What the Red Wall really is. But why it’s also a mindset – not just geography

24 Mar

Since the Conservative Party won its huge majority in 2019, newspapers have devoted a huge amount of coverage to “Red Wall” voters, who were widely credited for delivering the decisive election result. The phrase has become synonymous with traditional/working-class Labour heartlands, particularly in the North, where people somehow decided Etonian Boris Johnson was the man for them two years ago.

How could this be? It seemed remarkable that voters that had historically rejected, even despised, the Conservatives had such a change of heart. Many Tories have spoken about the need to repay these voters; that they lent them their vote and so forth, hence the endless promises of “levelling up” in the North and other parts of the country. Labour, too, has been trying to win back “foundation seats”, a new term for the Red Wall, through a strategy that recommends “use of the [union] flag, veterans [and] dressing smartly”.

At the same time, increasing numbers of political pundits have pointed out that there’s been a tendency to generalise Red Wall voters, in terms of who they are and what sort of politics they go for. The Red Wall actually covers quite a large part of the UK, yet the term often treats voters across it as a homogeneous entity, all wanting the same things. Writing for The Critic, Lewis Baston says the “mythical wall was a way of making a patronising generalisation about a huge swathe of England (and a corner of Wales)”.

What’s interesting is how much the Red Wall definition evolved from when it was first coined by pollster James Kanagasooriam in August of 2019. He used it to describe a geographical stretch running from “N Wales into Merseyside, Warrington, Wigan, Manchester, Oldham, Barnsley, Nottingham and Doncaster”, whose constituents, based on education and economic factors, might be expected to vote Conservative but tended to go for the Labour Party.

In his 2020 blog, Anthony Wells, Director of Political Research at YouGov, says the reason many such areas vote the way they do is due to “cultural, historical and social hostility towards the Tories”. In former mining communities, for instance, “the legacy and memory of Thatcherism and the dismantling of industry in the North in the 1980s” has lingered. Merseyside is “still extremely unforgiving territory”, he writes.

But the Conservatives were able to break down many other barriers in 2017 and 2019, in parts of Lancashire, Country Durham and Derbyshire. The most obvious explanation for the Conservatives’ big majority was its message of getting “Brexit done”, which unified voters across the political spectrum. Many were also turned off by Jeremy Corbyn, who projected a lack of patriotism among other things. Clearly the Conservatives’ manifesto and messaging appealed to a lot of new demographics.

But here’s where it gets trickier as the Red Wall was not just about Brexit, or any of the other variables it is sometimes attributed to. As Baston points out there are lots of marginal seats in the Red Wall, such as Bury North, which has “only voted twice since 1955 for the party that has not won the popular vote (1979 and 2017).” So it cannot be taken as evidence of an epic Conservative breakthrough. Others point out that there has been a “long-term structural shift against Labour in these constituencies.”

Of course, the Conservatives should be proud of making headway in new areas, but the Red Wall narrative has become too simplistic. Furthermore, Kenan Malik made an interesting point when he wrote that, “the red wall is deployed less as a demographic description than as a cypher for a certain set of values that working-class people supposedly hold, a social conservatism about issues such as immigration, crime, welfare and patriotism.”

Increasingly it seems to me that people use the Red Wall as a synonym for a worldview. We might say, for instance, that the Red Wall voters like displays of patriotism, such as the union flag. But you could say that for lots of people around the country. Dare I say sometimes the Red Wall is used as a way of getting an “unfashionable” view across (“but I doubt the Red Wall is enjoying the latest BBC programming”), where others might be worried to say it themselves. Perhaps the Red Wall is more mindset than geography.

Interview. Therese Coffey – “An element of a kinder politics is not calling other people bigots because you don’t agree with them.”

19 Mar

Thérèse Coffey runs a major front-line department yet is hardly ever seen on our television screens. As Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, she has administered one of the great successes in the official response to the pandemic, the extension of Universal Credit, coping at one point with an extra 100,000 claimants in a single day:

“I always think of that train scene in Wallace and Gromit, the one with the penguin, and Gromit’s on the front of the train laying down the track in front of it, and that’s how it felt like for a little while.”

