Timothy Foxley: How a tax cut could be the boost needed in left-behind areas

30 Jul

Timothy Foxley is a strategic communications consultant from Stoke-on-Trent, and winner of this year’s £50,000 Richard Koch Breakthrough Prize.

There is a sadness about the UK’s ‘left behind areas’. My hometown of Stoke-on-Trent is a typical example: a proud past, good people, and decades of industrial decline and political neglect. While there are still some remnants of its once world-famous pottery industry, its economy is now dominated by the public sector and distribution warehouses, and six slowly dying town centres.

Aside from the emotional aspect, there are sound economic and political reasons for the need to ‘level up’ these areas, from boosting productivity across the UK as a whole, to reducing reliance on public services.

It is right that we are having a debate about levelling up every region of the UK, but we are yet to come to an agreement on how to get there.

Some have spoken about greater localism and devolution as the key to unlocking growth across left behind areas, while others have focused on the need for infrastructure investment. Concerningly, everyone in Westminster and beyond seems to believe that their pet project or industry is the key to fixing the UK’s regional imbalance. In these pages alone, contributors have called for investment in manufacturing, healthcare, education, a community wealth fund, and even grassroots football – all in the name of levelling up.

As necessary as these projects may be, they will not fundamentally alter what is a structural economic problem. Worse, there is a danger that the levelling-up agenda becomes nothing more than a cash-machine for any and every project proposed for the Midlands and the North, with a dollop of statist intervention on top.

Left-behind regions will not become wealthier through more spending and higher taxes. We know that the free market is the only tried and tested way to encourage entrepreneurship and create wealth, but we also know that cutting taxes and regulations would disproportionately assist the already productive South East. The question is: how can we combine the benefits of the free market with the goals of the levelling-up agenda?

That was the problem behind the question posed by Dehenna Davison MP for the Institute of Economic Affairs’ annual Richard Koch Breakthrough Prize competition: in the current severe economic climate, what pro-market, pro-enterprise policy would be the best way of supercharging growth, employment and living standards in ‘left behind’ Britain?

I won with my proposal for the ‘People’s Rebate’: a plan significantly to reduce taxes in left-behind areas. Unlike many suggestions for how the Government can level-up the UK, this would be targeted at all low-earning areas automatically rather than just those decided by Whitehall. It would immediately increase their spending power, and would encourage entrepreneurship and business growth.

Under the People’s Rebate, local authority areas would be divided into deciles by workers’ average earnings. Individuals and businesses would then be given a rebate on income tax and National Insurance contributions on a sliding scale, from 90 per cent in the lowest-earning areas, to 0 per cent in the highest-earning.

For example, this would allow a supermarket worker earning £20,000k in Newcastle-upon-Tyne to keep an extra £207 a month, a nurse earning £30,000 in Swansea an extra £397, and an engineer earning £40,000 in Derby an additional £458. Moreover, workers in all of those areas would be cheaper for businesses to employ, due to reduced employers’ NI contributions.

Each year, deciles would be refreshed using the updated average earnings data, with fast-improving areas paying a little more tax, and those falling further behind receiving a larger rebate. There would be no Whitehall decisions to be made about which areas or industries to support, nor any of the associated lobbying by MPs, councils, or business groups – only automatic, focused tax breaks in those areas most in need of improvement.

The potential benefits of the People’s Rebate are fourfold. First, left-behind areas would receive an immediate boost to local spending power, from £684 million in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, £531 million in Swansea, and £483 million in Derby (in 2020-21 terms).

It would also give businesses an incentive to expand in those areas, through the prospect of a lower NI bill. In the medium term, it would increase local authorities’ tax base for the provision of services such as social care, and improve living standards, reducing overall demand for public services. Finally, in the long term, it would instil within people an appreciation for the benefits of a low-tax economy, returning free-market principles to the forefront of political debate.

This would represent both one of the largest tax cuts in modern British history – of £96 billion (4.7 per cent of GDP) – and boost spending power in left-behind areas by many times more than all the current proposed ‘levelling-up’ schemes put together. Simply, it would fundamentally alter the lopsided nature of the economy, and fundamentally improve the lot of left-behind areas forever.

