James Somerville-Meikle: Sunak should make supporting families a priority in his Budget

25 Feb

James Somerville-Meikle is Head of Public Affairs at the Catholic Union.

The economic cost of this pandemic is all too clear for many. But personal finances and household budgets are not the only things feeling the strain.

For some people, this past year has pushed relationships to their limits – with more time spent at home, greater stresses and anxieties, and an emotional cost impossible to calculate.

Among the alarming reports and grim statistics of the past year, the increase in people seeking divorce guidance from Citizens Advice and law firms reporting an increase in divorce applications should be some of the most worrying signs of the long-term impact of this virus.

As the Chancellor prepares to deliver his Budget next month, the state of people’s marriages might not be foremost on his mind, but there are good reasons why Rishi Sunak should make supporting families a priority.

In 2016, the Relationships Foundation estimated that the cost of family breakdown to the taxpayer – the various extra costs of supporting single parents and managing the fallout from relationship breakdown – was £48 billion. A figure that is sadly likely to be even higher in the wake of the pandemic.

While money alone cannot and should not be enough to keep a marriage together, a greater focus on how the tax and benefit system can support families is long overdue and is needed now more than ever.

Government spending has tended to focus on picking up the pieces from relationship breakdown, rather than supporting the family unit in the first place. If the Chancellor wants to avoid spiralling welfare spending as a legacy of the pandemic, then the Treasury needs to look more closely at the tax burden faced by families not just individuals.

One of the most pressing questions facing the Chancellor is the future of the £20 per week uplift to Universal Credit and tax credits. The policy has helped millions through the pandemic, but it has cost billions – £6.1 billion according to the Office for Budget Responsibility.

The temporary change has meant that someone on the basic rate of Universal Credit over the past year has received an extra £1,040 than they would have done without the uplift (an increase of 29 per cent on the pre-pandemic rate).

It’s a testament to the extraordinary times we live in that this hike in payments barely made the news when it was announced in March last year, but it is certainly making headlines now that the end of the year-long extension is in sight.

In some ways perhaps this was inevitable. Once something is given – no matter how temporary – it is hard to take away. People who have felt the benefit of the higher rate of payments will also feel the loss if and when they come to an end.

The challenge facing the Chancellor is how to avoid one of the biggest and most generous changes to social security in our history ending up looking like daylight robbery.

The £20 uplift has undoubtedly helped to get more money to some of the people most in need during the pandemic. But the problem with making changes to the basic rate of Universal Credit and tax credits is that everyone is treated the same, regardless of who they are or their circumstances. A working mum with three children gets the same benefit from an extra £20 a week through tax credits as a single man with no children.

If the Chancellor is looking for a way to rebalance welfare spending in the wake of the pandemic, then a more targeted approach, focusing on support for families and those with childcare responsibilities seems like an obvious solution. It would also be a big step towards delivering the manifesto commitment of making Britain the greatest place in the world to start a family.

There are oven-ready policies that the Chancellor could introduce in his Budget that would help families, and arguably be a greater help to children in the long term than the £20 uplift.

Perhaps the most obvious option would be to scrap the two-child cap on the childcare element of Universal Credit and tax credits. The policy was introduced in the Budget in 2015 and meant that from April 2017, support provided to families through Universal Credit or tax credits would be limited to the first two children.

The Child Poverty Action Group estimated in April 2020 that 230,000 families had been affected by the policy, and that an additional 60,000 families could be affected as a result of the pandemic. The policy has been roundly criticised by faith groups, including the Catholic Church, The Muslim Council of Britain, and Board of Deputies of British Jews, on account of its discriminatory approach to larger families.

The justification for the policy was that parents claiming Universal Credit or tax credits should face the same choices about the number of children they can afford as those supporting themselves solely through work. But the economic crisis caused by the pandemic has shown how quickly families can fall into difficulty. Even in normal times, no parent can be sure that their financial security will withstand unpredictable events such as illness, death, or redundancy.

Another possible source of inspiration for the Chancellor could be moving towards fully transferable personal allowances. Currently, 10 per cent of the current personal allowance of £12,500 is transferable between couples. Going further and making personal allowances fully transferable would remove the tax penalty suffered by single earner couples and help families keep more of the money they earn.

A fully transferable personal allowance would not be cheap. David Goodhart estimated in 2016 that the cost to the Treasury would be in the region of £5 billion – a significant amount of money, but still less expensive than the £6 billion cost of maintaining the uplift in Universal Credit and tax credits.

The Chancellor could also look at increasing child benefit, which has been largely frozen since 2010. The Child Poverty Action Group has estimated that increasing child benefit by just £10 per week would reduce child poverty by 450,000 as well as helping to stimulate the economy to recover from the pandemic.

There are options available to the Chancellor for this Budget and the rest of this Parliament to create a tax and benefit system that finally supports the family unit. The pandemic has shown the importance of having strong families alongside a social security system for those who need it.

