Does England really need more mayors?

4 Feb

On Wednesday, the Government unveiled its Levelling Up white paper, a 332-page document, which aims to address major economic imbalances across the UK. 

One of the ways the Government intends to achieve greater regional parity is by enhancing local leadership throughout the country. “We will extend, deepen and simplify devolution across England”, reads the report, whose authors want every part of England to be entitled to “London style” powers and a mayor.

This idea is not new to the Conservative Party. As Chancellor, George Osborne famously championed a “cities devolution bill”, and encouraged England’s big cities to follow Greater Manchester, in bidding for devolved powers. Since then, he has urged the Government to go further on localism. “Whatever you’re doing in terms of devolution, double it”, he said in an interview last year for ConservativeHome.

Moreover, the Conservative Party is proud of its record on mayors, seeing Andy Street and Ben Houchen, representing the West Midlands and Tees Valley, respectively, as success stories. There are clearly a number of advantages to having a mayor, namely that they know their area – and can fight for it – much better than those in Whitehall, helping locals feeling connected to government.

Perhaps this is why localism has had the nation’s backing in the past. It was a clear pledge in the Conservatives’ manifesto, which read “We remain committed to devolving power to people and places across the UK… building on the successful devolution of powers to city region mayors”, and people voted for in huge numbers. We are, of course, not the first country to see the benefits of devolved powers (see Germany, with its 16 federal states).

Even so…. Even with all these benefits, and a democratic mandate, I have a feeling that the mood has changed significantly since 2019, and that the public may – instead – be increasingly sceptical about mayors, and the power of devolution.

Why? Well, something very big happened between the time the manifesto was published and now, which is, of course, the Coronavirus crisis. Among many things, it showed many of the practical problems that can come about the more that a government devolves power. “One nation”, we certainly were not.

At times it felt as though the devolved administrations (Scotland and Wales, in particular) were engaged in a competition of “who cares the most” about Coronavirus. Care, as far as leaders were concerned, could be demonstrated by which of them would lock down their own citizens the longest, or create the most inconvenient set of rules, or address people in the most sombre of tones. 

The result was an incredibly divided UK, with contradictory messaging, depending on one’s postcode, about how to fend off the virus. Never mind that parts of the country were also given different “tiers”, so as to determine how careful they should be about Coronavirus.

The contradictory messaging was not just limited to the devolved nations. Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, is, to this day, still making announcements about the need for masks on transport, while the Government has scrapped this rule. Andy Burnham, the Mayor of Greater Manchester, too, famously held a press conference after his “talks” with the Government over Tier 3 restrictions collapsed. Do we really want more of this? A “splintered” Britain in tense negotiations with each other?

Perhaps the Government thinks, with its extension of mayoral powers, that it will get more Houchens and Streets in the future, rather than Burnhams and Khans. But one highly doubts this will be the case, as a result of demographic shifts brought about by the housing crisis. Vast swathes of young people, who are mainly left-leaning, are being priced out of the South East, bringing their politics into new areas. In other words, the Left can look forward to more of a mandate.

One argument for localism is that people, especially the Brexit-backing public, want to “take back control” of their areas, away from bureaucrats in Whitehall (or otherwise). But localism can equally leave people feeling like they have less democratic say. Khan, for example, seems to endlessly introduce anti-car measures (which are hardly going to “level up” workers, should they be delivery drivers), while rarely asking voters for their say.

And, as the public felt about Brussels bureaucrats, some bureaucrats appear to be getting a lot out of the taxpayer, such as Police and Crime Commissioners (paid between £70,000 – £100,000 per year), without much obvious impact. When we have a cost of living crisis, and a pandemic bill to pay, the public may be more in favour of cutting the number of taxpayer-funded roles, rather than going on a mayoral spending spree.

Generally, I tend to think the Government may have already ticked off “levelling up” in many voters’ minds when it decided to move the Treasury to Darlington, and promised huge investment for the North, among other things. Although the Westminster bubble gets terribly excited about white papers, maybe voters are looking for “simple wins”; energy bills coming down, a cut in council tax, or even a pint being a bit more affordable. 

Clearly Levelling Up, as a general strategy, has a huge amount of thought behind it. It shouldn’t be written off, as Lisa Nandy did in the Commons on the day of its release (“is this it?” she asked Gove repeatedly). But the pandemic has changed people’s attitudes about many things. Whether they want multiple face mask rules up and down the country ever again, I’m not convinced.

Richard Brabner: How Disraeli’s One Nation vision can bolster the university sector

20 Dec

Richard Brabner is the Director of the UPP Foundation, a charity which works in the higher education sector, and over a decade ago worked for a couple of Conservative MPs in Parliament.

As well as criticise universities on cultural issues, in recent years some Conservatives have become sceptical of market reforms to higher education too.

Universities – which got used to the cultural and economic liberalism under Blair and the Coalition – have struggled to grapple with this ‘post-liberal’ shift.

Coming from the university world, it won’t surprise any readers that I don’t fully subscribe to the critics’ view, which is at times binary, lacking in nuance and too dismissive of the choices students make.

But underlying their challenge is a truth. Universities benefit and are valued more by the professional classes than those from working-class backgrounds. Ultimately this is driving much of the scepticism toward universities and is something the sector must change.

Benjamin Disraeli said it was on ‘the education of the people that the fate of this country depends’. He understood, like many guardians of the One Nation flame who came after, that unlocking potential and expanding opportunity is a cornerstone to a just society.

In that vein, the Higher Education Policy Institute recently published my vision for a One Nation University. It is an attempt to bridge the gap between the university sector which continues to do so much good, and fellow Conservatives who are increasingly sceptical of higher education. It is a paper based on spreading opportunity, reducing division and building community.

