fuel duty freeze. The increased Living Wage, £150 Council Tax rebate and lower tax thresholds. The £2.6 billion Levelling Up funds, rebuilding our towns and infrastructure.

Then there’s Britain’s role and leadership in the Ukraine war. Our world-leading Covid vaccination programme. A ban to end ground rent charges on leases in England and Wales, and a manifesto commitment to build 300,000 new homes a year.

If I had more column space, I could go on and on as there would be plenty more to add. When things are getting gloomy, as they do for any Government, it is worth reminding ourselves of these achievements.

I suspect tomorrow there might be some Conservatives who may be tempted to sit on their hands as a form of protest given the events of the past few months. Reassuringly, on the doorsteps, we are not seeing a great movement or swing back to Labour, but it is this abstention protest which may cause us difficulties.

So the test tomorrow will be how good all of us are in getting out the Conservative Vote.

In the meantime, I wish all good fortune to every Council Candidate running tomorrow. You deserve to win.

A Windfall Tax

Rishi Sunak is right to float the idea of a windfall tax on the oil companies.

That well known left-winger, Margaret Thatcher, imposed a windfall tax on the oil and bank industry during the 1980s during the difficult economic situation and the recession. She did it because these companies were making wads of cash and because there was a need to deal with the national debt and the deficit.

Currently, with the oil companies raking it in, making many billions of pounds of profits during the cost of living crisis, there is a similar case for a windfall tax to be made. The oil bosses are not doing too badly either (the current Shell CEO got a £4.5 million bonus on top of a £76 million ever increasing annual salary).

The oil companies have also been ripping us off at the petrol pumps, taking ages to reduce prices when the international oil price falls, yet jacking them up straight away when global oil costs rises.

I don’t accept that a windfall tax would mean the loss of thousands of jobs and less investment. They said this in the past and it did not happen.

A few billion pounds raised from a windfall tax, could be used to fund a tax cut for the lower paid. This is Conservative redistribution – fairer capitalism to give those on lower incomes, more of their monies back.

PS. Great news that Boris has ditched plans to ban buy one get free (BOGOF) at supermarkets. Hopefully this will mean an end to hectoring food policies that favour the rich over the less well off.

James Frayne: Working class voters support Net Zero – and campaigns suggesting the contrary are misconceived.

26 Apr

James Frayne is Director of Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion.

You may well be familiar will the following argument: the Conservatives’ working-class, Leave-voting core is incandescent with rage about green taxes and charges, and want the Net Zero target scrapped. If the Government doesn’t respond, these voters will peel off to a new UKIP.

While there’s a superficial plausibility to all this, it’s completely contradicted by polling. If anything, the politicians who should be most scared of populist arguments are right-leaning, green-sceptics. For working-class Conservative voters have slowly swung behind green policies in recent times and find hostility to them strange at best, irritating at worst.

The environment has surged as an issue amongst all voter groups in the last few years. While it’s unquestionably an issue which motivates left-leaning voters and young professionals more, the environment is now at least a tier two issue for everyone – including working-class Leave voters. Yes, they care more about other issues, but they do care about the environment.

I’ve just helped complete a new research project for Onward, informing a new report addressing directly whether working-class Leave Conservatives want the party to pivot away from Net Zero – and whether a rise in the cost of living has made them hostile to the Government’s green agenda. You can read the full tables here but in this project we found the following:

– Working-class Conservatives, who are overwhelmingly Leave voters (I’ll call them “New Conservatives” for brevity) put the environment fifth in their list of national priorities, about level with crime;

– New Conservatives place the environment joint second with the NHS and housing from a list of issues facing their children and grandchildren;

– They support the Net Zero target by 53 percent -14 percent (with the rest unsure), compared to the national average of 60 percent -10 percent.

Elsewhere, we probed the electoral impact of a party committing to dump the Net Zero target. Hypothetical questions need to be placed in their proper context: they can’t be seen as predictions, but rather signifiers for people’s current attitudes. Here we found 36 percent of New Conservatives would be less likely to vote for a party who junked the target, compared to 12 percent who would be more likely to support such a party (with the rest unsure or unmoved).

