Lord Ashcroft: For many voters, America’s election was not about Biden – but a referendum on Trump

20 Jan

Lord Ashcroft KCMG PC is a businessman, philanthropist, author and pollster. For information on Lord Ashcroft’s work, visit www.lordashcroft.com.

Joe Biden’s inauguration today will be greeted with a huge sigh of relief by millions in America and around the world. The moment crowns the victory not just of Biden, but of the institutions of American democracy that many still fear are under threat. After a fortnight of extraordinary drama that saw the storming of the Capitol building and a second impeachment for an outgoing president, it would be easy to lose sight of the bigger picture – the movements that brought American politics to where it is, and their effect in the election that feels as though it took place not just eleven short weeks ago but in another age.

If the 2016 election that sent Donald Trump to the White House will stand as one of the defining political events of our time, its successor last year was in many ways at least as remarkable: the supposedly unpopular president winning more votes than any previous Republican, losing only to the candidate with the most votes ever. This week I am publishing my analysis, based on four years of research throughout the US as well extensive polling and focus groups during the 2020 campaign. The research both helps to explain what happened and why, and gives some clues about what we can expect in the next chapter of American politics. Here are some of the key points.

What is President Biden’s mandate?

With a record-breaking haul of 81 million votes, Biden is the most successful presidential candidate in American history. But for many voters, the election was not about Biden but a referendum on Trump. I found 99 per cent of Trump supporters saying they approved of the job he had done, and nine in 10 said they would be voting for the incumbent; 94 per cent of Biden supporters disapproved of Trump’s performance and a quarter said they were voting mainly to get rid of him.

Those switching from Trump to Biden were most likely to mention disillusionment with Trump among their reasons; having high expectations of Biden or liking Democrat policies were at the very bottom of the list.

While policy concerns were different for Trumpers (the economy, immigration) and Biden backers (Covid, healthcare), another telling difference was the kind of leader they wanted. While three quarters of Trump enthusiasts would rather have a president “who does the right thing even if it is divisive,” a majority of Biden supporters would prefer one “who will create a more civil political climate and build consensus even if I don’t agree with everything they do.”

In other words, for many voters Biden had one job – to see off Trump – and he will accomplish his task today. The new president’s problems will begin with whatever he decides to do next. As with any successful political movement, especially one of this size, the coalition that elected Biden in 2020 is far from being a monolithic bloc. Its foundation is the Democratic base, many of whose members yearned for a more liberal, progressive direction and found the compromise of nominating an established moderate quite agonising. Many of them hoped that Biden’s victory would, in fact, usher in a much more radical Democratic era than might have been suggested by the new president’s record in Washington or his reassuringly temperate campaign style. These were joined by a group of new voters, younger and more ethnically diverse, who were opposed to Trump and all his works and were particularly driven to address racial injustice.

Then there is a much more moderate set of voters who wish above all for a calmer, less acrimonious form of politics. Less inclined to dismiss the Trump years out of hand, they were more likely than most to prefer a president who creates a more civil political climate. If they had doubts about Biden it was over his age and health, and the prospect that he might quickly be succeeded by a new face with a more radical agenda. What they wanted was not a Green New Deal but a bit of peace and quiet. Yet with Vice President Harris having the casting vote in a 50-50 Senate, the Biden administration has little excuse not to be bold. The potential for conflict and disappointment among his supporters is already apparent.

Trumpism without Trump?

Some see the 2020 election as a repudiation of Trump and it’s presidency. Arguably, it’s a funny sort of repudiation that sees a president win 11 million more votes, and a higher vote share, than he did four years earlier. For many, the temptation to dismiss Trump supporters as the “basket of deplorables” and lump them all in with the Capitol-storming extremists will be greater than ever. But this would be an injustice and a mistake. As his reputation implodes, it is as important as ever to grasp what it was about the Trump offering that nearly half the electorate found so compelling.

Looking back at what he did and what his supporters told us during four years of research, I think this can be distilled into what we might call the Seven Tenets of Trumpism. An enduring belief in American exceptionalism – the idea that the US is different from, and in important ways, greater than, other countries; conviction that constitutional freedoms like free speech and the right to own guns are important and need defending; the belief that it is possible for anyone who works hard to be successful in America, whatever their background; rejection of political correctness and identity politics; belief in business, low taxes and deregulation; support for a forceful, independent foreign policy; and – crucially – willingness to tolerate a good deal of friction in politics in the cause of advancing these things.

The question for the Republican Party is whether this powerful proposition can be disentangled from the 45th president himself. Could you have Trumpism without Trump? In my research, one in three Trump supporters told us they approved of what he had done as president but disapproved of his character and personal conduct. This meant two thirds of his supporters said they approved of both his actions and the way he behaved. That’s not to say most will not have been horrified as they saw the seat of their democracy under attack. But for most of his presidency, what others saw as his outrageous behaviour was not just part of the package, but part of the appeal – a feature, not a bug. Many loved having a president who said exactly what they thought, refused to conform to politically correct orthodoxies and remained a political outsider.

Some would like the Republicans to put the whole Trump era behind it, but it won’t be that simple. The two parties in American politics have always drawn the base of their support from very different constituencies, but over the last forty years that fault-line has shifted completely.

