Alex Crowley: NIMBYs may be vocal, but they do not represent the majority – who want more houses built

24 May

Alex Crowley is a former Political Director to Boris Johnson and microbusiness owner.

If you’re the type to browse the Conservative Party poster archive on a rainy day you will come across all manner of delights.

The classics are all there: “Labour isn’t working”, “What does the Conservative Party offer a working-class kid from Brixton” and so on. From the stark black and white text of Saatchi to the hand drawn art of the 1930s, the themes remain constant: tax, security and jobs.

What struck me though, as I rolled through to the present day, was a theme that has faded over the years. Housing.

Take one from 1929: “800,000 houses built by the Conservatives in the last 4 years.”

Or one from 1951: “Had enough high prices house hunting?”

In 1963 it was about building 1,000 houses a day and in 1987 we proclaimed that a million council homes had been sold to their tenants.

Housing was part of our core offer because, at a base electoral level, building homes and expanding home ownership was necessary and popular.

But we don’t lead on it anymore.

Today it is estimated we are some 1.2 million homes short of what we need. With a whole generation of people who believe they will never get on the property ladder, building homes should be more electorally popular now than ever before.

However, talk to most councillors and MPs, particularly in the South East, and they will tell you “over development” is deeply unpopular. (They support more homes, of course, but only in the “right” places.)

This is why successive administrations have both set ambitious housing targets and left the actual mechanism to deliver them – the planning system – well alone.

Until now.

As noted on this site, the most genuinely reforming part of the Queen’s Speech is planning reform. But it’s also the most likely to be diluted beyond recognition, in the face of intense opposition from the parliamentary party.

I will leave the policy nuances to others, suffice to say that our planning system is optimised to overweight the views of NIMBYs. Until that changes, we will never build enough homes.

Back to the politics. Under Boris Johnson, the party has positioned itself to dominate the current electoral landscape. Corbynite on public spending, Genghis Khan on crime, Grimes on culture all wrapped in sunny, Brexit-y Boris.

But there is one bit missing.

No 10 know full well that home ownership is the single biggest predictor of someone being a Tory voter (apart, of course, from voting intention). Hence constant subsidy for first time buyers and now this attempt at unlocking the system once and for all.

Yet those who worry about the future of the party in the traditional shire strongholds will tell you that being pro-development is a definite vote loser. A slap that could sting every bit as much as Brexit.

They will point, as David Gauke did, to issues like “unpopular” local housing plans as a reason for Conservative underperformance.

Planning reform risks driving these homeowning, Remain leaning, upper middle-class voters further into the arms of Starmer’s Labour, the Lib Dems and Greens.

It’s a legitimate concern. According to one estimate, over a recent three year period, there were almost two million objections to planning applications. That’s about 80 an hour.

But here’s the thing. Housebuilding is actually popular, has been for years and this is true in every part of the country and for every demographic.

I’m not talking in the abstract. When the long running British Social Attitudes survey asked if people supported housebuilding in their area, almost 60 per cent said yes. This has increased from just 28 per cent 10 years ago. Voters have noticed a rocketing house price to wages ratio.

This silent majority exists wherever you care to look, most obviously among renters under 35, but also in the most apparently NIMBY of places:

  • 48 per cent of those who live in a “country village” (compared to 28 per cent against)
  • 55 per cent in the South East
  • 53 per cent aged over 66
  • 54 per cent earning over £4,000 a month
  • 50 per cent who already own (compared to 28 per cent against)

But, you might ask, is this not a classic case of people telling pollsters what they think is socially acceptable, masking their true selfishness?

Curious about this, some pro-housebuilding colleagues and I started a campaign to find out.

The Just Build Homes campaign works on a simple premise – our planning system is optimised for existing homeowners with plenty of time, money and expertise at their disposal to object. Their voices are amplified way beyond their numbers.

The majority who would benefit the most from housebuilding – younger renters – are effectively excluded from the decision-making process. This needs to change.

In the accompanying notes to the Queen’s Speech, the Government noted that just three per cent of people engage with planning applications. One can guess where these people stand.

So, our campaign went into leafy areas to see if we could engage and persuade the silent pro-housebuilding majority.

We made it digital, easy and quick. We kept our message very simple – build more homes – and we targeted excluded voices.

The results? In Havering (outer London) we registered over 300 supporters and counting. In Sevenoaks, we got over 100 supporters for a single scheme. All in a matter of weeks. Most schemes struggle to break 10 supporters over many months (with opponents in the hundreds).

We found this audience were highly receptive to engagement, with a high rate of conversion to support. They are desperate to see more homes built.