Helping families keep more of the money they earn will not solve all of their problems, but it would certainly help. Let’s use this moment to build back better for families.

The Deal in Detail 5) Immigration

31 Dec

David Goodhart is Head of Demography at Policy Exchange and author of The Road to Somewhere: The New Tribes Shaping British Politics.

A sense that the country was changing too fast and a desire to reclaim normal national controls over who comes and goes and who, in effect, becomes a citizen was one of the primary motivations behind Brexit. And on January 1 the EU free movement rules will duly come to a formal end, with EU citizens no longer able to come and live and work here as if they were British citizens.

A last minute flurry of EU citizens arriving in the UK was expected, Covid-restrictions allowing, as anyone resident here for only one day prior to 2021 will be able to claim the right to live and work here for five years (and then apply for the right to stay permanently).

Most of the UK’s new “points-based” immigration rules, levelling the field between EU and non-EU people wishing to come for more that a visit, became law in early 2020, and the Withdrawal Agreement dealt with the rights of EU citizens already here. But the final Brexit deal did contain some new details on such things as the Erasmus student exchange system and on mutual recognition of professional qualifications.

Overall on the post-Brexit movement of people many important things will stay the same (visa-free short stays up to 90 days will continue to be allowed in both directions), many things will change quite radically (such as the ability of EU citizens to work in low-skill jobs) and some things remain uncertain (the mutual recognition of professional qualifications).

First, the bigger picture immigration story that began life on December 1 2020 for the rest of the world and January 1 2021 for the EU. Ian Robinson of immigration lawyers Fragomen puts it like this:

“We now have one of the fastest and most certain immigration schemes in the world for skilled workers, though it is also one of the most expensive. That said, it could never be as fast or certain as free movement”.

The new so-called points-based visa system liberalises skilled immigration, which now applies equally to EU and non-EU people, and essentially turns the UK into an employer-sponsorship immigration system for anyone with A-level equivalent qualifications or paid above £25,600. The previous cap of 20,700 on skilled workers from outside the EU is suspended and employers no longer have to observe the resident labour market test (advertising the job to British citizens first).

Immigration into lower skill jobs, by contrast, is essentially closed with no exemptions (apart from the seasonal agricultural workers scheme).

Will this reduce or increase overall numbers? In the short-term, the pandemic is likely to depress numbers arriving in the main work and student categories. In the medium term the numbers could rise, especially if there is a significant influx from Hong Kong, but the liberalisation for skilled worker immigrants is likely to be more than matched by the reduction in EU citizens coming to do low-skill jobs.

Government will have two tools for regulating flows if numbers do creep up: it could reintroduce a cap on the visa numbers if unemployment starts rising too high and it can increase the cost to the employer of bringing someone in. That cost is already high by international standards (though both Australia and the US are comparable), with a single person costing an employer £5,500 for a three-year visa, assuming the employer pays the annual health charge of £625 and the visa cost of £600, and for someone with a spouse and three children for five years the cost rises to around £27,000.

And what about the impact of the low skill immigration stop? The Government’s intention is that employers will make those jobs more attractive to those already living here or phase them out by investing in labour-saving equipment.

There is some tentative evidence that that is indeed happening. EU citizens make up about seven per cent of the UK workforce (17 per cent in London) and about two-thirds are classified as low-skill, but some sectors have become heavily dependent on them: food production (around one third), hotels (20 per cent), and warehousing (18 per cent). Only about four per cent of NHS nurses are from the EU, but that rises to eight per cent for the social care workforce. (If there is to be an exemption on low-skill immigration anywhere it is most likely to be in social care.)

Most EU citizens intend to stay, with around 3.5 million signing up for the EU settlement scheme which grants continuity of rights (though only permanently once you have been resident for five years). But by the end of June next year anyone who has not signed up will be regarded as an illegal immigrant and subject to the so-called “hostile environment”.

It is likely that the few thousand people who are likely to have slipped through the net will be granted some kind of amnesty, the problem for the Government is that will then set a precedent that many of the estimated one million illegal immigrants from outside the EU will want to exploit.

Things are likely to be somewhat more difficult for British citizens wanting to work in an EU country, with the exception of Germany and the Netherlands work permit systems tend to be highly bureaucratic. Moreover, the EU rejected the UK’s wish to continue with the existing system of mutual recognition of professional qualifications for doctors, lawyers, accountants etc. The Brexit deal has established a framework for making agreements in this area but these are usually quite hard to reach and it seems likely that the UK will have to negotiate 27 bilateral arrangements.

The other big story is students. EU students will no longer get privileged access to UK universities and will have to pay the same higher tuition fees as those from outside the EU. This is likely to leave a big dent in the number of EU students, currently 143,000 (including post-grads). The UK is also pulling out of the Erasmus student exchange scheme which has been running for more than 30 years. In 2017 about 16,000 UK students had a term (about three months) at an EU university and 31,000 EU students came here.

