William Hall: Oxfordshire County Council’s switch to vegan catering is typical of muddled Lib Dem gesture politics

29 Apr

William Hall is the Policy Lead for Conservative Friends of the Armed Forces. He is Deputy Chairman of Oxfordshire Conservatives and works in UK defence, infrastructure and education.

Councils do far more than many people give them credit for. The day-to-day life experience of many citizens is heavily influenced by how effective the local authority is. Regular bin collections help keep streets tidy and clean. An effective housing department will put a roof over people’s heads. Well-maintained roads are a daily essential. Critically, adult social care allows people to live independently for longer.

For many people, their closest daily experience of the effect of political dynamics is about how effectively their local authority delivers its core responsibilities. However, instead of focussing on this, increasingly, many Councillors are spending their time proposing motions on subjects removed from the Council’s responsibilities with the intention of a quick press release.

A newly elected set of councillors taking charge of a local authority have only so much bandwidth to achieve their priority goals. The challenging and important objectives of delivering excellent key services with value for money often get ignored for the easy to reach, meaningless political gesture politics of the student union.

In Oxfordshire, our Lib Dem-led County Council has been making headlines recently by adopting a policy of having only vegan food served at their meetings.

Understandably, local farmers objected to what they viewed as a needless attack. A protest was held, and the Council spent considerable time and energy on defending their position.

The reality is that the motion only relates to the food the councillors themselves get at the expense of the taxpayer – they clearly shouldn’t get a free lunch, but that’s another discussion. The Council has absolutely no competency to force anyone else to eat a certain way. Particularly ridiculous was the fact that the “environmentally friendly” spread included imported fruit such as melon, mango, and kiwi.

So, at a time when roads are crumbling and communities need support, the Council is spending its time and energy on virtue signalling. In one fell swoop, an entire community of farmers, butchers, and small businesses, have been alienated from their local representation for nothing more than a gesture by the Council.

If I were a Green Party Councillor in Oxfordshire, I would be kicking my sandals in disgust at how an important environmental debate has been side-lined by an attempt to grab a quick headline by the administration.

The waste of political capital alone is bad enough, but it also costs taxpayers money. Local authorities in England collectively spent £106 billion last year – a big slice of state spending and in many areas Council Tax continues to rise. While local authorities spend most of this on ringfenced education services, and adult and children’s social care, that leaves a considerable amount of taxpayer’s money that is discretionary.

In my own time as the Finance Cabinet member for a local authority, we focused our financial measures on the absolutely core services that made a difference – areas like planning enforcement, bin collection, and those small but critical grants that keep local community groups going. We also managed to deliver one of the biggest Council tax cuts in the country. All of these measures required significant political will to overcome officers’ desire for incremental, rather than transformational, change.

We did all this because we recognised that delivery matters more than gestures. It would have been impossible to have done so, had we opened up multiple lines of policy reform based on short term PR rather than securing a strategic transformation based on the plan we were elected on.

Next month, much of the country will decide on its next crop of local Councillors. In England, some 4,360 seats are up for election. It is crucial that in doing so we get a good cadre of hard-working local representatives who are willing to tackle the complex issues and not just the popular ones.

If all our councillors spent their time writing press releases about how worthy they are, then who would be left to drive forward those much-needed reforms to vital services?

Daniel Stafford: Why the public must make their voices heard at Council meetings

23 Dec

Daniel Stafford is the Deputy Chairman of Oxford East Conservatives and is Fundraising Manager for a national faith-based charity. He has stood as a Conservative candidate in past local elections in Oxford.

Whatever your experience of local government, a key feature is in the name: ‘local’. Decisions should be taken by locally based councillors, and residents should be able to lobby their local authorities. While this provision does exist, in the form of presenting petitions, asking questions of the council, or speaking in favour of – or opposing – council measures, just how open is this form of lobbying?

I experienced this first hand just before Christmas, when I presented a petition to Oxfordshire County Council on the divisive issue of Low Traffic Neighbourhoods. The experience was certainly an illuminating one. Prior to the presentation of the petitions, five different residents lined up to support a motion proposed by a Green Councillor that would make the menu at County Council meetings ‘entirely’ plant-based, and increase provision for vegans in school canteens.