These are the key points for Conservatives to consider.

1) Spreading opportunity by extending choice to local students

The higher education market works well for most students, but there are important issues which need to be resolved to ensure it works well for all learners.

The removal of the cap on the number of undergraduates a university can recruit was one of the best reforms from the last decade. It meant more young people going to their first-choice university, and increased access for the disadvantaged.

But we can only keep an open system if we control the costs. Currently the taxpayer subsidy for loans is well over 50 per cent (much more than the 30 per cent envisaged when higher fees were introduced). To ensure fairness for taxpayers and future students, graduates need to pay back more of their loans.

There is also an issue with the market related to ‘place’ and the levelling-up agenda. Extending choice for school leavers undertaking the typical residential model has been at the expense of working-class students who need to study locally.

This manifests itself in the failure of the market to respond to the needs of working adult learners who need to study in the evening or weekend, subject availability and choice for local students who want to study unpopular but valuable subjects (like modern foreign languages) and how financially vulnerable institutions are supported – particularly in less advantaged areas with little higher education provision.

A system led by student choice inevitably means some universities are winners and others lose out. The answer is not to reimpose restrictions on choice for school leavers, but for government to use its levers to extend choice for students who are restricted to studying locally. Among several recommendations, the paper calls for an evening university like Birkbeck in every region to support working adults, and changing the role of the regulator to prioritise the geographic spread of higher education.

Many Conservative MPs get this, with strong support for new higher education in places where provision is limited (such as Jesse Norman championing NMITE in Hereford, and Paul Bristow supporting the development of ARU Peterborough).

2) Overcoming the culture wars through civility and thought diversity

Support for universities is weaker among older people, those who voted Leave and the working classes, but a One Nation University will strive to be valued by all in society.

Ultimately this is down to the sector to change, but Conservatives can too often fall into the trap of making this worse when we focus on the trivial – like a painting of the Queen being taken down in the Oxford common room. Large swathes of the higher education community then just think this is just bad faith arguments from people who don’t like them. Instead, we need to work in partnership and focus on the substantial, such as how universities engage people who do not share their dominant values, and how those with minority opinions in the academy are treated.

A key issue to focus on is the interplay between civility and thought diversity. Universities – like the rest of society – are not immune from polarisation and the general weakening of civil norms (as any trawl of academic twitter would testify). And while causation is difficult to untangle, common sense suggests this impacts ‘chilling effects’ in the academy, where staff and students with minority views feel unable to express them.

One idea is to establish a Heterodox Academy for England. This organisation could support practice, develop leadership training programmes and consultancy on how thought diversity should be protected and considered within recruitment and progression practices. It could also produce guidance around social media use for academics.

3) Building community

Danny Kruger and think tanks like Onward have shown how important community and belonging are to all parts of society.

University is no different. The relationships and ties formed as part of a full student experience (independent living, trying extra-curricular activities and so on) are key to building social capital and tackling an epidemic of loneliness amongst the student body.

But we currently have a ‘two nations’ student experience, with those from working-class backgrounds less likely to fully participate than their middle-class peers. The pandemic has inevitably made this worse, and there is a huge amount universities can do to rebuild the student experience, such as embed local work experience and volunteering within the curriculum (which is common in the US).

Working alongside or within the Kickstart programme, government could also look to develop an ‘Americorps’ style Student Community Service Programme, which would have a real focus on ensuring working class students are able to take part. Not only would this help individual students, but the programme’s activities would help to revitalise local communities and help bridge town-gown and generational divides.

Churchill, walking with destiny. Johnson, winking at destiny.

6 Oct

Never underestimate most people’s lack of interest in politics – as practised at Westminster, anyway.  Here at ConservativeHome, we’re obsessed by it.  Our readers are at the very least interested in it.  So it’s sometimes an effort to remember that most of Britain is Rhett Butler: “frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn”.

But now and again, a politician breaks through the cloud of unknowing and becomes a Given, a Fact – like the weather.  Modern Britain has seen three.  The first was Margaret Thatcher.  The second, Tony Blair.  The third, Boris Johnson.

Each vanished inside themselves and returned as an icon.  Thatcher was embraced first hesitantly, then decisively, as embodying the end of a clapped-out post-war settlement.  She became, with apologies to Dominic Raab and the gang, Britannia Unchained.

Blair was the beneficiary of revulsion at Conservatives who had run out of steam, and he projected an archetype of the age: of youthful, ideology-light, transformative leadership – a standard model in the west since J.F.Kennedy.

The Prime Minister has a smaller majority than either (though at 80-plus it is perfectly satisfactory) but a bigger inheritance: indeed, nothing is ever more likely to become him like his victory of almost two years ago.

After inheriting a broken party on nine per cent of the vote, expelling a swathe of his senior MPs, falling into an even bigger Parliamentary minority, wrangling with the judges and somehow gaining an election, Johnson won it and delivered Brexit.

This was more fundamental break with the recent past than Blair’s or even Thatcher’s.  So if Thatcher was Britannia and Blair Kennedy, who is the Prime Minister?

We won’t for a moment waste our time and yours by probing what he passed off yesterday as a speech.  Insofar as it was one, its content was levelling up – a traditional Tory idea of a One Nationish kind, to be achieved by electic mayoral methods: more Blair than Thatcher.

