Places need power if they’re to level up

3 Feb

Do you remember the Third Way?  It was Tony Blair’s attempt to spray gloss a veneer of political philosophy on New Labour’s ruthlessly focused election machine – rejecting a choice between “prosperous and efficient Britain” (Thatcher’s Conservatives) and a “caring and compassionate Britain” (Old Labour).

For a while, the Third Way attracted commentary, praise from Blair groupies, and criticism – before Gordon Brown put the slogan out of its misery.  The era of marginalising the Tories and the Left had come to an end.

Then came the Big Society.  This was David Cameron’s big idea, or should I say Steve Hilton’s?  Again, it was an attempt to give a political project definition, but Hilton was empowered to further the idea, or try to – before the then Prime Minister lost patience with it (and him).

But for a few years, the Big Society was all the rage – at least among  organisations seeking cash, thinkers and doers seeking patronage, civil servants recasting projects, and a mass of others trying to get in on the act.

Levelling up has provoked the same pattern of behaviour, and my sense as an Editor is that no subject since Brexit has attracted more submissions to ConservativeHome (with the exception of Tory MPs offering pieces backing of Net Zero, often because they have a constituency interest in green energy).

Schools, work, skills, productivity, infrastructure, transport, housing, science, procurement, high streets, law and order, elected mayors, health, broadband, sport, parks, culture: nothing human and indeed unhuman is alien to levelling up.

This provokes the criticism that if levelling up is about everything it is thus about nothing – assuming that it’s understood in the first place.  “People find it confusing and then, when it’s explained to them, mildly irritating,” Rachel Wolf, the co-author of the 2019 Conservative Manifesto, wrote on this site.

All the same, the central message of levelling up seems clear enough to me: at heart, it’s about redressing the economic, cultural and social imbalance between the Greater South East and much of the rest of Britain.

If this isn’t One Nation conservatism in post-Brexit guise, I don’t know what is.  The heartland of the Leave vote in the 2016 referendum was provincial England, which thereby rejected the status quo – including an economic model heavily reliant on unskilled migration, financial services, low wages, and London plus its hinterland.

Michael Gove said more or less as much in the Commons yesterday.  “While talent is spread equally across the United Kingdom, opportunity is not.”

“We need to tackle and reverse the inequality that is limiting so many horizons and that also harms our economy. The gap between much of the south-east and the rest of the country in productivity, in health outcomes, in wages, in school results and in job opportunities must be closed.”

It’s therefore evident not only what levelling up is but what it isn’t.  Fundamentally, it isn’t focused on prosperity, though this would certainly be a by-product of the project were it to work.

After all, a Government focused simply on prosperity, or at least growth, might well double down on the present economic model, supplemented by tax cuts, a reinvigorated private sector, and deregulation. This seems to me to be precisely what some in the centre-right thinks believe we should do.

“The intention to spread government R&D around the country could damage the success story of the Oxford-Cambridge corridor,” the Institute of Economic Affairs said in its response to the White Paper.

This suggests the nightmare endpoint of a levelling up policy which makes the Greater South East worse off than it otherwise would be while leaving much of the rest of the country not much better off than it is now.  You can bet that what the IEA is saying some Tory MPs with home counties seats will be thinking.

If levelling up isn’t fundamentally about prosperity, it isn’t exactly about people either.  Government could help to upskill the next generation only for it to up sticks and head for the Greater South East, as so many have done before.

No, levelling up is primarily about place (and therefore includes in its ambit those bits of the South East that aren’t well off at all).  In which context, that long list of concerns begins to become explicable, since all help to make a place what it is and can be.

Having said which, some of the core elements of levelling up – better transport, joining up towns and cities and skills – look a lot like George Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse.

Let me leave aside such disparate questions about the White Paper as: how many of the proposals are actually reannouncements?  Are targets for 2030 really meaningful?  What’s the knock on for target seats?  And will Gove now vanish from public view again?

