Ben Houchen: The Budget. On Wednesday, Sunak must hear the voice of the North – and kickstart a new era of job creation.

26 Feb

Ben Houchen is the Mayor of the Tees Valley.

With spirits buoyed by the Prime Minister’s roadmap out of pandemic restrictions, and the light at the end of the Covid tunnel finally in sight, all eyes now turn to the Budget on March 3.

This could be one of the most influential Budgets, both for our nation and for the region I represent, in a generation. Crucial decisions need to be weighed and judged by the Chancellor to ensure that our comeback from Covid is powerful and that the light at the end of that tunnel proves to shine on a better future.

There is no doubt in my mind that the top priority for Rishi Sunak is jobs and rebuilding the economy – an economy battered by the necessary restrictions on lives and livelihoods. I know from talking to local businesses how many are fighting on the edge, and it’s to the Government’s credit that the furlough scheme and other financial support have kept so many businesses alive and people in employment.

The “Red Wall” communities in my area overwhelmingly backed Boris Johnson in the last election, and it’s essential that the faith they put in him is returned. The Prime Minister promised a new kind of government, free of Brussels blinkers and Whitehall hand-wringing, which would address ordinary people’s concerns.

The best way to prevent low incomes and low opportunities from blighting the lives and hopes of adults and children, especially in the UK’s left-behind communities, is to do all we can to create new, good quality, well-paid jobs, on an unprecedented scale.

However, for a jobs agenda to be effective, it needs to be directed with strategy and precision. This can’t be an illusory statistical employment growth driven by foreign workers on contracts in the south. At the last election, the country was promised better policymaking for towns, villages and rural areas, and a transformative levelling up programme which would see growth, prosperity, and potential finally realised in communities across the nation.

This is the moment for a step-change in that levelling up agenda, to drive a jobs revolution in areas like Teesside, Darlington, and Hartlepool. Only by marrying the levelling up agenda to the jobs agenda will we ensure that new growth is serious, sustained, and benefits everyone.

There are two key ways in which the Chancellor can kick-start the recovery, levelling up, and the creation of good quality, well-paid jobs in my area. I and my team have done the groundwork, and the question is: will the Government grasp these golden opportunities?

The first, and most essential, step needed is for the Chancellor to give the green light to my plans for the Teesside Freeport. With thousands of acres of developable land, the largest deep-water port on the east coast, a nation-leading focus on delivering net zero technology and clean growth, and a pathway to pioneering innovations to support the whole UK freeport ecosystem, I passionately believe that a Teesside Freeport can be a jobs dynamo, a roaring engine of economic growth, and a flag-bearing project for Global Britain.

There are huge opportunities for job creation here. The wide package of tax reliefs, simplified customs procedures and streamlined planning processes freeports will benefit from can bring in the investment needed to unlock Teesside’s latent economic power.

Sunak was an early supporter of freeports himself, so I know that he understands the enormous potential we have here. The Teesside Freeport could create more than 18,000 skilled, good-quality, well paid jobs over the next five years and boost the local economy by £3.2billion. It would also increase inward investment into Teesside, Darlington and Hartlepool by over £1.4 billion.

Now the Chancellor needs to have the courage to overrule any official arguing to delay pressing ahead with this game-changing jobs catalyst. As soon as Sunak gives us the green light, I’ll be driving this forward, unleashing the potential of Teesside, Darlington and Hartlepool.

The second action I’m looking for from the Chancellor is another where I know he understands the opportunity, but where again he needs to cut down the unimaginative Sir Humphreys within his department.

The Government’s plan to relocate 22,000 senior Whitehall civil servants out of London by 2030 will see 800 civil servants moved from Sunak’s own department to a new northern economic campus, dubbed “Treasury North”.

The vast majority of people don’t live in metropolitan cities, they live in our towns, our villages, in the countryside and on the coast. By moving out of London these civil servants will be able to develop a greater understanding of the issues and opportunities people are confronted with on a daily basis and, ultimately, develop better policy that is anchored in real knowledge gained by living in the communities it will impact the most.

For decades, talented local people in my area, graduates of fantastic northern universities and people who should have played an important part in our communities, have been sucked away by over-centralised bureaucracy. Now this self-perpetuating cycle can be broken. More than 100 local business leaders, both Teesside and Durham Universities, and political leaders from across the political spectrum have backed my proposal to bring Treasury North to Teesside.