In this interview she refuses to say there will be any further extension of the £20 a week uplift in Universal Credit, and instead indicates that she wishes to concentrate on promoting the DWP’s various schemes to help people get back into work:

“Big thanks to the Jabs Army, we are the Jobs Army, and I’m keen that you will see more of me, also more of my colleagues like Kwasi Kwarteng and Oliver Dowden.”

Coffey says there hasn’t been “as much interest as I would expect from local government” in the “flagship” Kickstart Scheme for placing young people in jobs.

She also discusses what it is like being a Catholic in politics, says one of her “proudest days” was when she voted against the Assisted Dying Bill, recalls seeing Tony Blair at Mass in Westminster Cathedral, and calls for an end to calling opponents “bigots”:

“People do talk about having a kinder politics. An element of a kinder politics is not calling other people with different views bigots because you don’t agree with them.

“People are bigots for calling other people bigots in a way, if that makes sense.

“It genuinely is about just accepting that other people may have different views to you. We seem to be candidly better at doing that in the Conservative Party than perhaps some of the other political parties.

“Being respectful to each other even if you completely disagree with their perspective or their viewpoints, and just accepting that people can have different views. I think politics could be a lot gentler.”

Coffey, MP since 2010 for Suffolk Coastal, is originally from Liverpool, and explains why the Conservatives have declined in that city. She remains an ardent supporter of Liverpool Football Club and ends by comparing Boris Johnson to Jurgen Klopp: “I’m a great fan of very visible leadership.”

ConHome: “What difference does your background as a scientist, your doctorate in chemistry, make to the way you operate as a politician, indeed as a senior minister? Most of your colleagues have a background in politics, economics, history, law, or, in one prominent case, the classics.”

Coffey: “I think just generally the approach of being pretty data-driven, evidence-based, analytical, good use of statistics, challenging sometimes things which people aren’t familiar with – perhaps I’m more confident, even though I don’t pretend to be a medical scientist or anything like that.

“But the ability to ask good questions is very helpful.”

ConHome: “Do you think there should be more people in the Cabinet who are scientifically literate?”

Coffey: “Well I think everybody has different strengths. You don’t need to be a scientist to be able to have that analytical ability. I’m just conscious that that’s led to a particular way of how sometimes I approach matters.

“I think it also helped, I really value my industrial experience and learning at one of the best companies in the world [Coffey worked for Mars].

“All that sort of experience we each bring as members of the Cabinet, and other people will have other life and work experiences too. So it’s the combination of strengths that help us.”

ConHome: “The uplift in Universal Credit is going to be extended for six months. Isn’t it absolutely inevitable that after that six months is over it’s going to be extended again?

“And if that’s so, why not cut out all the bother and just announce that now?”

Coffey: “I don’t think it is the case that we wanted to make sure, close discussions with the Chancellor and the Prime Minister, undoubtedly the response at the time, like a lot of the responses, what could be done quickly and effectively to support people, particularly those who we think were very much impacted by the effects of the pandemic.

“And I do think that we are in a good place, that the economy will be opening up, we have to get confidence back into the economy, back into employers to create jobs, and the investment that’s already gone into DWP and across government more broadly for the Plan for Jobs means that we’re well-placed to encourage and get people taking up those vacancies as quickly as possible.

“This has been a long time now for quite a lot of people being out of work. The furlough has kept that link, and we need to encourage employers to make sure that those people still on furlough are now being prepared to be trained, to be refreshed to get back into their workplace as soon as possible, when conditions allow them to resume their normal activities.”

ConHome: “Do you think there will be a case for an extension at the end of six months? Given the fact that unemployment will be rising.”

Coffey: “Yes I’m conscious about that. And I think that we’ve been clear about the value of this extension. I think that the Chancellor’s always said that we’ll wrap our arms around, but we do believe genuinely in economic terms the large effects of the pandemic will be over, and the investment of people into skills, to get people working again, and that training I think will be important in order to take full advantage of the vacancies that arise.