Both decisions have caused some dismay in the higher education world. But Erasmus accounted for less than half of all UK student exchanges and will be replaced by the Turing scheme with a more global focus. The Government argues that Erasmus was unnecessarily expensive, staying in the scheme would have cost hundreds of millions of pounds, and that the new scheme will underscore the two main things that Brexit is about: global Britain and levelling up.

The Government has committed to spending at least £100m on the Turing scheme with a goal of 35,000 student participants and instead of attracting generally affluent language students from Russell Group universities, as Erasmus has done, it will aim at a wider social mix.

Finally, one dog that didn’t bark. The Youth Mobility Scheme has not been extended to young people from the EU. The scheme currently attracts a few tens of thousands of people under 30 each year, mainly from Australia and New Zealand but also Japan and South Korea, for a two year period in which they are allowed to work. The UK was apparently quite keen on extending it to Europeans but the EU decided it didn’t have competence to negotiate it. Bilateral deals may well be struck. But as bar work, one of the staples for scheme participants, is going to be in short supply for a few more months the lack of an extension to young Europeans isn’t going to be missed.

The new migration rules will need time to settle and will produce some unintended consequences, but the decision to end free movement is a broadly popular one, and one that even most Remainers now accept. Most employers will be happy with the liberalisation of skilled migration though there will be pressure in some sectors for temporary exemptions from the low-skill ban.

More generally, under the new regime we might start to see migration anxieties shift from being felt predominantly among lower socio-economic groups to higher ones, complaining about affluent areas becoming unaffordable as more high paid professionals enter the country. The new migration landscape will also see an increase in short-term flows and a reduction in permanent residence, and that broadly fits with the democratic desire for the UK to remain an open country but with slower underlying demographic change.

This is the fourth in a series of pieces from Policy Exchange looking at specific issues that arise from the Brexit trade deal.

The biggest decision has already been taken. We have left the EU. So let’s treat whatever comes next as an opportunity.

14 Dec

The EU is right.  If in future it changes its social laws and we don’t change ours; and if then it slaps tariffs on our exports, and raises non-tariff barriers too, this in no way lessens our sovereignty.  We do what we like.  The EU does what it likes.  Brexit is uncompromised.

Having cleared that up, on to present obscurities.  The texts of a possible treaty, which some claim is “95 per cent done”, haven’t been made public.

So few outside the negotiating room, and certainly neither this site nor its readers, are able to pronounce authoritatively on exactly who or what is preventing agreement – assuming that disagreement is real, a supposition we’re inclined to make – or why.  Or whether a deal will have been agreed by December 31, the real deadline.

Nonetheless, the general contours of the difference between the two sides of the table in this negotiation seem clear enough.

As far as can be seen, both accept a level playing field based on “non-regression” – in other words, that neither party should lower the social standard, as it were, that existed within both the UK and the EU on the day that Brexit took place.

But what happens if either side in future wish to raise that standard?  The EU wants “dynamic alignment”.  The UK does not.  And they disagree on whether the non-binding Political Declaration includes commitments to it.

The EU reportedly wanted arbitration in the event of either the UK or the EU raising its social standard in future.  It seems that the UK resisted this particular arbitration proposal, though other reports suggest that the Government is not opposed to arbitration per se – and indeed that a potential solution may now be taking shape.

At any rate, it is agreed that the EU then went further – proposing that it be entitled to respond unilaterally if it raised its own standard and the UK didn’t follow.  It is this change in approach that plunged the talks into their recent crisis, which has not been resolved as we write.

Did Emmanuel Macron raise the stakes, mindful of his own domestic elections – and convinced that the UK would crack under pressure?  Was Angela Merkel actually the key mover?

Was it the Government’s declared intention to break international law that made the difference, inflaming EU fears of the unpredictability and waywardness of Boris Johnson?  (And if so, why – given that the EU itself is, as Ambrose Evans-Pritchard has pointed out, a “serial abuser of international law”?)

Such are the most convincing explanations we have of how we got where we are on the crucial issue of a level playing field – leaving the other main ones: state aid and fishing policy.

Fear on both sides is clearly a key factor.  The EU sees itself as offering the UK unique quota-free, tariff free access to its Single Market, and worries that we will get the best of both worlds – privileged access and lower standards.

As Catherine Barnard pointed out on this site last week, this reflects a curious lack of confidence in the coherence and power of the Single Market.

Meanwhile, the UK would say in response that such an arrangement suits the EU just fine, since it runs a trade surplus with us, and is offering nothing on services.  And that the EU seems set on using its economic muscle to pressure us into becoming an imperial outpost rather than Global Britain.

This, by the way, suggests a point that runs in the opposite direction to Barnard’s.  If the UK is confident in its own trading future, why not simply take the hit from any EU reprisal measures, and use our new freedoms as we think fit?