You could not have asked for a better group of advocates for the motion. In quick succession we had the manager of a not-for-profit organisation talking about the good work they do providing local and environmentally friendly produce for schools; two students lined up, one to talk about the need to end the fear young people have for the planet, the other to talk about her painful experience of not having her plant-based diet supported as a young vegan; and finally two residents, one who reported from her consultation on Facebook groups, and another giving a speech worthy of a Councillor on the rational reasons to support the motion.

None of the above is at all wrong; whatever my disagreements with the speakers, it is a privilege our nation gives anyone the right to lobby. In the context of local based decision-making however, it felt distinctly uncomfortable. As one of the students spoke passionately about her fear that the planet would not survive until she reached the age of 50, and talked of primary school children living in fear, I wondered where the contrarian viewpoint was? Surely it is a pertinent question whether we are irresponsible to cause children to be fearful for the future in the first place, and who it is that is making them fearful?

Most sinister of all was the resident reporting on Facebook group comments, who spoke of “the need for children to be educated, so that they can educate parents [on climate change].” Freedom of speech I may defend with my whole fibre, but freedom of speech must be accompanied by freedom to reply, rebut, and contest. The idea of children educating adults is such an abhorrent reversal of learned experience that the moment demanded a response – but there was none.

These five residents so neatly complemented one another that it is simply not credible that it happened without co-ordination. No-one would contest the right of environmental groups (or parents’ groups, or neighbourhood committees, or spelling reform advocates) to lobby. It seems however that debate risks being unbalanced if entry costs are lower for a motivated partisan minority.

To present my petition, my employers permitted a half an hour absence during the working day. Those with fixed shifts like teachers and health-workers, or who have less flexible employers, or cannot arrange child-care, have significantly higher costs in order to lobby. If our current meeting arrangements mean that a greater weighting is given to those who are time rich, or hold strongly partisan viewpoints, local government is failing to be representative of the vast preponderance of local electors.

I have no perfect solution to this problem, but discussion must be had about access to local democracy. After presenting my petition, my local neighbourhood Facebook group had residents lamenting to the effect of “what’s the point, they won’t listen anyway.” Whether we should hold meetings at more accessible times or provide better scope for balanced debate, there is no shortage of proposals that could help. There is one step however that is clear for all Conservatives; whether you are involved in the party or simply a supporter, we need ordinary Conservatives to step up and speak at council meetings, because we can be certain that our opponents are not sitting idle.

 

Andrew Selous: The suggestion voters weren’t consulted on LTNs is wrong. Local elections suggest they approve.

30 Jul

Andrew Selous is MP for South West Bedfordshire and founded the Conservative Friends of Cycling.

One thing that Conservatives – and, through clenched teeth, our opponents – can agree on is that the Prime Minister is good at winning elections, often in quite unpromising circumstances. 

But over one subject, at least, is the PM losing his judgment of the public mood? He is about to announce more measures to boost walking and cycling – including more bike lanes and “low-traffic neighbourhoods” (LTNs), where residential side streets are closed to through motor traffic to prevent rat-running. Cars are not banned from these areas: you can still drive to or from any point, but you might have to take a longer way round.

Some in our party fear the pursuit of these policies will be damaging, saying that the measures already taken during the pandemic, including dozens of new LTNs, have caused “huge…anger across the country,” are devastating local businesses and have been “pushed through…without asking” people.   

Just under three months ago, though, people were asked what they thought – at the local elections where, in dozens of wards, a controversial LTN or cycle lane was the major local issue.

In London, our mayoral candidate, Shaun Bailey, made opposition to bike and walking schemes one of the main planks of his campaign, promising that if he won the election, he would remove them. In Manchester, Oxfordshire, and the North East, local candidates did the same.  

It didn’t work for us. It didn’t win us votes. In Conservative West London, the Bailey campaign did direct mail, leaflets, Facebook videos and personal visits against a new separated cycle track along the Chiswick High Road. Our vote went up in the borough (and in London) as a whole.