“So the decision’s been made about the up to six months extension of a variety of schemes, and we’ve got the full six-month extension for people on Universal Credit.”

ConHome: “Can you say more about what your department’s broad plans are for dealing with the unemployment challenge as it will be when lockdown is lifted, particularly for younger people coming into the labour market as they hope, people who lost their jobs immediately before the first lockdown happened.”

Coffey: “Yes, well, already across the country we’ve nearly 27,000 work coaches, we’re not far off now, we’ll have recruited our extra 13,500 by the end of the month.

“And they’re already making interactions with people who’ve been looking for work. We reintroduced Claimant Commitments last year, which is our contract on behalf of the taxpayer with the people receiving benefits.

“People are already taking advantage of more tailored support through a variety of schemes under the Plan for Jobs. So for example probably our flagship scheme is the Kickstart Scheme focussed on young people, and the intention is to have a quarter of a million Kickstart placements by the end of this year.

“And we’ve already approved over 150,000. I don’t know when we’re publishing this information, just over 6,000 young people have now started that role, since November, and we have vacancies, I think there’s over 40,000 vacancies at the moment, which we’re now starting to process with employers and the young people, to get the start.

“I think it’s fair to say that some of the sectors and some of the areas it’s been challenging for them to get the start dates agreed, because they just want to make sure it’s in line with when their sectors can open up.

“But I’m also looking into the fact, I had hoped that more councils would take up the offer of programmes like that. We haven’t had as much interest as I would expect from local government and very few people have started in local government, so that’ll be an area of emphasis.

“But it’s not just about the young people. We’ve got schemes called SWAPs, sector work-based academy programmes, where there are vacancies, employers set these schemes up with us, they get some training, they get some work experience, and they get a guaranteed job interview.

“And that’s often important for people whose sectors aren’t particularly recovering in the way we would like, and we are focussing on some of the growth sectors, or sectors where there are well-known vacancies.

“So that can be a mixture of different levels, including health and social care. We’ve got some other opportunities. There’s something called JETs. This is where people have been unemployed for a while and they get more specialist support.

And indeed something called JFS, Job Finding Support, it’s very light touch, because quite a lot of the people who’ve turned to us for help are people who haven’t had to look for a job for the last 20, 25 years, may not have a LinkedIn profile, may not have their CV quite up to date, and some of that probably just needs some finessing, and an element of confidence and interview practice.

“So we’re trying a whole series of ways in order to get people back into the habit of this, getting them ready, and then steering them, as part of their Claimant Commitment, towards jobs that are available. And we need people to keep going for those vacancies.”

ConHome: “Were you as baffled as we were that you weren’t tasked with fronting any of the daily Government press conferences over the last year?”

Coffey: “Well it’s kind of you to say that. I think the way the process worked was largely if there were announcements to be made in particular areas, and then you had some of my other colleagues, like the First Secretary of State, or the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, running the Cabinet Office, who would actually have a broader remit I suppose to make announcements on behalf of the Government.

“So I think that, I’ll be open with you, I’m quite happy to, we’ve got this enormous jobs army, as I call us now, at DWP, we’re growing to nearly 100,000 people, and you know we have the most connections with communities right around the country.

“We’re increasing the number of Job Centres by 200, so we’ll have well over 800 Job Centres. So we have enough to do, to actually deliver the day to day services that we need.

“And who knows in the future. We’ve got the press briefing starting, but the shift of the Government away hopefully from Covid and actually onto the jobs recovery.

“So big thanks to the Jabs Army, we are the Jobs Army, and I’m keen that you will see more of me, also more of my colleagues like Kwasi Kwarteng and Oliver Dowden, as we really push and bang the drum alongside the Chancellor and the Prime Minister for job creation.”

ConHome: “Last year has been full of Government successes, and frankly some Government failures. But one of the big successes has been Universal Credit.

“It’s stood up. It didn’t fall over. If it hadn’t been there, goodness knows what would have been done in terms of support. Why was it you weren’t allowed out at a press conference to talk about this?”