Active government intervention will never level up our left behind areas. However, by marrying free market principles and tax cuts with targeted support, we can finally address the UK’s most pressing economic and political problem.

Daniel Hannan: Is it worth decarbonising if the rest of the world won’t follow?

21 Jul

Lord Hannan of Kingsclere is a Conservative peer, writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.

Is it worth it? The question kept nagging at me as I stood in a drizzly Derbyshire quarry, watching a miracle of British engineering. Is it worth pushing ahead with deep cuts in CO2 emissions if the rest of the world won’t follow?

The miracle in front of me was a digger powered by an internal combustion engine that ran on hydrogen – something that was, until a few months ago, thought to be impossible. Pundits and politicians like to hymn the praises of electric vehicles. But batteries have their limits. They are expensive, slow to charge and heavy. They can’t realistically power planes or trains or ships or heavy lorries – or, indeed, big diggers.

JCB (whose digger and whose quarry this was) had already produced a diesel engine that reduced air pollution by more than 99 per cent. It had come up with a small electric excavator, too. But a 20-ton machine, usually the first onto a building site, cannot run on batteries – even if it were somehow able to keep taking time off to recharge. Another solution was needed.

Full disclosure: over the years, I have occasionally worked as an adviser to JCB. For precisely that reason, I don’t normally write about the company. But, on this occasion, I reckon I’d be failing as a columnist if I didn’t tell you about the vastness of what it has just achieved.

Lord Bamford, who chairs the business, could simply have consolidated during the epidemic. He had already turned his family firm into a global leader. Another man, in his situation, might be easing his foot off the accelerator in his eighth decade.

But Bamford is, at heart, an engineer. He refines, he tinkers, he improves; he looks for what others have missed. Perhaps it is in the soil. JCB is headquartered pretty much at the epicentre of where the industrial revolution began – a revolution that was made by refiners and tinkerers and improvers, typically men who left school in their early teens, keen to get straight into the workshop.

JCB’s nearby engineering school occupies one of Arkwright’s first mills. The Bamfords themselves, if you go back far enough, were ironmongers and blacksmiths.

So when he told his engineers to find a way of creating a hydrogen engine, they swallowed their scepticism and set to work, grouping the supposedly insuperable objections under eleven headings. While the rest of the country grumbled its way through the second lockdown, they solved them one by one.

The implications are colossal. The country that invented the engine (Thomas Newcomen, who built the first practical fuel-burning engine in 1712, was another iron-monger and tinkerer) has found a way of saving the sector. Britain produces around 2.5 million internal combustion engines every year, nearly two thirds of them for export. Until a few weeks ago, the entire industry faced oblivion. Now, with a few adjustments, it can stay in business.

I tell you all this, not just to remind you that we remain a nation of innovators, but because my opening question is a serious one. If there is a global shift away from fossil fuels, then Britain is better placed than most countries to supply the new technology. It will still be more expensive than leaving things as they are, obviously. But there are ways to harness market forces, making the transition cheaper and smoother.

So let’s ask the question again. Britain, following drastic reductions, is now responsible for only one per cent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. If we acted in isolation, we could return to the Stone Age and it would barely make any difference.

Obviously, we won’t be acting wholly in isolation. The EU has committed itself to a measure of decarbonisation, as has Joe Biden’s America. Then again, as Donald Trump once put it, with characteristic bluntness: “Look at China, how filthy it is! Look at Russia, look at India: it’s filthy, the air is filthy!”

China is the world’s biggest polluter, responsible for 28 per cent of carbon emissions. India is third, at seven per cent. Both countries are reluctant to commit to binding targets. Is there much point in pushing ahead without them?

I suppose I ought to add, at this point, that I believe the world is heating, at least partly in response to human activity. If you disagree, fine. But there is then no point in arguing about targets and international deals. If you fundamentally don’t think there is any problem, we will just go round and round in circles.

