Robert Halfon: Johnson’s coming Party Conference needs to show voters that we’re on their side

23 Sep

What is conservatism for?

As we grapple with new measures to help us climb down from ‘Coronavirus Everest’ (and weather a few Covid storms along the way), our virtual Party Conference next week is an important opportunity to redefine what being a Conservative is all about.

The Government talks about ‘levelling up’. But this is not always easy to pin down. Ask anyone what it means to them and you will get some very different answers. One person questioned if it is about money for potholes. Another asked if it was a new level on a Nintendo Switch game.

Similarly, Tories often mention ‘social mobility’. But to those outside Westminster, this has little resonance – resembling more a strapline for a new Vodafone commercial than a proposal to extend the ladder of opportunity.

Of course, the Government’s messaging about new hospitals, more police and increased funding for our schools is welcome, but as so often with such announcements, it comes over as a kalashnikov firing off initiatives, with nothing linking it all together; a series of bullets without a target.

In order to make a case to the public, surely the first thing to do must be to signpost Conservative values. That way, even if policies go awry, if they need to be changed or the Government faces problems, there is more chance of the public giving us the benefit of the doubt (at least for a time).

At present – perhaps exacerbated by the pandemic – it is hard to know whether Toryism is for freedom or for authoritarianism, for individual aspiration or family and community, for fiscal conservatism or ending austerity. The only thing in which there is certainty, is Brexit. But this is not enough in itself.

I hope Boris Johnson will use his speech for the Conservative Party Conference as a means of setting out what his brand of conservatism is. Of course, we need a bit of ‘boosterism’ to lift our spirits at this time. But how about a definition of Conservative values for the times we live in? Something we can explain on the doorsteps to an anxious electorate. A conservatism that really shows people we are on their side.

Watch Starmer

In the Commons Tea Room a few days ago, while I was chatting with a down-to-earth, rising star Conservative MP, he made a very eloquent case as to why the Labour Party faces insurmountable challenges at the next election.  His argument was Keir Starmer’s lack of charisma, the incoming Labour civil war and the electoral hurdles the party must overcome, mean that the Opposition is unlikely to win in four or five years time.

Sadly, I don’t agree with my esteemed colleague. Starmer is slowly climbing in the polls: the latest YouGov showed level-pegging to the Tories. Even if this is because of the Coronavirus, it does not matter. Once up, is it really likely that Labour polling figures will go back to Jeremy Corbyn levels?

By stealth, under the cover of Covid-19, he is changing the Labour Party, moving it to one based on social democracy, rather than red-blooded socialism.

In his own conference speech yesterday, Starmer has moved to slay the Corbyn shibboleths. Taking on the mantle of patriotism, appealing to workers, is a pretty big repudiation of Corbynism. His Chief Adviser, Claire Ainsley, wrote a book about Blue-Collar Britain entitled, ‘How to win hearts and minds of the new working class’.

Expect more of her ideas to be reflected in the development of Labour policy. It is notable that the Shadow Chancellor has not committed Labour to any tax rises at present, nor big public spending programmes. This will make it harder for Conservatives to attack the Opposition on grounds of more borrowing, more spending and more debt.

On television, Starmer comes over as reasonable, rather than dogmatic. However, the flip-flopping on policy, his ‘Captain Hindsight’ persona, the “forensic analysis” that does not see the political wood for the trees, are all flaws that can be exploited by the Tories.

In addition, Labour’s refusal to make any hard choices in terms of cutting Government spending – and the continued presence of many hard-left activists in the constituencies – could act as a real brake on the party’s progress.

The public, who are weary and exhausted from Coronavirus, might just vote for Labour, just as they did in 1945. After all, in four years’ time, Conservatives will have been in power for nearly 15 years. “Time for change” might be a mantra that the public can be persuaded by, especially if voting Labour doesn’t frighten the horses.

My MP colleague may be right and the electoral maths may make it impossible for Labour to win next time. But with a volatile electorate and the option of a social democrat party on the ballot paper – with which most of the public’s economic views align – they certainly could present a real challenge to the Tories.

A book on the Cameron years you should read

I am not talking about Sasha Swire’s tome on “the County Set meet Notting Hill”, but a brilliant memoir by Baroness Fall on the Cameron years: ‘The Gatekeeper. Life at the Heart of No 10.

This is a book about the mechanics of politics; it is like reading about the engine of a sleek car, rather than the story of the car itself. You learn a lot about the workings of a Prime Minister’s Office and it is well worth a read.

My favourite part, so far, is the account of former Education Secretary, Michael Gove, crashing his automobile in the Department for Education car park, trying to put his car into the vehicle lift to get to the parking space.

I know a little about this lift, having had the same thing happen to me when I was Skills Minister (although, I just scraped mine, rather than denting) and have concluded that it is seemingly only built for drivers of Lewis Hamilton’s calibre. I found the whole experience quite terrifying, since it reminded me of the scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark when the cave walls close in. I never used that car lift again.

Starmer’s speech: Passionate, confident – yet, will it prove his patriotism?

22 Sep

After Labour’s disastrous performance at the last General Election, Keir Starmer was keen to put the Corbyn years behind him at the party’s conference today. He gave one of the most passionate speeches of his career, telling voters that “[t]his party is under new leadership.”

