James Frayne: Will levelling-up survive Johnson’s exist?

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

Will “levelling-up” survive Boris Johnson’s exit? While both Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak have pledged support for levelling-up, neither candidate has prioritised it in this contest. This might simply reflect the obvious reality of this election: the need to announce right-leaning policies for right-leaning voters. But it’s hard not to sense levelling-up will be gently de-prioritised regardless of who wins.

Three big reasons stand out.

Firstly, most importantly, because cost-of-living is now the dominant issue nationally. That is particularly the case amongst working-class voters in levelling-up areas. As I have written before, anger is growing at the Government’s perceived failure (unwillingness, even) to reduce costs. In this context, the new Prime Minister might conclude levelling-up has been overtaken by economic events and simply preventing working-class families drowning is all that matters; levelling-up could seem like an irrelevance or a luxury.

If anything, this might be underplaying the scale of the problem. For cost-of-living won’t be the only massive issue the new PM deals with. They will also wrestle with ongoing war in Ukraine, the prospect of serious energy shortages, more strikes, and continued backlogs in NHS care. It might be levelling-up is allowed to get washed away in the mess of Government. Only a PM truly committed to the project – obsessed about it, even – would make progress on it.

Secondly, because favourite Liz Truss is known to be much more committed to classical-liberal economics. While she has given in principle support for major new investment in rail links for the North of England (the Northern Powerhouse Rail), her levelling-up policies lean towards pure free market economics elsewhere: she has effectively indicated she’ll cut the pay of provincial civil servants by introducing regional pay boards; and her commitment to levelling-up in a recent debate came in the form of prioritising low-tax zones and better education. In short, it feels like levelling-up is more likely to derive from national policies that will “raise all boats”.

There’s certainly a prospective levelling-up strategy grounded in free-market economics (by far the best advocate of this is Ben Houchen). But this would unquestionably take levelling-up away from its current focus on improving the daily lives of people in less affluent areas through incremental but meaningful change.

To many of those working on levelling-up at the Department and in Number 10, there was a belief in using the policy to re-build high streets, reduce anti-social behaviour in town centres and on estates, help small businesses, and more. This requires Government intervention in a way that seems unlikely to follow if Truss wins. In other words, the only thing the Truss approach to levelling-up and Boris Johnson’s approach will have in common is the name.

Thirdly, because I believe Truss doesn’t have the same instinctive understanding of working-class voters as Johnson had – and indeed as those that campaigned for Leave developed. Johnson came to understand working-class voters and their values and attitudes on the campaign trail in 2016 – and his ability to move them propelled him into Downing Street with a massive majority. I confess I’m not sure about this, but Truss doesn’t seem to share this basic, fundamental understanding. She may gain this of course.

There’s an additional factor that might see levelling-up de-prioritised: so few Northern and Midlands businesses have joined in the debate. Whilst some have campaigned for more action to be taken, not enough people in government have heard that levelling-up is a priority from businesses in the areas it is designed to help. Truss might reasonably conclude that there are other areas she ought to focus on (corporation tax, “red tape”, and so on).

We will find out very quickly whether levelling-up remains a priority. If it is a priority, Truss or Sunak will re-appoint Michael Gove and Neil O’Brien to the department – or appoint two politicians of similar ability and standing (with those two hopefully given big, reforming jobs elsewhere). If it is a priority, the new PM will give a speech in the Midlands or North very early on giving their firm commitment to the project – putting their own stamp on it.

Levelling-up can only work if the Prime Minister takes it so seriously they’re prepared to see most policy areas – or at least a good number of them – through the prism of it. For example, thinking about boosting high streets when they think about economic policy, or thinking about anti-social behaviour in town centres when they think about crime, or thinking about protecting old historic buildings in our towns and cities when they think about planning. I doubt this will be the case.


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James Frayne: Despite Starmer’s woes, Johnson is likely beyond the point of no return with voters

10 May

It’s not clear senior Conservatives wanted a provincial base but after two rounds of local elections that’s what they’ve got. While affluent metropolitan and Southern voters peeled off to the Lib Dems, Midlands and Northern working-class voters stayed loyal.

Two important questions follow: how loyal is this working-class base and how should Conservatives maintain it? These will determine how long the party stays in power.

In truth, it doesn’t feel terribly loyal at this point. I’ve overseen dozens of groups across provincial England in the last few months – and ran groups for The Sunday Telegraph last weekend – and the erosion of the foundations of Conservative support amongst working class voters has been rapid.

A year ago, despite irritation with the specifics of Covid management, the Government’s fundamentals were strong: the vaccine roll-out was popular and so was furlough; Brexit delivery was at the forefront of people’s minds; and Labour were seen as irrelevant.

Ask these same voters for positives today and, as I found last week in Wakefield, only the vaccine roll-out is voluntarily mentioned. The Brexit divided has totally diminished and while furlough is by no means a negative, people believe costs and taxes are rising as we’re forced to reckon with debts incurred.

And, of course, these rising costs – while not directly blamed on Government – are coming to dominate everyone’s minds. People are bored witless about endless media stories about parties, but terrible damage has been wrought on the Government’s reputation for competence (once strong) and trustworthiness (always shaky).

What hasn’t really changed in this time is working-class attitudes to Labour. Wakefield’s Conservative voters (recent converts from Labour) saw Starmer as weak and unprincipled. This is commonly heard. And this wasn’t even vaguely about alleged partying; by mid-week, last week, these allegations hadn’t really cut through. Their thoughts reflected a sense (fairly or not) that he offered little on Covid other than opportunistic criticism, and that he hadn’t, and couldn’t, show leadership.

If Starmer is fined and resigns, massive pressure will be heaped on Boris Johnson; the PM will look like a “wrong-un” compared to a principled Labour leadership. If Starmer isn’t fined and stays, it’s possible working-class voters will look at him differently, but my sense is they’ll just think he behaved badly anyway and got away with it. It will take more to change working-class opinion.