The political point here is that there is a massive pool of new voters for the party. There is significant electoral value, especially in the shires, to be pro-housebuilding.

If you believe that younger voters moving into Tory areas from London, bringing with them their “liberal” voting habits, represents a threat then consider this.

In a worsening housing crisis, planning reform is a political opportunity to grab these voters. What do they value most? The same thing those of us lucky enough to be homeowners do. A home for our families – a foundation upon which to build a life.

If that’s not conservativism, I really don’t know what is.

Our political future lies as much in being the party that unashamedly pursues building more homes as it does in levelling up. Not only is it the right thing to do, but it will also give us a complete lock on the electoral map.

Sorry, Matthew, but there’s a Centre Party already – Johnson’s Conservatives

3 May

It’s easier to define what the centre ground of politics isn’t than what it is.  So here goes.

It’s not the same territory in one generation as in the next: political landscapes change – sometimes because of a volcanic eruption, like the financial crash; sometimes more slowly, because of eroding attitudes (on eugenics, say, or over women).

Nor is it found by picking some point halfway between that held by the two main parties.  Most voters aren’t engaged with them in the first place, or with politics at all.

Polling will help you to find it, but the map it provides is confusing – at least to political afficiandos.  For example, most voters are broadly pro-NHS but anti-immigration.  Does that make them Left or Right?

Those two examples help to find the answer – as close to one as we can get, anyway.  Voters lean Left on economics and Right on culture. To their being anti-migration (though less than they were) and pro-health service, we add the following.

English voters are also: patriotic, pro-lockdown, anti-racist, pro-armed forces and supportive of public spending over tax cuts (if forced to choose).

They are somewhat isolationist, pro-Joe Biden rather than Donald Trump, unsupportive of the aid budget when push comes to shove, punitive on crime, and paralysed over housing, where the interests of different generations net out.

Centrist voters, like a lot of others, are also closer to teachers than Ministers, at least if they have children of school age – a headache for reforming Ministers of all parties.

They are pro-environment, but in a certain way: our columnist James Frayne has suggested that there is a consensus for improving food safety, animal welfare, protecting areas of natural beauty and reducing the use of plastic.

(Welsh voters are broadly the same; Scottish ones are divided over patriotism and, as the inter-SNP dispute over trans has demonstrated, probably a bit more to the Right on culture, as well as rather more to the Left on economics.)

James himself, whose fortnightly column on this site we call “Far from Notting Hill”, isn’t himself a million miles away from where this centre currently is.

If you wanted to pick out some issues that give the flavour of it, you could do worse than the following: hospital parking charges, pet kidnappings, the proposed Football Superleague, and the decline of high streets (which doesn’t stop those who complain using Amazon).

This ground was getting bigger, like a widening land enclosure, before Brexit; and leaving the EU has allowed it to become even bigger.  You can see where all this is going.

Theresa May, under the guidance of Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, had first dibs at occupying this territory – or, if you distrust the metaphor of ground, winning the support of these voters – remember “citizens of nowhere”, and all that.

She made a botch of the job, and Boris Johnson had a second go.  Do you want to go Left on economics?  If so, you’ll welcome his government’s proposed Corporation Tax rises, the record borrowing, the superdeduction for manufacturing, the net zero commitments.

Do you want to go Right on culture?  There’s less for you here, given the quiet shift to a more permissive migration policy.  Even so, you can rely on Johnson not to “take a knee”, unlike Keir Starmer; and to commission the Sewell Report; and to protect statues.

We are over five hundred words into this article, and haven’t yet deployed those two reverberating words: “Red Wall”.  But now we have, that the Conservatives hold, say, Burnley, Redcar and West Bromwich East says something about this new centre and who lives in it.

Whatever this week’s local, Mayoral, Scottish and Wesh elections may bring, these voters are Johnson’s to lose – if Starmer can’t grab enough of them: he has done nothing to date to suggest that he can.

If you want to know why this is so, consider the three most coherent alternatives to today’s Johnsonian centre party.  First, one that begins by being to the right of it on economics.

It would be for a smaller state, free markets, lower taxes and personal freedom.  This outlook is likely to drag it to left on culture: for example, it would not be uncomfortable with the present immigration policy, and not always exercised by “woke”.

It members might include: Liz Truss, Kwasi Kwarteng, Matt Ridley, Steve Baker, Lee Rowley, Sam Bowman, Crispin Blunt and our columnists Ryan Bourne, Emily Carver and Dan Hannan.

We see no reason why it shouldn’t include economically liberal former Remainers other than Truss – such as, talking of this site columnists, David Gauke.  Or, if you really want to put the cat among the pigeons, George Osborne.