Coffey: “Well I think quite a lot of Government, quite rightly, citizens expect it to work. And I’m conscious that perhaps colleagues and dare I say it the commentariat might have been surprised that UC didn’t fall over.

“It took a lot of effort. I’m really proud of what our civil servants did. I have to say there was a particular day when over 100,000 claims were made and we had some really intensive work undertaken to increase the capacity of our IT, our servers.

“I always think of that train scene in Wallace and Gromit, the one with the penguin, and Gromit’s on the front of the train laying down the track in front of it, and that’s how it felt like for a little while.

“But we did cope, we did manage, we made some effective decisions, and we worked together very well, and how can I put it, it was a great success story in a way, that DWP was not in the news for it falling over.

“We’re happy to be the unsung heroes, but it’s nice to get some praise as well, and we’ve certainly been given that by the Chancellor and the Prime Minister in the last year.”

ConHome: “The manifesto commitment on the Winter Fuel Payment and the older person’s bus pass, that’s all very clear, but those payments have aroused controversy recently. Can you rule out the possibility of the age at which they’re received being raised?”

Coffey: “I haven’t been involved in any policy discussion about that. It’s not on the agenda, as far as I know.”

ConHome: “Do you think you were right, in retrospect, to vote both in 2013 and in 2019 against same-sex marriage?”

Coffey: “Well I’m a practising Catholic, we have a diversity of people and their views in Parliament, and think it’s fair to say, I’m a great believer in democracy, I’ve not sought to try and block anything further.

“But I will say the thing about the 2019 [vote], which is the Northern Ireland situation, I felt that was a devolved matter, to be dealt with by the Northern Ireland Assembly.

“As did I think you’ll find some other people who voted against that at the time, who actually support same-sex marriage, but respect devolution. I didn’t agree with the situation that forced that through, but again, I’m a democrat. The vote went through and it’s now been delivered.”

ConHome: “You’re part of the quite sizeable tribe of Tory politicians from Liverpool who don’t sit for Liverpool. Why do you think the Conservatives have basically been driven out as an electoral force, not only of Liverpool now, but the whole of Merseyside pretty much, with one exception.”

Coffey: “As you say, Southport was there, and we came close in Wirral West to regaining that in 2019. I wasn’t born there, but I grew up there, I was in a place called Formby from about six months old and then proper Liverpool if you like from the age of six, to the point that I actually had a Conservative Member of Parliament when I lived there, for a while.”

ConHome: “Who was that?”

Coffey: “I’m trying to think. Malcolm Thornton it was at one point. I know he then moved constituency to Crosby, but I don’t have entire recollection of that time.

“I think that what happened, especially when Militant took over, that’s when I got interested in politics, or I realised politics mattered, I think with the rule of Militant about 20 per cent of the population actually just left Liverpool.

“And I’m conscious that some of the economic impact there was pretty tough on the city. The issues that had happened earlier in that decade with the riots and so on.

“Candidly, other bits of the North West, like Manchester, instead of having a row with the Government, just got on with it and did better economically.

“There are several of us, as you say, from Liverpool who’ve ended up in other parts of the country. I didn’t go back after university, I got a job elsewhere in the country.

“But I’m still very fond of what I consider to be my home city, and very keen to try to make sure it does prosper, which is one of the reasons why earlier this week I was doing a fundraiser with Gillian Keegan for Jade Marsden, our candidate for the LIverpool City Region.”

ConHome: “Where are we on the Government review of women’s pensions?”

Coffey: “Well the Government’s policy has been consistent on women’s pensions. We won our latest court session, to keep the fact that we wanted to have the age of pensioners to be the same, whether a man or woman.

“However, we’re awaiting a legal process. A further appeal was made by others and we’re waiting to hear if the Supreme Court is going to take it on.”

ConHome: “Do you feel it’s tougher in any way for Catholics in politics than it was? Some Catholics say so though others disagree.”

Coffey: “I don’t know because I’ve only had ten years of experience. Probably the famous one was Alastair Campbell saying ‘we don’t do God’.