It would be tragic if the prospect of opportunity and in-tune government was dissolved into a cluster of London civil servants being flown to Manchester, Leeds, or Newcastle. Such an outcome would fail to deliver better policymaking for towns like Hartlepool or Darlington, villages like Stillington or Skinningrove, or rural areas far and wide, and it would fail to deliver the promised levelling up agenda.

On Wednesday, the Chancellor has the chance to set a defining roadmap for our economic recovery from Covid. As a northern MP himself, I believe that he will hear the voice of the North and kickstart a new era of job creation. The tools are in his hands. The nation is waiting for Sunak to equip us to get to work and create the jobs of tomorrow.

Richard Holden: This first Johnson year demanded tough short-term decisions. The coming second will demand tough long-term ones.

7 Dec

Richard Holden is MP for North West Durham.

The Sarnie Salon, Consett

A week may be a long time in politics, but a year is an eternity. Another truth is that it is very rare that situations arise in politics that have never been encountered before.

But the best-laid plans of twelve months that were expected to be dominated by Britain getting out of the European Union, and starting to level up the country – so delivering on two of the major promises of the election – have been more than overshadowed by the borderless forces of nature.

In North West Durham, with the fells iced with snow, I was thinking about other times when occurrences on the other side of the globe had dealt out a thrashing to well-laid plans.

In 1815, a volcano in Indonesia exploded. Mount Tambora was reduced by five thousands feet in height, as the mountain was blown into the incalculable pieces and up into the earth’s atmosphere in the greatest explosion in a thousand years.

1816 became known as the ‘year without a summer.’ Crops failed, the largest famine in the nineteenth century ripped through the world, and hundreds of thousands died as conspiracy theories abounded.

While today we know more about why and how external shocks happen – facts that won’t stop some of those conspiracy theorists – this doesn’t alter the impact of such events . No-one can doubt that the global Coronavirus pandemic has hit every aspect of our lives, and that its aftershocks will be felt for many years to come.

The disaster that we witnessed in Southern Europe of football stadiums being used as mortuaries and hospitals being overwhelmed has been averted here. The measures that have been taken to avoid that scenario have come at a huge financial cost, as taxpayers’ money has been used to support employees and employers, since businesses were forced to close in the interest of public health to the tune of hundreds of billions of pounds. The other costs, in terms of impacts on education, physical and mental health are not yet fully quantifiable, but will be significant, too.

In the early nineteenth century there was no understanding of what had happened among either the people or the Government. The price of food went, no-one knew why – and there was suspected conspiracy, which led to rioting in the cities. In the countryside, people didn’t know why the sun wasn’t shining. That, by contrast, we know the causes of the problem we’re facing is very helpful – and the recent announcement of vaccines also gives us an end point.

For the overwhelming majority of my constituents, because they have a panoply of facts on hand, the pandemic isn’t political. What they want to see if politicians of allsides working to get out of it.

For our political opponents, their attempts at politicising it are probably the reason that, despite the economic impact, poll ratings are holding up for the Government. Rather than a government-in-waiting, Labour are seen as an opposition that leaves people wanting. In the last year nothing could be clearer than the seeming inability of the new Labour leader to deal decisively with Jeremy Corbyn and Labour’s anti-semitism problems. It is quite clear that the opposition is hopelessly divided.

For Labour, their situation a year in is compounded by what looks like the Keir v. Jeremy show. I don’t believe that if I walked down the main drag in Crook, Consett or anywhere else in my constituency I could find a single person who could name a member of the Shadow Cabinet and their job title.

For a new MP, the overwhelming international issue of Coronavirus has provided some practical difficulties on the ground, but it has really bound me to the community. Having championed our local pubs and hospitality sector, there is nothing worse than seeing it closed. Seeing the excellent work of our community hospitals and their renewed purpose during Coronavirus has helped get my campaign for a new community hospital to replace it over the line as one of the new 40 that our Prime Minister promised at the election.

