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 MoneySavingExpert.com, 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.

Andrew Dixon: Replacing Council Tax could be a political goldmine for Johnson – or Starmer.

29 Mar

Andrew Dixon is the founder of Fairer Share.

Despite Council Tax being highly unpopular, successive governments have put reform in the ‘too difficult to touch’ box. There has been some tinkering: talk of adding new bands to reflect the significant increase in house prices since the current Council Tax system was introduced in 1991, and recently announced rebates to households in bands A to D.

Both highlighted the crucial link between the cost-of-living crisis and the regressive nature of Council Tax. However, the Government is still uninterested in meaningful reform to our outdated and unfair way of taxing peoples’ homes.

With inflation predicted to reach 8 per cent this year and with energy, fuel and food bills on the rise, now is the time for politicians to tackle Council Tax. Doing so would help reduce costs for the vast majority of households across the country. It could also provide major electoral benefits to whichever of the major parties is willing to grasp it.

Extensive polling by JL Partners indicates that voters throughout the UK believe that it is time to replace Council Tax and Stamp Duty with a simpler and fairer Proportional Property Tax, based on current property values rather than values from over 30 years ago. The findings show that, were the Conservatives to back the proposal, they could gain as many as 60 seats and retain the majority of ‘Red Wall’ seats they won in 2019. On the other hand, were Labour to back the policy, it could help the party gain as many as 52 seats including 43 in the ‘Red Wall’, as well as winning back essential seats in Scotland.

The policy has more supporters than opponents in every single parliamentary constituency. Support for the policy is highest among people living in lower value homes in the North and the Midlands as they would benefit the most from significantly lower bills. Across England, households would pay an average £556 less property tax a year, with this annual saving rising to £750 in Blackpool South and as much as £950 in Hartlepool.

The tipping point at which someone is likely to oppose the policy is when they live in a home worth £500,000 or more – in other words, well above the UK average of £260,000.  Importantly, the minority who oppose a proportional property tax also say it would not be an issue that would make them vote for an alternative party. So, given the clear electoral benefits, why aren’t our political parties fighting each other to back the policy?

When asked about a Proportional Property Tax, the Government responds by saying the tax would mean “soaring bills for many hard-working families and pensioners who have saved and improved their homes”. This shows a complete lack of understanding of the policy, which has significant safeguards in place to protect those who live in valuable homes but have limited income – the so-called “asset rich, cash poor”.

For those who wish to stay in their high value homes, losses would be capped so that, at the point of transition, no-one would pay more than £1,200 more a year than they currently do. For anyone unable to pay this, there would also be the ability to defer payment until the property was sold.

Although the Government has missed the point about the Proportional Property Tax, the Labour leadership has also displayed a deafening silence on this issue. This reflects that the Opposition has a large number of seats in and around London, where house prices have sky-rocketed in recent years. But the latest polling makes it clear that Labour’s concerns about how these voters would respond to a proportional property tax are misguided.

Meanwhile, a surcharge for foreign-owned, empty, and second homes would ensure that international buyers in London pay amounts in property taxes closer to what they might expect in New York or Paris. This would limit the scope for property being used to facilitate economic crime and act as a much-needed control on skyrocketing house prices. The surcharge generates £4.5 billion in tax revenue, which can be used to lower local tax bills for households up and down the country.

Importantly, the policy would generate a surplus of £5.6 billion for the Treasury. Such proceeds could be used to help fund adult social care or limit the recently announced increase in National Insurance. Doing so would be an eye-catching manifesto pledge.

What other tax reform helps to ease the cost-of-living crisis for hard-working families, boosts the public finances to the tune of £5.6 billion, and wins seats at the next election? The Proportional Property Tax would tick all three boxes. If a different yet beneficial reform exists, neither party has yet shared it with the electorate. This reform could be a game changer for the Prime Minister. As the cost of living rises and Sue Gray looms, it is one he should reach for immediately.

James Frayne: The Spring Statement. Has it made voters think that Sunak is “just another Tory”?

29 Mar

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

This last week, the media have given Rishi Sunak a kicking, and the public have followed their lead. This always happens post-financial statements, as the public rely heavily on the expert opinion they see in media coverage. 