“Before I was an MP I actually remember, I think it’s the only time I’d seen Tony Blair in the flesh, I was at Mass at Westminster Cathedral and all of a sudden he appeared with his daughter, and it was quite amusing, at the shake of the hands of peace there were people clambering over the pews to shake his hand.”

ConHome: “That must have been before the Iraq War.”

Coffey: “I can’t remember when, but it can be a difficult balancing act, I appreciate that. And sometimes people of faith just have different views on certain matters.

“I’m a great believer in live and let live, and not condemning other people for choices they make or for approaches they take. I have very different views to some of my friends say on assisted suicide.

“That day, 11th September 2015, is one of the proudest days in my time as an MP, to stop that Second Reading [of the Assisted Dying Bill].

“And I’ve got friends who completely disagree with me, and that’s OK.

“People do talk about having a kinder politics. An element of a kinder politics is not calling other people with different views bigots because you don’t agree with them.

“People are bigots for calling other people bigots in a way, if that makes sense.

“It genuinely is about just accepting that other people may have different views to you. We seem to be candidly better at doing that in the Conservative Party than perhaps some of the other political parties.

“Being respectful to each other even if you completely disagree with their perspective or their viewpoints, and just accepting that people can have different views. I think politics could be a lot gentler in that way.

“How I explain it sometimes to members of the public or indeed schoolchildren is that in the Chamber, you tend to only discuss largely the things where you disagree.

“Frankly on most things, all the parties probably agree on about 70 per cent of matters.”

ConHome: “Do you have any advice for Jurgen Klopp? You’re a Liverpool supporter we believe.”

Coffey: “I’m a huge supporter of Liverpool Football Club. Clearly the impact of injuries on defenders, particularly Virgil van Diyk, has knocked confidence.

“But it’s about having self-belief, and recognising it’s only one match at a time. That’s all it takes, and I’m a great fan of Jurgen Klopp, and his enthusiasm, his visible leadership, and I’m a great fan of very visible leadership.

“And we’ve got that in bucket loads in Liverpool, and we’ve got it in bucket loads in our Prime Minister Boris Johnson as well.”

ConHome: “The Jurgen Klopp of politics.”

Coffey: “Well, you know, it’s the style that I really like.”

Dean Godson: It’s easier for the right to a left on economics than for the left to move right on culture. That’s a plus for Johnson.

21 Nov

Dean Godson is the Director of Policy Exchange.

“You have limited time, limited capacity, and limited choices. Where does your focus lie?” asks Rachel Wolf on this site last week. Well, the Conservative Party has been walking and chewing gum since Disraeli’s 1867 Reform Act — and there is no reason why the “reset” triggered by the departure of Dominic Cummings should change that.

Representing a critical mass of both the prosperous and the “Just About Managing” classes and parts of the country is what all successful political parties do in democracies. Since the Tory party became the party of Brexit and expanded – or maybe one should say rediscovered parts of its working class base – it is certainly true that the heterogenous coalition which it represents has spoken with a somewhat different accent.

Indeed, a case can be made that the part of the political class that ascended to power after December 2019 represents a significant break with all governments since the fall of Margaret Thatcher. The governments of John Major, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Theresa May (though less so the latter) tended to put global integration before national sovereignty, the metropolitan before the provincial, higher education before further education, trains and planes before buses, diversity before cohesion, the cognitive classes before the artisanal ones.

Their version of the national interest broadly reflected the priorities of what my colleague David Goodhart, who was interviewed recently by this site, has called the people who see the world from Anywhere. And in his most recent book Head, Hand Heart, he describes a narrowing definition of a successful life, as seen by Anywhere Britain, based around academic success, a university education and entry into high-status professional employment. This is the world of the big cities, the university towns and much of the middle and upper public sector, (and certainly of wide swathes of the senior civil service which were at daggers drawn with Dominic Cummings).

But what of that part of the population that cannot achieve or does not want to achieve this version of success? They still want recognition, and to feel able to contribute to the national story and the Brexit vote provided the opportunity for many of them to say ‘no’ to much of that governing class consensus.