It had been carefully constructed, and tried to address many of the reasons why Labour lost, as well as giving Starmer some much-needed personality. At one point he commented that “while Boris Johnson was writing flippant columns about bendy bananas, I was defending victims and prosecuting terrorists”. He later attacked the Tories on Covid-19 and social care, the latter of which the Labour leader said was a “disgrace to a rich nation”.

Starmer reinforced his commitment to “root out the antisemitism that has infected” Labour and repeatedly spoke about “security”, in yet another attempt to reverse Corbynism. No doubt many voters will still remember the former leader failing to condemn Russia after it launched a chemical attack on Britain, among other events, and Starmer knows he has a lot to do – to prove that Labour can protect the country.

This is why patriotism was such a dominant feature of Starmer’s speech. He talked about “the country I love”; his desire for Britain to be “the best country to grow up in and the best country to grow old in”, and how he’s “hugely ambitious for this country”.

But will this do the trick? Much of the reaction – on Twitter, at least – was incredibly optimistic about Starmer, partly spurred by recent polling on Labour – which shows the party closing in on Conservatives.

Even so, it’ll take a lot more than overuse of the word “country” to convince the electorate, particularly in the Red Wall, that Labour is now patriotic. The biggest reason for this is Brexit, in which voters expected all politicians to stick up for Britain – and instead found Starmer and others pushing for a second referendum.

Today he promised that Labour “is not going to be a party that keeps banging on about Europe” – and it’s no wonder he wants to move on, given his previous actions. During the speech he discussed “decency” and “fairness”, but 17.4 million people will be wondering where these traits were when he, and other MPs, tried to overturn their vote.

Furthermore, Starmer’s speech lacked substance. Though he has promised new leadership for the party, it’s not obvious what this looks like in policy terms, although he promised Labour’s manifesto “will sound like the future arriving” (whatever that means). Without more concrete proposals, and given the continued factionalism of Labour, many will simply think it sounds like more of the same.

If Conservative MPs are so restive now, how will they react if Labour sustains a poll lead?

20 Sep

There is a disconnect between the horrorshow commentary in the Conservative press about the Government, last week’s fracas about international law, the jumpy mood of Tory MPs…and the polls.

Though the latest YouGov finds the two main parties level, and Keir Starmer’s party will surely overtake the Conservatives in at least one survey soon, the fact remains that the latter are still hitting 40 per cent or so.

Nonetheless, we suspect that an even more testing period now lies ahead for Boris Johnson.

The slide to present poll levels from 50 per cent took place from April to June – as the Government moved off its simple “Save the NHS” Covid message to one that was more complex.

Since then, its ratings have been remarkably stable, but although polls continue to show strong support for lockdowns, confidence in the Government’s handling of the virus has fallen.

Today’s papers combine committed anti-lockdown opinion, more bad news about testing, and reports of a push by Graham Brady for greater Parliamentary scrutiny of new measures.

Admittedly, the power of the press isn’t what it was – especially among older voters fearful of the virus.

But the Government had public support for its handling of the virus in March, and we have got used since then to a two-steps-forward-one-step-back relaxation of restrictions.  That’s changing fast.

If Conservative MPs are really so jumpy in September, with Labour still behind in the polls, what state of mind will they be in by December, if the test and trace system isn’t working well – as lockdowns tighten?

Doug Stokes: The Conservatives must rally to the flag of the Enlightenment tradition as the culture wars rage

20 Sep

Doug Stokes is a Professor in International Relations at the University of Exeter.

Slowly, perhaps too slowly, the Conservative Party is waking up to the importance of the ‘culture wars’. These struggles over meaning will only grow in significance as the UK charts its post-Brexit destiny, itself intimately bound up with questions of culture and identity. How can a nation know what it wants if it does not know what it is?

On the Left, ‘woke’ politics, with its binary worldview of moral certainty, sin, guilt and deconstructive redemption through Western self-erasure is more akin to a secular theology than a programme of political transformation. It offers little to the vast majority of the British people who are sick of its banal virtue signalling, and the open contempt of its high priests in the media, universities and throughout British institutional life.

The Labour Party now faces a likely irreconcilable balancing act, insofar as it must bring together its hyper-woke graduate middle-class activist base and the socially conservative and now ‘Blue Wall’ former Labour voters. Keit Starmer will have to learn to do the impossible: to bend his knee whilst climbing walls.

For its part, the Conservative Party should plant its flag firmly within the Enlightenment tradition of reason, freedom and equality of opportunity. Coupled with a progressive patriotism, this would be a winning cultural formula, and essentially pushes at an open door. Moreover, it would bring together its ‘levelling up’ agenda with a collective story that binds and unifies and links the past with the present to map a future.

There is both a party political but much more important existential element to the increasingly ‘hot’ culture wars. In party political terms, if the Conservatives fail to grasp this nettle, a new party to its right may well do so. At the moment, there is a political vacuum, amplified by its flaccid response to Black Lives Matter riots and continued assaults on the nation’s heritage and history.