However, change is possible and Conservatives ought to take the prospect more seriously. For all his problems with these voters, Starmer is intelligent, he’s acted bravely with internal political decisions (totally lost on most voters) and is trying to get the party to talk about mainstream issues like tax and crime. Even a few eye-catching policies on these areas – and levelling-up, which they bizarrely continue to ignore – and it’s a different world potentially.

What can the Conservatives do to shore up their provincial support? In short, reboot levelling-up and return to the policies that secured them support in the first place.

In classic political style, we have heard little from the Government on levelling-up since the White Paper. The Prime Minister spent a lot of time in the North in the local election campaign, but we’ve heard little about the Government’s plans.

Yes, implementation will ultimately deliver votes, but currently prospective Conservative voters know nothing of their party’s ambitions – and if they don’t know about their plans, the Government risks not reaping the benefits. The Government shouldn’t discount the possibility that credit from successful implementation goes to others: councils; local businesses; local charities; and so on.

Elsewhere, I have a bad feeling about the ultimate workability of border control policies. However, in addition, the Government should be looking at policies on anti-social behaviour, welfare reform (particularly contributory welfare), justice (particularly sentencing) and healthcare. It goes without saying that they ought to be exploring every possible option to keep costs down.

In February, I wrote here that “Johnson is still viable with the public if he is constantly compared to Starmer as the alternative. Starmer has a lead, but Johnson’s negatives aren’t as serious when a choice between the two is forced.”

Since then, Johnson’s relative position has declined and he has probably passed the point of no return with too many voters. However, the fundamental point remains: Johnson v Starmer is at least a competition; it’s just that another Conservative leader might do a lot better.

James Frayne: The Ukraine Crisis. Has it saved Johnson’s bacon?

15 Mar

Two weeks ago, polls showed the British public favoured tough sanctions on Russia. Indeed, they favoured tougher sanctions than the government was then implementing. But they also opposed direct involvement in the Ukrainian conflict. They expected the war to affect them personally and for life to become more difficult. There was also no discernible impact on electoral politics. How has opinion moved since then?

YouGov’s excellent conflict polling shows people appear more resigned to the war affecting their own lives. Very large majorities think energy and food prices will rise and a majority thinks taxes will rise too. Shockingly, a significant minority – 21% – even believes a nuclear attack is likely (although the gender gap here is remarkable, with women thinking an atomic strike is much more probable). Separately, consumer confidence is dropping and there is evidence the public are becoming unhappy and anxious.

It’s hard to say but attitudes on sanctions seem to be hardening. By 67% to 10%, people don’t believe Western countries are doing enough – via sanctions, supplying weapons, and other means – to stop Russia winning the war. Admittedly, this is a slightly different question than “do you support sanctions?”, but there nonetheless remains scepticism about anything that might drag NATO countries into direct confrontation with Russia. By 39% to 28%, people oppose trying to enforce a no-fly zone over Ukraine, with the rest unsure.

Presumably, as people have watched horrifying pictures of refugees fleeing their homes, threatened by death or injury as they do, the number of British people agreeing we should set up a scheme to resettle Ukrainian refugees has risen. Whereas it was 63% a fortnight ago, it is 75% now. Similarly, the number of refugees people think Britain should accept has risen. Two weeks ago, just 15% said we should settle a few hundreds of thousands (with most saying we should accept fewer): it has now reached 25%.

Unsurprisingly, and of a piece with practically every recent poll, Ipsos-Mori have the public divided on how the Government has handled the crisis. 36% say the Government has done a good job, compared to 26% who say it has done badly (with 31% saying neither). There are similar numbers for Boris Johnson’s handling of the crisis.

As trivial as this might seem against the enormity of the tragedy in Ukraine, this does provide an opportunity to deal with the distasteful question of the war’s impact on electoral politics. Nobody said analysing public opinion was glamorous.

Practically all the polls were heading in the wrong direction for the Government a few weeks ago. Although the picture is complex and changing, the bottom line appears to be that the crisis has halted the slide in the Government’s and the PM’s ratings.

Caveated by the fact it is too early to say whether this is a meaningful trend, we can see the following: Government approval ratings and the PM’s ratings are no longer falling. Alongside this, the gap between Johnson and Starmer on who would make the best PM and the gap between the Conservatives and Labour on headline voting intention has been narrowing (although the last poll showed a minor increase in Labour’s lead, which might be a blip).

On the publication of new polling, Ipsos-Mori made a similar point, pointing out Boris Johnson’s personal ratings have risen to “pre partygate levels”, along with his scores on various personality traits. Compared to February, Johnson achieves increases across being ‘good in a crisis’ (+4pts), a ‘strong leader’ (+4pts), a ‘capable leader’ (+5pts), putting country first (+6pts), paying attention to detail (+4pts) and being a ‘Prime Minister I am proud of’ (+4 pts).” (Interestingly, Redfield & Wilton show the opposite).

What can we conclude from all this? Three things stand out.

Firstly, on the crisis specifically, the public are settling into a firm position of: sanctions yes, direct conflict no. The fact there were such high numbers saying “don’t know” on the issue of the no-fly zone might imply an increasing understanding of the dangers of escalating our military presence. Two weeks ago, while people were cautious about direct involvement, they appeared to have no real sense of the limits of what the Russians might tolerate. After Putin’s effective nuclear threat, people are much more cautious about poking the bear.

Secondly, politically-speaking, the Government and the PM are thought to be handling this well. It’s not credible to imagine the crisis would turn politics on its head; the discontent expressed in the Government’s and the PM’s ratings this winter was so dramatic that a full recovery was never going to happen. The fact the ratings slide has stopped implies significant public approval.

Whether this trend continues is hard to say. Currently, it seems likely that they will have closed the gap for the medium-term. As I have said previously, while I doubt the PM can turn things round, there is a path.

Thirdly, on issues, the public might no longer so intensely blame the Government for a decline in living standards. We’re miles away from being able to say for sure, but as the public are saying very clearly that they expect energy and food costs to rise, and given their support for sanctions, it’s possible they will conclude that global events and trends are to blame – and not the Government.