Our answer is that the Government should not, repeat not, settle for accepting a proposal that is manifestly unfair – in other words, one that would give the EU the right first to change its social laws and then, were we not to follow suit, to decide for itself both the width, speed and depth of retaliatory measures.

Such would be the classic bad deal – and, as Theresa May’s original formulation rightly has it, No Deal is better than a bad deal. But we don’t suggest for a moment that the consequences would be an easy ride.

In the long-term, what shapes a country’s economic future is its tax system, its spending control, its regulatory framework, the quality of its workforce, its education system, its capacity for innovation, its openness to investment, its relationship between labour and capital – and so on.  Not tariff and non-tariff barriers.

In the short-term, we are not so sanguine about the consequences of disentangling the UK, in the event of No Deal, from an EU with which it has been merged for the best part of 50 years.

In other words, No Deal would present the likelihood of short-term pain (the interplay with Covid; shortages; lower investment; scraps over fishing; damaged co-operation on crime and terrorism) against that of long-term gain, if we get our economic framework right.

Nonetheless, No Deal also has the potential to cut both ways, as John Redwood suggests on this site this morning.  For example, a fall in the pound could more than make up for the effect of tariffs.

Much will depend, if it happens, on how agile Rishi Sunak and Alok Sharma are response.  Meanwhile, No Deal would hit our EU neighbours hard, too.  In particular, it would be a political and diplomatic defeat for Ireland, in the wake of its win in the Withdrawal Agreement over the land border.

In the first few days after No Deal, the Cabinet would rally round the Prime Minister; so would Conservative MPs; so, beyond a doubt, would ConHome’s panel of Party members.

The EU and, in particular, France would be blamed by the Tory press and many voters.  The effects wouldn’t simply spill over into fishing and the North Sea.  Potentially, they would menace the security co-operation of the only two substantial military powers in western Europe.

We are less sure of what would happen in week eleven than week one.  We would put money on the response of Tory members hardening, together with that of some Conservative MPs.

However, we wouldn’t slap down a bet on all the Cabinet behaving in the same way.  The institutional interests of the Treasury and BEIS are against No Deal.  Michael Gove will be exposed if it happens, as the Cabinet Minister responsible for the UK’s response.

Our sense it that there would soon be stories of splits between Cabinet “hawks” and “doves”.  And Tory MPs, many of unfamiliar with normal Parliamentary proceedings and unprepared for unpopular decisions – how would they respond?

That would ultimately depend on their constituents, the British people – and the clash between what David Goodhart has called the Anywheres, gainers from globalisation who identify with similar gainers abroad, and the Somewheres, who are less mobile, more rooted and have a stronger sense of national identity.

One point is certain. We have decided to quit the EU twice over.  First in the 2016 referendum.  Then in the election of almost a year ago.

So in the event of No Deal, there will be no going back.  No political party or movement of any significance is suggesting rejoining the EU (which would now take place on less favourable terms than before.)  Which means that the best way of dealing with No Deal, if it has to happen, is to treat it less as a problem than as an opportunity.

Dean Godson: It’s easier for the right to a left on economics than for the left to move right on culture. That’s a plus for Johnson.

21 Nov

Dean Godson is the Director of Policy Exchange.

“You have limited time, limited capacity, and limited choices. Where does your focus lie?” asks Rachel Wolf on this site last week. Well, the Conservative Party has been walking and chewing gum since Disraeli’s 1867 Reform Act — and there is no reason why the “reset” triggered by the departure of Dominic Cummings should change that.

Representing a critical mass of both the prosperous and the “Just About Managing” classes and parts of the country is what all successful political parties do in democracies. Since the Tory party became the party of Brexit and expanded – or maybe one should say rediscovered parts of its working class base – it is certainly true that the heterogenous coalition which it represents has spoken with a somewhat different accent.

Indeed, a case can be made that the part of the political class that ascended to power after December 2019 represents a significant break with all governments since the fall of Margaret Thatcher. The governments of John Major, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Theresa May (though less so the latter) tended to put global integration before national sovereignty, the metropolitan before the provincial, higher education before further education, trains and planes before buses, diversity before cohesion, the cognitive classes before the artisanal ones.

Their version of the national interest broadly reflected the priorities of what my colleague David Goodhart, who was interviewed recently by this site, has called the people who see the world from Anywhere. And in his most recent book Head, Hand Heart, he describes a narrowing definition of a successful life, as seen by Anywhere Britain, based around academic success, a university education and entry into high-status professional employment. This is the world of the big cities, the university towns and much of the middle and upper public sector, (and certainly of wide swathes of the senior civil service which were at daggers drawn with Dominic Cummings).

But what of that part of the population that cannot achieve or does not want to achieve this version of success? They still want recognition, and to feel able to contribute to the national story and the Brexit vote provided the opportunity for many of them to say ‘no’ to much of that governing class consensus.