Instead, it’s worth reflecting on the magnitude of the task which the Government has set itself, perhaps as much by accident as anything else.

The gravitational pull of London on the rest of the country is more powerful than that of the capital cities of comparable neighbouring countries. Although it has a great deal of poverty within it, the city of which Boris Johnson was once Mayor is an international hub, the centrepiece of a relatively open economy.

Read accounts of how parts of the country boomed when Neville Chamberlain was Chancellor, with a mass of housing and roads being built in and around London, and you will see how little has changed.

If one element of the White Paper has the capacity to drive change is the localism proposals – cautious though these are now that this Parliament approaches its mid-term.  The best time for radicalism is at the start of a new government and that moment has gone.

But whether the matter to hand is better skills, industrial strategy, apprenticeships, emission reduction, integrated transport or a joined-up plan to implement net-zero carbon, central government is badly placed to do the job

Gove referred yesterday to giving such local Mayors as Ben Houchen, Dan Jarvis and Andy Street more powers, and held out the prospect of creating new mayors “where people want them”.  That may be as much as he wanted to do, or his colleagues would let him get away with.

“Whatever you’re doing in terms of devolution, double it. In terms of local taxation, double it,” Osborne said last year in an interview with ConservativeHome.

Without ambition on that scale, along the localist lines of Douglas Carswell and Daniel Hannan’s The Plan, there will be no irreversible shift in the balance of power and wealth in favour of the provinces, to misquote Tony Benn.  Places need power if they’re to level up.

Peter Franklin: Ten reasons why Labour isn’t dead yet

27 Sep

Peter Franklin is an Associate Editor of UnHerd.

Here’s something to cheer up the gloomiest Tory: the Labour Party.

Out of power for eleven years and counting. Four general election defeats in a row. The loss of Scotland in 2015. The loss of the Red Wall in 2019. The loss of Hartlepool in 2021 (in a by-election, to a fourth-term Tory government).

This year’s party conference was a chance for a fresh start. But, so far, it’s been a disaster — featuring a 12,500 word “essay” that nobody read; an absurd statement on female anatomy; and a watered-down attempt to change the party rules on leadership elections.

That last one sums up the futility of last eleven years. Since 2010, Labour has elected three leaders. The third leader is using up his political capital on trying to reverse the first leader’s biggest mistake in the hope that no one like the second leader is ever elected again.

If Conservatives don’t take the Labour Party seriously, one can hardly blame them. And yet that could prove to be a big mistake. Labour is a much stronger foe than immediate appearances suggest.

Here are ten reasons why:

1) An irreducible core of support

I’m old enough to remember when the Conservative Party was in the same position that Labour is today. In fact from 1997 to 2005 we had 40 fewer seats than Labour’s current tally. At the time there were those who pronounced the party’s decline to be irreversible. And yet, even at the lowest ebb, the Tories never lost their major party status. There was an irreducible core of Conservative support (roughly 30 per cent of the electorate) and a heartland that held out against Tony Blair.

The same is true of Labour in 2021. The Red Wall may have fallen, but there are other red walls — the big cities, the Welsh Valleys and a sprinkling of university towns. These are still standing.

2) A plausible Prime Minister

I used to think that Keir Starmer was a poor leader of the Labour Party, but a good Leader of the Opposition. However, I’ve now seen enough his performances to convince me he’s bad at both.

He is, in the words of Ruth Davidson, “a dud” — except, that is, for one redeeming quality: you could imagine him in the role of Prime Minister. I mean that literally. If he was an actor and British politics a TV drama (yes, yes, same difference) — then one could plausibly cast him as the leader of his country.

The same could never have been said of Ed Miliband or Jeremy Corbyn. So in that respect Labour’s taken a big step forward.

3) The German model

Of course, plausibility isn’t the same thing as popularity. And Starmer certainly doesn’t have the latter. But then neither did his German opposite number, Olaf Scholz — also a dull social democrat. And yet over the course of the German general election campaign he emerged as the voters’ favourite to succeed Angela Merkel.