On this map, the vertical axis represents security, in terms of things like health, income and occupation – the higher up, the more secure. The horizontal axis represents diversity, which includes factors like ethnicity and population density – the further to the left, the more diverse. Over the last 40 years, the Democratic party’s base of support has in economic terms grown steadily more upscale, while the Republicans have become the party of rural and small-town America. The coalition that sent Trump to the White House is different from the one that elected George W. Bush, let alone his father. In charting its new course, the Republican Party cannot simply trade this coalition in for a new one.

The task the Republicans now have is to hold together that base of support, and even expand back into the suburbs and cities themselves. To say that President Trump’s performance since the election has made this task harder would be an understatement of colossal proportions. Those who want it to remain “Donald Trump’s Republican Party” (as Don Junior had it at the fateful rally) might try the patience of mainstream Republicans beyond endurance: being uncouth on Twitter is one thing, inciting insurrection is altogether another. But those who want a Trump-free future for the GOP must find a way of distancing themselves from him while holding onto the millions – minus the extremist minority – that he brought into the Republican fold. This leads to another question – for another day – of whether the GOP will even continue to exist in its current form.

Can Biden reunite America?

For four years, Trump has been the focal point for divisions in American politics. But if he exacerbated those divisions, he did not create them. As we can see from this dashboard of our polling during the campaign, there are deep and genuine differences in outlook, priorities and values: the issues they care about, whether they believe minorities enjoy equal rights and opportunities, the role of the government, how the Constitution should be interpreted, and the things they worry about on a daily basis.

Combining these various views and attributes on one map makes for an interesting picture of the electorate. We see here how different issues, attributes, personalities and opinions interact with one another. The closer the plot points are to each other the more closely related they are.

We can see how issue concerns, political outlook, news sources, views of American life and Trump’s presidency were associated with support with one or another candidate at the 2020 election.

Such a divergence of views and priorities is the stuff of politics, and an equivalent map could be drawn of the electorate in any democracy. The divisions are made more acute, however, by the way each side views the motivations of the other.

Two thirds of Republicans said they thought people who vote Democrat and support Biden were “good people who want good things for America, we just disagree about how to achieve them.” However, only just over half of Democrats were prepared to say the same about Republicans and Trump voters: 42 per cent said these were “bad people who want the wrong things for America,” including majorities of those who voted for Bernie Sanders in the 2020 primaries and those who describe themselves as very liberal, and two thirds of self-declared socialists.

Nine out of ten Biden enthusiasts said either that they thought Trump was the biggest cause of recent divisions in society or that he had made existing divisions worse. Most Trump supporters, meanwhile, thought America would be just as divided even if he had never run for president.

Accordingly, the two camps took different views when asked about politics in the post-Trump era. Only a small minority of voters thought things would go back to normal quite quickly when Trump left office. But while a majority of Biden enthusiasts and almost half of Biden-Trump switchers thought things would gradually return to normal, six in ten Trump enthusiasts thought politics would either remain just as divisive or become even more so after Trump’s departure.

While Biden supporters often said they wanted more unity and less division, this often seemed less evident in the way they spoke about the people who voted for Trump. “There’s a lot of effing stupid people in our country,” said one Democrat reflecting on the 2016 result. “Idiots and frickin’ old, racist white men.” The idea that his voters had simply lacked guidance by better informed people such as themselves was also a regular theme: “Did we not do enough to reach out? Did we not do enough educating the people in our lives?” agonised one woman. “Some of my friends have Trump signs all over their yard and I still love them, and our children still play together. But that doesn’t mean I don’t think they have received stupid misinformation.”

Trump voters, meanwhile, felt strongly that the calls for agreement and consensus were only really aimed in one direction. “I’m a middle-aged white conservative Christian male. All of this inclusiveness and unity, and what they’re really saying is that nobody else has to change their mindset but me.” The supposedly tolerant left “is only tolerant if you agree with their opinion. If you voted for Trump, then you’re the enemy.” As for the idea of Biden ending the divisions, “It’s like they’re going to wave a magic wand and fix everything that’s wrong now. If Jesus came back and was the President, I’m not sure he himself could do it.”

Lord Ashcroft’s latest book, Reunited Nation? American Politics Beyond The 2020 Election is published this week by Biteback.

Ryan Bourne: A reassuringly conservative speech from Starmer’s Shadow Chancellor. The Tories will need to up their game.

20 Jan

Ryan Bourne is Chair in Public Understanding of Economics at the Cato Institute.

Just in case the Conservatives hadn’t got the message: Labour under Keir Starmer is a very different beast to the party under Jeremy Corbyn.

Dueing the past fortnight, the Labour leader has parked his tanks on conservative lawns, talking first of Labour as “the party of the family,” then setting out a foreign policy vision of the UK as a “bridge between the U.S. and Europe.” Annelise Dodd’s Mais Lecture on economics was perhaps more striking still in the break of tone and type of criticisms made of Conservative policy compared with the last leadership.