Had the crisis not happened, the Government would not unreasonably have argued rising costs were a global phenomenon post-Covid. But it’s hard to imagine this would have cut through. This conflict will now make people listen to this point more carefully. We’ll see where this goes, but, if the view that the squeeze is unavoidable takes hold, it will massively strengthen the Government’s hand. Incidentally, it will also do Rishi Sunak’s personal ambitions no harm.

James Frayne: Why football deserves to be included in the levelling up agenda

4 Jan

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

Not least because the club is said to owe HMRC more than £25m in unpaid taxes, should the Government intervene to ensure Derby County doesn’t go bust as part of its levelling-up strategy?

This was a key question we asked in a pair of focus groups of Derby fans for The Times, which the newspaper ran between Christmas and New Year. (You can read Henry Zeffman’s piece here.)

This is arguably an academic question: the club’s administrators are confident of a quick sale and say they will announce a preferred bidder shortly; there is also no suggestion a “bail-out” is being pushed (although the administrators are in talks with HMRC).

However, academic or not, it’s a question at the heart of the levelling-up debate: should football be part of the Government’s strategy, as it seeks to foster civic pride?

The city of Derby is firmly in levelling-up territory. While the wider Derby area has some big, innovative employers – Rolls-Royce, Bombardier, Toyota, and indeed the growing and increasingly-respected university – the city centre is a mess, and there are dozens of towns just outside the city struggling badly. Both Derby city constituencies are marginal, with Derby North going Conservative in 2019.

Derby fans were in emphatic agreement the city needs levelling-up. Above all, they lamented the decline of the city centre and the loss of independent shops from the city’s older streets. Others talked about how the city’s heritage had largely been underplayed by the council (with notable exceptions, like the Cathedral Quarter and the Museum of Making). The concept of “wounded civic pride” was pervasive.

Fans were adamant the club was integral to Derby’s identity and they couldn’t think of any other institution that had anything like the same impact on civic pride. They said city life would be devastated without the club. Furthermore, they talked persuasively about the massive number of businesses supported on match day: pubs, takeaways, restaurants and all the rest.

You might ask: they would say this wouldn’t they? Possibly. But Derby is a one-club, football city, where it’s reasonable to see the fans as representative of a big chunk of city opinion.

Fans were enthused about the prospect of Government intervention, but not in the way you might expect. Again, the question isn’t being posed in the stark way we asked it, but when we asked whether the Government should effectively write-off the debt owed to HMRC, most said no.

To them, this would be unfair: absolutely, because the club got itself into a financial mess in the first place; and relatively, because other clubs couldn’t and shouldn’t expect the same treatment. (One of our groups leaned Labour, while the other leaned Conservative – and it was the Conservative-leaning group that was most sceptical of direct Government help.)

Instead, they were open to more fundamental intervention: fans wanted the Government to effectively reset the professional game to ensure that Derby’s recent experience couldn’t be repeated in the city or elsewhere. Derby fans said they’d been through a series of terrible times in the last few decades and wanted a line drawn under it all. Our Derby fans were therefore very enthused about Tracey Crouch’s proposal in her review – backed in principle by Government – of an independent regulator to oversee the game and to ensure clubs were all run in a financially sustainable way.

There’s an important research caveat here: almost no one was aware of the review or its proposals, and therefore we were essentially testing gut reaction to a concept; nonetheless, enthusiasm was very clear.

The primary lesson from our Derby groups were therefore that fans see a fundamental role for government in protecting and promoting football – particularly outside the Premier League – and football therefore should be part of the levelling-up agenda.

This is a fundamental lesson the Government appears to have learned already. Their support for grassroots football by funding “community pitches” and their support for Bury FC’s stadium redevelopment are just the most recent examples of their interest in fostering the game. But if our groups are representative of wider opinion across the fanbase, they should be even more confident about their role.

Many in the game are hostile to the introduction of an independent regulator. Personally, I’m sceptical: there’s always a danger with regulators like these that mission creep takes them into areas they’re not needed or wanted. That said, there’s no denying the seemingly endless stream of clubs getting into existential financial trouble makes the case for an independent regulator a persuasive one, which our Derby fans liked strongly in principle. It looks likely the Government will press ahead.

Aside from an independent regulator, there are other ways national and local Government might help, as I’ve suggested here before: for example, being positive towards ground redevelopments and relocations to enable clubs to stay close to their original homes; liberalising regulations on entertainment facilities within grounds; and directing levelling-up grants to non-league clubs who want to expand sporting and leisure facilities to better serve the local community.

Whether this something the Government should be involved in or not, I also think there’s a role for the professional clubs in more directly supporting, and working with, community-minded, non-league clubs in their area.

Politicians talking about football can be cringeworthy. But football is truly a national game now and it unites people regardless of their background. As such, it’s legitimate for Government to take an active interest. And it’s sensible for football to be part of their levelling-up agenda.

James Frayne: Johnson need not abandon the Tory commitment to enterprise to deliver levelling up

28 Sep

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

Less than ten years ago, the most frequently seen symbol at the Conservative Party’s conference was the torch of liberty and free enterprise. The Party’s self image was entirely based around a small state that encouraged people to set up and grow their own businesses and to develop a stake in the economy via home and share ownership.

How times change. While there’ll be dozens of fringe meetings at Manchester’s conference where politicians and activists talk about the Party’s commitment to the free market, this isn’t where the party’s leadership is focused. Within the party, policies of the free market feel old school – and the language associated with it even more so.

Over the last decade, the Conservatives have steadily made it harder for people to develop and grow their own stake in the economy. As it stands, for most prospective entrepreneurs there’s little financial advantage in taking a risk to do their own thing as opposed to staying on PAYE.

The announcement that employers will have to pay yet higher National Insurance Contributions was only the most recent cost the Conservatives have added to businesses. It followed an increase in Corporation Tax, higher taxes on dividend payments (the method by which most business owners pay themselves), higher contributions for employees’ pensions, and of course a much higher minimum wage. There remains talk of higher taxes on private pension contributions, as well as on Capital Gains Tax.

However, arguably the clearest sign the Conservatives’ torch of free enterprise has been extinguished is the party’s lack of interest in defending the gig economy, which is slowly being regulated to death by the courts and left-leaning governments as Conservatives stand by largely inactive.