Scholz didn’t receive a charisma transplant, he just stood out as the best of bad bunch. Admittedly that’s not the most vaulting of ambitions for Starmer, but sometimes it’s all you need.

4) Time for a change?

Tories don’t have to buy into theories of a centre-left revival to view the Germany result with concern. They just have to remember that, eventually, voters get fed up with having the same old party in power. After 16 years of CDU-led governments, it’s clear that German voters wanted something different.

By the time of the next British general election, we’ll have had 13 or 14 years of Tory-led government. If British voters decide time’s up, then the only alternative to a Conservative Prime Minister is a Labour Prime Minister.

5) A reservoir of potential voters

According to the polls, Labour is still stuck in the low-to-mid-thirties. That’s not enough. So where do the extra votes come from?

Well don’t forget the other parties of the centre-left. Between them, the Lib Dems and the Greens have got nearly 20 per cent in the polls. If Labour can squeeze that — especially in marginal seats where they’re best placed to win — then they’re back in business.

6) Brexit fade

And there’s another potential source of votes: people who voted Labour as recently as 2017, but who broke with the party over Brexit.

But how long will the Brexit effect last? Five years, ten years, a generation? Or is it already fading away? We just don’t know because we’ve never been here before.

I suspect that the only permanent loyalty among Red Wall voters is to not being taken for granted. Best not to let them down, then.

7) The spectre of 2017

One doesn’t have to speculate about Labour consolidating the left-leaning vote, because it’s happened once already.

I know that everyone except the Corbynites would rather forget, but in 2017 Labour won 40 per cent of the vote.

Can we be sure that there’s no potential for a second consolidation? Yes, it’s a nightmare scenario — but sometimes nightmares come true.

8) Coalition partners

Labour’s own nightmare is that’s they’ll never win a majority again. However, that doesn’t mean that they won’t be able to form a government. In fact, in the event of hung parliament, Labour now has an overwhelming advantage over the Conservatives.

Of the parties currently represented in the Commons, potential partners for Labour include any or all of the following: the SNP, the Lib Dems, Plaid Cymru, the Greens, the SDLP, the Alliance and (perhaps) the DUP.

How many of those would conceivably join a Conservative-led coalition (or prop up a minority government)? Well, after Ed Davey’s announcement last week, just the DUP — and they’re in decline.

So let’s be clear about this: an inconclusive election result almost certainly means a Labour-led government.

9) A new leader

Even if there’s no repeat of the 2017 scenario, there is another precedent to watch out for — 1994. That was the last time that Labour got tired of losing — and chose an electable leader.

But does Labour today have the equivalent of a Tony Blair? It does, and his name is Dan Jarvis — a political moderate, a former British Army officer and an MP for a northern seat. A sane Labour Party would have elected him leader five years ago, but a fifth successive general election might just bring them to their senses.

Jarvis has been in semi-exile from Westminster politics, serving as Mayor of the South Yorkshire metro region since 2018. Significantly, he’s now stepping down from that role. Perhaps, he’s got his eye on another position?

10) The coming red wave

Finally, let’s look far beyond the next general election — which we can do by looking at generational voting patterns.

It’s an over-simplification to say that old people vote Conservative and young people vote Labour — but it’s never been closer to the truth than it is today.

Of course, a pensioner’s vote is every bit as valid as anybody else’s – but that doesn’t just change the fact that the Grim Reaper is on Labour’s side.

One might hope that younger voters will turn Tory as they mature, but why would they if we continue to exclude them from home ownership? If we fail to turn that around, then Labour’s future looks a lot brighter than its present.

Sarah Ingham: The success of Taliban 2.0 has left Britain, and its semi-detached MPs, bereft of answers

20 Aug

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

“General Motors is alive and Osama bin Laden is dead.”