It has also shown what strong and wonderful people there are out there in our towns and villages, putting themselves our for others. Remembrance in County Durham matters and, recently, I nominated two people locally for the Prime Minister’s ‘Points of Light’ awards who had raised funds for it: Vera, who has been supporting the Royal British Legion for decades and has earned the sobriquet “Mrs Poppy” for raising over £1 million for the appeal, and Venita, on behalf of a team of over 50 local volunteers, who created thousands of poppies as a memorial to over 200 men of Weardale killed in the World Wars. Nothing drives me on in campaigning for North West Durham more than meeting people who are giving their all for our community every day.

While this year may have been overshadowed by the pandemic, we can now very much see the light at the end of the tunnel. The ruin it has wrought will last, though. Our communities will remember the response that we now make.

So the call to ‘Build Back Better’ will need to prove more than a catchphrase for the electors of North West Durham in 2024. The new community hospital, awaited for decades, is very welcome, as is the funding for a feasibility study into a new public transport link from Consett to the Tyne. But underpinning all of that will be good jobs, a sound economy and public finances that can afford to pay for the levelling up agenda. That economic development needs to be self-sustaining locally as far as possible to be sustainable.

The first year has been tough. The second year will involve real decisions about the long-term and will cast in steel the signs for the future. Crucially, the towns of the North East, left behind for generations by Labour, will need to see their Conservative MPs forging a path to a future that enables them with good jobs, better services, a growing economy and sound public finances to support it. The groundwork is down to the individual MPs, but the direction of the centre will be critical.

Richard Holden: This week’s spending review must show voters in Red Wall seats like mine that they were right to trust us

23 Nov

Richard Holden is MP for North West Durham.

“I will repay your trust” was the message loud and clear to the people of North East England on December 14 when the Prime Minister came to Sedgefield.

The result of the general election was first landslide Conservative victory that I can remember. The atmosphere was jubilant and newly elected MPs like me from County Durham and Teesside, alongside our local supporters, cheered him to the rafters. Coming to the North East, to the seat of the former Labour Prime Minister, Tony Blair, to ram that message home mattered, and showed to everyone how much Boris Johnson meant those words.

There’s a lot of guff written about our Prime Minister, but there are a few things I know from having spent time with him on the leadership campaign. He barely lets other people draft a quote for him, never mind a speech. He meant what he said on those days following the election. And crucially, he also helped define the landscape for the next general election with them.

The twin punches of ‘getting Brexit done’ and the promise to ‘level up’ the country had cut through. Our task was aided by a Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn and his acolytes that appeared to the people as desperately divided – amongst other things. With Corbyn, it wasn’t a question of trust that he’d carry out his promises: they believed him. And that scared the bejesus out of a large portion of the electorate.

Living up to that trust started at a pace with the legislation to leave the EU passed within a month, and then we left the EU on January 31st. The big Greenwich speech laid out the path forward on the international stage in early February –  in a speech incandescent with positivity about Britain re-launching herself out into the world.

Events then interceded. The global Coronavirus pandemic has knocked every nation in the world for six. The March budget focused on support during Covid-19, and leant heavily into the key general election promises on our NHS: more nurses, new hospitals, GP appointments.

Since then, the virus and and the response to it has been dominant. Massive support for jobs and businesses has been forthcoming – and welcomed. Rules have been written, changed and re-written, as we’ve learnt more about the virus. Vaccines, thank God, now look to be on their way with roll-out, hopefully, beginning to the most vulnerable in a matter of weeks.

But the Prime Minister’s commitment to repay the trust of the electorate has continued alongside the Covid-19 response. In September, the Government made on one of the biggest announcements around levelling-up to date – the expansion of education and training for post-18.

It was the Prime Minister who made the announcement, not the Education Secretary. When Downing Street take an announcement, it’s something that the Prime Minister personally both cares about and gets the importance of. For levelling up skills and wages, this is a big one. Interestingly and importantly too, the big recent announcements regarding both defence, and the environment and future industries, have included heavy focus on them delivering good jobs in the UK as part of the package.

This week, the Spending Review is a crucial next step on that programme of building trust by delivering. It will cover only a year, rather than the three years that were planned, but it’s vital that, for those long-term promises: on education, policing and infrastructure, as much clarity is given as possible to departments as possible in terms of long-term funding.

Having worked inside ‘domestic delivery’ departments myself in my previous life as a SpAd, if these are going to help deliver, this is very difficult to do overnight, so anything that gives them the ability to plan will really help.