The Vote Leave strand of the Johnson Government sought to represent and appeal to this part of the electorate – summed up in the phrase “Levelling up” – in a way that no government, let alone a Conservative government, has done for decades. That has, unavoidably, created tensions with many powerful interests and beliefs, including inside the Tory Party itself, many of which came to be focused on the pugnacious personality of Dominic Cummings.

A more emollient tone can be struck – but to abandon what was termed “Erdington modernisation” (after Nick Timothy’s Birmingham roots) and return to the necessary but not sufficient Notting Hill modernisation (in which the party made its peace with much of modern liberalism) is now very hard.

This is the case for electoral reasons as much as any other – with both Keir Starmer and Nigel Farage both praying for a return to Cameron-Osborne era Conservatism with its implicit assumption that the common good can be achieved through a kind of trickle-down from the most successful and dynamic parts of our society.

There are other reasons for thinking that it would be foolish to switch back now. Politics for most of the post-war period has been dominated by economics. And, of course, a thriving economy is still a sine qua non for any government. But economics is a means not an end, and the economistic bias of the Anywheres gave us the failed cost-benefit analysis of the Remain campaign.

Today’s much higher profile for the security and identity cultural issues ought to be a boon to the centre-right because, as has been pointed out, it is easier for the right to move a bit to the left on economics (as it certainly has done) than for the left to move right on cultural issues (as Starmer would no doubt like to do, but will find his path blocked).

This does not require an aggressive culture war from the right. The cultural offensive has been coming mainly from the left – as exemplified by the controversies over statues and the decolonisation of museums. The right needs to stand up for common sense, and for the large majority who accept the equalities of modern liberalism but do not want their sensibilities constantly undermined.

Conservatives should be the party of value diversity. Go back to the 1950s and the country was often dominated by a conformist, traditional culture that stunted the lives of many people and often punished those who deviated. Over many decades, much higher levels of choice and freedom for women and minorities of various kinds have been achieved.

Part of the Left now wants to impose a degree of progressive conformity comparable to the traditional conformity of earlier decades. Tolerance and pluralism should be the watchwords in these matters — with a strong bed-rock of rights and anti-discrimination legislation, but also an understanding that rights and values often clash and the ratchet should not only turn in a progressive direction.

That all said, walking and chewing gum is possible, and there is space, post-Cummings, for a new tone and a new stress on policy bridges that seek common ground between Anywhere and Somewhere priorities.

The green industrial revolution is clearly one of those policy areas, and should not be seen as a soft bourgeois indulgence. As the Prime Minister said on Tuesday, it is places like Teesside, Port Talbot and Merseyside that are now centres of green technology and jobs. Ben Houchen, the mayor of Tees Valley, underlined the same point in the introduction to Policy Exchange’s recent report on The Future of the North Sea, and on ConservativeHome earlier this week. Research we will soon be publishing on redesigning the national grid should also generate many good, skilled jobs in areas that are sometimes seen as “left behind”.

The re-set seems more likely to be a milder form of reboot. Without Cummings, some of the urgency will go out of parts of the recent agenda, particularly the machinery of government and data in government focus. But many of the priorities of the new conservatism—Brexit, levelling up, higher spending on the NHS and police, social care, boosting further education, immigration reform, restoring some bustle and pride to Britain’s often unloved towns—are owned by a broad range of the people that matter.

The Red Wall voters are likely to prove more complex beasts than in the Vote Leave or Remain caricatures – and no political strategy can focus too much on just one slice of the population but without producing visible, tangible improvements to the lives of people in places like Stoke and Leigh before the next election the Conservatives will not be returned in 2024.

Robert Halfon: Who’s up for a Southern Research Group?

18 Nov

Political fusion

Is it really true, as has been suggested over the past few days, that Conservatives can only appeal to either blue-collar voters or the professional classes – but not both?

Those who know me will not doubt my commitment that the Conservative Party should be the party for workers; indeed, I’ve written that about the Workers Party many times on this website.

But, my passion for the Workers Party does not mean that we cannot, nor should not, appeal to the public in cities, as well as towns – the Putneys as well as the Pudseys.

It seems to me there is confusion about so-called metropolitan views. Of course, there is left-of-centre “wokeist metropolitanism” – a school of thought that is unlikely to ever vote Conservative, whatever policies the Government come up with.

But, protecting the NHS, cutting taxes for lower earners, freezing fuel duty, boosting skills and apprenticeships, helping small businesses, offering affordable housing (such as the £12.2 billion investment announced recently by Robert Jenrick) and Help to Buy schemes are policies that transcend the ‘somewheres’ and the ‘anywheres’ divide, as noted by David Goodhart.

Even measures on environmental issues, for example, can have widespread appeal, so long as they are not balanced on the backs of the poor (such as ever-increasing energy bills due to “green” taxes) and are focused on a cleaner, greener Britain (including cleaning up our beaches, tackling litter and safeguarding our forests and countryside). Those who are more sceptical about Brexit might be a bit more optimistic if they could see the reduction in VAT once we’re out of the transition period and we control our own VAT rates.