Reviewing Barack Obama’s first term in office, Joe Biden, then Vice President, provided a pithy summary in 2012.

Almost a decade after al-Qaeda’s world-changing 9/11 attack on America, in May 2011 US Special Forces finally got their man. He had been hiding out in Abbottabad, which could be twinned with Aldershot, on the other side of Afghanistan’s often conveniently porous border with Pakistan.

Up there with other great political comebacks are now the Taliban. Ten years after the unlamented passing of bin Laden, history’s most troublesome paying guest, 20 years after being ousted by NATO forces and the local Northern Alliance, the regime is now in power. Or, as the lawyer for ISIS-groupie Shamima Begum tweeted to accompany the image of gun-carrying fighters with their feet under the Presidential desk in Kabul, “The boys are back in town”.

The success of Taliban 2.0 in the past two weeks has made us question the worth of Britain’s mission in Afghanistan over the past two decades. Or should that be missions?

In his memoirs Tony Blair reflects on his choices after the first Taliban regime was overthrown: “Like it or not, from then on, we were in the business of nation-building.” A Journey was published in 2010 with the benefit of hindsight. Britain joined American military action in Afghanistan in late 2001 under our Article 5 NATO treaty obligations. Back then, there was no plan to set up a liberal democracy or to educate girls.

Keen to keep busy after the end of the Cold War – “Go out of area or go out of business” – in June 2004 NATO members committed to an expanded operation in Afghanistan. Like a bust Monopoly player’s properties, the country’s provinces were divvied up. Outlining the scope of the British military mission in Helmand, in January 2006, John Reid, the Defence Secretary, talked the talk about “a fully integrated package addressing governance, security and political and social change” and “finding real alternatives to the harvesting of opium”. He added “waging war is not our aim”.

With British forces under heavy fire from the Taliban almost as soon as their boots were on the ground, the current doubts about the quality of Afghan-related intelligence are hardly new. After all, Secretary Reid stated “we would be perfectly happy to leave in three years’ time without firing one shot”.

Stabilisation? Protecting reconstruction? Nation-building? Counter-terrorism? Counter-insurgency? Counter-poppy? Combat? With the Blair-Brown government unsure of its objective in Afghanistan, it is unsurprising the public was baffled about the British role. In October 2006, 64 per cent reported there was no clear strategy. Three years later, 42 per cent did not understand the purpose of the British mission and more than 60 per cent believed the war was unwinnable and all troops should be withdrawn.

Conversely, Service personnel had never been held in higher esteem, approval ratings which continue today. Soldiers’ service and sacrifice – including the preparedness to make the ultimate sacrifice – became especially apparent on the final melancholy journeys through Wootton Bassett. The changes in Afghanistan in the last 20 years have come about not least because of the professionalism and commitment of Britain’s Servicemen and women.

Combat operations ended in 2015. To paraphrase Keir Starmer, in the context of Afghanistan most of us in Britain seem to have been on the beach ever since. How many were aware of Operation Toral, the UK’s mission to train local Afghan Forces, not least at Sandhurst-in-the-Sand? Who raised concerns about the Trump-Taliban deal in Doha?

MPs’ semi-detached attitude towards Afghanistan was underlined by the almost complete absence of statesmanship in Wednesday’s Emergency Debate. Of course, given that most of our representatives have not actually bothered to show up for work for 15 months, they are out of practice, but that is no excuse for sanctimony at levels rivalling the peaks of the Hindu Kush. Apart from Tom Tugendhat, Dan Jarvis and a handful of others, most MPs should have stayed at home.

Regime change, which many MPs were in favour of in Iraq, usually involves chaos, bloodshed and a humanitarian crisis. Has the Stop the War movement become Continue the Military Intervention?