Reflecting this, the polls following the Spring Statement have been generally negative. YouGov showed that Sunak’s ratings fell ten points between before and after the Spring Statement. Elsewhere, there are suggestions people generally don’t think the measures announced will have much impact on their lives. 

This is crucial: for some time, the polls have been showing the public believe we are entering a cost of living crisis, where rising bills and prices will put them under severe pressure. The polls have been flashing warning lights since at least the autumn. Voters don’t have much confidence that the Government can ultimately help, and don’t believe the Spring Statement was very helpful either. 

Polling from Ipsos-Mori helps clarify this. In a poll published just before the Spring Statement, nearly half of voters doubted the Government’s policies would improve the state of the economy and 60 per cent doubted they would help improve public services in the long-term. 

Comparing the Conservatives and Labour, the public are divided evenly between Johnson and Sunak or Starmer and Reeves as to who would do a better job managing the economy. The Conservatives are more trusted on growing the economy, while Labour are more trusted on the cost of living – but the numbers don’t fall decisively in any direction on any comparative question – though Ipsos-Mori have much higher ratings for Sunak. 

While YouGov’s ratings for Rishi Sunak’s look very bad, it can be said that Spring Statement didn’t make any fundamental difference to the numbers. There was certainly no re-set and the Government’s numbers continue to slowly decline (slower post-invasion), even if they look better when direct comparisons with Labour are made. The public seem resigned to their fate for the next year or two. 

What are the political implications of this? Above all, that public recognition of the scale of the crisis both limits prospective medium-term damage to the Government and their attractiveness too. Understanding the scale of our economic problems is going to limit the public’s anger with the Government. When they can see a Russian invasion and global inflationary pressures, they won’t blame politicians as quickly or simply as they might. 

However, if the public don’t think Sunak or the Conservatives can make much difference, then it might make a Labour vote seem less risky. In the pandemic, the Government’s economic polling numbers went up because they were seen to be in control and certainly a more attractive option than Labour. This no longer appears to be the case. For the first time, Rishi Sunak is increasingly being viewed as “just another Tory”, and seeing his polling numbers decline with the rest of his party’s. 

Only a “kitchen sink” strategy would make much difference – chucking everything at the problem. Sunak has seemingly partially accepted this. The Spring Statement went for breadth, not depth; he made lots of small-ish announcements designed to show the Government was doing its best on a range of issues. The problem for him is that the public don’t believe the Government has lifted the kitchen sink, let alone thrown it. 

While the Chancellor is clearly right to manage public expectations, it’s hard not to think again about the issue that I raised in the autumn: the need to focus on waste. I wrote at the time: “So why look at Government waste now? Fundamentally, because it’s vital – in the context of a high tax economy and squeezed living standards – that voters see the Government go through a process of actively considering and cutting unnecessary spending wherever they can before retaining high taxes or considering new ones.” I still find it baffling the Treasury hasn’t pursued this. We should expect Labour to try to own it in the next few months.  

In the pandemic, normal political business was suspended. The truth is, it still is. It is perfectly possible that we will see further significant financial measures announced soon; the Government doesn’t always have to wait for its major formal moments to announce new policy. Sunak can therefore be expected to do more at some point. The Government ought to be working on a kitchen sink strategy, with waste central. Without it, they will not turn things around. 

Peter Franklin: Daylight Saving. Time to stop messing with the clocks?

28 Mar

Peter Franklin is an Associate Editor of UnHerd.

I was robbed this weekend. The incident took place early on Sunday, as I slept. When I awoke, I knew that something had been pinched — namely, an hour of my life.

This is a dramatic way of saying that the clocks went forward – especially since I should getting those sixty minutes back in the Autumn. However, there is a possibility that the clocks won’t go back this year, because of the energy crisis.

In his Spring Statement, Rishi Sunak didn’t seem interested in our energy bills shooting up. That hasn’t gone down well – for the first time, his ratings are in negative territory.

My guess is that Downing Street’s denizens are beginning to realise that they need to help households cut their energy consumption in ways that don’t involve sitting in the dark. One time-honoured method of doing that is so-called daylight saving.