I should declare an interest here: Public First has worked for a number of businesses in the gig economy, including Uber. I try to avoid commercial comment on these pages, but I find the attitude towards the gig economy from the Party mystifying – and it’s an important aspect of this trend against business.

In a recent opinion research project we undertook for Uber, we spoke to both drivers and the general public about their attitudes towards their work in the gig economy. The theme that came out – endlessly – was the great benefit of flexibility: drivers value flexibility in the workplace three times as much as the general public and we found drivers more satisfied with their working life than the general public. (This is, of course, on top of the benefits consumers have enjoyed).

It’s a role which is a world away from the 9-5, PAYE life that most follow. Some drivers clearly thrive on the flexibility their job offers; others simply require it because of the nature of their lives (eg childcare or other caring responsibilities); others might need a flexible income to fit around study; others might be waiting for their dream job to materialise.

Either way, it’s a role that Conservatives should be encouraging, not dismissing while they consider which taxes to raise next.

It’s not just Uber. The businesses in the gig economy that have grown in the last several years are massively expanding the opportunities for ordinary people to do their own thing in the economy – opportunities that, for most, would never ordinarily arise. They are engines of the free market but the Conservatives have been slow to defend them.

In recent times, the Conservatives have rightly pivoted to working :class voters and they’re actively trying to raise living standards outside the prosperous South East. These are things I’ve been encouraging on these pages for several years now. But amid the pivot, Conservatives have lost this zeal for free enterprise – as if it was somehow in conflict with their new strategy.

But no such conflict exists. On the contrary, free enterprise can and should be at the heart of the Government’s levelling up agenda. After all, those of us that contribute to the debate above and below the line on these pages surely all agree that it’s free enterprise – and the creation and growth of many new businesses – that will ultimately spread wealth across the country. Support for the gig economy should go hand in hand.

Johnson puts the case for more localism in England. Now he must deliver it.

19 Jul

The unconvincing plan for growth apart, and the aftermath of Coronavirus not withstanding, ConservativeHome identified three main areas of policy weakness in the Queen’s Speech: social care, the delivery of net zero and English localism.

The first two turn out to be connected to the last – as are the whole country’s future prospects for growth and recovery.  Why?  Because, as David Lidington put it recently

“Whether it’s delivering an industrial strategy, or high quality apprenticeships, or integrated transport or a joined-up plan to implement net-zero carbon, we are likely to get better and faster results, and to encourage innovation and experiment…

…if these things are done by the central government of the UK working in genuine partnership with elected devolved, local and regional leaders…

…who in turn are able both to use their convening power to rally business, education, cultural and third sector organisations and through their endorsement give additional democratic legitimacy to the plan”.

Boris Johnson began to correct that weakness in his speech last week, in which he sketched out what may be taken from the postponed devolution white paper and put into the coming levelling-up white paper.

The nub of the Prime Minister’s case was that the mayoral experiment is working for cities and their suburban hinterland, and that the towns and countryside could do with a bit of it.

“Local leaders now need to be given the tools to make things happen for their communities, and to do that we must now take a more flexible approach to devolution in England,” he said.

Which could mean “a directly elected mayor for individual counties”; or devolution “for a specific local purpose like a county or city coming together to improve local services like buses”.

Ideas on a postcard, please, to our recently-departed columnist, Neil O’Brien. Or, as Johnson put it, “come to Neil O Brien or to me with your vision for how you will level up, back business, attract more good jobs and improve your local services”.

Put like that, the Prime Minister’s case sounds lamentably underdeveloped, open to fresh thinking, or simply cautious, depending on how you look at it.  But he, Robert Jenrick and others will have to make the following decisions.

At the outset, whether or not to push for uniformity, or something very close to it.  Both of the main schemes that would ensure it are out: regional government and an English Parliament.

Labour tried to make the North East a start-up zone for regional government, and the project was duly trounced in a referendum – the event which gave politics early sight of James Frayne and Dominic Cummings.

An English Parliament would institutionalise potential conflict between a First Minister for England, who would run the bulk of the country, and a Prime Minister stripped of responsibility for nearly everything other than foreign affairs, defence and security policy.

Which returns us to the options on Johnson’s table.  He could sit back and wait for local leaders to come to him.  And the map of local government in England would continue to look much like the patchwork we see today.

There is a good case for this approach.  “A bit of local laissez-faire and free choice when it comes to English local governance might not be the worst outcome,” as Johnathan Werren wrote on this site.

The downside is that if that, with so many cooks preparing the broth, nothing much might be served up: experience suggests that county, district, town and parish councils don’t easily come to agreement.

Some senior Tory figures in local government, and elsewhere, are keen on unitarisation – some has already happened (as recently in Buckinghamshire); more is happening (as in North Yorkshire), and more may happen still.

But ConservativeHome finds no appetite near the top of government for an attempt to force amalgamation on unwilling Conservative-controlled authorities: the whips have enough trouble with agitated councillors and backbenchers, thank you very much.

Nonetheless, experience suggests that if the Government wants more local mayors, it will have to push for them – and, if local people are given a say in a referendum, they tend to push back.

Remember May 3, 2012: the day on which ten cities voted for or against new mayors.  Only one, Bristol, went for change.  Since then, some authorities, such as Hartlepool, have voted to abolish their elected mayors; others, like North Tyneside, have not.

There are further problems about political legitimacy.  The Tees Valley has a population of about 1.2 million people.  Kent has one of approximately 1.8 million.  It follows that if an elected mayor can work for it might for the other.

Government sources also named other well-populated counties, such as Lancashire and Warwickshire.  But would it be practicable to  bundle ones with smaller populations together under a single mayor?

One of the problems that is wrecking the police commissioner project is the sense that there is no real local ownership of whoever is elected to the post.  Might not enforced, multi-county, amalgamated mayoralities run the same risk?

But if, to use the Prime Minister’s own example, a county or city comes together “to improve local services like buses”, who or what is to take charge, if not a Mayor?

Mention of an actual service is a reminder not to put the cart, structure, before the horse, services.  The first question is what to make more local.  The second is how to do it.