Of more pressing existential import is the dangerous game being played by leftist ‘woke’ theologians. From what is little more than anti-white racism peddled by ‘critical race theorists’ and their ‘white privilege’ useful idiots in our universities, media and boardrooms, new forms of divisive thinking predicated around racial interest articulation are beginning to emerge. Preaching to gullible white liberals about their alleged privilege is an easy sell, and this seems to be the underlying gamble: guilt-tripping will help lead to political change.

However, beyond the BBC, lecture halls and other privileged islands, guilt will likely not go very far. It is hard to see how the woke priesthood’s catechism of privilege and self-flagellation will be received in such places as Rotherham. Failure to contain this genie, released by the explosive assault on British identity, places our valuable multicultural dispensation in grave peril. The twin crises of Brexit and the Coronavirus pandemic have justifiably meant the party has been slow off the blocks in recognising this, but it must not linger for much longer.

At the moment, we are living through a unique structural moment in British politics. Strategically, the party should restructure elements of our legal-institutional matrix, much of which underpins the left’s culture war arsenal. Failure to do so will mean that whilst the Conservatives are in power, its exercise will be stymied time after time, and in the culture wars at least, conservatives will suffer a death of a thousand cuts.

What are the elements of this matrix? On the one hand, the party faces a largely left-hegemonic institutionalised ‘fifth column’, composed of quangos and assorted charities. Despite their hyperbole, the UK remains one of the most socially progressive societies on earth, as even a cursory glance at most data metrics show very clearly.

However, these entities have both a bureaucratic and economic self-interest in evidencing ‘forever’ grievance narratives that feed the left’s culture war. For over a decade, various Tory chancellors have pumped billions into these bodies. Why?

Crucially, in a market of diminishing inequality, these ‘social justice’ organisations and theorists have evolved and adapted to new market realities with often Orwellian conceptual innovations to evidence injustice and thus drive political change and their continued funding. From junk science mandatory tests for unconscious biases in corporate boardrooms to students being paid to police alleged unintentional micro-aggressions in our universities, forms of embedded egalitarianism are often illiberal and increasingly authoritarian.

A ‘grievance industrial complex’ exists to evidence the above, but in a market of diminishing inequality, the complex must adapt with ever more bizarre and illiberal conceptual innovations to make sure demand for one’s services is maintained in the context of a diminishing supply of injustice.

Philosophically, this grievance industry deliberately conflates equal outcomes with equal opportunities. The script is familiar. If there’s an unequal outcome, anywhere and at any point, likely explanatory variables are ignored in favour of an amorphous ‘systemic’ conspiracy to reproduce a system of discrimination. It does not matter that this ‘systemic’ conspiracy is totally at odds with readily available data on the incredible financial, educational and cultural advances of the UK’s diverse population.

Conveniently, ‘justice’ is achieved by a redistributive agent of technocrats to intervene to impose equal outcomes in the name of social justice and to combat this ‘systemic’ conspiracy. Similar to the USSR, this conception shifts debates from an examination of underlying processes that allow humans to participate equally to one of top down imposition to achieve outcome parity, usually by a self-interested elite that has a self-interest in mission creep and the maintenance of their power.

The Conservative Party must reboot its philosophical thinking around this crucial distinction: there has been a dangerous and lazy drift across British institutional life from equality of opportunity that is entirely consistent and optimal for a functional market democracy to one of equity or equality of outcomes.

To the extent that the latter conception wins out over the former, conservatives will keep losing battle after battle in what is in fact an ever hotter and ongoing value-conflict raging within the anglophone West.

Of far more strategic significance however, is the foundation upon which this grievance industrial complex sits. It is quite shocking that, after ten years of Conservatives in government, the Equality Act of 2010 has been left totally unreformed.

Although this legislation was intended to safeguard access to equal opportunities, it has in fact morphed into the central juridical weapon of the left. In particular, section 149 of the Equality Act 2010 – the Public Sector Equality duty – has breathed into being an army of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion officials across huge swathes of national life.

Through mission creep, this has imposed huge costs on our public sector, helped shift social discourse to one of outcome equality as being the central metric and weaponized the duty to ‘foster good relations’ to transform organisational cultures in often highly illiberal ways.

No doubt the ‘optics’ of reform will be seized on by political opponents, but this is why the party should bundle this up within a much broader cultural offering: a reassertion of the primacy of the Enlightenment tradition of reason, freedom of speech and conscience and equality of all before the law, regardless of creed, class or colour.

It is these values that have helped challenge dogma, champion freedom and defend those gains once made. These are now under radical assault, with those questioning the orthodoxies of the ‘great awokening’ often targeted for harassment and censure. The Conservative Party should lay a firm claim to the enlightenment tradition and let that be its lodestar in the culture wars. Failure to do so will place our current dispensation in deep peril; it is time to wake up.

Doug Stokes: The Conservatives must rally to the flag of the Enlightenment tradition as the culture wars rage

20 Sep

Doug Stokes is a Professor in International Relations at the University of Exeter.

Slowly, perhaps too slowly, the Conservative Party is waking up to the importance of the ‘culture wars’. These struggles over meaning will only grow in significance as the UK charts its post-Brexit destiny, itself intimately bound up with questions of culture and identity. How can a nation know what it wants if it does not know what it is?