Gone were the unhinged attacks on “neoliberalism” that characterised Corbynite bloviating. The fault-finding was specific and targeted. Dodds acknowledged the difficulties any government would face in a pandemic. Her surgical critique was that the UK’s Covid-19 outcomes were worsened by government foot-dragging on tightening lockdown restrictions, and Treasury attempts to fine-tune the balance between economic and public health.

Specifically, she claimed that its mixed-messaging on financial support to businesses, first delivering it and then threatening to withdraw it based on firms’ “viability,” created needless uncertainty. With the vaccines hopefully soon ending the pandemic, she argued that supporting firms until reopening was now more prudent than letting the chips fall when furlough ends in Spring. On the balance of costs and benefits, most economists would probably now agree.

There was little Corbyn-like wailing about past “austerity” either. Dodds’ criticisms of the last decade of government fiscal policy were restrained, and more plausible for it. She claimed that some spending cuts may have adversely impacted the pandemic response; that 16 fiscal targets coming and going since 2010 has created instability; that there should be more focus on the long-term public finances rather than the short-term; and that rapid deficit reduction coming out of the pandemic (including tax hikes, as Rishi Sunak reportedly wants) would be economically destructive. All these criticisms, individually, would not be surprising in ConservativeHome op-eds.

Yes, Labour still wants a bigger state than the Conservatives. Yet unlike many on the Left, Dodds appears under no illusions that running up debt is riskless or a free-lunch. “…it would be an irresponsible economic policymaker who planned on the assumption that low interest rates will continue indefinitely,” she said, while musing about a longer-term inflation risk. Her new “fiscal framework,” focused on planning to balance day-to-day spending and tax revenue, would be based on the recommendations of the Institute for Fiscal Studies.

Now none of this is particularly exciting. The speech was littered with boilerplate progressive assertions and the usual touching faith in the power of government. But it’s telling that Dodds actively shirked the opportunity to announce some glitzy new retail offer to grab newspaper headlines. There was no promise even of a Labour government “creating” high-wage jobs, or “transforming” the economy.

Instead, the speech was quintessentially small-c conservative. Labour, we were told, would protect the independence of the Bank of England, be “responsible” with the public finances, embrace free trade, protect businesses from Covid failure, focus policy on thorny structural problems rather than chasing day-to-day media coverage, and deliver “value for public money” from government spending.

Indeed, peer through the mundane parts of the speech, and you see a rhetorical critique of the current government that wouldn’t have looked out of place coming from Conservatives a decade ago. Dodds’ subtle message was that government decisions on infrastructure and procurement contracts were often determined more by short-term, pork-barrel political considerations than sound economic judgment, bringing with them at least a whiff of crony capitalism.

The speech highlighted waste and mismanagement through Covid-19, for example, including on the test-and-trace programme and the purchase of faulty antibody tests. Any errors are more forgivable in a pandemic when there were potentially huge returns on such investments and time is of the essence.

But those types of criticisms will likely amplify with Conservatives’ newfound penchant for large regional infrastructure projects (prone to massive cost overruns) and place-based revival packages (prone to political cronyism). Again, the argument that Conservative economic decisions are politically-motivated and wasteful is a very different attack than the more ideological opposition from Corbyn and McDonnell.

None of this is to say that all of Dodds’ analysis is coherent or correct. The theme of the speech was “resilience” – that is, how the pandemic shows the need for an economy robust to future shocks. Mercifully, Labour has not jumped on the bandwagon of saying the pandemic proves we need the government to actively re-shore a whole bunch of medical manufacturing production—the braindead, yet widespread “fight the last war” recommendation of those unable to conceive of shocks originating here. Yet there was still a bit of a “this crisis proves much of what I’ve always believed to be true” about her analysis.

Dodds suggested, for example, that a lack of savings among the poor, job insecurity among gig economy workers, and “socio-economic inequality” all help explain Britain’s poor Covid-19 outcomes. Perhaps on the margins those factors did make things worse. But the overwhelming reason why the UK has performed badly so far relative to countries such as South Korea, Taiwan, Australia, and New Zealand, is surely little to do with the labour market or macroeconomic policy, and almost entirely explained, to the extent that policy can actually explain things, by public health decisions at various times.

It is within Labour’s comfort zone to say reducing inequality and strengthening workers’ rights would have mitigated the costs of this pandemic. It would have been braver for them to expose failures in government bodies: say, Public Health England, whose centralisation of testing proved a disaster; or the NHS, with its systemic rationing reducing the incentive for spare capacity; or government scientists, who downplayed the early need for tough measures and told people mask wearing was unnecessary. If they really want “resilience,” they would surely explore the future case for deregulation in medical innovation. Earlier human challenge vaccine trials, for example, could have sped up delivery or a working vaccine, negating much of the last year’s pain.

Such a broad evaluation was perhaps always too much to hope for. But this speech proved that Labour is developing a more refined critique of the Conservatives. This is not the sort of emotional “blood on their hands” or anti-capitalist screeching we saw from Corbyn’s Labour.

Instead it is a crisp focus on the need for decisiveness, competence, and propriety in delivering effective government. The upgrade in opposition may well, in time, sharpen government decision-making. But a party with half-baked plans to rebalance the economy through massive infrastructure projects and shifting around government departments, led by a Prime Minister known for making late calls, may find such criticisms difficult to shake off.