Which takes us to the mayors in place already.  Consider Ben Houchen in Teesside.  He already controls education for people over 18.  Wouldn’t it make sense for this to be joined up to that provided to people over 16 – given the stress he places on skills?

Andy Street made the same case for the West Midlands in a recent column on this site.  Why not go further, and let Houchen, Street and some of the other mayors pilot more local control?

For example, they could retain a slice, say, of airport passenger duty, vehicle excise, and VAT.  Douglas Carswell and Daniel Hannan recommended the full devolution of the last in The Plan, opening the door to tax competition between local authorities.

Johnson said that counties could “take charge of levelling up local infrastructure like the bypass they desperately want to end congestion and pollution and to unlock new job or new bus routes plied by clean green buses because they get the chance to control the bus routes”.

“Or they can level up the skills of the people in their area because they know what local business needs.”  The Prime Minister was careful to add that “we need accountability”.

But the thrust of his case was there are fewer “irresponsible municipal socialist governments” and that “most of the big metro mayors know that private sector investment is crucial”.

Johnson has no experience of running a major domestic department.  His sole government experience at Cabinet level was in the Foreign Office.

Nonetheless, he has been mayor of the biggest city in the whole country, serving two terms.  He will need to draw on that experience as he decides which localist options to take.

One thing is certain – though it won’t be what anxious MPs and councillors want to hear.  If the mayoral experiment had needed existing councils’ and sitting councillors’ agreement to happen, it wouldn’t have happened.

So since the Prime Minister wants more localism, and rightly, he must ready himself for a row – to add to the one already raging about housing and planning.  One can’t serve up a muncipal omelette without breaking eggs.

James Frayne: Simple policies that would let Labour woo the Tories’ working-class voters

6 Jul

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

What could Labour do to make the Conservatives truly worry?

For the last few years, Conservative problems have been generated by their own side. While it doesn’t look like Labour will be relevant to most voters in the short-term, it’s worth thinking about what Labour realistically could do to exploit Conservative weaknesses.

In thinking about this, I’ve tried to be as realistic as I can. There’s no point musing on Labour calling for much longer sentences for certain crimes. Rather, I’ve thought about what they might reasonably and easily do that would make life awkward and difficult for the Conservatives with their new voting coalition.

Speak for England

While the Conservatives electorally dominate England and have for some time, they don’t self-consciously attempt to speak for England – and indeed worry giving English MPs more power over English laws would undermine the Union.

This creates an opportunity for Labour that would suit their current predicament well. Their strange activist base finds patriotism horrifying, so they can’t give a voice to any form of English patriotism, however benign. And their desire to make a comeback in Scotland means they must ensure they don’t look like they’re turning their back on voters there.

But they could, for example, call for an English Parliament as part of a constitutional settlement for the UK that was much more devolved – a UK Federation.

In an excellent Telegraph column yesterday, this was Nick Timothy’s advice to the Government. He’s right, and it’s a solution that suits Labour perfectly. It will give them the opportunity to offer a voice to the English, while doing the same for the Scottish too. Labour can turn to the work of their former MP John Denham, who has been making the case for England for some time, to do this practically. It would make the Conservatives look like they had taken England massively for granted.

Support the security forces

The Labour grassroots’ allergy to simple patriotism and their pacifism means they’re uncomfortable with many traditional institutions, such as the Armed Forces. Activists’ alignment with the BLM movement also means they’re sceptical of the police. In turn, this makes working class voters worry about Labour would be like in Government.

But there might be a way through this, allowing them to back both traditional institutions, while appearing to be sensible on security. This is by focusing on the welfare of servicemen and women and police officers – something which the public care deeply about.

Not so long ago, that would have been around ensuring the Armed Forces had enough protective equipment. Now, it might be in more publicly worrying about the mental health of those in the services and their post-service material welfare. It might also be about something as simple as a pay increase for police officers, who have endured a long and difficult pandemic on the front line.

Tackle social care

Labour are already on to this, with Rachel Reeves saying at the weekend that this was a top priority. It’s not hard to see why: not only does social care spontaneously come up in focus groups all the time, but the Conservatives have demonstrably struggled with this issue for some time. Voters still remembering the Conservatives’ 2017 manifesto pledge on this.

If Labour can come up with a system where care costs are paid for by general taxation (spread across multiple revenue streams no doubt) and show that people will not have to sell their homes in their lifetimes, they will be in a strong position. This is where the historic strength of their brand will kick in: they are simply strongly trusted by voters on the NHS and care generally.

Be on the side of the working class on net zero

The more the issue of the environment has risen up the list of voters’ priorities, the less Labour has led the debate on it. It’s extraordinary how this has happened. But there is a massive gap for Labour in the debate: to develop a green policy platform that explicitly protects working class voters.

At the moment, politicians are spending a lot of time thinking about policies that would have a big bang impact on emissions, but little time thinking about how less affluent voters will adjust or cope. If Labour took this on, they could show they were getting into the weeds of policy development, while also showing they truly cared about the lives of working class voters who have deserted them in recent times.

It would give them the opportunity to question Conservative credentials here. The Conservatives are hugely vulnerable on this.

Encourage the role of local universities in the local economy

The public can be persuaded that English universities helped get us out of the pandemic, via Oxford’s development of a vaccine most obviously, and in turn that their innovative research is crucial to the future of the country (particularly outside the EU). People can also be persuaded that their local university is a massive, crucial local employer that needs encouragement and protection.

Whether this is fair or not, in recent times the Conservatives’ attitude to higher education and to universities has looked ambivalent. Labour could take up the cause of universities more formally and link this directly to the levelling up agenda – showing how, under their leadership, universities could spearhead local research and innovation.

This isn’t a classic retail policy, but it’s easy to see how they could develop a narrative around genuine local economic development that went further than, say, moving public sector jobs to the North and directing foreign direct investment to particular areas.

These ideas clearly aren’t Labour’s most potent political policies; they have many more popular ones that would move the public. It would clearly be more popular to pour even more money into the NHS, say, than call for an English Parliament. And it would be more popular to call for the nationalisation of certain utilities than support HE.