No, what Johnson did yesterday was less to make a speech than paint a picture: “generally funkapolitan party”…”my chestnuts out of Tartarean pit”…”chewed his pensive quill”…”raucus squaukus from the anti-AUKUS caucus”…“reprendre le control”…

“Build Back Beaver…the greatest Frost since the great frost of 1709…fibre-optic vermicelli…66,000 sausages aboard…”aquatic forest of white turbines”… “if you can steal a dog or cat there is frankly no limit to your depravity”…

This is what he has been doing all the way from his stint as the Daily Telegraph‘s Brussels correspondent (“Brussels bureaucrats have shown their legendary attention to detail by rejecting new specifications for condom dimensions”) to the premiership.

This is less a real though dead American president than another great and imaginary British archetype, but with a twist: Boris Johnson is John Bull with his trousers down.  Or should that be Winston Churchill?

Johnson, after all, has written a light but vivid book about the great Conservative and Liberal.  Perhaps it is impertinent or, worse, simply wrong to seek comparisons between the psychology of the two.

But we think there’s something in it, and the temptation is irresitible.  In his essay on Churchill and his “Black Dog” – i.e: his depression – Anthony Storr zeroes in on the former Prime Minister’s paintings.

“I must say, I like bright colours.  When I get to heaven…I shall require a still gayer palette than I get here below…there will be a whole range of wonderful new colours that will delight the celestial eye,” Churchill himself wrote.

Storr goes on to write that “in psycho-analytical jargon, this is manic defence.  The counterpart to the gloomy, subfusc world of the depressive is a realm of perpetual excitement and action, in which colours are richer and brighter…

…gallant deeds are accomplished by heroes, and ideas expressed in language replete with simile, ornamented with epithet, and sparkling with mellifluous turns of phrase.”

We can’t help but find parallels in the life of Churchill’s successor, who could himself produce striking doodles during Telegraph editorial conferences, and is the child of two artists.

One, in words (Stanley Johnson won the Newdigate Prize for Poetry at Oxford); the other, on canvas.  Charlotte Johnson Wahl‘s struggle with depression and OCD is well known enough not to need repetition.

“That’s the trouble with Anthony—half mad baronet, half beautiful woman”, Rab Butler said of Eden, whose mother was a beautiful woman and whose father was, well, you get it.

There is a lot more to the Prime Minister, or to anyone else, than being half each of both parents, but we think that there is something in it – and that, whether so or not, many people want nothing more than being cheered up.  Which Johnson does in spades.

All this is a long way from Italian condoms, let alone levelling up and Johnson’s speech today, but it may offer a surer guide to his success.  At any rate, his connection to the unpoliticised – his being a Fact and a Given – leaves the next election his to lose.

The Conservatives are on their fourth term in government, but neither David Cameron nor Theresa May won a solid Tory majority.  That Johnson did so two years ago made the Manchester Conference feel like that of a governing party for the first time since 2010.

In other words, Brexit has given him a first term, rather than a Conservative fourth one, and he still leads in the polls despite Covid, shortages, Chesham & Amersham, the Northern Ireland Protocol, the endless redefinings of levelling up – much, really.

Yet what would embarrass another leader somehow washes over him.  Take the absurd spectacle of the most important woman in his private life, Carrie Johnson, speaking at a conference reception co-hosted by Stonewall…

…Which the most important woman in his public one, Liz Truss, has slated – urging government to pull out of its employment scheme.  And, yes, the Foreign Secretary was actually there at the event.

“Do I contradict myself?” Walt Whitman wrote.  “Very well then I contract myself…I am large, I contain multitudes.”  He might have been summing the Prime Minister up in a couple of sentences.

The time may come when the show stops going on because the audience has had enough.  Most governments are felled by the question: “where’s the delivery?”  Somewhere in their second term, they usually run out of steam, and luck too.

Johnson’s great-grandfather, a liberal Turkish politician and journalist, was strung up by a group of paramilitary officers – in legend, a mob.  We’ve sometimes wondered if the Prime Minister will meet an end less bloody but no less dramatic.

The more those failed Remainers rage at him, the more he laughs, as he winds them up like a watch.  His hold on his party is brutal.  But one day, the worm – sorry those backbenchers – may turn.

And the British people will have had enough of this Given and Fact, whose authority comes partly from being a known quantity.  As this site has written for two days running and now writes for a third, the state is too big, taxes too high and levelling up too inchoate.

But for the moment, he is in pole position and poll position – shortages, price rises, queues and all.  “I felt as if I were walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial,” Churchill wrote as he entered Downing Street in 1940.  Where he walked with destiny, Johnson winks at it.

Profile: Michael Gove – denied a great office of state once again. But given work on which Johnson’s future now depends.

16 Sep

Part of the charm of Michael Gove is that one never quite knows what he is going to do next. He was not expected to become, as we learned yesterday afternoon, Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government.

At first glance, this looks like a disappointment. He has not been appointed to one of the great offices of state, either the Home Office, for which he lobbied hard, or the Foreign Office.

At second glance, he has been handed a portfolio where he will have more scope for creative reform than would have been the case in either of those departments.

The perilous issue of planning, imbued with decisions taken in the late 1940s and tensions between the haves and the have-nots, falls to him to resolve.

Are the Conservatives the party of One Nation, or just of the propertied classes, who believe that aspects of the status quo which favour them must be preserved?

This question of national unity runs through other aspects of his brief, mentioned specifically in the notice of his appointment:

“He takes on cross-Government responsibility for levelling up. He retains ministerial responsibility for the Union and elections.”

One of the dangers of the reshuffle was that responsibility for the Union would be forgotten or downplayed. It has not been: it remains in the hands of a Scot who is a passionate and knowledgeable Unionist.

Gove understands the paradox, recently expounded on these pages by Paul Goodman, that the Union depends on making a success of localism.

So does levelling up: it cannot become a synonym for the tepid egalitarianism with which after the Second World War an over-mighty centre sought to justify its power.