On the Left, ‘woke’ politics, with its binary worldview of moral certainty, sin, guilt and deconstructive redemption through Western self-erasure is more akin to a secular theology than a programme of political transformation. It offers little to the vast majority of the British people who are sick of its banal virtue signalling, and the open contempt of its high priests in the media, universities and throughout British institutional life.

The Labour Party now faces a likely irreconcilable balancing act, insofar as it must bring together its hyper-woke graduate middle-class activist base and the socially conservative and now ‘Blue Wall’ former Labour voters. Keit Starmer will have to learn to do the impossible: to bend his knee whilst climbing walls.

For its part, the Conservative Party should plant its flag firmly within the Enlightenment tradition of reason, freedom and equality of opportunity. Coupled with a progressive patriotism, this would be a winning cultural formula, and essentially pushes at an open door. Moreover, it would bring together its ‘levelling up’ agenda with a collective story that binds and unifies and links the past with the present to map a future.

There is both a party political but much more important existential element to the increasingly ‘hot’ culture wars. In party political terms, if the Conservatives fail to grasp this nettle, a new party to its right may well do so. At the moment, there is a political vacuum, amplified by its flaccid response to Black Lives Matter riots and continued assaults on the nation’s heritage and history.

Of more pressing existential import is the dangerous game being played by leftist ‘woke’ theologians. From what is little more than anti-white racism peddled by ‘critical race theorists’ and their ‘white privilege’ useful idiots in our universities, media and boardrooms, new forms of divisive thinking predicated around racial interest articulation are beginning to emerge. Preaching to gullible white liberals about their alleged privilege is an easy sell, and this seems to be the underlying gamble: guilt-tripping will help lead to political change.

However, beyond the BBC, lecture halls and other privileged islands, guilt will likely not go very far. It is hard to see how the woke priesthood’s catechism of privilege and self-flagellation will be received in such places as Rotherham. Failure to contain this genie, released by the explosive assault on British identity, places our valuable multicultural dispensation in grave peril. The twin crises of Brexit and the Coronavirus pandemic have justifiably meant the party has been slow off the blocks in recognising this, but it must not linger for much longer.

At the moment, we are living through a unique structural moment in British politics. Strategically, the party should restructure elements of our legal-institutional matrix, much of which underpins the left’s culture war arsenal. Failure to do so will mean that whilst the Conservatives are in power, its exercise will be stymied time after time, and in the culture wars at least, conservatives will suffer a death of a thousand cuts.

What are the elements of this matrix? On the one hand, the party faces a largely left-hegemonic institutionalised ‘fifth column’, composed of quangos and assorted charities. Despite their hyperbole, the UK remains one of the most socially progressive societies on earth, as even a cursory glance at most data metrics show very clearly.

However, these entities have both a bureaucratic and economic self-interest in evidencing ‘forever’ grievance narratives that feed the left’s culture war. For over a decade, various Tory chancellors have pumped billions into these bodies. Why?

Crucially, in a market of diminishing inequality, these ‘social justice’ organisations and theorists have evolved and adapted to new market realities with often Orwellian conceptual innovations to evidence injustice and thus drive political change and their continued funding. From junk science mandatory tests for unconscious biases in corporate boardrooms to students being paid to police alleged unintentional micro-aggressions in our universities, forms of embedded egalitarianism are often illiberal and increasingly authoritarian.

A ‘grievance industrial complex’ exists to evidence the above, but in a market of diminishing inequality, the complex must adapt with ever more bizarre and illiberal conceptual innovations to make sure demand for one’s services is maintained in the context of a diminishing supply of injustice.

Philosophically, this grievance industry deliberately conflates equal outcomes with equal opportunities. The script is familiar. If there’s an unequal outcome, anywhere and at any point, likely explanatory variables are ignored in favour of an amorphous ‘systemic’ conspiracy to reproduce a system of discrimination. It does not matter that this ‘systemic’ conspiracy is totally at odds with readily available data on the incredible financial, educational and cultural advances of the UK’s diverse population.

Conveniently, ‘justice’ is achieved by a redistributive agent of technocrats to intervene to impose equal outcomes in the name of social justice and to combat this ‘systemic’ conspiracy. Similar to the USSR, this conception shifts debates from an examination of underlying processes that allow humans to participate equally to one of top down imposition to achieve outcome parity, usually by a self-interested elite that has a self-interest in mission creep and the maintenance of their power.

The Conservative Party must reboot its philosophical thinking around this crucial distinction: there has been a dangerous and lazy drift across British institutional life from equality of opportunity that is entirely consistent and optimal for a functional market democracy to one of equity or equality of outcomes.

To the extent that the latter conception wins out over the former, conservatives will keep losing battle after battle in what is in fact an ever hotter and ongoing value-conflict raging within the anglophone West.

Of far more strategic significance however, is the foundation upon which this grievance industrial complex sits. It is quite shocking that, after ten years of Conservatives in government, the Equality Act of 2010 has been left totally unreformed.