Rather, they’re intended to highlight how relatively simple policies would allow them to create political narratives that would be attractive to working class and lower middle class swing voters – putting the Conservatives in a difficult position. Such a platform would show that Labour understands the values or working class and lower middle class voters, as well as the pressures of their daily lives.

Sam Hall: Conservative lessons from Houchen and Street about how to respond the Greens

11 May

Sam Hall is the Director of the Conservative Environment Network

The dominant stories from last week’s elections were the Conservatives’ hat-trick of English triumphs in Hartlepool, Tees Valley, and the West Midlands, and the SNP falling short of a majority in Scotland. But amid these headline-grabbing results, a new trend emerged: the quiet rise of the Green Party.

The Greens won 88 new council seats across England, including from Conservatives. Yes, they did well in their traditional strongholds, such as Bristol, Sheffield, and around Liverpool, where their main competitor is Labour.

But they also defeated incumbent Conservative councillors across England in places as diverse as Surrey, Sussex, Derbyshire, Stroud, and Northumberland. They won an additional two seats in the Scottish Parliament and an extra member of the London Assembly, recording their highest ever vote share in both contests.

Despite two brief surges around the 2015 general election and the 2019 local elections, the Greens have for decades struggled to break past five per cent of the national vote. But the signs from Thursday are that they are on the rise, and could become an electoral threat not just to Labour, but to the Conservatives too.

The reasons for the Greens’ recent electoral success are varied. Public concern about the environment is at historically high levels, with media and government focus on the issue growing, and climate change impacts becoming more visible. It’s understandable that, as the environment becomes more salient, more voters turn to the party whose defining mission is to save the planet.

Factionalism on the left is undoubtedly boosting the Greens, too. As Keir Starmer repudiates Corbynism, he is pushing some of the party’s more left-wing supporters towards the Greens, who have long supported some of the more radical ideas of John McDonnell, such as a universal basic income. The Liberal Democrats remain toxic to many on the left for going into coalition with the Conservatives. And in Scotland, the Greens provide a more environmentally-conscious alternative to the SNP.

Greens across Europe have benefited from a similar trend. Just a few months out from federal elections, the Greens are currently the highest polling party in Germany, two points ahead of the CDU. Greens are part of the coalition government in Austria, after securing 14 per cent of the vote in the last year’s elections. There was also a green surge in the 2019 elections for the European Parliament, with the green bloc growing from 50 seats to 74.

However, this phenomenon isn’t simply about splintering on the left. Nor is it the case that the Greens are just taking votes off Labour and allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle. As Thursday’s results show, the rise of the Greens threatens both the main parties.

That said, the threat shouldn’t be overstated at this stage: the Greens only control one council, Brighton and Hove (where they are a minority administration), and they still only have one MP. But a response will be needed nonetheless.

First, here’s what to avoid. Counteracting the Greens doesn’t entail copying their policies, which are a bad combination of the unfeasible (net zero by 2030), the unpopular (a meat tax), and the economically damaging (a four day week). But neither should they Conservatives shouldn’t become hostile to the entire green agenda, which is popular with a majority of voters. Nor should they ignore other policy priorities in favour of an exclusive focus on the environment. As James Frayne has argued convincingly on this site, this approach wouldn’t keep the party’s voter coalition together.

Instead, Conservatives should unite behind the strategy that the Prime Minister articulated in his ten point plan for a green industrial revolution, linking net zero to people’s immediate economic concerns. This prospectus has the best chance of binding together the Conservatives’ diverse supporter base and stalling the rise of the Greens.

This strategy has worked well for Ben Houchen, whose tireless advocacy for Teesside is helping to attract many of the UK’s leading net zero investments to his area, from GE’s new turbine manufacturing factory and BP’s blue hydrogen plant, to one of the first carbon capture projects and a hydrogen transport hub. He has been one of the biggest advocates for the PM’s green industrial revolution, including on this site, and was re-elected by a landslide.

The Government should copy this formula in other parts of the country. It should invest in enabling infrastructure, fund large-scale green demonstration projects, and put in place market frameworks to attract private investment in new clean industries, such as battery manufacturing, floating offshore wind, heat pumps, and green steel production.

But while it can unite Conservatives, this approach to net zero is divisive on the left. The red-greens can’t decide if they support ‘degrowth’ as a route to tackling climate change. They debate whether people’s lifestyles must be drastically curtailed, or whether to focus on clean technology. And they are divided over whether to attach radical cultural policies on race and gender to their environmental agenda.

The other main element of the Conservatives’ response should be to implement ambitious but practical environmental policies that improve people’s communities and their quality of life. Here, the Conservatives’ other great election-winner from Thursday, Andy Street, provides a blueprint.

He has overseen major improvements in public and active transport in the West Midlands, reopening rail stations, extending metro lines, putting in segregated cycle lanes, and freezing bus fares. He is showing how mayors can connect up their region, reduce the cost of living, and improve the local environment at the same time.

National government should enable more pragmatic local environmental leadership like this. Ministers could give councils the powers and funding to create and safeguard a new network of wild green spaces (a ‘wilbelt’) around towns and cities. They could devolve more funding to metro mayors to insulate social and fuel poor homes in their regions. And they could fund transport authorities to replace old diesel buses with electric or hydrogen ones, and to install electric charge points along the strategic road network.

The Greens, by contrast, have a poor record of delivery on the few occasions when they’ve been entrusted with office. Remember their failure in Brighton and Hove to arrange the bin collections, which lead to strikes and images of rubbish piled up on street corners. There is a political opportunity here for Conservative environmentalism that sets ambitious targets, actually delivers them, and does so in a way that benefits the economy and people’s standard of living.

The Greens had a good night on Thursday. But by uniting behind Boris Johnson’s green industrial revolution, and replicating the approach of Ben Houchen and Andy Street, the Conservatives can prevent them rising further and can make the environment a winning, unifying issue for the party.

Rachel Wolf: Tests for the delivery of levelling up, and levers with which to deliver it

10 May

Rachel Wolf is a partner in Public First. She had co-charge of the 2019 Conservative Manifesto. She was an education and innovation adviser at Number 10 during David Cameron’s premiership and was founding director of the New Schools Network.