Instead of the clocks going back in Autumn this year, one option would be to stay on British Summer Time all winter and then, in a year, put the clocks forward another hour. This would take us into British Double Summer Time, which we had during the Second World War. Or we could repeat the British Standard Time experiment of 1968 to 1971 when we stayed an hour ahead of Greenwich Mean Time all year.

Needless to say, daylight saving doesn’t save any daylight. No matter what we do to our clocks, the sun will be up for as long or as little as the seasons dictate. But, effectively, what we can do is reallocate the hours of daylight from first thing in the morning when a lot of us are still asleep to the evening when almost everyone is awake.

Daylight saving is theoretically an energy saving measure because there’s less need for artificial lighting. In practice, the effect isn’t huge. A 2017 review  shows that it makes no difference to electricity consumption globally. It does reduce usage in higher latitude countries but only by 2% or so.

Furthermore, potential savings are diminishing. Lighting is one of the great frontiers of technological progress. Over the last 200 years the cost has plummeted. Using the amount of illumination produced by a 100 watt filament bulb as a unit, the current cost of an hour’s artificial light was $150 at the end of 18th century, $5 at the 19th’s, and just 5 cents by the millennium . Progress has continued. Over the last decade, we’ve replaced our filament bulbs with super-efficient LED lighting. Moreover, domestic electricity is increasingly generated by wind farms and not fossil fuels.

So given how little difference that extra daylight saving would make to energy consumption, why should the government bother? Simply, to be seen to do something. As long as some measurable effect can be claimed — even a 1% saving — then it could be justified.

I haven’t heard any whispers about this, but governments do love policy ‘levers’ — things that can be enacted just through changing rules. If Downing Street decides that treating the energy crisis as a national emergency is a vote-winner, then British Double Summer Time’s wartime vibe may prove irresistible.

Would that be bad? There are winners and losers to any daylight saving policy. But leaving aside conflicting interests, is there something fundamentally wrong with messing around with time?

The most prominent daylight saving opponent is Peter Hitchens – his polemics are almost as regular as the clock changes themselves.  He has been roundly mocked, especially for claiming that Greenwich Mean Time is “natural, organic, truthful time” and that changing the clocks is to “falsify” time. This allows the clever-clever brigade to point out that GMT is also an invention. If we can invent an arbitrary system for allocating numbers to particular daily points, then why can’t we modify that system whenever convenient?

The answer is that while the choice of the Greenwich meridian may have been a historical accident, there’s nothing arbitrary about measuring time relative to the day’s middle. The sun’s highest point is as natural and organic as it gets. So pretending it’s noon when it isn’t is an act of falsification.

It’s also a exercise in manipulation. There’s nothing to stop us starting our days earlier to make the most of the hours of available daylight; the option is available to every individual and institution. However, the point of changing the clocks is to get everyone to do so unthinkingly in lockstep.

Daylight saving is therefore a means of social engineering — and one of many ways in which clocks have been used in the modern age to reorganise society from the top-down. This is part of an even bigger exercise in manipulation: all the ways in which technology has been used to mechanise our way of life.

That’s not always with bad intentions. If you want a completely organic lifestyle, go live in a cave. However, between the extremes of technocracy and primitivism there’s a middle ground in which freedom depends on our ability to make conscious decisions about how we use technology — and how it uses us. Thus any attempt to change our ways unconsciously should be open to question.

I might not be long before Hitchens has the last laugh. More and more of us get our time from online devices like mobile phones. If that includes you, then ask yourself: when did you last notice that it was running fast or slow? Not in ages, right? That’s because online devices correct themselves and automatically adjust the time when the clocks go forward or back.

It shouldn’t be long before our networks also allow seamless translation between time zones. As long as a device knows where it is globally, then it should be able to take any timestamp on a piece of data and convert it to local time. For instance, a railway timetable would be automatically converted from whatever standard the train company uses, to whatever time that the reader is using. That would mean that timezones could get very local indeed. We could return to the days where every town in the country had its own time.

In the 19th century, technology allowed the standardisation of time across entire nations and regions. But in the 21st century, the process could be thrown into reverse, relocalising our clocks. Our time will be our own again.

Peter Aldous: The cost-of-living crisis means Sunak simply cannot justify a cut to benefits

21 Mar

Peter Aldous is the Conservative MP for Waveney.