If, on the other hand, you see a problem, the question becomes how to tackle it affordably and proportionately. Our aim should be to harness the genius of the private sector – to use inventions like that hydrogen motor – so as to minimise extra spending and extra bureaucracy.

It is fair enough to argue that someone needs to make the first move. It is fair enough, too, to point out that the whole world should not hang back simply because two or three states won’t join in. The question is one of proportionality.

It is here that my doubts arise. The commitments we have made go beyond most of our competitors’. The EU and the United States lag behind us, though not by much. Canada, Australia and Japan lag a bit further. China talks vaguely of peaking around 2030. A clutch of states – Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia – are barely bothering to go through the motions.

Leading by example is all well and good. Impoverishing yourself in order to make a point, not so much. The danger, as with all government initiatives, is that we reach a critical mass where, even if it becomes clear that the rest of the world isn’t following, a powerful lobby of rent-seekers and eco-corporatists continue to drive the policy for its own sake.

Don’t underestimate how painful the adjustment will be. “Energy is not just another sector of the economy,” the great Matt Ridley points out. “It is the thermodynamic lifeblood of prosperity.” Modern civilisation became possible when falling energy prices released human beings from back-breaking labour. In 1880 a minute’s work would buy four minutes of artificial light. In 1950 it was seven hours of light. By 2000 it was five days.

None of this is to say that we should give up. There will be more breakthroughs like the JCB engine. Batteries should, over time, become cheaper and lighter. New ways might be found to heat houses. We might even happen across a completely new, clean energy source – fission, say. The cost of climate mitigation, like the cost of adaptation, will fall as technology improves.

All I am asking for is perspective. We need constantly to weigh costs and benefits; to tackle the freeloader dilemma; to consider that innovation might lower prices, and so make calculated postponements rational; to ask whether there are other priorities (in 2020, for example, there was).

We should, in short, approach climate change in a transactional rather than a millenarian spirit, looking for maximum effectiveness rather than seeking to flaunt our piety. Conservatives, of all people, ought to understand that.

Will Holloway: The Government can show it’s serious about levelling up by launching a National Plan for Manufacturing

13 Jul

Will Holloway is the Deputy Director of the think tank Onward and a former Special Adviser.

One of the striking lessons of the last 18 months is that a country’s ability to produce goods has proved invaluable. In the early stages of the pandemic, manufacturers retooled production lines across the country to make ventilators and diagnostic kits – boosting the UK’s initial response to Covid-19 and saving lives. Our ability to make things improved our response in a time of national crisis. And the truth is the benefits of manufacturing are much broader in normal times as well.

Onwards’ new research, published today, shows the difference that manufacturing businesses can make in terms of pay packets and output.

Across the UK, manufacturing workers earn £1 an hour more, on average, than comparable workers in other industries. That pay premium is significantly higher in some parts of the country than it is in others. For example, workers employed in manufacturing firms in the North East and North West earn around £2.50 more per hour than people employed in other industries – worth £95 per week to somebody on a full time contract.

Alongside wages, we also found that productivity is higher in some parts of the UK than others. Outside London, output per hour in manufacturing was a fifth higher than the economy as whole. In growing the economies of areas like the North West, West Midlands and Wales, manufacturing is doing much of the leg work. Between 1997 and 2017, manufacturing made up around 40 per cent of overall productivity growth in those areas.

For these reasons, manufacturing is likely to be particularly important for the levelling up agenda. One way the Government could show it is serious is by launching a National Plan for Manufacturing. This could set out tax incentives for capital investment; take action to reduce industrial electricity costs; introduce greater 5G connectivity for smart factories, and include long-term funding for manufacturing R&D institutions.

The UK has a great history as one of the workshops of the world, but the role that manufacturing plays in our society, our national identity and economy has gradually declined. While many richer countries have de-industrialised since the 1970s, almost none has done so as much as the UK. In 1970 the UK had the sixth largest share of manufacturing in the economy in the G20. Today it is second from bottom.

Countries as diverse as South Korea and Ireland have caught up or overtaken our living standards while growing the share of manufacturing in their economy. Rising countries like India and China have grown their share. Yet today manufacturing is less than 10 per cent of GDP in the UK but about 22.5 per cent in Germany.