The Vote Leave strand of the Johnson Government sought to represent and appeal to this part of the electorate – summed up in the phrase “Levelling up” – in a way that no government, let alone a Conservative government, has done for decades. That has, unavoidably, created tensions with many powerful interests and beliefs, including inside the Tory Party itself, many of which came to be focused on the pugnacious personality of Dominic Cummings.

A more emollient tone can be struck – but to abandon what was termed “Erdington modernisation” (after Nick Timothy’s Birmingham roots) and return to the necessary but not sufficient Notting Hill modernisation (in which the party made its peace with much of modern liberalism) is now very hard.

This is the case for electoral reasons as much as any other – with both Keir Starmer and Nigel Farage both praying for a return to Cameron-Osborne era Conservatism with its implicit assumption that the common good can be achieved through a kind of trickle-down from the most successful and dynamic parts of our society.

There are other reasons for thinking that it would be foolish to switch back now. Politics for most of the post-war period has been dominated by economics. And, of course, a thriving economy is still a sine qua non for any government. But economics is a means not an end, and the economistic bias of the Anywheres gave us the failed cost-benefit analysis of the Remain campaign.

Today’s much higher profile for the security and identity cultural issues ought to be a boon to the centre-right because, as has been pointed out, it is easier for the right to move a bit to the left on economics (as it certainly has done) than for the left to move right on cultural issues (as Starmer would no doubt like to do, but will find his path blocked).

This does not require an aggressive culture war from the right. The cultural offensive has been coming mainly from the left – as exemplified by the controversies over statues and the decolonisation of museums. The right needs to stand up for common sense, and for the large majority who accept the equalities of modern liberalism but do not want their sensibilities constantly undermined.

Conservatives should be the party of value diversity. Go back to the 1950s and the country was often dominated by a conformist, traditional culture that stunted the lives of many people and often punished those who deviated. Over many decades, much higher levels of choice and freedom for women and minorities of various kinds have been achieved.

Part of the Left now wants to impose a degree of progressive conformity comparable to the traditional conformity of earlier decades. Tolerance and pluralism should be the watchwords in these matters — with a strong bed-rock of rights and anti-discrimination legislation, but also an understanding that rights and values often clash and the ratchet should not only turn in a progressive direction.

That all said, walking and chewing gum is possible, and there is space, post-Cummings, for a new tone and a new stress on policy bridges that seek common ground between Anywhere and Somewhere priorities.

The green industrial revolution is clearly one of those policy areas, and should not be seen as a soft bourgeois indulgence. As the Prime Minister said on Tuesday, it is places like Teesside, Port Talbot and Merseyside that are now centres of green technology and jobs. Ben Houchen, the mayor of Tees Valley, underlined the same point in the introduction to Policy Exchange’s recent report on The Future of the North Sea, and on ConservativeHome earlier this week. Research we will soon be publishing on redesigning the national grid should also generate many good, skilled jobs in areas that are sometimes seen as “left behind”.

The re-set seems more likely to be a milder form of reboot. Without Cummings, some of the urgency will go out of parts of the recent agenda, particularly the machinery of government and data in government focus. But many of the priorities of the new conservatism—Brexit, levelling up, higher spending on the NHS and police, social care, boosting further education, immigration reform, restoring some bustle and pride to Britain’s often unloved towns—are owned by a broad range of the people that matter.

The Red Wall voters are likely to prove more complex beasts than in the Vote Leave or Remain caricatures – and no political strategy can focus too much on just one slice of the population but without producing visible, tangible improvements to the lives of people in places like Stoke and Leigh before the next election the Conservatives will not be returned in 2024.

Iain Dale: Stop this utter selfishness and pathetic whinging about not having a normal Christmas to look forward to

30 Oct

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and the For the Many podcast with Jacqui Smith.

Again, it feels like the calm before the Covid storm, doesn’t it?