Similarly, Overseas Aid. At a time when our public services at home are financially strained, spending huge amounts on international development is extremely frustrating to many voters. However, it could be made more palatable if taxpayers money was used to fund thousands of British apprentices to work overseas in developing countries, or even to support our armed forces in some of their peacekeeping roles.

It is dangerous if we are perceived to be identifying solely with one group of citizens or class over another. If the Conservatives are truly the One Nation Party, the Government needs to find political fusion. Whilst, thanks to Boris Johnson, the Conservatives have a solid majority, to be diminished as we are in the great cities like London is neither healthy nor desirable for our party in the long run. Yes, absolutely a Workers Party…but a Workers Party that represents young professionals as much as white van men and women.

Please don’t forget the Southern side of the Blue Wall either

I don’t think a day goes by when I don’t read the words “Red Wall” in a national newspaper. Don’t get me wrong, I am as delighted as any Conservative by how we won so many seats in the North. All the more extraordinary given the long-standing Labour MPs that were deposed. I would, of course, prefer it if the media wrote about the “Blue Wall” rather than red.

But, my point is a different one. Both the Government and the media classes should not forget the Southern side of the ‘blue wall’ either. The politicos and the press seem to be under the illusion that the South is paved with gold; that there are no road, rail and infrastructure issues; that every pothole is magically filled, and that no one lives in poverty.

What about the deprivation and lower educational attainment in the Southern New Towns, coastal communities, inner cities, rural coldspots?

The Centre for Education and Youth’s 2019 report, ‘Breaking the Link? Attainment, poverty and rural schools’, found that in areas designated as “countryside living” – a vast proportion of the South West – the correlation between the proportion of pupils on Free School Meals and their attainment 8 scores was 0.58 – the highest of all types of local authority area. In other words, “rural schools have particular difficulty breaking the link between poverty and low pupil attainment”.

Seaside village Jaywick, in Essex, was named the most deprived area overall for the third time in a row in 2019. We also know, from the Social Market Foundation’s 2019 research, Falling off a cliff, that average employee annual pay in coastal communities was about £4,700 lower than in the rest of Britain in 2018. These areas also saw “much weaker economic growth since the financial crisis than other parts of the country” which will demand urgent Government attention as we emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic.

Does the South not feature in policy making? Perhaps if there was a Southern side-of-the-wall Research Group, then these MPs might be invited to breakfast at Number 10 and policy meetings with Ministers.  Anyone for another MP Whatsapp group? Perhaps we have enough already.

As I wrote in the first section of this article, we must be careful not to ‘politic’ or govern in silos. We should not Balkanise the Tory Party. Conservatives must genuinely be a One Nation party for all our country – not just parts of it.

Home education

Given the name of this website, I suspect many readers are fully in favour of home education if that is what a parent decides. Although personally I think a child is better off at school – not just for daily education, activities, wellbeing and socialisation with other pupils, I also believe in a free society by which we support parents’ decisions about educating their child. Clearly, many parents who teach their children at home give them a wonderful education. However, this is not always the case across the board.

The Department for Education has a duty to ensure that every child has a proper education – that doesn’t stop just because the child is learning from home. There should be a national register or regular inspections to ensure that these pupils are getting the education they need for their futures. Perhaps, each home educated child could be linked to a nearby school for this purpose. These are all matters that my Education Select Committee is considering as we begin an inquiry into home education.

Rightly, schools are held accountable for the learning and environment they provide, whether that be through Ofsted, local councils, the regional school commissioners or the Department for Education (DfE).  So, too, must there be transparency and accountability for parents providing an education to their children at home. The DfE should have a national register of all home educated children and gather data to assess levels of attainment.

In a recent report on home education, the Local Government Association stated:

“Using evidence provided by councils, school leaders and parents, the LGA estimates that in 2018/19, 282,000 children in England may have missed out on formal full-time education – around 2 per cent of the school age population – but this figure could be as high as 1.14 million depending on how ‘formal’ and ‘full-time’ is defined…. gaps in the coordination of policies and guidance around pupil registration, attendance, admissions, exclusions and non-school education is allowing children to slip through the net, with children with additional vulnerabilities – such as social, behavioural, medical or mental health needs – most at risk of doing so.”

Whilst many parents educate their home educated children to the best of their ability, and with much success, there are too many children falling through the cracks. It is right that there are changes.

Interview: Goodhart says Johnson understands better than Starmer that a graduate meritocracy alienates manual workers

21 Oct

Sitting on a bench on a sunny afternoon in Hampstead, on a grassy bank with a view of Erno Goldfinger’s modern house at 2 Willow Road, David Goodhart warns of “the dark side of creating a cognitive meritocracy”.

In his new book, Head, Hand, Heart: The Struggle for Dignity and Status in the 21st Century, Goodhart contends that this meritocracy now shapes society largely in its own interests, and has devalued work done by hand or from the heart.