David Gauke: The Covid paradox for Johnson: the nearer to normality we get, the more difficulties he’ll have

16 Jan

One consistent characteristic of the Covid-19 outbreak in the UK is that at the bleakest moments in the health situation, Boris Johnson’s position in the Conservative Party has been at its strongest, but when the health news is less unremittingly grim, the internal politics become harder for the Prime Minister.

Overwhelmingly, the country rallied around Johnson last spring. His popularity started to fray once the simple ‘stay at home’ message was replaced by a more complex and nuanced one. This was also the point at which some of Conservative MPs started to argue that restrictions needed to be relaxed more quickly.

By the autumn, the process of relaxing restrictions had to be reversed. A pattern started to emerge. The Government’s scientist advisers, Matt Hancock and Michael Gove would favour tighter restrictions; Keir Starmer would eventually called for these; Conservative MPs would complain that the existing ones were bad enough; the Prime Minister would delays making a decision until the evidence was overwhelming, and would then act. Whether with hindsight or foresight, the evidence suggests that the Prime Minister was right to act but that he should have done so earlier.

This approach – as seen with the autumn lockdown, the Christmas restrictions and the January closure of schools – is far from an ideal way to handle a pandemic, but timely interventions would have made party management all the more difficult.

We are now entering into a new stage of the crisis. Notwithstanding that Covid deaths are at record levels and likely to rise for another week or two, there are now reasons to be optimistic. The most recent lockdown is working and cases are falling. The first stage of the vaccine rollout appears to be accelerating. Focus now appears to be moving to be where the country will be in mid-February when, all being well, the first four priority groups – who have constituted 90 per cent of fatalities – will have received a first dose. What happens then?

Steve Baker fired a warning shot, albeit one aimed at his own foot, in writing to Parliamentary colleagues calling for them to contact the Chief Whip demanding that the Government set out “a clear plan for when our full freedoms are restored and a guarantee that [the lockdown] strategy will not be used again next winter”. If not, “the debate will become about the PM’s leadership”.

Within a couple of hours of this communication leaking, Baker tweeted his undying loyalty to the Prime Minister. All somewhat embarrassing, but maybe this was just an error of timing. Many MPs will be calling for a return to complete normality once the first phase of the vaccination process has been completed, and will react in horror if they do not get their way. The Government will have to lift restrictions or have a good explanation for failing to do so.

It will not be enough to say that the people most enthusiastically calling for an immediate “restoration of our full freedoms” are the same people who have been consistently obtuse in understanding the implications of the pandemic.

Some of them may have argued that the virus would disappear in the summer, that we were close to herd immunity, that rising cases were caused by false positives, that there have not been many excess deaths this winter and that lockdowns do not work (although it is unclear as to whether they question whether the virus is spread through human contact or whether lockdowns reduce human contact).

Such positions may have been understandable at earlier stages in this crisis but should have been long abandoned. The best anti-lockdown argument – ‘we cannot do this forever’ – is no longer applicable now we have a vaccine.

Nonetheless, if the Infection Fatality Rate is going to be reduced to a very low percentage, there is clearly a case for easing restrictions given the enormous economic costs of the lockdown. Why might this not be the approach the Government takes?

First, deaths may well start to fall substantially in March, but pressure on the NHS – especially Intensive Care Units – will remain high. Many of the people in ICUs are under the age of 60.

Second, the new variant is very transmissible. A rapid return to normal is likely to result in very high infection levels. The IFR might be very low, but if the numbers infected are very high, deaths – and deaths of relatively young people – will still be significant whilst Long Covid will be a major problem. Meanwhile, those vulnerable people who are not vaccinated or for whom the vaccine might not work will be very exposed.

Third, in the circumstances of widespread infections, consumer and employee behaviour will not return to normal. A lesson of the last year is that there is not a straightforward trade-off between health and the economy – scared people change their behaviour.

Fourth, where there is an opportunity for widespread transmission of the virus, there is a greater opportunity for the virus to mutate and escape the vaccine.

I make these points not to argue that all restrictions should remain in place for months on end (I happen to think that there is a very persuasive case to reopen primary schools before long, but that the speed at which restrictions are lifted is going to require some finely-balanced decisions on which reasonable people will disagree. Or to put it another way, there is going to be an almighty row in the Conservative Party in late February and early March.

There are two things the Government could do to contain this.

The Government would be wise to start explaining the considerations sooner rather than later, even if that means dashing some unrealistic expectations. They have to retain flexibility to react to new circumstances (which is why calls for ‘guarantees’ are ill-judged), and detailed programme of how restrictions will be removed would be unwise, but the public deserve to be treated as grown-ups.

Assuming that the removal of restrictions will be gradual and cautious, the Government should make that argument now, even if it antagonises some MPs earlier than otherwise. Prepare the ground.

It also needs to be ambitious in completing the rollout of the vaccine. At present, the process appears to be going very well, and there are reasons to think that the Government is, uncharacteristically, under-promising and over-delivering. The February target for the top four priority groups looks attainable, and the rest of phase one looks set to be done by early April at the latest.