No-one is in any doubt that things will not be as straightforward as they would have been without the pandemic, but Rishi Sunak has sensibly already laid the groundwork for the necessity to level with people: decisions cost money.

He’s also made it clear that the Green Book – that’s to say, how the Government works out the various worth of major projects – needs review: something critical to ‘levelling up.’ On both these points, reality is necessary for trust too – openness on the challenges we face will put our successes, when they come, in the right context. And, post-Coronavirus, is a difficult context.

As strategists look towards the next election, we need to remember that the twin sledgehammers in voters’ minds of Corbyn and Brexit will have fallen away by 2024.

But Keir Starmer will have an issue on trust on both which lasts longer than the individual issues themselves. He sat in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet, worked to make him Prime Minister and, even when Sir Keir had won his party’s leadership poll, he thanked Corbyn for what he’d done as leader.

On Brexit, we all know that it was Starmer who pushed and wrote the policy of a second referendum. It is clear what he wants to do is to hold the Labour Party together at all costs – trying to play both sides on Corbyn with public praise, then denunciation, and then secret half-way house deals fool no-one. As Starmer continues to struggle to tack both ways simultaneously, on both Brexit and Corbyn, he may well come unstuck. But that’s a matter for him, and we can only control our own actions.

Against the context of Starmer and trust, the spending review gives us a golden opportunity to remind the electorate that they can trust us, just as it did in December last year. Yes, we need the realism about the situation that Britain faces and the impact of Coronavirus has had. But we do need to show that we’ll stick to our levelling-up agenda too.

At the last general election, the final three or four days of knocking on doors in North West Durham were surreal. I didn’t need to convince people anymore – they just wanted to know that their vote would matter, that other people were thinking like them, and they knew that it would a close-run thing.

Next time, they’ll already know that it’s going to be close in seats like mine. What they need is the assurance that their trust was well placed in the Prime Minister, in the Conservative Party and in each individual MP last time. Whatever else it does, this spending review must do that.

Darren Grimes: The frustration, bafflement and despair that the lockdown is forcing on my family and friends in the North-East

7 Oct

Darren Grimes is a political commentator and is content creator at Reasoned UK.

I feel the need, somewhat depressingly, to preface this piece by saying that I am no denier of Covid-19.  I do not believe that it is some grand conspiracy involving billionaire philanthropists such as Bill Gates, or lizard men; like most others, I got on board with the original nationwide lockdown until we could build up healthcare resilience, mask wearing and social distancing.

I believ thate deaths from this virus matter. I just don’t believe they matter more, or less, than any other deaths. As three eminent epidemiologists that advocate a different approach have said elsewhere, our current lockdown policies are producing devastating effects on short and long-term public health, such as:

“Lower childhood vaccination rates, worsening cardiovascular disease outcomes, fewer cancer screenings and deteriorating mental health – leading to greater excess mortality in years to come, with the working class and younger members of society carrying the heaviest burden.”

It’s that last part which struck me the most. Each generation of my family in the North-East (I grew up in Consett, County Durham) is now united in their opposition to the current restrictions. For a moment, it looked as though my 86-year-old nana was ready to take a pitchfork to Westminster upon hearing that bingo was closing again. My mother works in higher education, and doesn’t know if she’s coming and going most days. My two younger siblings are left feeling a sense of hopeless and despair that I am not ashamed to admit brings me close to tears.

And for what? We’ve seen that some of the biggest spikes in cases are in places with some of our countries biggest universities, such as Exeter, Nottingham, Manchester and, of course, Newcastle. But surely the Government knew that this problem was coming, and could have prepared for the eventuality of students heading to the North East for the next academic year?

The unspoken tragedy for my friends, at a time when we hear so much about white privilege, is that it is the working class and younger members of society, regardless of skin colour, that are carrying the heaviest burden of our response to Covid-19. So it’s the North East’s young people that will suffer as a consequence of this whack-a-mole lockdown strategy.

Both of my siblings, one of whom has just started a degree in Newcastle, supported the Conservatives last year, in their first election in which they were entitled to vote. Both of them are exactly what the levelling-up agenda should be about. But they’re current both unemployed – with he youngest receiving precious little in-person teaching as part of his first year at university. So this lockdown strategy reminds us just how out-of-touch policymakers are when it comes to the North East.