When those New Conservatives who were considering voting Conservative at a future election were asked directly whether they would support the Conservatives if they junked the target, a fifth said they definitely or probably wouldn’t vote for the party. Not massive, but certainly significant.

Why have so many right-wing politicians and commentators overstated working-class opposition to environmental policies? There are two reasons.

Firstly, because they have conflated working-class interest in other issues with a lack of interest in the environment. Just because working-class voters are primarily worried about issues like the cost of living crisis or the NHS doesn’t mean they’re ambivalent about the environment. On the contrary, as we have seen, they care a great deal. In any focus groups I run on the issue, the environment always comes up and working-class voters invariably say it’s an issue they care deeply about as they fear for their children’s and grandchildren’s future. This has been true for three years, at least.

Secondly, their underestimation of working-class interest means they assume any associated costs must be deeply resented. But ordinary voters have been clobbered by a range of very serious tax rises for many years now – taxes which completely dwarf green taxes and levies. NICs have risen, council tax has risen, and more people have been dragged into higher tax bands. In addition, energy bills have rocketed. In this context, green taxes and levies appear insignificant.

Crucially, the poll shows voters remain committed to the environment generally – and to Net Zero specifically – even as fears about rising living costs grow. When I did similar polling around the time of the financial crisis, this wasn’t the case; at that time, the environment – which had surged briefly as an issue – faded away as economic concerns grew. Such has been the growth in concern about environmental issues, that isn’t now happening.

For those that work in this policy area, perhaps the most interesting data is found at the end of the poll. We tested a range of different “populist” messages designed to move voters for or against Net Zero and environmental policies. These included messages which hammered Net Zero for raising living costs, or cast doubt on the seriousness of the situation, or, conversely, which accused politicians of dragging their feet on the issue or failing to agree sufficient action. They were all harder-edged, emotional messages.

Amongst working-class, Conservative 2019 supporters, as with other voter segments, those messages which pressed for faster action and criticised politicians for failure played better. About half of New Conservatives agreed with the argument which criticised associated costs, and suggested the UK would have little impact when other countries were doing nothing. However, an outright majority (65 percent) agreed with the argument pushing the benefits of Net Zero to the UK; the same was true for an argument which used typically anti-politics messaging in support of action on the climate.

The original fieldwork for the research took place in February. Since then, living costs have risen further and the war in Ukraine has at least raised the prospect of a surge of fear about energy security. We therefore ran an additional top-up poll to see whether opinion had moved. Generally speaking, it has moved very little; if anything, people have become more positive towards green energy alternatives because they want energy generated onshore and using sustainable methods.

 It seems likely we will soon see another leadership contest. Candidates will come under pressure to soften or junk the Net Zero target. Politicians and commentators will assure them this will secure instant popularity. Regardless of the merits or otherwise from a policy perspective, purely electorally it would be counter-productive. Working-class voters – even those from the Conservatives’ Leave-voting core – simply don’t want to go down this route. No, they’re not now green voters, let alone prospective activists. However, working-class voters will ask: when there’s so much waste, and when other taxes are so high, why would you axe a policy which might actually do some good?

Sarah Ingham: Partygate proves that Johnson is past his political sell-by date

15 Apr

Sarah Ingham is author of The Military Covenant: its impact on civil-military relations in Britain.

Never mind cakeism, the Prime Minister really knows how to take the biscuit.

On Wednesday morning, as travellers attempted to leave the country (and who can blame them, given the current sorry state of the nation) Radio 4’s Today devoted most of its interview with Grant Shapps to Partygate.

There was chaos at Dover, at our airports, and at the Eurostar in St Pancras. This was caused, in part, by many holidaymakers wanting to have their first Easter break in two years, having been kettled in this country thanks to the lockdowns imposed by the Government and the devolved administrations.

But instead of being asked why our transport hubs failed to anticipate demand, Shapps spent his time defending the indefensible: Johnson’s breach of the very laws he introduced.