It is vital, however, that momentum on the rollout is not lost once the priority groups have been done. If at all possible, completing the vaccination programme in the early summer, rather than the autumn, will help the country – and the Government – avoid a whole heap of pain.

The main constraint appears to be supply but if this can be addressed, there is a case for being more imaginative in the delivery of injections (I have argued for using the local government infrastructure that sets up polling stations to deliver vaccinations). However it is done, the Government must keep its foot on the pedal in terms of vaccinating the whole population as quickly as possible.

It is sadly inevitable that many thousands of Covid deaths will occur in the next few weeks, but this does appear to be a case when the darkest hour will be just before the dawn. The new dawn, however, may bring new challenges for the Prime Minister.

Jamie Green: Now that Brexit has finally happened, Scotland’s ambitions must stretch beyond Europe

12 Jan

Jamie Green is Shadow Cabinet Secretary for Education and an MSP for West Scotland.

They say that January is a time for renewal, new starts and new resolutions. After the 2020 we’ve just had, that message of renewal is more important than ever, but I can think of nobody in greater need of wiping the slate clean and replacing the broken record than our very own First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon.

I appreciate that it’s difficult for a veteran politician of 30 years to find somewhere to start fresh, but I might gently suggest to the First Minister that she embraces 2021 with a more positive vision of what Scotland can achieve going forward. Instead of endless re-running of votes and arguments, all of which she sadly lost, the leader of Scotland’s government needs to embrace the reality of the new world we are in.

“A No Deal Brexit would be a catastrophic outcome for Scotland” – she proclaimed, before ordering her MPs to vote for one in the closing days of 2020. To her, Brexit has always been an emotive weapon used to stir up division and further her grievance with the UK government. But also one of absolute hypocrisy and paradoxical ironies.

She would happily drive our fishermen and their fish straight back into the murky seas of the Common Fisheries Policy, and she would herd our farmers back behind the fences of the Common Agricultural Policy, if it meant achieving her lifelong political mission of Scottish separation, at the expense of everyone and everything else. Her swansong perhaps, at any cost.

Just last weekend, her own deputy labelled a second independence referendum “an essential priority” without a hint of irony, apparently unaware of the global pandemic and the mounting Coronavirus death toll in Scotland.

The truth is that she must be spitting nails at the UK’s orderly managed exit, because the SNP calculated it had more to gain by pushing for a chaotic departure rather than acting in the national interest. The truth is that the SNP was desperate for the final week of 2020 to be marked with disruption and for 2021 to begin with the very No Deal exit from EU transition that it had spent years condemning with the might of a pulpit preacher.

They talked of the cliff edge ad-infinitum, only to then vote for one when it came to the actual crunch: do as I say, not as I do.

Now that Brexit has finally happened, and we have actually left the EU, how on earth can Scotland be reassured that their First Minister will embrace the New Year and the opportunities that awaits us with the zeitgeist it merits? The problem for Scotland is that she won’t.

If only her separatist government put such effort into its domestic policy as it does its interest in repealing referenda, perhaps we wouldn’t have seen the demise of our world-class education, our judicial system or the seemingly perpetual decline of our economy under the reigns of the nationalist government in St. Andrew’s House in Edinburgh.

When you think about it, the only people who should be afraid of the new freedoms we have outside the EU, is the SNP. With more powers devolved to these islands, they might simply now have to deliver for Scotland rather than just pointing the finger at Westminster when things go wrong.

The bogeyman is neither Europe nor London. The power and responsibility lie firmly in Edinburgh. Be it agricultural policy, or fishing infrastructure. Be it environmental ambition or investment in infrastructure – the Scottish Government has much to account for and much to deliver.

The stark reality facing all governments is to make sure that Brexit actually works for everybody in Scotland, not just those who voted for it. Instead of listening to what Scotland can’t do without Brussels, I want our government to start talking about the opportunities on our doorstep. Our global ambition, if you like.

What about a study abroad scheme with Australia? A financial services agreement with the US, so firms in Edinburgh can have unfettered access to the multi trillion-dollar market in New York? Scotland will always be a close partner and ally of Europe, but our ambitions must stretch beyond the continent of the political union we have just taken leave of if we are to succeed.

Nobody is saying that things will be easy, but ambition is core to success.

We begin 2021 with a new deal, a new relationship, and a new future, which does require some patience I admit. But waiting is not a quality that Sturgeon can rely on, because the political life expectancy of SNP leaders who lose referendums is very limited, and she has been on the losing side of every referendum she has ever campaigned on.

Unlike the First Minister, I believe that Scotland can truly thrive outside of the constraints of Brussels. I want those powers of the Brexit bounty repatriated to these shores, so that every corner of the UK can take advantage of a global UK. The deal thrashed out with the EU, and accepted by both sides, means Scotland will succeed by not only having tariff-free access the European Single Market, but by allowing us to benefit from new free trading arrangements with economic giants such as the US, India, Japan, and Canada. Our whisky, our salmon, our smokies: a global market for a truly global Scotland.

It now just needs a First Minister with the resolution, a new found one if you will, to work with and not against the grain and make a success of our renewed place in the world.