We hear a lot about the Red Wall as though it were one homogenous mass. The North East itself covers a huge area – from densely populated industrial parts to sparsely populated ones containing more sheep than people. The North East is much more than Newcastle, Sunderland and Gateshead. Yet the lockdown measures that have been put in place don’t currently reflect this and feel really unfair to some.

Under the rumoured “three-tier” system to simplify lockdown rules in England, the country would see just three sets of rules and restrictions. Tier one would apply to areas with fewer than 100 cases per 100,000 population, meaning they’d have to stick to national restrictions. And tier three would apply to areas with high rates, and so would see full lockdowns imposed. Under this scenario, my County Durham family would see the rules that apply to them relaxed.

Many of my friends and family tell me that they’re at their wits’ end. In June, I went back home for the funeral of my youngest aunt, and the family were, naturally, a bit cautious that I was travelling up from London for it, and asked that I keep away from my grandmother.

My grandmother, true to herself, was having absolutely none of it, and fumed at the idea that her agency should be stripped from her, and that she be unable to hug her grandson at such a time. At the funeral itself, my mother sat with my hurting grandmother and refused to sit away from her: it was the right thing to do for both of us.

A video of a similar scene in which this wasn’t allowed to happen has gone viral online. For many this highlights the  cruelty in our rules which say that it’s fine to sit next to your elderly mother on public transport, but not at a funeral. These deeply human tragedies highlight the perniciousness and inconsistencies.

I’ve had conversations with several older friends and family members, of a similar age to a certain American President, who make clear thatm whilst they reckon they’re in decent enough nick to survive the virus as our understanding of it grows, they’re too terrified to leave the house fearing that they’ll get some new rule or regulation wrong. They fear a bankrupting fine or, worse, that one of their neighbours that has taken it upon themselves to become the town prefect.

Voters in the North East just want to know if they’re coming or going. They want rules that are proportionate for the threat that we face and they don’t want to see, whatever the risk that they may or may not pose, the livelihoods and life chances of their nearest and dearest destroyed in the most disproportionate way possible.

I’m afraid, Boris Johnson, that the promise of a few wind turbines by 2030 simply won’t soften the hammer blow to the life chances of our region’s young.

Richard Holden: Access to cash. Here in County Durham, it matters to voters. Sunak should help to guarantee it.

28 Sep

Richard Holden is MP for North West Durham.

“Cash is King”. In the City of London that means liquidity, numbers on paper – but what it boils down to is freedom of action when things get tight.

For many of my constituents, it means something slightly different: it means hard currency and it means control. When I’m away in Westminster, I rarely use notes and coins. Transactions happen at the touch of a card or, more likely, at the push of a few buttons on my phone.

In the ‘real world’ of my constituency, though, cash is still very important. Recently, while I was queueing outside the Golden Fish Inn on Delves Lane to pick up fish and chip, mushy peas and some cans of pop for the team who’d been out leafleting, I remembered that the chip shop is still cash only. A quick dash across the road to get some money from the cash machine and all was well.

But for many in my community – particularly those on tight budgets, pensioners, and people trying to manage their way out of debt – cash is what they live by. It’s easy to manage because once it’s gone, it’s gone. You can take £20 to get some shopping for the next few days, or take £10 out with you to get a few pints (yes, London readers: you really can get ‘a few pints’ for £10 in Consett) and go home not having spent more than you intended to. Access to physical cash remains crucial.

There has been a big shift under Covid-19, and the Golden Fish Inn is now unusual. Shops and businesses which were ‘cash only’ are fewer and further between.

Even my Wolsingham local, the Black Lion (where during the election campaign the regulars didn’t bat an eye as the Education Secretary and I grabbed a couple of pints, picked eggs and played pool poorly one evening) a staunchly cash-only wet pub until lockdown has now got a card machine. But in North West Durham generally it’s cash-and-card, not just card. Card only is exclusive of those in the most need, as the recent transformation away from cash in Sweden has shown.

The issue of access to cash was highlighted a few weeks ago, when I got a call from a small local shop in Billy Row, a small village near Crook in the south part of my constituency. The shop is basically open from first thing until late evening, seven days a week, provides essentials and has a cash machine inside.