Although this legislation was intended to safeguard access to equal opportunities, it has in fact morphed into the central juridical weapon of the left. In particular, section 149 of the Equality Act 2010 – the Public Sector Equality duty – has breathed into being an army of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion officials across huge swathes of national life.

Through mission creep, this has imposed huge costs on our public sector, helped shift social discourse to one of outcome equality as being the central metric and weaponized the duty to ‘foster good relations’ to transform organisational cultures in often highly illiberal ways.

No doubt the ‘optics’ of reform will be seized on by political opponents, but this is why the party should bundle this up within a much broader cultural offering: a reassertion of the primacy of the Enlightenment tradition of reason, freedom of speech and conscience and equality of all before the law, regardless of creed, class or colour.

It is these values that have helped challenge dogma, champion freedom and defend those gains once made. These are now under radical assault, with those questioning the orthodoxies of the ‘great awokening’ often targeted for harassment and censure. The Conservative Party should lay a firm claim to the enlightenment tradition and let that be its lodestar in the culture wars. Failure to do so will place our current dispensation in deep peril; it is time to wake up.

Richard Holden: If Starmer stands – or kneels – for each passing fad, he won’t rebuild trust with working class voters

14 Sep

Richard Holden is MP for North West Durham.

Trust by the electorate of a political party boils down to a belief about whether someone feels you represent them, their family and their community at an underlying level. The trust in Labour that had existed for a century across many parts of the North of England and the Midlands had been stretched under the latter years of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Under Jeremy Corbyn, it finally snapped.

The explanations of why that trust ended – a break that led to the metamorphosis of the ‘Red Wall’ into the ‘Blue Barricade’ (as it’s now known in Westminster) – are many, but the main reason is that traditional Labour voters, over time, stopped seeing the people who they’d elected as representing them.

It’s true to say that this shift took place over years – even decades – but it was seen most clearly of all by Labour’s rejection of Brexit in last year’s general election because Labour finally said what many had suspected: that it knew better than its own voters.

Keir Starmer’s push for a second referendum on EU membership was fundamental to that. Yes, Corbyn was a major issue – but he had been for many two years before, too. The cold, hard difference between 2017 and 2019 was Labour’s position on Brexit, and that the electorate saw, from 2017, that Corbyn might get in and implement it.

The party’s second referendum Brexit position was taken because the Labour higher echelons in London thought, as they had done for many years (and did in Scotland previously), that they could take what was then the Red Wall for granted, and pursue a policy that was anathema to their own traditional voters.

It’s hardly surprising, then, that we see Starmer, the man behind the policy that did the most damage to Labour in 2019, writing in yesterday’s Sunday Telegraph that we need to stop “banging on about Brexit.” For the London Labour Party, the core of the woketerati establishment, it’s a typically upper middle-class response of “Don’t talk about it and hope it goes away” approach. Starmer clearly sees both those who voted for Brexit and the entire concept of Brexit as a vulgar embarrassment to be ignored.

But it’s not just on Brexit that he is ensuring his party stays silent. Can you remember a good point that he’s made at Prime Minister’s Questions? One that really stuck with you? Or even one of those jibes that reveal something deeper? I’m struggling.

Does Labour have even one policy idea that has managed to emerge in the first five months of his leadership? It’s been 150 days, and he’s still leaving the public guessing. Even Labour’s forays into opposition to the Government quickly come unstuck as soon as you ask: “so what would you do instead?” Journalists don’t even need to ask the “How would you pay for it?” question.

Starmer doesn’t want to get into Brexit: in fact, he’d literally rather not talk about it – or anything else, for that matter. He has been struck dumb on the biggest foreign and economic policy issue ofour time. Which is hardly surprising – as the performance of Louise Haigh, Labour’s Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary, on Sophie Ridge on Sunday yesterday showed.

It’s easy to criticise, but if you literally don’t have a policy you end up by inventing one and, in doing so on the hoof. Labour’s problem is that this means capitulating to EU demands on state aid, fishing and the integrity of the United Kingdom.

I can understand why Labour is burnt. They tried to stand for a policy – one on a second referendum, as designed by Starmer – and people didn’t like it. The problem that he now faces is that if you stand for nothing, you therefore fall (or at least kneel) for any passing fad. And that will soon start to show in the further undermining of trust – which is the one factor that Starmer needs, above anything, to rebuild if he is to be in with a shot of being able to win back the Blue Barricade.

For us Conservatives, trust cuts the other way. We must, as the Prime Minister said, repay the trust placed in us by the British people when they voted for us, particularly in the communities where, like mine, they took a leap of faith for the first time ever. That means standing up for our communities and what they voted for: control of our own money, borders, and laws. It also means delivering, over time and methodically, on the levelling up agenda.

If Labour isn’t prepared to have a policy on Brexit, or tax and spend, or education, or health, or social care – even in the broadest terms then – electorally at least – Starmer will end up being Continuity Corbyn. Or perhaps worse.

The volte face that Labour is currently trying to manage as an opposition in seeking to defend a Withdrawal Agreement that it opposed is farcical. Starmer needs to decide which voters he wants to trust him. In doing so, he’ll be able to look to build a case. I remember the days of the ‘quiet man’ in opposition, and it’s pretty clear to me that the ‘silent knight’ politics he’s adopted won’t withstand the struggles of the next few months – never mind years.