Even before the onset of the pandemic, most of the world’s developed economies were doing much more to sustain a vibrant and competitive manufacturing base than the UK has historically done.

In 2011, the Indian government published its National Manufacturing Policy that aimed to increase manufacturing to 25 per cent of GDP by 2025 and increase employment by 100 million. In 2012, the United States launched the National Plan for Advanced Manufacturing to accelerate advanced manufacturing investment and research and development spending.

In 2013, Ireland launched “Making it in Ireland”, which set out an ambition to have 43,000 more people directly employed in manufacturing by 2020. While in 2019, the South Korean government published I-KOREA 4.0, aiming to boost advanced manufacturing and automation.

The Government has already taken steps to support UK manufacturing, through the Made Smarter programme, the High Value Manufacturing catapult and the Super Deduction. But it needs to go much further. If ministers can marshal policies that would promote manufacturing further – as our international competitors are doing – it would pay political dividends.

On average, seats the Conservatives won in 2019 have a much larger share of manufacturing jobs than Labour seats. Just over 12 per cent of workers in newly gained seats by Conservative candidates at the last general election are employed in manufacturing, up from nine per cent of workers in incumbent seats and almost eight per cent in Labour held constituencies.

In an emblematic trend of the broader re-alignment of British politics, there are almost the same number of Conservative seats with 15 per cent or more of the local labour market employed in manufacturing than Labour seats with five per cent or less.

This both presents an opportunity for the Conservatives and a threat. If the Government can boost investment in manufacturing it is likely to disproportionately benefit voters in the party’s new electoral alliance. But if the Conservatives cannot halt the decline of manufacturing in recent decades, workers in Red Wall seats will more likely be at risk.

Recent weeks have seen great successes. From investments in Sunderland to Ellesmere Port to Derby to the banks of the Humber, thousands of manufacturing jobs have been secured and created. The Government should build on these decisions – creating a manufacturing renaissance – and reverse the historic decline in manufacturing in the UK. Doing so would increase earnings and productivity in some of the areas that need it the most, turbo charge levelling-up and maintain public support in the process.

Chris Loder: Our rail industry is a sleeping giant when it comes to boosting international trade

24 Feb

Chris Loder is the Conservative MP for West Dorset.

As Brexit negotiations have concluded, the Government is working hard to both protect and expand British industry by creating a future of new opportunity through trade negotiations. When developing a new independent trade policy, it is crucial that we prioritise sectors in which we are global leaders and create the best framework possible to help them remain that way in a post-Brexit world.

Recently, I wrote about the importance of rail in the context of our fight back against Covid-19. Today, I am again banging the drum for the rail industry that I know and love; particularly because of its rather unknown status as a major exporter – but we need to change that.

The rail industry always takes up a lot of column inches in the British media. Debates rage about strikes, fares and leaves on the line. These are all issues that the British public experience directly and so it is no wonder that we all hear so much about them.

However, our rail sector is a major industry in its own right compared to the automotive or aerospace sectors; albeit on the verge of a major reform. Crucially, it is also an international success story, exporting £800 million a year in goods and services. The sector employs around 600,000 people (more than the entire workforce of Birmingham) and fuels jobs in the UK’s industrial heartlands; places like Crewe, Derby, Stockport and Doncaster. And it could do so much more for UK plc.

Key to protecting and enhancing the UK’s role as a major rail exporter is to make our market attractive and open for business. Rail should be included in any free trade deal post-Brexit; and I have already met with Graham Stuart, International Trade Minister. These deals should be signed with the purpose of making it as easy as possible for the UK to continue to export.

A recent survey by the Rail Supply Group showed that the UK rail sector’s priority markets are very much aligned with those of the Government – rail suppliers want to access markets like America, Australia and India, all of which are top priorities for agreeing Free Trade Agreements. The industry is also keen on ensuring reciprocal market access; and we should reject protectionism wherever it rears its head. If we are restricted from accessing another market because of protectionist procurement legalisation, as we have been within the EU, the Government needs to ensure these barriers are broken down for the benefit of all; and that is my mission here at the moment for the railway.