It also has a post office counter, open dor much more restricted hours. Post Office Ltd had got in touch with them to say that the contract with the cash machine operator had expired, and the machine would be coming out for good in a matter of months. The result, the shop keeper told me, was that it would probably end the business and the shop in the village.

Why? Because a lot of local people budget use cash, and they don’t want to only be able to withdraw it at certain times on certain days from the Post Office counter, when to check the balance means it being printed off and passed over before they know if and how much they can take out.

It also means the workers who swing by on their way by in the morning to pick up a can, paper, packet of fags and grab some cash for lunchtime wouldn’t carry on doing so. And for the pub across the green, it means a lifeline for the business (being able to deposit and do basic banking) and access to cash for customers would go too.

A short, local campaign, a bit of local media, touching base with LINK (who were superb) and a few letters to senior management all helped – and the Billy Row cash machine will stay.

But it got me talking to people about how important cash is more broadly. I discovered that in one of the least affluent parts of my constituency, the only nearby cash machine charges £2 a go. That’s a lot to get access to your own money when you’re on a tight budget, and just want to grab so cash to pay to top up your electric meter, pay your hairdresser or grab some bits and pieces from the local shop or sandwich shop. So I’m now campaigning to get a free-to-use machine there to replace it and reduce what has been called in some quarters the ‘poverty premium.’

In the months since I was elected, it’s often these day-to-day issues: cash machines, speeding, unadopted roads, street-lighting, potholes, low-level crime and anti-social behaviour that I’ve noticed my Labour predecessors didn’t try (or at least not very hard) to do anything about.

Either they felt it was beneath them (and too many Labour councillors think these issues are beneath them still), or they were too busy concentrating on planning the revolution to deal with the issues that mean so much in people’s everyday lives.

Throughout the global pandemic, the Government has stood up in an unprecedented way to support jobs and businesses across the country. My constituents know that nothing comes for free, and that the colossal short-term support that has been provided to save jobs and businesses cannot be provided in the long-term.

The broader levelling-up agenda – the defining mission of this Government – needs to be the focus, and delivering on key manifesto promised on hospitals, police numbers, nurses and doctors must be the overarching focus post-Coronavirus.

But now that the budget is delayed until spring, we have a window of opportunity for the Chancellor and his team to also step back, and target support for schemes and policies that can really deliver those smaller changes that make a difference to families and communities in the ‘Blue Wall’, and also pockets in every constituency.

Not all of it needs to cost the earth – and in some cases, need not cost anything. Access to cash is one of these issues in the broader Treasury remit, and needs to be looked at. With a bit of time, we can drill down into the long-term issues that make communities feel left behind, isolated, ignored and yes, ripped off.

By listening to them, rather than talking at them, we can avoid the fate of our Labour predecessors across the newly Blue constituencies by getting things done on the ground that make an immediate difference to people’s lives, alongside our broader ‘levelling up’ agenda.

Richard Holden: Across the “Blue Wall”, there’s little sign Starmer’s approach to the crisis has cut through

3 Aug

Richard Holden is MP for North West Durham.

The Green, Billy Row, County Durham. Nothing brings you back down to reality like properly being out and about in the towns and villages of North West Durham. People don’t hesitate to politely let you know their opinions, which I conveyed – again politely – to Amanda Milling, the Party Chairman.

Since lockdown eased, Amanda has sensibly been out and about across the “Blue Wall” and popped by to formally open my new office, before meeting some local members and constituents in Consett. It was only in 2010 that the Conservatives gained her seat of Cannock Chase. Part of the original “Red” to “Blue Wall” swing seats from 2010. it’s now held with 68.3 per cent of the vote for the Conservatives and a majority of almost 20,000. Something to aspire to and we are nothing if not the part of aspiration.

Lockdown has changed a few things and there is, understandably, concern about the future due to Coronavirus. While the caravan parks are full and people are holidaying in the towns and villages of Weardale, the reverse is true for my local businesses and companies that rely on international travel. From travel agents, through airlines, to aircraft manufacturers, all have been hit hard. How the next few months are managed is really going to set the course for the next few years.

But to date, the management of the economic impact of the crisis is seen as sound. A testament to that is that one first name has joined that very short list of “household name” politicians alongside “Boris” locally and that is “Rishi” – very much seen as someone who has worked hand-in-glove with the Prime Minister and done all he can to help steady the ship, in a credible way, at a very difficult time.