Andrew Green: As unemployment soars, why are Ministers harming our young people – by helping migrants compete for their jobs?

9 Sep

Lord Green is President of MigrationWatch UK and a cross-bench peer.

This week, the Government is promoting its “Kickstart” scheme – a £2 billion programme which Ministers claim will put young people at the heart of our economic recovery.

Really? So what about their “new entrant” route in the immigration system that will come into force in January? Perhaps this is another case of the left hand having no idea what the right hand is doing?

Very few people have realised what an impact this new route could have on our youngsters. Their employment prospects are already very worrying. Unemployment is likely to run into millions across the whole workforce, and our school leavers will already face strong competition from British workers who will have lost their jobs and who already have several years of work experience.

That is a daunting prospect, but it is made even worse by the special deal that the Government is planning to offer to employers to recruit young workers from all over the world.

The Government already intends to lower the qualifications required to work in the UK from degree level to A level, thus placing migrants in direct competition with our school leavers. Worse, there will be a special scheme for younger workers, under 26 when they first arrive, for whom the salary requirement will be only £20,480 per year – little more than the National Living Wage.

As if that was not enough, the Government is also planning to remove the current requirement that jobs should be advertised in the UK before being offered to workers from abroad. This has been a requirement for decades and for a very good reason – to require employers to give British workers a shot at applying before a job is given to a foreign applicant.

However, employers say this is inconvenient (no surprise there), so the Government is deferring to their wishes, and will abolish it from next January when the new immigration system comes into force.

And, on top of all that, there is to be no limit on the numbers, from all over the world and of whatever age, permitted to come to work in the UK.

Will they come? Of course they will, and not just “new entrants”. The number of foreign workers who meet these requirements and are likely to have the necessary level of English (so far unspecified) runs literally into tens of millions.

For many, the salary is far more than they could earn at home. Furthermore, some will have relatives already here who will encourage them. Others will be attracted by the right to settle here after five years – a right that also extends to “new entrants”

That in turn will bring the possibility of eventually bringing a wife, children and other dependants over from their home country with free education for any children and, after settlement, free health care for all. What is there not to like about such an offer?

As for the employers who have ruthlessly pressed for these arrangements, how will they respond? Well, of course, they will be out recruiting. Cheaper, obedient labour unlikely to unionise. What more could they ask for?

And, if you are in any doubt consider what happened when we opened our labour market to East European workers with no limit on numbers. Within four years, there were half a million in the UK, and hundreds of thousands more were taken on in the years following the Great Financial Crash while the number of unemployed British workers remained stubbornly high.

Then, some half a million Romanians and Bulgarians came following the opening up of the employment market to them in 2014. Remember that firm in Northampton that recruited a plane load of 300 Hungarians to make sandwiches? When the Government checked afterwards, they found that the firm had not even approached the local job centre to see if there were any British workers available.

So, in a nutshell, there is to be no limit on the number of foreign workers that employers can bring in to the UK and if they are under 26, have the equivalent of A Levels, and speak some English they can be brought in on pay not much higher than the living wage.

This scheme threatens the jobs, training and future of our young people. The number of young British workers who will be directly affected by this scheme is roughly one and a half million. They have had disruption enough in their young lives. The least that the Government can do in the current crisis is to withdraw this dangerous proposal.

Scott Benton: Why we must win the culture war – and deliver a Blue Collar programme for the economy

8 Sep

Scott Benton is the MP for for Blackpool South.

Whilst the left-wing inspired anarchy which has afflicted cities in the US has not been repeated here, make no mistake that the political flashpoints of the summer (the BLM protests, the ensuing “statues debate” and the BBC’s decision regarding the Proms) are undeniable proof that Britain is in the midst of its own “culture war”.

This is scarcely something that a Conservative government, dealing with the biggest health and economic challenges in a generation, would have chosen to fight. But whether we like it or not, how it chooses to respond to this battle will shape the political landscape and our chances at the next General Election.

The increasingly-evident cultural divide in Britain was unmistakeable throughout the Brexit debate. The defining moment in that battle, December’s election, confirmed the seismic political consequences of this divide for both main parties as the historic class-based voting pattern was shattered in favour of a values-based realignment of British politics.

This spectacularly allowed us to knock down the so-called “Red Wall” and to gain seats that only a few years ago would have been unthinkable. The reasons for our success (Brexit and the intense loathing of Corbyn) were obvious, but with neither of these pull factors in play at the next election, it remains to be seen whether we can build our own “Blue Wall”.

If we are to do exactly that, we must understand the instincts of those who switched to us from Labour. The evidence suggests that they are economically more left-wing than the average voter, but considerably more right-wing than average on social issues: in fact, they are more socially conservative than loyal Tory voters and Tory MPs.

As December’s election was a “values election”, predicated on Brexit, we were able to break through and convince many of these socially conservative, life-long Labour voters to support us for the first time, and to abandon the Labour Party whose social values are a world away from their own.