The interview came the day after the police issued a fine for a gathering in the Cabinet room to mark the Prime Minister’s birthday. According to press reports, the birthday cake apparently stayed inside its box, giving Tupperware its biggest starring role since revelations by a fake footman about how the Queen breakfasts.

For once, Number 10 seemed keen to establish that Johnson had his cake – but didn’t eat it. Or even, we infer, blow out candles. A reverse of booster Boris’s usual boast of being pro-having cake and pro-eating it.

News of this particular u-turn came hours before the announcement that inflation has hit a 30-year high of seven per cent.

Eye-watering inflation coincides with the tax burden imposed upon the British people reaching levels not seen since the era of Clement Attlee.

He at least had the excuse of needing funds: for post-War national reconstruction after six years of world war and the defeat of the Nazis; for the Occupation of Germany; for defence against the advance of Communism; for the oversight of an (unravelling) Empire; and for the introduction of the welfare state.

Last weekend, Martin Lewis, founder of, warned that civil unrest might not be far away because of the cost-of-living crisis, as families face a squeeze on their finances, especially with the sky-rocketing price of fuel and food.

Meanwhile, it’s political groundhog day, with headlines and airwaves dominated by Partygate and questions about the Prime Minister’s character.

Right now, the Government is emulating the worse of Edward Heath’s economically calamitous 1970s, allied with John Major’s sleaze-ridden 1990s – without the intervening revolution of the Thatcher era.

Margaret Thatcher had many critics, but none doubted her capacity for hard work, her sense of purpose, or her moral seriousness. She was divisive, often loathed rather than loved, but her integrity was rarely, if ever, called into question. Neither was her mastery of every brief. Unlike some…

“And I have to say in all frankness, at the time, it did not occur to me that this might have been a breach of the rules.”

At this point on Tuesday during Johnson’s statement over his law-breaking, the British public’s howls of outrage might even have got through the cloth ears of many Conservative MPs.

For the Prime Minister not to be up to speed on the laws he and his ministers imposed – via secondary legislation without the benefit of Parliamentary scrutiny – is baffling. For the Prime Minister to be so cavalier about laws which were the most egregious assault on hard-fought freedoms in Britain’s history is beyond comprehension.

Conservative MPs who are telling themselves the electorate “priced in” Johnson’s character flaws back in December 2019 should move with the times. No-one “priced in” his panicking over a pandemic, depriving people of their basic liberties, only then to stick two fingers up to the public by ignoring the rules/laws/guidance himself.

Prime ministers are leaders. Johnson might do worse than look at the Values and Standards of the British Army to remind himself that leadership is a commitment 24/7/365:

“Commanders must understand the importance of Values and Standards, set the right example and demand the same of their subordinates and peers.”

His subordinates must include the cavorting civil servants who believed they were above the law. On the eve of the Duke of Edinburgh’s funeral, they held their very own “swinger’s party”, where Wilfred Johnson’s garden swing was broken. It is unimaginable such conduct would have been contemplated during Theresa May’s time at No.10.

The reason why Johnson has become the first Prime Minister in Britain’s history to have been found to have broken the law is because he’s Boris Johnson. Just like Blair and Iraq, or Cameron and Brexit, he will be linked with piffling, petty Partygate; for living it up while voters could not visit their dying friends and relations.

Perhaps defending the Prime Minister to the media is a displacement activity for Cabinet members who are simply too overwhelmed to begin to tackle the problems piling up in their in-trays.

It must be far easier to have hair-splitting, angels-on-the-head-of-a-pin debates about whether the he lied to, or inadvertently misled, Parliament over the lockdown-busting knees-ups rather than rolling up their sleeves and getting to grips with the NHS backlog in the treatment of cancer, or the estimated 135,000 ‘ghost children’ who have simply disappeared from education.

Ukraine’s President was a television personality who became a politician. He has risen magnificently to lead his country in war. Like Emmanuel Macron suddenly sporting a hoodie and stubble, our Prime Minister wants some of the Zelensky stardust – and perhaps Ukrainian warfighting courage – to rub off on him.

