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.