Local prosperity, whether in England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, cannot be attained by pulling levers in London, Edinburgh, Cardiff or Belfast.

Mayors can convene local leaders and enlist local energies in a way that ministers cannot. Westminster and the rest have long tried to do far too much, and have undermined local pride and initiative.

Levelling up must not mean imposing uniformity from Whitehall, as so often happened after 1945, with the great industries of the United Kingdom, and its great towns and cities, subjected to the dead hand of central control.

The United Kingdom will flourish best when its constituent parts are free, and no minister is more likely to rejoice in freedom, and in its corollary, variety, than Gove.

Consider this striking passage:

“An exotic background has never been a barrier to success in the Tory Party. Although it is supposedly the party of patriots, and of the family, the leaders it has selected include a Jew, a bachelor, a woman, a Canadian, an American and a clutch of unsuitable Scots.

“Of its historic hierarchy of influences and great names, Burke was in origin an Irish Whig, Disraeli a Jewish adventurer, Churchill half-American and wholly promiscuous in his party allegiance, Bonar Law and Macmillan were both of colonial stock, Heath was the unmarried son of a Broadstairs builder, Thatcher a grocer’s daughter, and John Major the son of a circus trapeze artist who faced financial ruin, and whose forebears lived in America. They may all have had hearts of oak but none was a prototypical John Bull.”

These paragraphs are taken from Michael Portillo: The Future of the Right, published in 1995 and written by Gove.

Several points at once emerge. One detects in the as yet obscure young author – he was 28, and working as a reporter on the Today programme – a certain impudent brio; a delight in the knowledge that improbable outsiders have often risen to the leadership of the Tory Party; and a willingness to take the risk of backing, in Michael Portillo, what turned out to be the wrong horse.

Not that it was by any means clear in 1995, or for many years afterwards, who was the right horse, let alone the Right horse.

Gove himself ran, in the Conservative leadership elections of 2016 and 2019, as one of the Right horses, and on both occasions finished third.

The term “obscure” had long since ceased to apply. The nation has recently rejoiced to see some grainy footage of him dancing in an Aberdeen night club.

He has served longer in the Cabinet than any other minister, and since the summer of 2019 has been responsible, as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office, for a bewildering range of important tasks.

Whenever a tricky problem was in the news, Gove was as likely as not to be asked to tackle it. On Tuesday of this week, he was put in charge of the task force charged with sorting out problems in the supply chain.

An old friend says of him:

“He is now a true man of affairs – a man of business, more than ideology. He is now unfazeable – there is nothing anyone in the blob can do to faze him. He is wiser, but also sadder.”

No parliamentarian has a more abundant gift for raising Tory spirits. His winding-up speech on 19th January 2019, delivered at a low point in the fortunes of the Theresa May government, still provokes a kind of incredulous laughter at the sheer rudeness, and accuracy, of the ridicule he poured on Jeremy Corbyn and Tom Watson.

Gove put fresh heart into despondent Tory footsoldiers by showing them that despite the disconcerting processes of modernisation, despite every concession made by their party to the spirit of the age, an old-fashioned Oxford Union speech still has its place in the Tory armoury.

A ministerial colleague says of him:

“He is very brilliant, kind, thoughtful and intelligent – one of the most amusing people in politics, and one of the politest. From what I’ve been saying, you’d think he was a saint. The flaw is that he is still at heart a student politician – he loves the mechanisms of power, which stops him being able to do the great things he might do.”

During the Conservative leadership election of 2016, Gove knifed Boris Johnson: an act which in a student election might have enabled the assassin to seize the crown, but which in the glare of national publicity looked unforgiveable.

And yet he was soon forgiven; was brought back by May as Environment Secretary to strengthen the Government after the debacle of the 2017 general election; and has been treated by Johnson with magnanimity.

David Cameron could not find it in himself, when he published his memoirs, to be magnanimous about Gove’s decision to back the Leave side in the EU Referendum:

“One quality shone through, disloyalty. Disloyalty to me and, later, disloyalty to Boris.”

A friend of Gove says:

“Cameron treated him more harshly than Boris Johnson. There was a class element – Michael owes so much to us, we made him. But they didn’t make him. He’s a bloody talented bloke. And it’s a myth that he lied to Cameron. Michael always was a Brexiteer. He didn’t fess up because he knew it would be an unbearable clash.”

Gove and his wife, Sarah Vine, from whom recently to his sorrow he has parted, had become good friends of David and Samantha Cameron.

Yet in many ways, Gove has more in common with Johnson. Both of them delight in using humour to subversive effect, and both have a gift for spotting and encouraging talented people.

They like being surrounded by very clever advisers, and have known each other for a long time. Dominic Cummings was Gove’s accomplice long before he came to work for Johnson, and the same is true of such figures as Simone Finn and Henry Newman, still at the heart of the Downing Street machine.

Gove was born in 1967 in Aberdeen, taken into care, and adopted at the age of four months by Ernest and Christine Gove. They sent him to Robert Gordon’s College, where he blossomed into an accomplished debater, and from which he won a place to read English at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford.

He at once recognised the brilliance of Johnson, three years older than him, and backed him to become President of the Oxford Union. Gove went on to win that distinction himself, and proceeded to make his way in journalism, ascending to a high level on The Times and winning the esteem of Rupert Murdoch.

In 2005, he entered the Commons as MP for Surrey Heath and a member of the gilded Notting Hill set, clustered round the new leader of the party, David Cameron.

He became shadow Minister for Housing, and soon afterward shadow Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, the somewhat authoritarian title conferred by Gordon Brown on Ed Balls.

Gove was now senior to Johnson, who had entered the Commons in 2001, but had suffered various disasters at the end of 2004, realised he was going to get nowhere much at Westminster as long as Cameron was leader, and went off to run for Mayor of London.