With reports of the appalling consequences of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine dominating the news, along with sobering predictions about the impact on energy costs, it is easy to forget that the cost-of-living crisis in the UK predates the conflict.

Inflation has been steadily rising since the middle of last year. The poorest in society, who spend the greatest proportion of their income on essentials, are most exposed to the increase in the cost of food, energy and other essentials. Following a decade in which benefits were frozen and cut in real terms, a growing gap between incomes and costs has become even more pronounced.

It goes without saying that the impact of the conflict in Ukraine on British citizens does not compare to that faced by the millions of Ukrainians whose lives have been thrown into terror and chaos. But neither can we ignore the significant economic impact the conflict will have on our constituents.

The impact on household budgets will be significant. Families already facing the most difficult circumstances must now bear further increases in the cost of heating their homes, feeding their families, and other essential costs. The terrible reality is that many are already going without the very basics and taking on debt just to get to the end of the month, along with all the worry and dread that comes with it.

While the Government has announced measures to support households with rising energy costs, they are no longer sufficient in scale or precision to reach those most at risk, covering only half of the average increase in energy bills and delivered in part via a loan which must be paid back.

In this context we must ask ourselves whether we can justify a real-terms cut to benefits in just a month’s time. Benefits are due to be uprated by just 3.1 per cent in April, based on inflation last September – which is less than half the rate of inflation now.

The independent Joseph Rowntree Foundation predicts that 400,000 people could be pulled into poverty by this real-terms cut, with nine million families who receive means-tested benefits becoming on average £500 per year worse off as a result.

However, these figures – which account for the Government’s already-announced package of support measures – are based on inflation forecasts of seven per cent. With oil and gas prices now spiralling upwards, inflation may now exceed this, with conservative estimates projecting it will reach eight per cent in April.

This real-terms reduction is being imposed on benefit levels that are already at too low a level. It is easy to overlook the fact that, prior to the pandemic-induced £20 uplift to Universal Credit, this benefit had been frozen for four years.

The value of our main out-of-work support has now been eroded to the point that it is wholly inadequate to protect families from harm. My voice was among those warning that the removal of this uplift last October was a mistake, because of the harsh impact it would have on the poorest in society. That impact is now even worse than feared.

Let us not underestimate the impact another cut to benefits will have on our constituents. There can be few who have not, at some point, considered the impact of the rising cost of living on their own situation over the last few months. But the anxiety felt by those on the lowest incomes is omnipresent.

As Conservatives, we believe in giving people the stable foundations on which to progress and thrive. We should recognise that an effective social security system is a crucial mechanism for delivering this, providing security and stability when events beyond people’s control create turbulence. When people’s lives are already often difficult and complex, can we really expect them to thrive if they are gripped by anxiety about how to keep warm and to feed their families?

In the Spring Statement, the Chancellor is likely to come forward with new measures to support people in the coming months, with a focus on the ‘squeezed middle’. Whilst he would be right to do this, we must not allow this to detract from the need to support those at the very bottom.

The scale of the harm to living standards for those on the lowest incomes should leave us very concerned. We have a responsibility to protect our constituents from the worst impacts of rising costs. Awareness of the real-terms cut coming down the track may not be widespread, but the impact on living standards in the current context could be far greater. Let us not make the same mistake again.

Tom Clougherty: The Chancellor can help households next week by raising tax thresholds and rebooting energy policy

16 Mar

It can’t currently be much fun being Rishi Sunak. Next week’s Spring Statement was supposed to be dull. He would update us on the economy and the public finances, announce a few worthy policy reviews and consultations, confirm previously announced plans, and sit down.

Instead, only days to go, the Chancellor finds himself facing surging inflation, a cost of living crisis, and war in Europe. People want him to cut taxes, raise benefits, spend more on defence (and a hundred other things) and still keep the public finances ticking towards balance. Good luck with that.

Politically and practically, the rising cost of living – driven primarily by energy prices – is Sunak’s most immediate and important challenge. Things were bad even before Russia invaded Ukraine, but the conflict’s appalling humanitarian cost will likely be accompanied by still-higher energy prices and even an inflationary supply shock to global food markets.