One of the things that really doesn’t appear to have changed though the antipathy of local people towards the London (and on a local level City of Durham) centric Labour machine. It’s quite clear that Keir Starmer, too, certainly hasn’t really cut through in any positive meaningful way here.

This hasn’t been aided by the missteps of the Labour-run County Council who, at the heart of the pandemic in late March, voted to put a new 3,000 sq ft roof terrace on top of their proposed new monstrous carbuncle of a County Hall on a floodplain in the centre of Durham city.

At a national level, Labour’s lawyerly approach to the crisis hasn’t helped it either. If your job is on the line – as quite a few are in my community – Starmer’s “Goldilocks Politics” of “too much/too little, too fast/too slow” with lashings of hindsight-driven drivel isn’t winning you over.

No-one wants to know that, like any good barrister, you can argue the counter argument. They want to know you get the economic reality of what’s going on and are instructing your local councillors where they’re in place to do something about it.

From those snatched chats over coffee or a pint in the pubs of North West Durham, it’s clear to me that without showing a desire to really challenge the basic economic arguments of the far-Left, Labour have still further to fall. This is Starmer’s real challenge: he’s dumped Corbyn, but can he – does he even want to – dump Corbynomics?

Within three months of taking office following the death of John Smith, Blair had told the Labour Party Conference he was going to change Clause 4 and within a matter of months at a special conference in April 1995 he did just that.

Aside from managing to knife his opponent for the job and boot her out of the Shadow Cabinet, Starmer’s first four months in office have been barely a tremor on the political Richter scale.

If I were Starmer at this moment I’d be recognising that I have one shot at this and boldly lay down the policy tracks in order to concentrate on next year’s elections in Scotland, Wales, London, The Midlands and the English counties.

From the attempted coup in 2017 and brutality of the internal wars currently taking place, it’s clear that Labour is up for knifing its leaders if they look like an electoral liability.

Starmer needs to show that Labour can win big in its remaining heartlands of London and Wales and show that he’s there, challenging the SNP in Scotland and winning over county councils across England – creating a real base for the future.

For us Conservatives the challenge is different. We can’t control what Starmer will or won’t do – any more than we can really predict or determine when we’ll finally be rid of the damned Coronavirus.

It’s about proving that we not only culturally understand the “Blue Wall”, but grasp their economic needs and aspirations too. The massive support that taxpayers have provided via the Government has not gone unnoticed by the man and woman in The Green at Billy Row and has cut through to constituents.

For the future it’s a mixture of delivering on policies both big – like the commitments on levelling-up – but also smaller policies, like ensuring that community services are maintained and lives, where possible, made a little easier, and cheaper.

Often that’s through ensuring fairness where the market fails or is skewed. From getting housing built on brown field sites that have been squabbled over for decades, to the cash machine on the green at Billy Row.

It might take some ingenuity at times, but we’ll need to keep highlighting to people that we’re on their side in their community economically, as well as culturally, to keep the trajectory away from Labour and to the Conservatives on course as we build the Blue Wall.

Richard Holden: On Wednesday, Sunak needs to display as much confidence in Britain as local publications are showing in North West Durham

6 Jul

Richard Holden is MP for North West Durham.

The Dairy Barn Cafe, North Bitchburn

As Saturday approached, you could feel the febrile excitement and demand for “the story” across the media. Television news and radio bulletins boiled over with predictions of carnage on Saturday night. The broadcasters and papers were eagerly anticipating Freshers Week-esque scenes of drunken debauchery as the public decided to get wasted in a post-lockdown bacchanal.

In North West Durham, I spent Saturday evening visiting the: Duke of Wellington, Consett Rugby Club, the Wheatsheaf in Leadgate and finally the Black Lion, my local in Wolsingham. I’m afraid that I must report that calm and friendly were the orders of the evenings – as it appears were the scenes across the rest of the country too.

Tog, the landlord of the Duke, four doors down from my office on Medomsley Road, took me to his beer garden to show me a mural he’d commissioned during lockdown from a local artist. Sarah-Jane, at the Black Lion, had me take a peak at how she’d transformed her beer garden from a flagged smoking area to a lively and welcoming garden of tables, tasteful lighting and colourful plants and flowers.