The potential of the rail industry in exporting abroad knows no bounds, and it says something about the growth of the industry that the Rail Sector Deal, agreed between industry and Government, has targeted a doubling of UK rail exports by 2025. This is very much achievable, with lots to play for as the global rail market is due to expand significantly over the coming years; with the recently released UNIFE World Rail Market Study predicting annual market growth of between one and 2.3 per cent until 2025, when an annual volume of approximately ER 240bn pa could be expected.

However, now more than ever, we need to show off what we can sell to our new trading partners. Support from Government, recognition of the exporting potential of the sector and schemes like the Department for International Trade’s Tradeshow Access Programme (TAP) are vital in helping fund small businesses in the rail industry to go to trade shows around the world and bring home contracts. As we leave the EU, it is vital that these sorts of schemes are maintained and supported more because Brexit means the UK becomes less prominent internationally. Now is when our presence on the world stage is needed most.

In September 2019 at the Conservative Party Conference, the rail industry leaders present did not appreciate the opportunities that Brexit offered. Senior executives were not at that time wanting to embrace the future. But we have now left the EU. We have countless trade deals in place and I have been making the case throughout Government to make sure rail features in these deals; and the industry would do well to also make the case.

The Railway Industry Association (RIA), the voice of the UK rail supply community, has made a number of key asks about what the industry needs from future trade deals in order to continue to soar. To summarise these in simple terms: rail needs to be included in trade deals; have tariff-free access to other markets wherever possible; and retain a great, highly skilled workforce with people from around the world able to come here if they fit the bill. If we can achieve this and combine it with a renewed drive to “sell, sell, sell” through our negotiations around the world; there is every opportunity for our rail industry to lead the world in our new, global Britain.

James Frayne: Perhaps the Conservatives should simply revert to being southern and posh

10 Nov

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

In my twenties, I took a serious interest in US politics and campaigns, naively coming to think of the UK and US as culturally similar. It’s an easy mistake: a shared history; mutual respect for each other’s institutions; similar attitudes to the free market, individual rights and the rule of law; overlapping tastes in popular culture.

But it’s a mistake nonetheless. When I lived and worked in Washington DC and New York City for a couple of years – theoretically culturally familiar places – I came to realise how utterly foreign the US is. While I love the US and believe they’re our closest ally, I’m culturally European. I’m now firmly of the view those people seeking to apply political and electoral lessons from the US to the UK are usually wasting their time.

As Nick Timothy pointed out yesterday in the Daily Telegraph, the idea that Boris Johnson’s conservatism is damaged by Donald Trump’s defeat is ludicrous – the two are cut from different cloth, despite persistent but silly commentary linking “Brexit and Trump”.

So I stress: those looking to learn lessons from the US are mostly wasting their time. But one important consideration does arise for British Conservatives.

This is the electoral danger of letting down the new working class voters who have flocked to Trump’s GOP and the Conservative Party respectively.

In the US, these voters are often called Reagan Democrats or sometimes Springsteen Democrats; in the UK, we tend to call them the “traditional working class”; either way, they’re the working class of industrial and post industrial areas. While their similarities stretch only so far, given the differing nature of British and American labour markets and industrial history, the theme of working class disappointment is relevant.

We shouldn’t over-simplify: there were many reasons why Trump won in 2016; aggressive cultural conservatism was only one of them. But Trump partly carried so-called “rust-belt” states by promising to bring back long-lost manufacturing jobs and heavy industry. In short, he pledged to bring back dignity to hard-up places. The fact that this hasn’t happened – despite a surge in the national economy – dented his re-election chances.

A reality check: it doesn’t appear that Joe Biden truly surged amongst working class voters, nor did Trump collapse. But they do appear to have shifted markedly away from him. Given his narrow lead amongst the working class – and indeed his narrow lead in rust-belt states, full stop – this shift was enough to cause serious electoral problems.