Perhaps Washington’s critics should tell us just how much they would like to take from the NHS budget to pay for an increase in defence to cover a unilateral British mission to Afghanistan. For the past half century this country has chosen welfare over warfare, sheltering under an American defence umbrella. US taxpayers have spent $2 trillion; more than 20,000 US Service personnel have been injured and 2,400 killed. With so much American blood and treasure spent in Afghanistan, evincing some gratitude toward our chief NATO ally would have been fitting.

What of the bigger strategic picture? The silence from MPs on this was deafening. The Prime Minister was correct to point out that deploying tens of thousands of British troops to fight the Taliban is not an option.

In the rush to judgment over the past week, few have stopped to ask why the Taliban could seize power so easily. So far, the handover has been comparatively orderly. Just as London is not Britain, cosmopolitan Kabul might not be Afghanistan.

And who are the Taliban 2.0? How do they fit into this tribal multi-ethnic country, where mobile phone ownership has gone from about 30,000 to 22.5 million in the past 20 years. Supposing they are less medieval executioners-in-football-stadia and more 21st century smartphone-savvy operators, mindful of optics seen globally and instantly?

If Britain has a problem doing business with an Islamic regime with dubious attitudes towards women and civil rights, there goes most of the Middle East. As yet there are no evacuation helicopters hovering over the embassies of China and Russia in Kabul: perhaps staff are too busy drawing up deals over mineral rights and infrastructure.

This week President Biden declared that “we” could not provide “them” with the will to fight. A young British Army officer might well have disagreed. The Malakand Field Force describes a short military campaign in 1897 in a tribal area near the Durand Line, the newly-drawn border between British India and Afghanistan, specifically designed to protect Britain’s imperial interests.

The author, Second Lieutenant Winston Churchill, admired the enemy Pashtu tribesmen: “To the ferocity of the Zulu are added the craft of the Redskin and the marksmanship of the Boer… Every man’s hand is against the other, and all against the stranger.”

Andrew Gimson’s PMQs sketch: Johnson wishes to remain in office for another ten or 20 years, so goes on the defensive

10 Mar

“Who does the Prime Minister think deserves a pay rise more?” Sir Keir Starmer began. “An NHS nurse or Dominic Cummings?”

Brevity is the soul of wit, and Sir Keir is getting briefer. Johnson could have retorted that it’s much cheaper to raise the pay of Cummings than of NHS nurses, as there’s only one of him.

The Prime Minister might have added that Cummings is worth every penny of the pay rise awarded shortly before his departure from Downing Street, for he had previously devised two slogans of genius: “Take Back Control” and “Get Brexit Done”.

But Johnson wishes to remain Prime Minister for another ten or 20 years, so instead declared that “we all owe a massive debt to our nurses”.

He did not proceed to say the massive debt will be paid by giving them a more than one per cent pay rise. But he did say “we will look at what the independent pay review body has to say, exceptionally about the nursing profession, whom we particularly value”.

Can it be that the Government will give ground on nurses’ pay, in order to distract the nation’s attention from pay restraint elsewhere in the public sector?

Sir Keir was not mollified: “He clapped for carers, then he shut the door in their face at the first opportunity.”

Johnson insisted that “we have massively increased funding for our amazing NHS”. The Prime Minister long ago decided, probably on Cummings’ advice, that the NHS is a national religion before which it is essential to bow down and worship.

Sir Keir accused him of being a hypocrite, who only pretends to venerate the NHS: “The mask is slipping.”

Johnson played safe, resorting to a tried and tested line: “We vaccinate, he vacillates.”

Dan Jarvis (Lab, Barnsley Central) bowled another short question: “If the Prime Minister is serious about levelling up the country does he honestly think that favouring the Chancellor’s Richmondshire constituency over Barnsley for financial support is the best way to do it?”

A moment’s hesitation from the PM as he worked out how to block this delivery: “Mr Speaker, we’ve, er, we are devoted to levelling up across the entire country, and that goes for Barnsley as well as everywhere else.”

Labour has not yet found a way to beat Johnson, but it does sometimes throw him on the defensive.