He believes Theresa May, Nick Timothy and Boris Johnson have so far shown greater signs than the Labour Party of comprehending what has gone wrong, and the need to uphold a national social contract.

Goodhart adds that we are sending far too many people to university, creating “a bloated cognitive bureaucratic class” and “a crisis of expectations for the kids”, many of whom find their degrees are of no real worth, and turn instead to protest movements such as Momentum and Black Lives Matter.

He laments “the lack of emotional intelligence of highly educated people”, and also touches on his own outbreak of rebellion after failing to be picked for the First Eleven cricket team at Eton.

ConHome: “Let’s start with the distinction you made in your previous book, The Road to Somewhere, between the Somewheres and the Anywheres.”

Goodhart: “The new book is The Road to Somewhere part two. It’s motivated by the same interest in understanding the political alienation of so many of our fellow citizens and what lies behind it.

“One of the complaints about the previous book was that the Anywhere/Somewhere divide is too binary. Obviously it is somewhat binary. But in the real world it is somewhat binary.

“People who read the book will know there’s lots of sub-divisions in the Anywheres, lots of sub-divisions in the Somewheres.

“A lot of the Guardian-reading classes felt I think very defensive about the last book – possibly rather less so about this one. The last book made more enemies because I was pointing out to a lot of people who think of themselves as progressive, and indeed on the side of the people who I call the Somewheres, that they are part of the problem.

“They like to think it’s the rich and the corporations that are the problem. But actually it is the lack of emotional intelligence of highly educated people whose priorities have dominated our society for the last generation or two.”

ConHome: “So this is new? Or it’s got worse, anyhow.”

Goodhart: “Exactly. It’s only really in the last 25, 30 years that the liberal graduate class has become so dominant, more numerous, and less inhibited about pursuing their own interests – generally thinking, for most of the time, that these are in the general, common interest, and indeed some of the time they are.

“Quite a large part of this is about educational stratification. It’s about the dark side of creating a cognitive meritocracy.

“We’re in the middle of a great deluge of books having a go at the meritocracy. There’s the Michael Sandel book, The Tyranny of Merit, there’s a guy a few months ago called Daniel Markovits who wrote a book called The Meritocracy Trap, he teaches at Yale Law School and is partly talking about his own very, very high-flying American students, and how even they suffer from it in some ways.

“These bigger reflections on the limits of meritocracy have mainly come from America. It’s quite interesting to reflect on why that is. One obvious reason is that meritocracy only really became – contrary to Michael Young’s intention [in The Rise of the Meritocracy 1870-2033, published in 1958] – a feature of Centre-Left politics back in the Eighties, Nineties.

“After all, the Left had been at least formally more egalitarian than meritocratic. Meritocracy after all is the opportunity to be unequal.

“As that bold religion of socialism died, meritocracy became the soft soap version for modern social democrats, as the Left was forced to accept much of the political economy of the Centre Right, the Reagan/Thatcher reforms.

“It was easier for them to tell the meritocracy story than for the traditional Right, who at some level were still defending privilege. But even the Right was quite happy to take up the meritocratic mantle – the joke was that Tory party had been the party of people with large estates and was now the party of estate agents – they practised meritocracy while the Left talked about it.

“In America in particular this coincided with a period of grotesque increases in inequality, and slowdowns in social mobility pretty much across the western world.

“Meritocracy tends to get it both ways. It’s both criticised for not being sufficiently meritocratic, and it’s criticised in itself, for its own ideal – the Michael Young critique, which is essentially an egalitarian one. He was a very old-fashioned egalitarian socialist.

“Most people would go along with the Michael Young critique if you express it in terms of why on earth would we want to turn society into a competition in which the most able win and most of the rest feel like losers?”

ConHome: “It’s a very bleak, utilitarian idea, isn’t it. It doesn’t even contemplate the idea of human beings being of equal worth, which is the Christian idea.”

Goodhart: “The foundation of Christianity, and the foundation of democracy. One person one vote.”

ConHome: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal…”

Goodhart: “In recent times, too much reward and prestige has gone to this one, cognitive form of merit.

“Of course we all believe in meritocracy at some fundamental level. You do not want to be operated on by someone who’s failed their surgery exams. The people who run your nuclear research programme should be your top nuclear physicists.”

ConHome: “If you support Arsenal, you want Arsenal to have the best players.”

Goodhart: “You do not choose the England cricket team by lottery.”

ConHome: “In your new book, while remarking on the role played by chance in deciding a life course, you say your rebellious streak, mucking up your A levels and so forth, emerged as the result of your failure to get into the First Eleven cricket team at Eton.”

Goodhart: “I compare myself to John Strachey, who became a leading Communist in the 1930s after failing to get into the Eton First Eleven.

“My self-regarding explanation for that is that I was captain of the under-16 team, and I was a very selfless captain.”