Cameron protected Gove during the expenses scandal of 2009 (when Gove was found to have ordered a number of expensive items from a shop owned by the Tory leader’s mother in law), and after the election victory of 2010 made him Education Secretary.

In that post Gove won his spurs by taking on and defeating the educational Establishment, but by 2014 he had become so unpopular with teachers that Cameron moved him to the post of Chief Whip.

After the Conservative victory of 2015 Gove was appointed Justice Secretary, a role in which he won golden opinions. The following year he broke with Cameron by backing Vote Leave, a decision which paved the way for Johnson to come out as a Leaver.

Perhaps someone will one day write a joint biography of these two statesmen. For the success of Johnson’s domestic agenda, his ability to demonstrate progress in the fields of housing, levelling up and defending the Union, now depends to a great extent on Gove.

Nick King: Levelling up. The challenge is less defining it than delivering it, for which Johnson will need the private sector.

25 May

Nick King is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Policy Studies.

To level up or not to level up? That is certainly not the question. If theres one thing the Government has been admirably clear about, it is its determination to do it. But that begs rather a lot of other legitimate questions, such as: what does levelling up really mean? How will we level up? What level are we levelling up to? How will levelling up be measured? And if answers to these questions are not forthcoming, how can we ever really know whether weve levelled up or not?

Some of these points were recently put to ministers from the Business and Housing departments by the Business Select Committee. The answers forthcoming were clearly not to the (Labour) Chair of the Committees satisfaction. He suggested there was no clarity in terms of understanding what levelling up means or the policy which sits behind it.

But there’s actually a strong argument – although you wouldn’t expect the ministers themselves to make it – that the lack of specificity around levelling up, and the catch-all nature of the term, have added to its value as a concept.

The Conservative Partys last general election manifesto talked about levelling up every part of the UK, levelling up skills and levelling up through investment in infrastructure. Prior to that manifesto, I produced a report for the Centre for Policy Studies, which called for greater devolution, enhanced skills, increased infrastructure investment and new Opportunity Zones as the principal means of levelling up.

Since the election, various other think tanks have put their own spin on levelling up, with Onwards taskforce looking at levelling up the tax system and innovation, the Centre for Progressive Policy developing its own Levelling Up Outlook, the Institute for Public and Policy Research suggesting we level up health, and Bright Blue looking at levelling up in the context of deprivation.

This all-encompassing nature of the phrase, not yet defined by any mainstream dictionary, is surely more of a strength than a weakness. We saw this during the election. Then, across the former ‘Red Wall’ seats of the Midlands and the North, people voted in their millions for levelling up, without needing a detailed policy prospectus outlining which departments would take the lead and what metrics they would apply. Yes, they wanted to ‘get Brexit done’ – but getting Brexit done was just one half of the equation to making their lives better: levelling up was the improvement that would come afterwards.

For all of its lack of explicit definition, those of us who are who committed to the levelling up cause – and I include myself in that number – feel we know what it’s aiming at. We know that at its heart it is about addressing the long-standing inequalities which exist in the United Kingdom.

Levelling up is about the life chances of people, the prospects of places and about making sure our country is the United Kingdom it should be, not the divided realm it risks becoming. In that spirit, it can be seen as a continuation of One Nation Toryism, of efforts to extend social mobility and even of various Governments rebalancing efforts.

Perhaps that is why, when Boris Johnson returned to Downing Street, having won his crushing majority in the election, he stood on the steps of Number 10 and promised to unite and level up’ our country. There followed measures such as substantial increases in infrastructure investment, the creation of the Towns Fund and, more recently, the creation of the Levelling Up Fund and the Community Renewal Fund. These all suggested a centrally-driven, targeted approach, relying on the funding of specific projects to level up specific places.

But the ambition to level up goes much wider and deeper than that. Ever since the election, every Government department has been tasked with thinking about levelling up and how to deliver it. In education, that means better schools and improved skills outside London and the South-East. For the Transport and Culture departments, that means greater national transport and digital connectivity respectively. For the Department of International Trade, it means getting more investment into the regions and more companies around the country exporting.

Now, to bring coherence and strategic intent to the levelling up agenda, the Government has promised a Levelling Up White Paper. This White Paper is to be produced by ConHome columnist, Harborough MP and the Prime Minister’s Levelling Up adviser, Neil OBrien. He is, in many respects, the perfect man for the job, with a first class brain and a long history of considering these issues, raised in the North but representing a Midlands constituency, and someone who knows his way around Whitehall.

This last point is critical given the clear intention to make this a ‘whole of government’ exercise. Virtually every department has been instructed to play its part in levelling up; the Prime Minister and the Chancellor recently put it at the heart of their Plan for Growth, and OBriens White Paper is being run out of Cabinet Office, suggesting an ambition to reach into various Whitehall departments.

He will, no doubt, have received direct orders from the Prime Minister as to what he wants in the White Paper and perhaps the slight shift in language within the Queen’s Speech gives us a clue as to what to expect. That speech promised to level up opportunities’ and the accompanying Briefing Note – prepared by the Treasury – tied the levelling up agenda much more closely to public services, such as health, education and policing. 

This suggests the Government will be looking as much at the opportunities presented to people, and within places, as the outcomes which those opportunities might lead to.For my part, the most important factor I would urge the Government to remember, is that whether we want to improve opportunities, or outcomes, levelling up needs to be centred on the potential of the private sector. As I argued in my recent Centre for Policy Studies paper with Jake Berry on rejuvenating the North, only the private sector can offer the scale of investment, the jobs and the opportunities which can lead to long-term sustainable change.