It was superb to see responsible local businesses at the heart of their communities investing in their businesses, and ensuring a safe and socially distanced experience for their customers. This hope of better things to come from local firms, with small but significant investments in themselves, is really welcome at a time when I know so many people are not only worried by the virus, but also about their jobs and their incomes.

However, in many sectors of the economy the broad economic impact of the global Coronavirus pandemic is coming through hard, and is reflecting just how interconnected demand is across our economy.

To give one example: at first as the crisis broke, I had travel agents and their staff get in touch. Then came had pilots and crew from Easyjet and British Airways based at Newcastle airport, as the airlines cut back. More recently, I’ve been in touch with a local manufacturing firm which makes inner parts for the wings of Airbus planes, and which is having to lay off half its staff (some of their factories across the UK have closed completely and will not re-open).

Very quickly, the lack of ability to – and demand for – travel has led to manufacturing job losses well down the chain. It’s clear that some sectors have been far more badly affected than others, and that base consumer demand is having a rapid knock-on effect.

Looking out of the panoramic window of the just re-opened Dairy Barn Café, I can see right up Weardale, and am reminded of a conversation I had early in the last election campaign. “Remember, we’re the working dale, Richard” a man in late middle-age in local authority housing in Stanhope had said to me.

At the time it made me think of where I grew up on the other side of the Pennines – walking up Pendle Hill in Lancashire 20 years ago, and looking south to the mill towns of East Lancashire nestled in the valleys below. Working towns like Burnley, Colne and Accrington which have since switched to electing Conservative MPs.

As the furlough scheme, which protected so many jobs at the height of the lockdown is wound down, we’ve got to do everything we can to help return demand to the economy – the demand that comes from confidence in the future. Demand that means work for decent working people up and down the seats of the ‘Blue Wall’.

This confidence and positive view to the future is not something anyone’s hearing from the Labour leadership under Keir Starmer. The best thing he could muster last week was to suggest that the Government was giving “mixed messages” by saying, “get out and about, have a drink, but do so safely”.  Which shows that he’s struggling to get cut-through – especially when the man in the village pub in County Durham is by and large is doing exactly what the Government has suggested.

Labour’s shambolic response to getting children back to school, by saying one thing nationally and another in Labour-run local authorities, certainly inspires no-one with confidence – except a growing confidence that Sir Keir is a political opportunist. He was, after all, remarkably quiet on anti-semitism under Jeremy Corbyn, in order to keep hold of Momentum votes for the leadership. And he tried to play both sides with Labour’s disastrous “we’ll accept the result, but negotiate a new deal, and then have a second referendum” policy on Brexit.

Perhaps most interestingly, this weekend marked the first time that any constituent has mentioned the Labour leader to me unprompted. She was a former Labour voter who switched to the Conservatives in 2017 (and had managed to convince her husband to do so in 2019), and it was clear that, after being initially open-minded, the new Labour leader was leaving them increasingly cool.

The Government has done well in giving support to business and jobs – Rishi Sunak has certainly won fans across the country for that. But without wanting to pile too much pressure on the Chancellor ahead of his statement on Wednesday, we’re all only as good as our most recent decisions in politics.

As we move out of the initial stages of lockdown, Rishi’s decision must be to put confidence as much confidence and therefore demand back into the economy – especially in hard hit sectors – as he can. Everyone knows that it’s going to a difficult time and no-one expects the Government to get everything a hundred per cent right, but voters do expect us to really try.

And in doing so over the next few weeks and months, the Government has got to show the confidence in Britain that my local publicans in North West Durham are showing. And, as they press ahead with “levelling up” their pubs, we must also keep that long-term goal in mind too for the North.

Confidence is the thing that underlies every relationship with the state that we have – from policing with consent to the value of the fiat currency in our pocket. Confidence that governments have the people in mind and the ability to deliver is what keeps them in office.

The electorate here in County Durham and in the mill Towns of East Lancashire took us into their confidence and bestowed their votes upon us. Despite the difficulties of the pandemic, the Government has supported people. Now our task is to give our businesses the confidence to look to the future positively, which will in turn give the people who work for them the confidence to invest and spend in a virtuous circle, bouncing forward out of the fear of recent months and towards the hope of a brighter future.