ConHome [laughing]: “You gave everyone else a bowl.”

Goodhart: “I was an all-rounder, so I came in at number seven or eight, and I bowled fifth or sixth change, so I didn’t really develop either skill to a sufficient level to get into the First Eleven.”

ConHome: “Too much of a team player. And why did you not get those six votes when you stood on a Far Left ticket for a full-time student union job at York University, and just failed to win?”

Goodhart [laughing]: “That was bloody lucky. I’d be a f***ing Labour MP now.

ConHome: “Your father, Sir Philip Goodhart, was a distinguished Conservative MP. Anyhow, you feel relieved not to be a Labour MP.

“Which leads on to the question: who, politically, gets what you are talking about? Did Nick Timothy and Theresa May?”

Goodhart: “Well I think so. People sometimes say I influenced the notorious ‘If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere’ [May’s party conference speech of October 2016], but I think Nick is perfectly capable of thinking of that himself.

“But I contributed to a climate of opinion that made those sorts of ideas more legitimate and mainstream.

“It’s a shame that section of that speech…”

ConHome: “Came out all wrong.”

Goodhart: “I think what she said is perfectly right and perfectly legitimate, and she was actually aiming not so much at the Guardian academic, what Thomas Piketty called the Brahmin Left, she was aiming more at the people who don’t pay their taxes and the corporations who don’t pay their taxes, the people who live in the first-class airport lounges.

“All she had to do was preface it by something like ‘Of course there’s nothing wrong with being an internationally minded person…'”

ConHome: “There are lots of people here in Hampstead who think of themselves as citizens of the world, but they love Hampstead as well, and would rise up in their wrath against any threat to Hampstead.”

Goodhart: “They don’t have to love their country, but it’s also important they feel some kind of attachment to their fellow citizens, rather than feeling only attachment to international bodies or people suffering in faraway lands.

“Of course one should as a human being feel that. But national social contracts remain incredibly important, central to politics in many ways, and if the best educated and most affluent people are detaching themselves from those social contracts then I think there is a problem.

“And it’s reasonable for politicians to talk about it.”

ConHome: “To some extent both Trump and Johnson – without falling into the trap of imagining them to be identical – their success is partly explained by the work you’ve been doing.”

Goodhart: “Populism is a bastard expression of a majority politics which has not received expression in recent decades. The politics of what one might call the hard centre.

“Daniel Bell, the American sociologist, was asked for his political credo, some time back in the 1990s, and he said ‘a socialist in economics, a liberal in politics and a conservative in culture’.

“And I think that combination, I suppose someone like David Owen in this country might have come closer to it than most people, is very attractive, and I think it’s almost a majority one, but for various contingent historical reasons neither of the main political parties of the Centre Left or Centre Right have at least until recently adopted it.

“A lot of populism is a bastard form of that kind of lost centre actually.

“But I think both the Theresa May and to some extent the Boris Johnson government, when the Conservative Party decided it was going to be the party of Brexit, and particularly given how they’ve shifted to the Left on economic management, they probably come closer to that combination at the moment than any other political formation.

“And in some ways that’s a good thing. Boris rather oddly represents that combination, perhaps more than Starmer. And I do think, although I’ve been a member of the Labour Party most of my adult life, I resigned only a couple of years ago, I couldn’t bear the direction, because of Corbyn, yes, but even for Starmer I think there’s a real problem, me and Matt Goodwin argue which of us used this analysis first: that it’s easier for parties of the Right to move left on economics than it is for parties of the Left to move right on culture.”

Goodhart ended with some remarks about universities: “It’s absurd that we subsidise, even with tuition fees, the grand motorway into higher education. We’re international outliers in the very expensive form of higher education, which is residential higher education.

“Breaking that is I think pretty important in some ways. It’s a difficult thing to do. You get accused of wanting to kick away the ladder.

“We do need to readjust, and not allocate all of the prestige and reward to people that take the academic route, particularly as you just get diminishing returns.

“The most useful people, the Einsteins, are always going to be the people with the very highest academic, intellectual insight, producing new knowledge.

“What’s happened, though, is a whole great bloated cognitive bureaucratic class has emerged that piggybacks on the prestige of the higher intellectual cognitive class, and it’s now become dysfunctional.

“The knowledge economy simply doesn’t need so many knowledge workers, and yet we’re on automatic pilot, we’re creating a crisis of expectations for the kids.

“Even before AI comes along you can see this in the collapse of the graduate income premium. It used to be 100 per cent or 75 per cent, it’s now for most kids who don’t go to the most elite universities below ten per cent.

“They have these expectations. I think a lot of the political eruptions of recent times – Bernie Sanders in America, Jeremy Corbyn and the Momentum movement, even perhaps the Black Lives Matter movement, although there are obviously other factors there – are partly an expression of the disappointment of the new middle class at the lack of higher status and higher paid employment.”