Government, of course, has a pivotal role to play. It needs to think about where it invests, about the implications of the gravitational pull of London and the South East and how it can best break the trend of self-perpetuating economic failure in the least successful parts of our country. But, most importantly, it can help create the conditions in which private enterprise can thrive.

After all, to business-loving, capitalism-supporting types like me, levelling up can only really be delivered through the dynamism of the private sector. It is its agility, investment and innovation through which life-changing opportunities will be created. Absent of that, levelling up will mean very little at all.  

David Skelton: The Government must not forget that it was working class voters who delivered the 2019 majority

17 Nov

David Skelton is the author of Little Platoons: How a revived One Nation can empower England’s forgotten towns and redraw the political map.

Last December, people who wouldn’t even have considered voting for us ten, or even five, years ago put their cross in the Tory box for the first time ever. Constituencies that had been Labour since their formation voted Conservative with remarkable swings. These voters had long been forgotten by the newly gentrified left and, in the aftermath of the referendum, had often become the butt of sneering and snobbery.

Working class voters, who had seen their economic and political priorities ignored by politicians of all parties for decades, saw that their concerns were being at long last listened to. They entrusted us with their votes, sometimes enthusiastically, sometimes warily, in the hope not only that their Brexit vote would be implemented at last, but also that, as a government, we would prioritise improving their lives and their communities. We should take that trust that was placed in us very seriously indeed.

A working-class Tory agenda is economically and politically the right direction to take

We should reflect on this trust that was placed in us and the basic political maths as we ponder the excellent question posed by Rachel Wolf on these pages on Saturday. In a nutshell, this question was whether we use the present “reset” to focus on the working class voters who delivered the 2019 majority or shift priorities towards the more affluent in a revival of a politics aimed at middle class metropolitans. For political, economic and moral reasons, the only correct path is to retain our focus on the working class voters who backed us in such numbers last year.

Politically, this new electoral coalition delivered the biggest Conservative majority in over thirty years. Only an electoral coalition centred on winning working class constituencies enabled us to do this and only this coalition would enable us to win another big majority in four years time. So-called “DE” voters backed Labour over the Tories for the first time and we had a 15 per cent lead over Labour amongst “C2” voters.

This allowed us to make some remarkable gains, from my home town of Consett to Andy Burnham’s old seat in Leigh – both symbolic of a “Labourism” that isn’t coming back. Electoral coalitions can’t be turned on and off like a light switch and we must continue the present focus. Maintaining this focus on these working class voters is the only realistic route towards a lasting Conservative majority and an enduring realignment.

We remain the custodians of the trust that was placed in us and we must repay it by delivering the substantial, positive and lasting change that we promised. This kind of change – boosting long-forgotten parts of our imbalanced economy – would also make our economy more productive and the country as a whole more prosperous. When parts of the country are held back from fulfilling their economic potential, that is a problem that impacts everybody. We must redouble our efforts to level up and genuinely create One Nation.

A One-Nation agenda of improved town centres, rising real wages, better jobs and improved infrastructure

In Little Platoons, published last year, I set out how an ambitious agenda of reform could transform long-forgotten towns, through infrastructure spending, transformation of town centres and a policy of reindustrialisation. We have made great strides so far but we now need to go even further and even faster, particularly as both the health and economic impact of Covid-19 risks impacting working class communities in the North more than prosperous communities in the South.

As James Frayne suggested last week, one of the key priorities should be making sure that town centres start to look and feel better over the next few years. Rather than being pockmarked with empty shops, bookies and discount shops, high streets must become symbols of community pride. Town centres should become community hubs – places for people to shop, businesses to set up (rather than in distant out of town business parks) and for families and young people to meet up and come together. Revived town centres should leave as lasting an impression of local and civic pride as the likes of Birmingham City Hall and the majestic Grey Street in Newcastle.

Just as people should see a difference in their town centres by the end of Boris’s first full term in office, they should also see a difference to their pay packets and their local economy. Despite the Covid associated economic hit, there must be a focus on creating economic revival in “Red Wall” areas.

As I made clear here a few weeks ago, our impending freedom from EU regulation will give us greater scope to use industrial strategy to help revive post industrial towns and promote a policy of reindustrialisation, including being leaders in green industry.

This should include aiming to shift the type of jobs that predominate in these towns from low-paid, insecure work to making them a central part of a high-skills, high-productivity, high-wage, tech-driven economy. We should enable local leaders to do whatever it takes, including through the tax system, to encourage industrial investment in their areas.

Part of the case I made in Little Platoons is that a direct government lever for revival is by relocating great swathes of the Civil Service to the North and the Midlands. An impressive report by the Northern Policy Foundation, published this week, shows that such an agenda would put “rocket boosters” under levelling-up and allow local areas to benefit from the agglomeration effect of relocating key arms of government.

We should also be stepping up investment in infrastructure programmes, to ensure that towns as well as cities have world class road, rail and digital infrastructure. We should consider how light rail can make a difference to people in “Red Wall” towns and also mustn’t forget about the importance of high quality, reliable and inexpensive bus services to local people. When even the deficit hawks at the IMF are arguing that now is the time to invest in infrastructure, we should be prepared to show audacity and imagination with big infrastructure projects for the North.

A relentless focus on making change happen

We must have a relentless focus on making this change happen. Levelling up should go through everything we do. Every day, ministers should ask themselves how their decisions are improving the lives of working people and to advance the levelling up agenda. And we should manage and track the levelling up agenda against these key metrics of improved town centres, rising wages, better jobs and improved infrastructure.