Next up, a party that starts by being to the left on culture.  This already exists.  It’s called the Labour Party.  It’s Dawn Butler going on about “racial gatekeepers” and Nadia Whittome refusing to condemn the Bristol rioters.

It’s Angela Rayner claiming that the former husband of the Conservative candidate in Hartlepool was once a banker in the Cayman Islands.  (He was a barrister and the head of banking supervision at the islands’ Monetary Authority.)

It’s Zarah Sultana calling on prisoners to be prioritised for Covid vaccinations, and Labour voting against the Crime and Policing Bill.  It’s Starmer himself taking a knee in his office rather than in public – so seeking both to placate his party’s left while also hoping no-one else notices.

Finally, we turn to a party that begins by being to the right on culture: a successor to the Brexit Party.  The Conservatives may be leaving a gap for it here with their new immigration policy.

Which means that it would be likely to pick up more voters outside London and the Greater South-East, which in turn would drag it leftwards on economics.

This is the ground that Nigel Farage occupied, that his Reform UK party is now trying to recover under Richard Tice, and that a mass of others are sniffing around: Reclaim (that bloke from Question Time), the Heritage Party, the SDP (no relation; not really).

In electoral terms, this new Labour Party would be best off junking its efforts in provincial working-class seats altogether, and competing with the Greens and Liberal Democrats for the urban, university-educated and ethnic minority vote. Think Bristol West.

Our new economically liberal party could begin by diving into the blue heartlands from which city workers commute into the capital.  Think St Albans.

And the various revamp parties would try to paint the Red Wall purple, where voters may have backed one of the two main ones, but have no love for either of them. Think, say…well, anywhere within it.

We apologise for coming so late to the cause of this article: Matthew Parris’ column in last Saturday’s Times, where he yearned for a “sober, moderate, intelligent and morally reputable centre party”, and asked “where is it”?

He’s right that the Conservatives’ grip on the centre will weaken sooner or later: because another volcanic eruption blows it apart, or it sinks below the sea…or Johnson blows himself up or sinks instead.

But he’s mistaken about what the centre is.  Or, more precisely, he identifies it with himself.  But many sober, moderate, intelligent and reputable voters backed the Tories in 2019, if only for want of anything else – and still do, it seems.

The real centre isn’t where Matthew or ConservativeHome or anyone else wants it to be.  It’s where it is, as cited above.  Johnson’s bottom squats on it, and he’s no intention of moving.

David Gauke: Without a proper state aid regime, the UK is unlikely to make a deal with Brussels

1 Aug

David Gauke is a former Justice Secretary, and was an independent candidate in South-West Hertfordshire at the recent general election.

Within the next three months, Boris Johnson is going to have to make the decision that will define his premiership and determine the future of British politics – especially the Conservative Party – for a generation. And the subject matter of this momentous decision? The previously obscure issue of the regulatory regime constraining the ability of the Government to provide taxpayer support for private sector companies. In other words, state aid.

Before turning to the issue in hand, let me set out a little context. My last two columns (here and here) have made the case that there is an electoral logic that points towards the Conservative Party moving in a leftwards direction economically but in a rightwards direction when it comes to social issues or, to put it more precisely, issues of national identity. Politics appears to be realigning as the biggest dividing line ceases to be about economic class or ideology but in relation to cultural issues.

The consequences of such a dividing line – and the Conservative Party unambiguously placing itself on one side or the other – is an uncomfortable one for those Conservatives with a desire for intellectual consistency.

At least since Margaret Thatcher’s premiership, the Conservative orthodoxy has been in favour of sound money and free trade. That is not to say that the State had been banished from making any kind of intervention in the economy – no recent government could accurately be described as laissez faire – but that any such intervention would be made carefully, recognising that the market was, by and large, a rather good way of allocating resources.

As for cultural issues, the Conservative Party has been a broad church consisting of social conservatives and social liberals, tub-thumping patriots and committed internationalists. Generally, we rubbed along alright.

These Conservative traditions were abandoned in 2019, resulting in the Prime Minister’s electoral triumph in December when he won previously safe Labour seats. He did so by promising an economic policy that involved more spending and greater government intervention. He also promised to deliver Brexit at whatever cost. It was an uncompromisingly Leave prospectus that appealed to patriotic/English nationalist working class voters.

This brings us to the UK/EU negotiations over a comprehensive Free Trade Agreement. Contrary to promises of an oven-ready deal, discussions have not yet made a lot of progress. There are two sticking points. The first is fish. This is a matter of economic irrelevance (our fishing industry contributes less to GDP than Harrods) but of disproportionate political importance. As one can make a similar point about the EU, it would be an extraordinary failure for this matter to prevent a wider deal being reached.