British Conservatives face a similar problem. No, they didn’t make the same sorts of promises to the traditional working class in 2019; they didn’t promise the equivalent of, say, bringing back coal and steel to the North of England.

But while “getting Brexit done” was the most important part of their campaign last December, “levelling up” has become the party’s central public narrative (Covid aside) ever since; it runs through almost all of their policy communications. Their promises to the working class are far less outlandish than Trump’s, but they’re arguably more defined by their promises because they’ve talked of little else.

Trump’s winning coalition was large, but it was shallow, because of its reliance on new voters with no history of voting Republican. The same is true here. The Conservatives’ 80 seat majority looks massive, but it’s also precarious because again it’s built on new voters with few loyalties.

While working class people will cut the Conservatives slack because of Covid, they’ll soon be asking what progress the Government has made for them. They will certainly not accept the opposite of “levelling up” – the further decline of their towns and cities (which is already happening).

Just like those long-term Democrats who asked whether shifting their votes to their historical economic and moral opponents was worth it after all, so those traditional working class Labour voters from the Midlands, North and the Coast will pose the same sort of question. They’ll ask whether the Conservatives were all talk. And as I’ve written before, Keir Starmer is a very different proposition for the working class than Jeremy Corbyn.

It’s reported today that Rishi Sunak has promised Northern MPs more resources and more attention in the post-Covid period, largely, apparently, in the form of new infrastructure spending. This is welcome. (Though what about other areas – not least the Midlands and the coast?)

But time isn’t on their side, and the task is huge. Unless they can offer meaningful social and economic progress in such places as Walsall, Wolverhampton, Derby, Rotherham and Oldham, they will be out. Yes, they’ll be able to blame Covid-19 – but so what?

In fact, such little progress is being made, with time rapidly running out, it will soon be time to consider whether the Conservatives should junk their presumed working class strategy and focus once again on the affluent South. And it’s possible that the party should indeed take the easy route, follow its heart, and go back to being Southern and posh; yes, I’m serious.

Where should the Conservatives focus? Infrastructure matters. Ultimately, however, improving the economy outside the prosperous South East will require radically improving education and skills at all levels – seeking to build new businesses and industries from this new base of skilled workers. But you’re talking of two or three Parliaments to see the fruits of any such decisions made now. The Conservatives don’t have that luxury.

Rapid progress will depend on being able to show town centres – and specifically high streets – have improved. This doesn’t just mean defending commerce; it means making town centres safer and more attractive and, crucially, fostering local pride. The Party should be throwing itself into this task. A useful immediate start to focus minds: use all those screens in the Cabinet Office to display figures from a Towns Dashboard.

James Frayne: Coastal towns – next for the Conservatives after the Red Wall seats. And essential for a shore-to-shore majority.

13 Oct

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

The Conservatives risk taking their 80 seat majority for granted; doubly so, with their domination of provincial England and Wales. There’s a sense that Labour has been devastated in their own backyard – with no way back in the near-term.

But England and Wales aren’t in the bag and the Conservatives’ hold over the working class is precarious. The pivot to it is in name only; it can be made real, but only with serious action.

Jeremy Corbyn was a clown, but Keir Starmer isn’t. The English working class came to despise Corbyn, but don’t despise Starmer and never will. He’s an entirely familiar English politician: a bit awkward and dull; a bit professional posh.

But so what? That’s most people in politics. Working class people would vote for him without hesitation. He’s basically competent; he’s not afraid to say he’s patriotic; he stands against the excesses of the lunatic fringe in his Parliamentary Party; he looks the part.

The Conservatives urgently need to narrow Starmer’s path to No 10. How should they go about this?

This column has long focused on the need to appeal to voters in the the Midlands and North. This has been the main battleground for the last two or three elections; but there are signs Conservative ambition should be extended on a large scale geographically.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that English and Welsh coastal areas should become a priority in the same way the Midlands and North have been. In this way, the Conservatives should seek to establish a mainstream majority from coast to coast.