This is a One Nation government and levelling up is a definitively One Nation policy. As Damian Green argued as part of this series on Monday, building one nation is a conservative, not a libertarian, project. That means we should be prepared to use the power of the state to tackle regional economic inequalities (the GDP per head in the City of London is 19 times that in County Durham) and restore hope and economic vibrancy to long forgotten places.

We must make it our defining mission to repay the trust that working class voters placed in us and ensure that their lives are better and their towns are better places in which to live. If we do so, the realignment will be a lasting one. Now, more than ever, we must double down on levelling up.

Damian Green: Why a forced choice between a Brexity North and a Globalist South would be a false one – and damage our Party

16 Nov

Damian Green is Chair of the One Nation Caucus, a former First Secretary of State and is MP for Ashford.

2020 has brought many words to the forefront of our conversations: pandemic, lockdown, mask. Suddenly “reset” has become the latest addition to the thesaurus of 2020, as politicians and commentators ponder the future of the Government in the post-Dominic Cummings era. Is Boris Johnson about to head out in a new direction, or would any deviation from the path of 2019 be a politically unwise heresy?

We should start with the Prime Minister’s own favourite self-description. He always refers to himself as a One Nation Conservative. So I take it as a given that he wants to run a One Nation Government: one which seeks to unite, heal and provide opportunity for all. The interesting question is what does this mean for the coming decade, as the country seeks to recover from Covid-19 and make the best of Brexit.

The first change will need to be a simple change of tone. Crossing the road to pick a fight may be a rational strategy in the period of a campaign, especially one which you are not confident of winning, but it is a rotten way to run a government. There are absolutely battles that need to be fought and won, but any administration can only fight on so many fronts at once. If too many people are potential enemies to be denigrated and then crushed, then you rapidly run out of friends. Every government needs loyal friends.

This is a relatively easy reset. The deeper question is whether there also needs to be a significant change of substance. What will a One Nation Government concentrate on, and would that produce a more contented country, and therefore a platform for re-election in 2024?

The short answer is that the Government should re-read the manifesto on which it was elected, and concentrate its efforts on the big promises in it. Brexit has happened – so it should now move on very rapidly to making a reality of levelling up.

Every One Nation Conservative applauds the concept of giving particular help to parts of the country that have been left behind, but also thinks that there are national policies that allow us to do this without creating a competition between North and South.

Much better training and education, both for young people and older workers whose job skills have become obsolete, would benefit everyone, but would have particular effect in towns and cities where jobs have been harder to find.

In health policy, one lesson we have learned from Covid is that it is the co-morbidities that come from poverty and disadvantage that make people more likely to die. So meeting the manifesto commitment to increase healthy life expectancy by five years by 2035 can only be done through reducing health inequality. This in itself would be a One Nation priority, but its practical benefits would be most obvious in the Blue Wall seats.

I observe that there is a rearguard action from climate sceptics against this week’s environmental announcements from the Prime Minister. This takes the form of claiming that no one in the North cares about the environment, as they really want jobs and prosperity.

There are two answers to this. The first is that these policies contain vital measures to make sure that the jobs of the future come to this country rather than others. You can, as I do, want more power generated from wind, and want the people making wind turbines to do so in areas of the UK with traditional manufacturing skills. The second is that to assume that no one in the North cares about the future of the planet is patronising nonsense.

This attack on green policies that were also in the manifesto is a symptom of a wider misconception which is already beginning to spread: that the Conservative Party has to choose between the gritty Brexity immigration-sceptic North and the soft, affluent globalist South.

This is a counsel of despair, as it suggests that there is no way Conservatives can win a stable majority in the long term. More importantly it ignores the capacity of this Government to produce a raft of policies which unite large parts of the country. Strict immigration control (and indeed Brexit) are as popular in my Kent constituency as they are in Stoke, Wigan, or Darlington.

Crucially, though, so are policies which help people into jobs, which preserve a decent welfare system in a time of trouble, and which create the economic conditions that encourage the creation of new businesses. It is not northern or southern (or English, Welsh, Scottish or Irish) to want people to stand on their own and take their own decisions, while being entitled to help from society when they need it. This Conservative version of the welfare state is at the heart of modern One Nation thinking, and our longest period out of power was when Tony Blair and New Labour stole it.

Conservatism needs to be more than libertarianism, and more than small-statism. There are different traditions that come together in the Conservative Party, but what unites them is a respect for our country, out history and our institutions. We will never be “woke” because too much of what passes for progressive politics is transient and illiberal.

But if fighting a culture war from the right involves trashing our institutions, like Whitehall, the judiciary or the BBC, it is dangerously unconservative. A wise Conservative Government will always reform, but very rarely offer revolution. Above all, it should respect the rule of law.

A reset Government will double down on the many excellent promises it made the country last December, knowing that after the worst of Covid has passed it has three years to demonstrate to Conservative voters old and new some visible improvements in public services and communities. The One Nation Caucus is producing a series of policy papers to provide new ideas to help the Government on this course. Let’s hope the new word for 2021 is “recovery”.

Please register for today’s joint Policy Exchange and ConservativeHome event on One Nation after Covid

15 Nov

The Editor of this site will today chair a joint Policy Exchange/ConservativeHome event on: One Nation conservatism: what does it look like after Covid-19?  The five panellists are:

  • Isaac Levido: 2019 General Election Conservative Campaign Director.
  • Arlene Foster: First Minister of Northern Ireland and Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party.
  • Kirstene Hair: Senior Adviser to Douglas Ross, Leader of the Scottish Conservatives, and former MP for Angus
  • Danny Kruger: former Political Secretary to the Prime Minister and MP for Devizes.
  • Jane Stevenson: MP for Wolverhampton North East.

The event will take place via Zoom at noon today, Monday November 16.  You are welcome to register for it via this link here.