The Conservatives have won more stunning victories. Why?

First, the approach that drove the 2019 victory continues to deliver.  Second, vaccines and furlough have rewarded sitting governments: they have demonstrated competence, agility, and a willingness to spend.

The next great test won’t come for a while. Boris Johnson is Merrie England: he is the perfect leader for our summer of freedom. The economy will temporarily boom. Furlough won’t be withdrawn until September. Provided it stops raining, everyone should feel good.

But the Government will be acutely conscious that the next six months is also the last window for policies that can deliver by 2024. They will also know that, by Christmas, any lingering effects of what my partner and ConservativeHome columnist James calls ‘furlough morphine’ will have worn off. Some economic scarring is likely.

In other words, ‘levelling up’ now needs to get real. This is clearly the plan in the next few months, starting with the Queen’s Speech tomorrow, and then leading to the Levelling Up paper.

Truth be told, levelling up is a poor slogan. It has never done very well in our focus groups – people find it confusing and then, when it’s explained to them, mildly irritating. They don’t think they’re ‘levelled down’, they think they’re ignored. Equally, they find the idea that in four years they’re suddenly going to become London and the South East bizarre – it’s not what they want, and they don’t think it’s credible.

But the danger of ‘levelling up’ is not that it confuses voters, but that it confuses policy. Too many seem to equate it with transforming regional productivity, affecting every town in provincial England and Wales, within a Parliament. Obviously if that’s what voters wanted, they would be disappointed.

Of course regional productivity and innovation are vital, and longer term work should begin. But there are also shorter-term gains. Here are some important ones, some obvious levers, and ways to measure progress.

The high street test.

People care deeply about where they live. They ‘measure’ decline by their town or city centre. Here’s what you hear time and time again: shops boarded up; graffiti on the cenotaph; drug addicts; no monthly market; no decent playground.

In other words, it’s depressing to be in, feels mildly unsafe, and there’s nothing to do.

  • Levers: Business rates; soft infrastructure (local museums, libraries, playgrounds); events including markets and protecting green spaces; incentives for lower margin, often civic enterprises from soft play to youth clubs to sports. Decent bus services. Core public services in the town centre.

It is crucial that ‘economic investments’ (many of dubious effectiveness) do not trump these. Yes, it becomes easier to sustain this kind of infrastructure when people are wealthier. But it is worth remembering that many of these things existed when people were much, much poorer.

  • Tests: vacancy rates. Footfall. Number of events. And, of course, what people tell you about their town.

The safety test

Under-reporting of crime is a big problem, and there is reason to believe it disproportionately affects the Red Wall. Burglary, shoplifting and vandalism are particular problems.

Fraud, too, is a national problem with unequal consequences. Pensioners in Red Wall seats who may own their own homes but have very modest savings and no private income are particularly exposed to losing their life savings. Meanwhile, specific estates suffer from low police presence, and deprived coastal communities and small towns are the targets of County Lines.

In other words, crime is a particular issue in particular ways in these places.

  • Levers: the extra police will help. We also need to change the way in which Home Office funding is allocated and put more emphasis on localised funds like the Safer Streets Funds (which pays for things people want like CCTV). We need a massive, revived focus on fraud – it is getting insufficient airtime and attention.
  • Tests: the obvious source is surveyed crime, but the government also needs better ways to measure crime than annual face to face interviews,

The Opportunity Test 1: Skills and Jobs. 

Training and apprenticeships are a huge priority for working class people. They want local training opportunities – ideally leading to local jobs. We know there’s huge untapped demand for technical level skills in the labour market, and that many adults want to retrain. It remains one of the great challenges of our system.

  • Levers: the Queen’s Speech will create a proper lifetime learning entitlement. Now it needs more funding and less bureaucracy (which is already blighting other skills entitlements and apprenticeships).

On jobs, big changes will be long-term. As well as incentives for private sector investment, the public sector is an opportunity. People want trained people to stay or return home. A start – and one of the most popular things universities can support – would be incentivising public sector graduates (like teachers, nurses, and doctors) to stay in areas where recruitment is a challenge.

  • Tests: number of adults in retraining. Reduction in skills shortages in ‘technical’ roles. I’d include reduced reliance on foreign skilled labour in specific areas (such as parts of construction, who are presumably going to see investment, and therefore job opportunities through net zero and transport).

The Opportunity Test 2: Schools

Schools perform less well in many Conservative target areas. In the past, I would have said this was a moral imperative, but not an electoral one – school quality wasn’t a big vote winner. But I think there’s now greater desire from parents (and we’ll be publishing a report with the Centre for Policy Studies on this in the near future). They are more aware of how their children are doing, how far behind some of them are, and how differently schools responded to the pandemic.

  • Levers: incentives for teachers to go to underperforming areas. Renewed focus on academies and free schools. Ofsted inspections with a focus on standards. Continuing the drive on behaviour. There should also be new focus on the most gifted through programmes in schools and more academically selective sixth forms.
  • Test: Ofsted ratings (including number of failing schools); percentage getting five good GCSEs in core subjects (called the EBACC).

Finally, an overall measure: retention of people and inward migration – in other words, do people want to stay and move to the towns of England? It is implausible that this will transform in a few years, but you might start to see a little movement towards the end of the Parliament (and post-Covid home working will accelerate this effect if places are nice to live in).

You will no doubt have issue with many (if not all) of these levers and measures. There are some omissions (most obviously health). But my point is that it is possible to generate and measure progress within a few years. The job won’t be done, but people will see the path. That shouldn’t diminish the importance of the longer-term, even harder job of thinking through regional growth and productivity. But if you don’t get these areas right, Johnson and the Conservatives won’t be given permission to carry on.

Sorry, Matthew, but there’s a Centre Party already – Johnson’s Conservatives

3 May

It’s easier to define what the centre ground of politics isn’t than what it is.  So here goes.

It’s not the same territory in one generation as in the next: political landscapes change – sometimes because of a volcanic eruption, like the financial crash; sometimes more slowly, because of eroding attitudes (on eugenics, say, or over women).