The leap of faith that many of these voters took should not be taken lightly. Many of these people have long had (and continue to have) doubts about our party’s economic values and commitment to public services, and have far more in common with Labour’s values on these issues. Such was the lure of Brexit, however, helped by our sympathetic positioning on public spending and levelling up, that they entrusted us with their vote.

If the next election is fought on traditional issues of the economy and public services (particularly if a post-Covid economic recovery is sluggish), a moderate Labour Party may tempt back some of these same voters who naturally gravitate leftwards on the economy. On the other hand, the social and cultural values of the contemporary left could well be the means by which we keep those voters’ support.

Whilst the Government does not wish for a “culture war”, then, it may well be the determination of many on the left to engineer one which paradoxically allows us to demonstrate that we share Red Wall voters’ values and are truly on their side.

Throughout the summer my mailbag has been full of correspondence on issues such as the lawlessness of some of the BLM protests; the revulsion of seeing the Union Flag set alight on the Cenotaph; the absurdity of those wanting to rewrite our history by tearing down statues, and the alienation felt by many at the actions of the BBC in wanting to chip away at our national culture.

The vast majority of my constituents in my Red Wall seat are sick and tired of those who are embarrassed by our culture, and who want to apologise for Britain’s past. They are yearning for the Government to stand up and be courageous in dismissing this nonsense that is directing the national conversation and political narrative.

Sentiments like those expressed by the Prime Minister on the Proms are very welcome and we need more social commentary and reassurances from the Government on issues such as these, but ultimately, ministers are judged on their actions.

Take the situation on the south coast: if the Government cannot use the current legislative and diplomatic tools at its disposal to stem the tide of illegal immigration then it must completely redesign our asylum and immigration policy so that it can.

Likewise, if the BBC cannot get its own house in order and demonstrate that it is able to occupy its privileged position as an impartial national broadcaster, then the Government must embark on reform, starting with scrapping the licence fee.

The emotive reach of social issues means that they will remain politically pivotal for as long as they dominate the conversation, but if we are going to retain the confidence and support of our new voters on these issues, we must do more than merely sympathise with their deep concerns.

A Conservative Government with a large majority should not shy away from having the political and intellectual confidence to lead the debate on cultural issues and to deliver reform on law and order, sentencing, immigration/asylum and the BBC. These are all policy areas where our new and traditional supporters alike demand a tough approach.

Although social values are increasingly likely to drive voting patterns longer-term, the upcoming autumn budget will dictate the short-term political weather. There was a collective sigh of relief in my Red Wall constituency when the Prime Minister ruled out a return to austerity: we simply have to fulfil our spending commitments on the NHS and schools, which were so instrumental in reassuring those former Labour voters who switched to us.

Whilst I think it would be a mistake to break our manifesto commitment on the triple lock, slashing international aid would be met with almost universal acclaim in constituencies such as mine.

It is only through wealth creation and economic growth, however, that we will make a significant impact on the deficit. We must deliver our commitment to levelling up by prioritising regional growth through a meaningful industrial strategy which aims to reduce the north-south divide through a laser-like focus on transport investment, incentives to locate in “left-behind areas” (including enterprise zones and freeports), training and skills.

Real investment, however, at a time of huge pressure on the public finances, doesn’t come cheap. If we are serious about levelling up, there will inevitably be difficult decisions about taxation, which will present some unpalatable choices for colleagues.

Rather than shy away from these choices, we should relish them. The current situation (as well as Brexit) affords us with a once in a generation opportunity to deliver an economic strategy which can tackle the inherent structural weaknesses that have hampered the UK for decades: an approach which makes political as well as economic sense, as it repositions the Party’s economic policy far closer to the public (and our new and traditional voters).

The cultural and economic challenges facing the UK have changed, as has the political geography. Conservatism must adapt to face these challenges and not only reflect the nation’s mood, but also demonstrate that we are the only party which is able to protect the values that people cherish, and provide the means through which their lives can be improved. The economic orthodoxy and social liberalism of the past (Cameron’s “Notting Hill” modernisation) is not what our core voters, and especially our new converts, want. Indeed, it never was.

Repositioning our party to meet these cultural and economic challenges, and in doing so, striving to ensure that we maintain our recent gains, will challenge the ideology of many colleagues.

The prize for successfully doing so, however, is enormous. By building a lasting coalition of our new and traditional supporters, based on their shared cultural values and a blue collar economic programme, we can create a truly one nation party that is able to occupy the common ground for years to come – and in doing so cement our own “Blue Wall”, thereby locking Labour out of power.

Neil O’Brien: Introducing the new Levelling Up Taskforce – and its first report on how we can measure progress

7 Sep

Neil O’Brien is MP for Harborough.

Were you still up for Penistone? One of joys of election night last December was winning so many seats we’ve not held for decades.

The constituencies we won over in 2019 are quite different from the party’s traditional base, in the deep red bits of the map above. Seats we gained last year don’t just have lower earnings than the seats we held, but earnings five per cent lower than Labour seats. Of the bottom quarter of seats in Great Britain with the lowest earnings, more are now held by us than Labour. Compared to seats we gained, homes in Labour constituencies are a third more expensive.