The more substantive issue relates to the level playing field provisions. These are the EU’s requirements that the UK will not engage in “unfair competition” by undercutting the EU’s social and environmental legislation, nor provide anti-competitive subsidies.

The UK Government’s response to these demands has been to argue that this is an outrageous attempt to fetter the actions of a newly-independent nation. Given that (1) free trade agreements inevitably involve accepting some restrictions on a country’s ability to determine its own rules and (2) the UK accepted the principle of level playing field provisions in October’s Political Declaration, the EU is less than impressed by the argument.

The particular focus of the dispute has been state aid. At one level, this is surprising. The UK has traditionally eschewed state aid spending, seeing it as market-distorting and a wasteful use of taxpayers’ money. We spend less of it than the French and Germans and, as EU members, consistently argued against its use.

Nor has it traditionally been a touchstone issue for Eurosceptics. From my days in the ERG, I recall plenty of conversations about how the EU imposed regulatory burdens on businesses, prevented trade deals with rising economies like China and resulted in too much power in the hands of the unelected (oh, happy innocent days). Restrictions on bailing out private sector companies were not so much of problem for us Thatcherites.

This issue could have easily been de-escalated if we had put in place our own, independent and robust state aid regime, perhaps enforced by the Competition and Markets Authority. Such a regime is probably necessary (albeit not sufficient) in order to reach a compromise with the EU on this topic.

Instead, we have refused to set out our own domestic regime and there is much talk of how we can use our new freedoms as ex-members of the EU to support our own companies, like the rather odd acquisition earlier this month of a £400 million shareholding in a failed satellite company.

According to the Financial Times, Dominic Cummings is digging in against anything other than a “minimal, light-touch” state aid regime, believing that once you have left the EU “you should just do whatever you want”.

This brings me back to the nature of the Conservative victory last year and, in particular, the new supporters. If the Government’s focus is appealing to nationalists who favour an interventionist state, it would want the ability to back national champions or other businesses in favoured locations.

And if you are temperamentally inclined to think that any constraint on your ability to “do whatever you want” (whether by the EU, Parliament or the legal system) is an affront to democracy, then you will be all the more the likely to resist a robust and independent regime.

There are, however, consequences. First, it is very hard to see how the EU will agree to a deal if the UK does not have a proper state aid regime. I wrote in February how there may be a political case for not getting a deal (any deal will be very thin in any event, some parts of the economy will suffer as a consequence of leaving the Single Market, better to collapse the talks and blame the EU for the consequences) and that argument still applies.

But, as a consequence of the handling of Covid-19, the Government is more vulnerable to the charge of incompetence. In addition, a no deal Brexit would be a gift to the SNP, thus weakening the Union yet further.

Second, even putting aside the EU dimension, there are very good arguments for having in place a robust state aid regime. The Treasury will be arguing the case. Both as a finance ministry (ensuring that taxpayers’ money is spent wisely) and as an economics ministry (wanting resources to be allocated productively in order to maximise economic growth), it institutionally hates state aid. Presumably, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, well-regarded by his officials, will have similar views and will be making the case forcefully. At least, he should be.

It will be for the Prime Minister to decide. Go for the purist view of Brexit (“you do whatever you want”), embrace the new political alignment and splash the cash in order to play to the Red Wall voters. Or keep open the possibility of a deal, look after the interests of taxpayers and maintain some kind of consistency with economic orthodoxy. Whichever way he goes, it will be a hugely consequential and revealing decision.

David Lidington: Why I profoundly disagree with my friend and former colleague, David Gauke

7 Jul

David Lidington was the MP for Aylesbury from 1992 to 2019, and has held a number of roles including Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice.

Last Thursday, in a piece that was characteristically both thoughtful and thought-provoking, my friend and former Cabinet colleague David Gauke came to a pessimistic conclusion. Choices had been made, he argued, which compelled the Conservative Party to pursue “the war on woke and Rooseveltian economics”. Implicit in his analysis was the suggestion that those whom he termed “small state free marketeers and one nation social liberals” had no future in the party and might have to look elsewhere.

I profoundly disagree. Throughout the 45 years that I’ve been a member and for decades before that the Conservative Party has been a coalition. Economic liberals, defenders of traditional values and institutions, social reformers, blue-green environmentalists: all have found a home. Different leaders of the party, at different times have chosen to emphasise different elements of the broad Conservative tradition.