Nor is it found by picking some point halfway between that held by the two main parties.  Most voters aren’t engaged with them in the first place, or with politics at all.

Polling will help you to find it, but the map it provides is confusing – at least to political afficiandos.  For example, most voters are broadly pro-NHS but anti-immigration.  Does that make them Left or Right?

Those two examples help to find the answer – as close to one as we can get, anyway.  Voters lean Left on economics and Right on culture. To their being anti-migration (though less than they were) and pro-health service, we add the following.

English voters are also: patriotic, pro-lockdown, anti-racist, pro-armed forces and supportive of public spending over tax cuts (if forced to choose).

They are somewhat isolationist, pro-Joe Biden rather than Donald Trump, unsupportive of the aid budget when push comes to shove, punitive on crime, and paralysed over housing, where the interests of different generations net out.

Centrist voters, like a lot of others, are also closer to teachers than Ministers, at least if they have children of school age – a headache for reforming Ministers of all parties.

They are pro-environment, but in a certain way: our columnist James Frayne has suggested that there is a consensus for improving food safety, animal welfare, protecting areas of natural beauty and reducing the use of plastic.

(Welsh voters are broadly the same; Scottish ones are divided over patriotism and, as the inter-SNP dispute over trans has demonstrated, probably a bit more to the Right on culture, as well as rather more to the Left on economics.)

James himself, whose fortnightly column on this site we call “Far from Notting Hill”, isn’t himself a million miles away from where this centre currently is.

If you wanted to pick out some issues that give the flavour of it, you could do worse than the following: hospital parking charges, pet kidnappings, the proposed Football Superleague, and the decline of high streets (which doesn’t stop those who complain using Amazon).

This ground was getting bigger, like a widening land enclosure, before Brexit; and leaving the EU has allowed it to become even bigger.  You can see where all this is going.

Theresa May, under the guidance of Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, had first dibs at occupying this territory – or, if you distrust the metaphor of ground, winning the support of these voters – remember “citizens of nowhere”, and all that.

She made a botch of the job, and Boris Johnson had a second go.  Do you want to go Left on economics?  If so, you’ll welcome his government’s proposed Corporation Tax rises, the record borrowing, the superdeduction for manufacturing, the net zero commitments.

Do you want to go Right on culture?  There’s less for you here, given the quiet shift to a more permissive migration policy.  Even so, you can rely on Johnson not to “take a knee”, unlike Keir Starmer; and to commission the Sewell Report; and to protect statues.

We are over five hundred words into this article, and haven’t yet deployed those two reverberating words: “Red Wall”.  But now we have, that the Conservatives hold, say, Burnley, Redcar and West Bromwich East says something about this new centre and who lives in it.

Whatever this week’s local, Mayoral, Scottish and Wesh elections may bring, these voters are Johnson’s to lose – if Starmer can’t grab enough of them: he has done nothing to date to suggest that he can.

If you want to know why this is so, consider the three most coherent alternatives to today’s Johnsonian centre party.  First, one that begins by being to the right of it on economics.

It would be for a smaller state, free markets, lower taxes and personal freedom.  This outlook is likely to drag it to left on culture: for example, it would not be uncomfortable with the present immigration policy, and not always exercised by “woke”.

It members might include: Liz Truss, Kwasi Kwarteng, Matt Ridley, Steve Baker, Lee Rowley, Sam Bowman, Crispin Blunt and our columnists Ryan Bourne, Emily Carver and Dan Hannan.

We see no reason why it shouldn’t include economically liberal former Remainers other than Truss – such as, talking of this site columnists, David Gauke.  Or, if you really want to put the cat among the pigeons, George Osborne.

Next up, a party that starts by being to the left on culture.  This already exists.  It’s called the Labour Party.  It’s Dawn Butler going on about “racial gatekeepers” and Nadia Whittome refusing to condemn the Bristol rioters.

It’s Angela Rayner claiming that the former husband of the Conservative candidate in Hartlepool was once a banker in the Cayman Islands.  (He was a barrister and the head of banking supervision at the islands’ Monetary Authority.)

It’s Zarah Sultana calling on prisoners to be prioritised for Covid vaccinations, and Labour voting against the Crime and Policing Bill.  It’s Starmer himself taking a knee in his office rather than in public – so seeking both to placate his party’s left while also hoping no-one else notices.

Finally, we turn to a party that begins by being to the right on culture: a successor to the Brexit Party.  The Conservatives may be leaving a gap for it here with their new immigration policy.

Which means that it would be likely to pick up more voters outside London and the Greater South-East, which in turn would drag it leftwards on economics.

This is the ground that Nigel Farage occupied, that his Reform UK party is now trying to recover under Richard Tice, and that a mass of others are sniffing around: Reclaim (that bloke from Question Time), the Heritage Party, the SDP (no relation; not really).

In electoral terms, this new Labour Party would be best off junking its efforts in provincial working-class seats altogether, and competing with the Greens and Liberal Democrats for the urban, university-educated and ethnic minority vote. Think Bristol West.

Our new economically liberal party could begin by diving into the blue heartlands from which city workers commute into the capital.  Think St Albans.

And the various revamp parties would try to paint the Red Wall purple, where voters may have backed one of the two main ones, but have no love for either of them. Think, say…well, anywhere within it.

We apologise for coming so late to the cause of this article: Matthew Parris’ column in last Saturday’s Times, where he yearned for a “sober, moderate, intelligent and morally reputable centre party”, and asked “where is it”?

He’s right that the Conservatives’ grip on the centre will weaken sooner or later: because another volcanic eruption blows it apart, or it sinks below the sea…or Johnson blows himself up or sinks instead.

But he’s mistaken about what the centre is.  Or, more precisely, he identifies it with himself.  But many sober, moderate, intelligent and reputable voters backed the Tories in 2019, if only for want of anything else – and still do, it seems.

The real centre isn’t where Matthew or ConservativeHome or anyone else wants it to be.  It’s where it is, as cited above.  Johnson’s bottom squats on it, and he’s no intention of moving.