As more and more swathes of the country go into Tier Three lockdown, it’s clear that, by this time next week, most of the north and parts of the Midlands will have joined Merseyside, Greater Manchester, West Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire in that tier. It’s only a matter of time before London does too, I suspect.

This week, even Germany has gone back into a partial lockdown.  Spain has declared a state of emergency.  France has announced a further draconian lockdown – and Coronavirus in Belgium is seemingly out of control.

At some point in the next two or three weeks, the Government will be forced to take a very difficult decision. No one wants a second national lockdown, but I’m afraid it is looking all but inevitable.

We could of course, take a different pah, ignore the scientific consensus and let the virus take its course – or let it rip, might be a more accurate way of putting it. I cannot see any responsible Government taking that course of action.

In the end, we are going to have to learn to live with this virus. But until our test and trace system is worthy of the name, or a vaccine becomes available, it’s very difficult to see any degree of normality returning to our lives in the next six months – or maybe for longer.

– – – – – – – – – –

After the political debacle about the provision of free school meals, and yet again being comprehensively outplayed by a young Premier League footballer, the next challenge for the Government is how to counter the pathetic accusations about the government ‘cancelling’ Christmas.

Those who make the accusation claim to be those who don’t have a Scooby Doo about what Christmas is all about. It’s not some quasi-materialistic present giving binge; it is a religious festival that celebrates the birth of Jesus of Nazareth.

There is nothing the Government can do or will do that could cancelsthat celebration. Yes, it may mean that family gatherings are more limited in number. Yes, it may mean that we don’t do as much present-buying as we have done in the past. Yes, it will be different.

But for God’s sake, if people don’t understand the seriousness of the situation the country may be in by Christmas, then there is nothing anyone can say or do which will shake people out of their utter selfishness and pathetic whinging.

I can say that. The Government can’t. But somehow, they will need to take on the view that somehow we should all be given a free pass on Christmas Day to let the virus rip.

– – – – – – – – – –

Arzoo Raja is 13 years old. She lived in Italy with her Christian parents. She too was brought up as a Christian. On October 13, she was abducted from outside her house. A few days, later the Italian Police said they had received marriage papers, which stated she was 18.

Her new “husband” was 44 year old Ali Azhar, who also stated Arzoo had converted to Islam, and her new name was Arzoo Faatima.

Her parents provided her birth certificate to the Italian and Pakistani authorities to prove that she was 13. This cut no ice with the Sindh High Court in Karachi, which ruled that she had converted of her own volition, and that she had entered into the marriage of her own free will. The court even criticised the Pakistani police for “harassing” Arzoo after her abduction.

In effect, the court has validated both forced marriage and rape. There have been protests on the streets of Lahore and Karachi.

Countries like the UK cannot stand by, and trot out the well-worn narrative that we can’t interfere with the judiciary of a sovereign nation.

No, but we can turn off the aid tap. We can call in the Pakistani High Commissioner for an interview without coffee. We and other countries have both the power and influence to stop this.

Imran Khan, the Pakistani Prime Minister, has a daughter called Tyrian. He should think how he would have felt if his daughter had been abducted like this when she was 13.

Just for reporting this news on Twitter I have been accused of being islamophobic and “not understanding” the culture. Utter tosh. If we are meant to keep quiet about child abduction and forced marriage, we have come to a pretty pass. I, for one, will continue to speak out, no matter what the backlash.

– – – – – – – – – –

On Thursday morning we all woke up to yet another terror attack in France, with two people being beheaded and another murdered in the name of “the religion of peace”.

Apparently, it is politically incorrect to point out that while the barbarous acts were taking place, the perpetrators were joyfully shouting ‘Allahu Akbar’.

Muslims quite rightly point out that these acts are ‘not in my name’, but the uncomfortable fact is that this is not the view of the terrorists.

In his autobiography, David Cameron says he regrets maintaining that these kind of terror attacks were nothing to do with Islam. He argues that adherents of mainstream Islam have tried to disassociate themselves from the attacks without ever really understanding what has driven the terrorists to assert that they do their dastardly deeds in the name of their religion. He is right.

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.