Over the last couple of years I’ve been conducting more and more research in coastal areas – mostly in the form of focus groups, but via quantitative research too – and have been increasingly struck by the cultural, economic and, ultimately, political similarities between them in different areas.

It’s also become clear that cities like, say, Portsmouth, have a lot in common with, say, Derby. And places like, say, Great Yarmouth have a lot in common with, say, Rochdale. The smaller towns are strikingly similar.

New quantitative research that Public First has conducted as part of our work for the UK Major Ports Group – the representative body for the country’s largest port operators – confirms me in this view. It should be perfectly possible for the Conservatives to create a message that resonates equally for the working class in coastal and inland areas.

Indeed, this should be a strategic priority for the Conservatives for the rest of this Parliament. You can read the full tables of the coastal poll here and the accompanying England and Wales nationally representative poll here.

(I should say at this point that UKMPG is entirely apolitical; this reflects my reading of a poll I’ve done for them; Labour-leaning colleagues are writing their own analyses from a Labour perspective).

Coastal towns have their own particular challenges, of course, and residents favour policies specific to coastal areas. For example, coastal residents favour awarding coastal areas “special category” status in the same way that some rural areas have been awarded something similar; they also favour improving transport links between coastal areas and the rest of the country.

The Government will need to address these particular issues. But the more you look at the data and the more you listen to coastal town residents in focus groups, the more similarities there appear to be people in with less affluent towns in the English and Welsh heartlands.

Most obviously, there are huge concerns about the economic and social decline of their towns. In coastal areas, as in less affluent Northern and Midlands towns, not only do very many people think their local areas have got worse, but they’re also pessimistic for the future.  They are particularly concerned about the state of their local high streets and how small businesses have suffered (made worse, of course, by the Covid-19 emergency and the downturn that’s followed).

As in the Midlands and North, coastal town residents are desperate for policies that focus on regeneration. Many believe their children would be better off moving away to pursue better opportunities elsewhere. In towns on the coast and inland, you hear this mix of local civic pride with a belief that things are getting worse all the time (especially in the West Midlands).

For voters in coastal towns and in the heartlands, the Conservatives’ manifesto focus on improving life in provincial Britain was the right one; it obviously chimed in towns across the country.

So politically and culturally speaking, there are reasons why the Conservatives should consider coastal voters to be potential long-term Conservatives. Coastal town residents are more likely than the national average to be eurosceptic, and seem more conventionally patriotic than the average.

But, as we’ve seen in Labour’s former working class areas, they’re hardly classically Conservative. For example, they’re keen on raising taxes on the highest earners and on increasing benefit provision (the latter, likely a reflection of the downturn).

They also associate the Conservatives, as many do, with being primarily for “the rich”. In short, coastal town residents are superficially Conservative, but many are now peeling off to the “don’t know” line when asked about their voting intention, which is only a step away from taking a good look at Labour.

More worryingly, when we probed voters’ values, coastal residents, as well as those across the rest of England and Wales, said the values they held most dear were family, fairness, hard work and decency; but they were much more likely to associate Labour with these values than the Conservatives.

Over the next several months, I will be returning regularly to this theme: the need to create a mainstream English and Welsh majority from coast to coast. The research I’ve been doing is an interesting first step; it requires more analysis and more thought.

However, my strong sense is this:

  • Politicians are wrong to consider coastal areas as being radically different from the rest of the country, and indeed too different to help through conventional politics.
  • While coastal areas require some specific attention, their problems are similar to those in the Midlands and North etc.
  • The heart of the policy response should focus on civic regeneration, small business growth and new technologies;
  • As with the rest of the country, there are major differences between the cities and the towns on the coast.  And, bringing it all together –
  • The Conservatives should seek to create a unified offer which ties together mainstream England and Wales.

With Brexit finally coming to a conclusion one way or the other, and with new trade deals emerging, it’s likely that British port towns and cities are going to start receiving greater political attention.

We’re going to suddenly remember that we’re an island which demands an industrial strategy to match a new trade strategy. As this all takes place, the Conservatives should begin to prioritise the voters of these coastal areas in the way they’ve prioritised those in the Midlands and North.