Ryan Bourne: A British overspill from America’s result. Why the debate on the right over economics will now intensify.

11 Nov

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

Donald Trump loyalists might not yet admit it, but their man was defeated handily in the U.S. Presidential election. A post-mortem will soon be undertaken within the Republican party, and with it a debate that has been bubbling since his primary victory in 2016 on both sides of the Atlantic: what economics should conservatives champion?

Ideally, that debate would be about what policies actually work to improve our lives or liberties. But winning elections is politicians’ raison d’être. So it’s little surprise that those representing major strands of Republican economic thought have conflicting economic narratives of the results already as to what is electorally desirable, a division made somewhat easier by the fact that “Trumpism” blended free-market policies with protectionism and interventionism, in turn offering something for everyone.

Free-market Republicans’ story goes like this: tax cuts and deregulation delivered by a Republican Senate and Presidency delivered robust pre-pandemic economic growth, low unemployment, and rising household incomes. So strong was that economy before Covid-19, that even after a deep pandemic-induced recession, 56 percent of surveyed voters nationwide said their family was still better off financially after four years of The Donald in the White House. Tellingly, Trump led Joe Biden in every battleground state on who voters trusted most to “manage” the economy.

Combine that evidence with the party’s unexpected electoral resilience in the Senate, and huge pick up of Cuban-American and Mexican-America votes in Florida and Texas, and it’s easy to conclude, as former Presidential candidate Mitt Romney has, that more free-market Republican economic policies are not unpopular.

In fact, polls suggest voters baulked at the socialist ideas aired in the Democratic primary, and were wary of even Joe Biden’s quite ambitious progressive agenda, particularly on decarbonisation. What lost Trump the election was, in this view, not his domestic economic policies then, but his personal conduct, handling of Covid-19, and, possibly, even downsides of his trade wars, the most obvious consequences of which were government welfare for Americans farmers and manufacturers struggling with inflated input costs.

The “national conservative” counter-blast provided by, for example, Samuel Hammond in the Guardian, says the exact opposite. The last two elections supposedly show the party’s future is to reach into working-class communities of all ethnicities. This opportunity, in part, came about from Trump’s willingness to challenge traditional Republican views on free trade and industrial policy, giving him a hearing with voters suffering the effects of market-led deindustrialisation. The party should build on that to become a true “workers’ party” by embracing a more interventionist abour market and manufacturing agenda, according to the Missouri and Florida senators, Josh Hawley and Marco Rubio.

This interpretation even posits that Republicans may have failed to win the Presidency because they did not sufficiently embrace the “good government can do” (to use a Theresa May phrase.) Hammond postulates, for example, that Biden was able to pick up white working-class votes in the Rust Belt by going further on nationalistic “Buy American” agendas and tax incentives for re-shoring manufacturing jobs than Republicans would ever opt for. A more serious policy agenda and a compassionate Republican frontman could therefore build a whole new electoral coalition on this type of platform that Trump opened the door to, if only the Republicans could move on from Reaganism and their commitment to free market ideas.

Now, on the facts, I (perhaps unsurprisingly) find the first narrative more compelling. Exit polling shows that, contra the national conservative view, Republican support still skewed towards those on higher incomes, not lower. If preferences for a more interventionist agenda, as opposed to, say, the culture war or Donald Trump’s personality, are the dominant explanation of vote patterns, it’s difficult to square that with Republican Senate candidates, most of whom are more free market on economics than Trump, outperforming the current President. Of course, in reality voters don’t vote according to policy preferences, so a monocausal link between economics and electoral outcomes is dodgy ground on both sides.

But at heart here is a debate that we’ve heard plenty of in the UK: how far does the political realignment we are seeing necessitate a change in conservatives’ economic ideas? The new “national conservatives” in the U.S. and modern “One Nation” Tories in the UK, such as Nick Timothy, want to throw-off any libertarian influence  with the latter even thinking the 2017 Tory manifesto an appropriate place to caricature the “libertarian right,” as if voters would read that document and take that signal as a cue to shift their vote.

Two things have frustrated me about these intra-conservative debates to date. The first is that the anti-market conservatives appear to just assume that the left is correct and that economic policy is class-based: that policies that are pro-the interests of the working class must necessarily be more interventionist than conservatives have previously considered acceptable.

I’ve written before about why that is not true and how market-led policies could deliver pro-poor outcomes. The U.S. results also show that the assumption is a sham in electoral terms: working class minorities in the south were frightened of Democratic industrial strategies when it meant cheap energy was set to be sacrificed and vast new regulation of a structurally sound labour market were proposed.

But my second frustration is deeper. Thus far thinkers such as Timothy and others in the U.S. have written extensively on why conservatives should move on from free market ideas in the abstract. They document social and economic phenomena that have moved in the wrong direction in the past three to four decades, and then link these to the Thatcher-Reagan revolutions and supposed commitments to “market fundamentalism”.

Yet anyone who has followed conservative policy closely since the 1990s would find it laughable to frame recent offerings as being influenced by an unabashed commitment to libertarian ideas. So this narrative is best understood as rolling the pitch for an even more interventionist conservative economics.

What we have had far less off yet is the specifics: what, exactly, do those such as Timothy want from policy instead of what we see today? National conservative thinkers have hid behind the shield of big picture views of what is electorally desirable to win in the Rust Belt or the Red Wall as a substitute for outlining what actually should be done, and providing evidence for why those proposals would in fact work where previous dalliances with industrial planning have failed.

One consequence of this messy Presidential election outcome and its failure to clearly repudiate Trumpism is that those debates will now be crucial in determining the future direction of the Republican party. And stateside narratives have a tendency to be imported into UK politics too.