As Paul Goodman pointed out yesterday, human beings tend not to fit neatly into a single, neat political category. Margaret Thatcher was strongly in favour of opening up broadcasting to greater competition and market discipline. Yet she was also passionate about the need for high standards of decency in what was broadcast – which meant intervention and regulation. I have crossed swords with Iain Duncan Smith many times over Europe, but have also admired his efforts to promote a Conservative approach to social justice.

The present government’s commitment to “level up” the opportunities available to people living in towns and estates that have for years felt left-behind and ignored will need to draw on all strands of Conservative thinking if ambition is to be realised: incentives for free enterprise to create wealth and jobs, and government action, both national and local, to provide modern infrastructure, drive urban regeneration and boost expectations and outcomes in education and training.

For years, Conservatives have fretted about our loss of support in old industrial areas and among people on lower incomes. The fact that we now represent seats in County Durham and South Yorkshire as well as Surrey and Sussex is something to be celebrated: it gives our words about standing for One Nation much greater credibility.

If a successful policy of levelling up (and at the same time improving our chances of holding those seats) means a tilt towards the economic and industrial policies of Macmillan, Heath and Heseltine, it should be seen as a pragmatic response to the needs of the times, certainly meriting debate and argument, including within the Conservative family, not some heretical departure from the one true faith.

Nor do I share David’s pessimistic conclusion that there is an inexorable electoral logic which must compel the party to abandon the ideas, policies and perhaps even the support of liberal Conservatives.

By 2024 the Conservative Party will have been in office for 14 years. The coming economic storm, even if, as we all hope, it is short-lived, will have left many people scarred. The Labour Party will be led by someone who is not Jeremy Corbyn. The temptation to vote “for a change”, to “give the other lot a chance” will be strong. It will be as great a challenge to secure re-election then as it was for John Major in 1992. We shall need every vote from as broad a coalition of support as we can.

Of course we shall want to hang on to traditional Labour supporters who lent us their votes last December, which in turn means that in four years time they need to see that we are at least beginning to deliver results for their families and neighbourhoods.

But that on its own won’t be enough. By 2024 there will be about three million new electors on the register who were too young to vote in 2019. According to YouGov, at last year’s election the tipping point – the age at which someone is more likely to have voted Conservative than Labour – was 39.

That is better than 2017, when it was 47, but still leaves no room for complacency. While it is possible that those who were in their teens, twenties and thirties in 2019 will automatically shift into the Conservative column by 2024, we cannot count on it happening.

In any case, we ought to be seriously concerned that so many people in their twenties and thirties – working, paying tax and often holding both professional and family responsibilities – should have preferred Jeremy Corbyn’s socialism to what we had to offer.

To win again in 2024 we shall need to secure support from more younger voters than we did in either of the last two elections and to do that will mean reaching out to people whose values are, in the convenient shorthand, more “socially liberal” than those of their parents and grandparents, and who want to see political parties to take seriously their concerns about issues like the environment.

Next year, the Prime Minister will host a world summit on climate change. The Glasgow conference will be an opportunity for the United Kingdom and its Conservative government both to showcase its own ideas to address the climate emergency and to demonstrate global leadership on the issue.

In recent years, “green” policies have been identified with the liberal wing of the party. David Cameron took a lot of flak early in his leadership for focusing on this agenda.

Again, it’s easy to oversimplify: I’m old enough to have been in the audience at the party conference in 1988 to hear Mrs Thatcher declare that: No generation has a freehold on this earth. All we have is a life tenancy – with a full repairing lease. This Government intends to meet the terms of that lease in full. The key point is that it will be both right and in our electoral interests to take action on the environment and to be seen to do so.

Another political reality that the party must grapple with is the fact that voters from British people of Caribbean, Asian, African and central European heritage make up a significant proportion of the electorate in a growing number of constituencies.

Yet again, we need to beware of oversimplification. Many of my former constituents from Pakistani, Indian and Polish backgrounds are on the social conservative rather than social liberal end of the spectrum. They are certainly a long way from being “woke”.

But they care passionately about racism – sadly almost always because they and their children have been at the receiving end of abusive or insensitive comments – or worse. They judge politicians in part by how they handle these matters. Community relations and anti-racism are causes that, like the environment, have been championed within the Conservative Party by its liberal wing and, once again, are issues where our electoral interest coincides with what it is right to say and do.

The Conservative Party’s electoral success has rested in large measure on its ability and willingness to adapt to the realities of social and economic change. Far from giving up in despair, liberal, centrist Conservatives should redouble our efforts to influence the party’s thinking about how we can win again in 2024.