So rising prices will be with us for a while. With little sign of corresponding wage increases, households across the country will be pinched. Sadly, there isn’t much the Chancellor can do about global prices. All he can currently do is help us to adapt, while sheltering the most vulnerable households from inflation’s impact.

On electricity and gas bills, the Chancellor will probably argue – with justification – that he has already responded to the pending increase in the energy price cap, and that further measures should wait until the energy price cap rises again in October.

Another possibility is help for motorists. Sunak has been urged to follow France, Sweden, Ireland, and the Netherlands’ examples by cutting fuel duty. The RAC says that rising VAT receipts from higher pump prices could be recycled into a 5p/litre cut. I’m not convinced that’s the best use of scarce fiscal firepower (especially with an ongoing ambitious transition to electric vehicles). Voters may also not notice the saving or credit the Chancellor for it. Still, my fellow motorists wouldn’t say no.

If policy changes are intended to offset cost of living pressures, it’s generally better they align with longer term plans, or have their own convincing rationale. The Chancellor could turn to two such ideas. Firstly, he could move some green levies off energy bills and fund any connected environmental programmes from general taxation. It makes sense for carbon costs to be reflected in consumer prices, but not that other commitments are loaded onto household bills.

Another sensible change would be to base automatic increases to benefits (and, ideally, tax thresholds) on the most up-to-date inflation figures we have, rather than those of six months ago. There’s no particular reason why we use such a lagged indicator. Switching to more timely and accurate uprating would help households now, but also constitute a general rationalisation. Benefits, credits, thresholds, and allowances could also be uprated alongside forecast inflation, with subsequent adjustments for over- or undershoots.

Of course, if we’re talking about rational and coherent policy, we can’t overlook the National Insurance hike soon set to take effect – which is, alas, neither. It is scarcely believable that any government, let alone a Conservative one, would choose to raise taxes on workers and employers during a cost of living crunch.

And yet here we are. If people need money, the first thing the government should do is let them keep more of what they earn. To do otherwise is politically perverse, economically destructive, and a betrayal of conservative principle.

It is also unnecessary. There is no pressing need to ‘pay down Covid debt’. The best way to pay for a one-off, pandemic-induced NHS backlog is by borrowing the money and spreading the cost over time. The Treasury is understandably worried about rising borrowing costs, but, generally, people are still prepared to lend to the government extremely cheaply. That is unlikely to change soon.

Of course, we should never borrow and spend just for it’s own sake. Balancing the budget, streamlining the state, and protecting future generations are noble goals. But there’s a question of priorities – and the decision to put fiscal targets ahead of hard-working households and their shrinking incomes suggests the wrong ones.

If the National Insurance rises can’t be cancelled or deferred, then the Chancellor should do what the Centre for Policy Studies has suggested and raise the primary threshold for individuals. That way no-one earning the average wage or below would lose out.

Such an approach would also give the Chancellor an opportunity to make good on a key 2019 manifesto promise to raise the threshold for National Insurance towards the personal allowance for income tax. It would cost around a third of the expected revenue from the health and social care levy.

In the longer term? Recent events have made clear that the government’s energy policy needs rebooting. So anything the Chancellor can do to remove barriers to new nuclear and renewables, as well as offshore oil and gas extraction (and even fracking) would be welcome. Crucially, that includes rejecting calls for counterproductive windfall taxes.

The Chancellor should also build on his recent Mais lecture, which focused on the need to ‘accelerate growth and rejuvenate our national productivity’, with a particular emphasis on business investment, skills, and research and development.

There’s an especially pressing need for policymaking for the first, given that we’re a year away from the corporation tax rate rising, the investment super-deduction expiring, and the annual investment allowance falling precipitously.

The Chancellor will likely announce a new, permanent approach to taxing business investment in this autumn’s Budget. For now, he must reassure business that he understands their concerns, and invite views on what a more investment-friendly corporation tax regime would look like.

I realise that’s an awfully long way from war, inflation, and energy crisis. But I suspect it’s precisely the sort of thing that Rishi Sunak hoped he would be originally able to focus on in his Spring Statement.

Tom Clougherty is Head of Tax & Editorial Director at the Centre for Policy Studies.