We are also told that we must not change leaders because of the situation in Ukraine. We are being told we must instead stick with Johnson, who was infamously ‘ambushed’ by a cake. A cake which, we now know, stayed in its box. In truth, he is as past his sell-by date.

Max Anderson: 5G broadband is the key to cost-effective levelling up

12 Apr

Max Anderson is a Communications Officer for Bright Blue.

As gas and electricity prices spiral, the cost of living crisis is worsening. Politicians are under increasing pressure to find new solutions to take the burden off stretched household budgets.

Despite Rishi Sunak’s attempts to show himself as the man with all the tax-cutting solutions, his “confused” Spring Statement did little to help those who need it most.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation predicted the Chancellor’s measures won’t prevent 600,000 people being pulled into poverty.

While the overall focus has been on National Insurance, Income Tax, and Fuel Duty, one potential cost-cutting solution has largely gone unnoticed: 5G broadband.

5G has been ‘claimed’ by Michael Gove’s Levelling Up White Paper as it pushes its Wireless Infrastructure Strategy. This isn’t surprising.

The pandemic highlighted the importance of digital infrastructure, as people struggled to keep their social lives and businesses afloat, exposing how insufficient our digital infrastructure is. Polling by Bright Blue revealed that 53 per cent of people working from home during the pandemic struggled with poor internet.

The Government will be hoping that 5G, and its up to 300Mbps download speed, will play its part in levelling up our digital infrastructure while also providing the wireless broadband speeds to offer the platform for innovative technology to improve other sectors.

Despite a small minority who love burning it down, the importance of 5G infrastructure has been recognised as a tool the Government can exploit for providing better internet, but it needs to be recognised as an opportunity to provide cheaper broadband and lower household bills too.

This is especially true for rural communities, whose reliance on cars for transport has also left them particularly open to the cost of living crisis due to rising fuel prices.

Last year, OfCom found that 30 per cent of UK households, mainly rural and left-behind communities, were still on copper wiring broadband as opposed to full-fibre broadband. Although copper broadband is cheap to maintain, it generally can only provide 10 Mbps. As this speed is seen as too slow for UK households, Openreach have taken the decision to switch off all copper broadband by 2025.

However, installing fibre-optic cabling manually and directly into people’s homes is an incredibly expensive and time-consuming task, with the bill ultimately being passed onto consumers, putting greater pressure on households, or onto the Government through further subsidies.

This means the cost-of-living crisis is only going to get worse for rural and left-behind communities who, in a rush to install fibre-optic to ensure they aren’t cut off in 2025, will have to foot the bill for replacing their copper wiring.

However, fibre-optic’s high cost doesn’t end there. Maintaining these connections directly into every single person’s home is an incredibly expensive job, and this cost will once again be passed onto all consumers.

This is where 5G broadband can offer consumers a solution. 5G broadband removes entirely this last mile bottleneck of cabling. Instead of a cable being directly fitted to your home, 5G provides you with broadband from a tower a mile away, through the airwaves straight to your router.

Broadband companies wouldn’t need to maintain, replace and then charge you for this last mile of cabling, which is one of the most costly elements of broadband.

According to Ovum, 5G broadband has the potential to save UK households £240 a year. For rural and left-behind communities, who will also need to cover the expenses of replacing their copper wiring, the potential savings are even greater.

Installing 5G nationally will not be an easy feat, and is currently seen as the technology of tomorrow and not today.

However, the Government must see the radical and cost-saving difference 5G can make in people’s lives during a time when every household is struggling. It should encourage further 5G investment and prosperity building on what the Levelling Up White Paper has started.

Yet DCMS has struggled to keep pace with the digital revolution, shown by their “botched” Online Safety Bill. For once, the Government needs to be proactive and not reactive when it comes to Britain’s growing digital world and creating infrastructure for innovation and saving consumers money is the perfect two birds with one stone solution.