Many of the places we won have felt neglected for a long time. And led from the front by the Prime Minister, the new Government has committed to “levelling up” poorer places. But what does that really mean? How can we measure if we are succeeding? How can we get the private sector growing faster in these places, making the country stronger overall?

To help the Government answer these questions, I and 40 other Conservative MPs have formed a new Levelling Up Taskforce.

Our first report is out today, looking at how we can measure progress. It also examines what’s been happening in different parts of the UK economy over recent decades.

Income per person in London (before paying taxes and receiving benefits) grew two thirds faster than the rest of the country between 1997 and 2018: it’s now 70 per cent higher in London than the rest of the country, up from 30 per cent higher in 1997.

While the divergence seen since the 90s has been a story of London pulling away from all of the rest of the country, it follows decades in which former industrial areas in the north, midlands, Scotland and Wales fell behind. Between 1977 and 1995 South Yorkshire, Teesside and Merseyside saw GDP per person fall by 20 per cent compared to the national average, and most such areas haven’t caught up that lost ground.

Why does this matter?

It matters, first, because opportunity is linked to the economy. There are fewer opportunities to climb the ladder in poorer places. Not just fewer good jobs, but less opportunity in other ways.

In London, over 45 per cent of poorer pupils who were eligible for free school meals progressed to higher education in 2018/19. Outside London there were 80 local authorities where richer pupils who were not on free school meals were less likely than this to go to university. Overall, more than 60 per cent go to university in places like Kensington and Chelsea and Westminster. But less than a third go places like in Knowsley, Barnsley, Hull, and Thurrock.

It also matters because more balanced economies are stronger overall. In an unbalanced economy, resources like land and infrastructure are overloaded in some places, even while they are underused elsewhere. This might be particularly true where cities have seen population shrinkage, and have surplus infrastructure and land. If there are greater distances between workers and good job opportunities that makes it harder for people to get on: not everyone can (or wants) to move away from family to find a better job.

More balanced is stronger overall, but on a wide range of measures the UK is one of the most geographically unbalanced economies. In Germany 12 per cent of people live in areas where the average income is 10 per cent below the national average, while in the UK 35 per cent do. It is very striking that there is no industrialised country that has a more unbalanced economy than the UK and also a higher income, while all the countries that have a higher income have a more balanced economy.

What are we going to do about it? Well, that’s the question our new group will try to answer.

The answer isn’t any of the traditional Labour ones: pumping public sector jobs into places, or subsidising low wage employment, or trying to hold back successful places: we’re interested in levelling up, not levelling down.

Different things will work in different places.

For example, transport improvements might make a bigger difference for remote areas. The ONS defines certain places as “sparse”: the north of Devon and Cornwall, most of central Wales, Shropshire and Herefordshire, most of Cumbria and the rural north east, along with large parts of North Yorkshire, Lincolnshire and North Norfolk. In these places income levels are 17-18 per cent lower. Even controlling for the qualifications and age of people living there, these sparse areas have income levels between £600-£1,300 a year lower, likely driven by poor connectivity.

In other places, the answers are different. I’ve written before about how the way we spend money on things like R&D, transport and housing is skewed towards already-successful areas, creating a vicious circle. We should change that.

But tax cuts could also play a bigger role in helping poorer areas. There’s actually been convergence between regions at the bottom end of the earnings distribution, driven by things like the National Living Wage, tax cuts for low income workers, and things like Universal Credit, which have reduced the differences between places by levelling up the poorer areas more. In poorer places, more people benefit from these policies.

The reason there are growing gaps between areas overall is divergence higher up the income scale.
Looking at the gap between earnings for full-time workers in London and the North East, the pay gap shrank for the bottom 30 per cent of workers, but grew for those higher up. For those at the 10th percentile the pay gap between the two places shrank from 32 per cent to 20 per cent. But for richer folks at the 90th percentile, it grew from 62 per cent to 88 per cent.

So how do we get more good, high-paying jobs into poorer areas? There are a million different specific opportunities, but one that’s relevant in a lot of Red Wall seats is advanced manufacturing.

Over recent decades, Chancellors have tended to cut capital allowances (a tax break for investment) in order to lower the headline rate of corporation tax. I’m not sure that was a good idea: Britain has a lower rate of fixed capital investment than competitors and our tax treatment of investment is stingy. But either way, this change has had a pronounced regional impact: it favours services over manufacturing, so helps some areas more than others.

One way to blast our way through the current economic turmoil would be to get businesses investing again by turning capital allowances right up (“full expensing” in the jargon). That would be particularly likely to help poorer areas. Indeed, when we have tried this in a targeted way before it worked.

Government should think more about how tax and spending decisions can help us level up. It should produce geographical analysis of all budgets and fiscal events, setting out the different impact that tax and spending changes will have on different areas. The Treasury’s Labour Markets and Distributional Analysis unit should have geographical analysis added to its remit.

This whole agenda is exciting. But a lot of people are cynical, because they heard New Labour talk the talk – but not deliver. We’ve got to deliver. So let’s hold ourselves to account, and set ourselves some ambitious goals.

Let’s get earnings growing faster than before in poorer areas. Let’s get unemployment down in the places it’s worst. They say that “what gets measured gets managed.” So let’s “measure up” our progress on levelling up.