Ryan Bourne: Ministers must speed up the pace of vaccination. Here are some ways of doing so.

6 Jan

Ryan Bourne is Chair in Public Understanding of Economics at the Cato Institute.

Back in May 2020, I wrote that a high-efficacy vaccine was the biggest economic stimulus available to us. Removing whatever barriers existed to its approval and rollout, so accelerating the end of the pandemic, was worth billions of pounds per week in GDP and hundreds of lives. Stock market reactions last year implied vaccines were potentially worth 5-15 per cent of global wealth. But it’s now clear there’s a need for even greater urgency in getting the UK vaccinated.

The disease outlook is grim. As of Sunday, the number of people hospitalised with Covid-19 in England was 32 percent higher than its April peak, with new daily admissions above those seen last Spring. In the South East, the number of Covid-19 patients in hospital is near double the 2020 peak. Chris Whitty explained yesterday how case curves are trending upwards in other regions. Given recent trends and mobility data less responsive so far than to lockdown one, things will get worse before they get better.

So a national lockdown was perhaps inevitable. To judge by Twitter, people were gearing up to revive their pro- and anti-lockdown talking points beforehand. But the armchair cost-benefit analysis from Spring 2020, or even November, is no longer valid. First, because we have vaccines already being rolled out that will, at the very least, mitigate against Covid’s worst effects. Second, because the new mutation appears more highly transmissible in the face of given suppression measures. Both realities strengthen the case for reducing interactions now. Both increase the urgency for rapid vaccination.

The benefits of measures that reduce transmission of the disease are more certain with vaccines available. Lockdown sceptics had a point when they said at least some “lives saved” from government mandates last year were deaths deferred until the next wave. Now, with only 20 million full vaccination courses required to inject demographic groups making up 97 per cent of cumulative deaths so far, avoiding infections today means avoiding Covid-19 deaths forever. That makes the case for breaking up social networks all the stronger, including through closing schools (evidence suggests children are seeding the virus into households).

The high transmissibility of the new strain supports this action. A more rapidly spreading virus increases the risk of “overshooting” ICU capacity. Such is the speed of spread (one in 50 people had the virus last week), each day of societal delay in reducing the transmission rate below one accelerates the crunch. So quickly are we becoming infected, herd immunity may even come this year. The choice before us is whether we achieve it through the route strewn with significant deaths and bad illnesses, or via a path where injections eliminate almost all severe cases.

It feels almost lame to say it—as if nobody ever thought of it—but both the public health and economic consequences suggest we must do everything possible to speed up the vaccination process. We are in a straight race between vaccinations and the virus, and I fear even Boris Johnson’s revised timetable is too slow.

In an ideal world, with plentiful vaccines, logistics ready, and vaccines preventing transmission, the best path to herd immunity would be to vaccinate high transmitters first in a geographically concentrated way. However, we do not know whether the vaccines actually reduce transmission yet, and Chris Whitty contends that there will be supply shortages for months. If that is true, prioritising those at highest personal risk, as the government is doing, makes sense.

The UK regulator was admirably swift in vaccine approval. But doses available have been revised down massively since November and it’s not obvious why things aren’t moving faster. Reported vaccinations in week two (through 27 December) were not even half the number of those in week 1. Sure, this was Christmas week, but why not have longer working hours on other days to compensate? With a spreading virus, delay costs lives. Oxford/AstraZeneca’s vaccine was approved last Wednesday. It was not rolled out until Monday. Why? The virus doesn’t take time off to celebrate New Year’s Eve and a bank holiday.

Yesterday, Johnson said that 1.3 million vaccinations had now been undertaken. That’s only around 350,000 in the past eight days – nowhere near fast enough given the balance of costs and benefits. By mid-February, he hopes that 13.4 million first doses will be achieved. That requires two million per week from now until then. Yet even that seems tardy given the costs of lockdowns.

We must be pulling every lever here. Constraints to early roll-outs should have been foreseen. And if there are unforeseen roadblocks, economists would advise that raising the price you are willing to pay encourages supply. If, as reported elsewhere, a lack of vials is really the problem, what incentives are being given to ensure manufacturers work round the clock, seven days per week? Making the activity more profitable increases the willingness to pay overtime, train new workers, and run machines hot. If not vials, identify the production or staffing bottleneck and apply the same logic.

Eliminating barriers to vaccinator volunteers is a no brainer. So it’s heartening that the government is “reviewing” red tape that says vaccinators must be diversity, terrorism, and fire-safety trained. But financial incentives could help too. The NHS is giving GPs an extra £10 for every care home resident they vaccinate this month, which makes sense given 36 per cent of deaths have been in homes. Yet what about financial inducements for extended hours, weekend work, and more?

This would not only help in getting more vaccinations delivered, but potentially space them out a bit too. So prevalent is the virus right now, hordes of people packed into waiting rooms could lead to infections even prior to vaccines being administered. Is anyone establishing drive-through or outdoor sites, as seen in Israel?

Nor can we afford wasted vaccines. The zero out-of-pocket price means no penalty for people or providers for missed shots. With the possibility of vaccines wasted or appointments missed, GPs, hospital workers, and (hopefully) pharmacies should have the decentralised authority to administer them to “ineligible” individuals without the threats of repercussions to avoid waste. A vaccine dose to someone is better than no one. Let’s not sacrifice lives on the altar of “fairness.”

The Government’s “first doses first” policy shows that Ministers understand inoculating more people sooner is essential, even with a potential efficacy trade-off. But this strategy only helps in the medium-term if the supply is ramped up. The economy and the public health effort require getting the manufacture, logistics, and physical delivery expanded in the swiftest time possible. It’s not easy, but the language from government sometimes treats the stated constraints fatalistically, rather than seeing them as an economic problem that prices, incentives, and regulations could affect.

Philippa Stroud: So you wanted an impact assessment of the effects of lockdown, restrictions – and of Covid itself? Here it is.

18 Dec

Philippa Stroud is Chief Executive Officer of the Legatum Institute, and leads the Social Metrics Commission.

Covid-19 continues to dominate the headlines. The human consequences of the virus on individuals, families, and communities right across the UK is clear to see – in our health, our relationships, and our livelihoods. We must not forget that many families will be dreading the festive season without loved ones who have passed away during the pandemic.

But as politicians, health experts, economists, business leaders, and the public continue to debate what the rules should be around Christmas, we must also remember that the impacts of the pandemic go beyond the here and now. There are long-term implications for the nation’s health, economy, and wellbeing that we will be dealing with for many years to come. This is why it’s so important that we think carefully about the choices we are making in managing this dreadful virus.

While the rollout of the vaccine has begun, it will take many, many months for the population to achieve the level of immunity required for life to return to normal. Until then, it is vital that we have a consistent and transparent decision-making process and mature conversations about the balance between personal, societal, and governmental responsibility.

Policymakers constantly have to make difficult choices, but this year has been perhaps harder than most. The Government has had to decide how to balance the terrible consequences of lost lives in both the short- and long-term with wider damage to the livelihoods and wellbeing of the population, and has had to consider whether to introduce enforceable legislation or rely on guidance and public communication campaigns to drive behaviour change.

The Government has said that its approach is to continually review the evidence and seek the best health, scientific, and economic advice in order to pursue the best overall outcomes. We applaud this sentiment. However, delivering on it requires an in-depth and detailed analysis of the impacts on health, society, and the economy, so the various trade-offs required can be understood. It requires a holistic assessment of the likely consequences of different policy options, and a model that can factor in and respond to the inherent uncertainty of a pandemic.

There is currently no public evidence that such a tool exists and is being used by Government. This has left policymakers facing the unenviable task of weighing up many conflicting issues. But more concerningly, it has left the public feeling confused and uncertain. Our recent UK Prosperity Case Study revealed that, even before the coronavirus struck, public confidence in national government had been deteriorating and was among the lowest levels seen across the world. This is deeply concerning as good governance and decisive and effective leadership will be crucial to guide the UK through the pandemic and create a more prosperous society in the future.

The good news is that the Legatum Institute has this week published a methodology for a holistic impact assessment for Covid-19 policy choices, and demonstrated its application with a retrospective analysis of the 31st October decision to introduce the English national lockdown.

The assessment framework accounts for the direct and indirect physical and mental health effects, economic effects, education effects, and wider impacts of both the virus itself and people’s responses to it (whether through personal choice or enforced behaviour change). Based on publicly-available data and using the Treasury’s standard conversion factors, it evaluates both short and long-term impacts, and presents results in a way that allows the impacts across these different areas to be considered together.

We do not claim that our framework is a definitive judgment on whether the decisions taken since the start of the pandemic have been the right ones, nor can it provide the answers for the difficult decisions that will come next. But it does show that it is possible to deliver this sort of analysis, that it is possible to consider the wide range of impacts of different policy choices in a holistic and consistent way.

Our report shows how to assess the impact of Government action to limit the short-term deaths from the virus so far (which has undeniably reduced the number of people dying as a result of the virus), and compare it with the costs of this action – restrictions on mobility, work, and hospitality that have reduced people’s incomes and lowered employment, as well as the cancelled medical procedures, the social isolation that has led to a deterioration in mental health for many, and the likely long-term mortality impacts associated with economic crises and recessions.

The report also demonstrates the importance of differentiating the question of what level of mobility and mixing will lead to the lowest overall negative impact from the question of how to achieve that desired level – for instance using public information, guidance, or regulation. It also shows the necessity of conducting impact assessments at a local level, as the difference in underlying infection rates, demography, and employment patterns across the country mean that the appropriate level of mobility and mixing will be different in different areas.

We hope that the Government will urgently adopt and develop our proof of concept and use it to inform future policymaking with regards to Covid-19. Such an approach will provide invaluable information to policymakers as they consider what the rules should be as we move into Christmas and the New Year and how different areas can move into different tiers or out of restrictions altogether. This will put Government policymaking on a stronger footing and make it more likely that it can achieve the best overall outcomes for the UK.

But it will also provide a vital framework through which politicians can communicate with the public, allowing deeper and more honest conversations about the choices the country has already faced this year and will face in 2021. By sharing the evidence behind their decisions and being transparent about the choices being made, the Government can re-build public trust and allow the British people to do what they do best – make personal decisions that care for their families, communities, and country

ConservativeHome presents ‘The North’s Economic Recovery – an evening with the NRG’

11 Dec

Given that it is a year on from 2019’s stunning electoral gains in the former Red Wall, our next live online event is particularly timely. We hope you’ll join us for The North’s Economic Recovery – an evening with the NRG.

Our editor, Paul Goodman, will be joined by a panel of three prominent MPs from the Northern Research Group – Jake Berry MP, Dehenna Davison MP and John Stevenson MP – at 6pm on Thursday 17th December, via Zoom.

Since its foundation earlier this year, the NRG has become an important voice on the backbenches, and we are fortunate to be joined by three of its leading lights. This event will provide an opportunity for viewers and politicians alike to explore the challenges and opportunities facing the Conservative Party in the North of England.

As well as putting ConservativeHome readers’ questions to the panel, we’ll be discussing topics including:

How will the ‘levelling up’ agenda translate into hard policy? What should the Government’s approach be to help the North recover from the economic damage inflicted by the pandemic? Where and when will the new infrastructure promised in the 2019 manifesto be built?

As ever, this event is free to take part in – please click here to sign up for your ticket, and feel free to share the link with your friends, family and fellow activists.

Frank Young: We’re sleepwalking into a crisis if we don’t vaccinate against poverty, too

9 Dec

Frank Young is Political Director at the Centre for Social Justice.

It wasn’t all that long ago that Conservative Prime Ministers were waging “an all-out assault on poverty”, or standing on the steps of Downing Street making solemn promises to make “social reform” the top priority for government.

These were Conservative Prime Ministers. This wasn’t just rhetorical flourish – the sort of thing a politician might say to give the impression of being a caring sort of person there was real focus on tackling poverty in the depths of Whitehall. It is little known outside of the civil service, but had David Cameron stayed in office for one week more in 2016, he would have announced his ‘life chances strategy’ – a plan to tackle poverty which was on the grid, ready to be rolled out. Turn back the clock to the start of a decade, and the Coalition Government introduced a framework for tackling persistent poverty. It’s still there if you do a Google search.

Recent polling conducted by Survation on behalf of the Centre for Social Justice unmasks the true scale of the poverty precipice that we’re looking over as 2020 comes to an end. This work, quizzing over a thousand households on the lowest incomes found that more than one in three are afraid of losing their job in coming months; nearly as many have been unable to pay a bill, one in five are going hungry and one in six fear being made homeless. A quarter of these families have less than £350 saved up when crisis hits. This is the sort of analysis that should get ministers scrambling for a proper plan to tackle poverty.

Support for the Conservative Party from low income voters appears to be ebbing away. Labour now enjoys twice as much support among this group than the Conservative Party. In 2019 the Labour still had a lead, but the gap was much smaller. The low-income households we polled make up one in six voters, more than enough to swing the seats that decide elections.

Only three in ten low income voters think the Conservative Party is concerned about supporting people on low incomes, against over a half who said the same thing about the Labour Party. In crude political terms, the path to victory in 2024 requires a poverty plan. There’s no realistic chance of ‘levelling up’ if we don’t address the social impact of disadvantage alongside economic revival. If we can have an ‘industrial strategy’ – then we can surely have a social equivalent too.

The true reality of poverty will be hard to escape as we recover from the Covid-19 epidemic and a plan of action is needed now more than at any point in recent history. Last week, we discovered that Government mandarins were circulating secret Armageddon documents, detailing the true impact of lockdown and coronavirus related restrictions on British business.

It shouldn’t surprise us that such a document exists, or the detail into which it delves. It is the job of government and the role of Parliament to extract it from ministers for full public scrutiny. What should surprise us is that there is no social equivalent. Where is the detailed analysis of the social impact of closing down the economy (and the answer is not in recent Government documents cribbed from the Office for National Statistics)?

It’s always easy to criticise and turn politics into Christmas panto. When it was needed, the Chancellor stepped in quickly with bags full of borrowed cash to prevent an unemployment catastrophe and extra cash for welfare claims. His furlough plans came with a Rishi Sunak logo but, once support is lifted, we will need to think about a long term solution to match the short term reaction. This means more than simply transferring money through welfare cheques.

A grand plan needs go back to the ‘root causes’ of poverty much loved of previous Conservative Prime Ministers. That means putting a focus on reducing family breakdown and dysfunction, recovery from addiction, ensuring unemployment doesn’t drift into long term worklessness and ensuring our education system helps children growing up in poor households escape poverty in adulthood.

There’s no reason why the Conservative Party can’t scoop up plenty of support in parts of the country where money is tight, and the need for the state to step in the greatest. Immunisation with a vaccine is only part of the job in 2021. The lesson of the last year is poorer communities are much more vulnerable to the next virus or health emergency. If we can plan for the economy to take off when the virus is behind us, we should plan to reduce poverty too. There is nothing socially just about a bankrupt country, but it takes more than a roaring economy to really push down on people living in miserable conditions.

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.