But in the three Chiswick wards with the cycle track, we went down by between 10 and 12 per cent. Similar, intensive efforts against LTNs in Ealing again saw the Conservatives underperform in most of the wards concerned, losing one, Ealing Common, that we won in 2016. In Enfield, our vote went up in most of the LTN wards, but by less than the borough average. In Oxfordshire, Manchester, and other places, we flatlined or fell in the LTN wards.  

Of course there were many reasons why this might have happened. I’m not claiming it proves that all cycle schemes work – or that the same approach is right for everywhere. What works for London and other cities might not work the same way for a smaller town. In my own constituency I have been lobbied to complete the cycling green wheel in Leighton Buzzard and to increase safe cycling routes in Dunstable.

But most schemes have been in cities and larger towns. In those places, cycle schemes do make some people angry, but the election results appear to back up something already found by every professional opinion poll – that more people support them.  

Why would this be? Cycling went up by 46 per cent last year, more than in the previous 20 years put together – but it is still not a majority pursuit. I think these schemes attract support because they benefit far more people than simply those who cycle: local residents, pedestrians, and indeed also businesses.

Streets not dominated by cars are more pleasant places to shop; people visit and spend more. Cafes and restaurants that fought to keep parking or motor traffic have discovered that they can make more money by putting tables in that space instead. It is often Conservative councils, such as Westminster and Wandsworth, that have led the way here.   

But if things are better within the LTNs themselves, what about outside them? Don’t they just push more traffic or pollution on to surrounding roads? Surprisingly, perhaps, early monitoring results show that on most, though not all, surrounding roads this does not seem to be happening, once traffic patterns have settled down.

The people living in the LTNs appear to be changing the way they travel – taking fewer short local journeys by car and walking or cycling more. In most cases, though not in every case, this takes local traffic away from the surrounding roads too. And the longer a scheme is in, the more travel habits change.

As that happens, even schemes which are highly controversial at the beginning become much more widely accepted. Over time, by switching more journeys to vehicles which take up less roadspace, we free up that space for the many people who still need to drive. Cycling means fewer cars in front of yours at the lights.

We have a traffic problem, an obesity problem, a pollution problem, and a climate problem. Schemes that get more people cycling and walking can be part of the answer to all those problems. That is why I’m glad the Government is acting to make cycling a pursuit for the many, not just for the brave.

Local elections in depth: Oxfordshire – a quiet warning of a crumbling wall?

23 Jun

Source: Election Maps.

Coverage of local election results begins to gather pace on the evening of polling day, and peters out by roughly the close of the following weekend.

Unsurprisingly, it tends to focus on results from councils that change political control.  But to get a fuller picture of what’s happened, one needs also to look at those that don’t.  Hence this new fortnightly series on ConservativeHome.

Case study: Oxfordshire.

Control: No Overall Control.

Numbers: Conservatives 22, Liberal Democrats 21, Labour 15, Greens 3, Independent 2.

Change at last local elections: Conservatives -9, Liberal Democrats +8, Labour +1, Greens +3, Independents -2.

All out or thirds: All out

Background: This is a local authority where the Conservatives would normally be expected to be the dominant force – even in electorally difficult times. The political divide is between the City of Oxford – where Labour and the Lib Dems are strongest – and the rest of the county with its “safe” Conservative territory.

The six Parliamentary seats have included some illustrious Conservative representatives. Henley was represented by Boris Johnson – who took over from Michael Heseltine. Witney did have a Labour MP at one stage – but that was a result of Shaun Woodward’s defection so does not really count in the context of electoral analysis. Woodward succeeded Douglas Hurd and was succeeded by David Cameron. At the last General Election, in December 2019, both those constituencies were won by the Conservatives with comfortable majorities well into five figures – as were Banbury and Wantage. Of the other two seats, Oxford East was won by Labour with a large majority. However, the Oxford West and Abingdon result might have been seen as a warning for the Conservatives. Layla Moran not merely held the seat for the Lib Dems – but saw her majority increase from 816 to 8943.  The Boundary Commission proposes an extra seat for the county – Bicester.

Another warning for the Conservatives came in the 2019 district council elections. The Lib Dems made big gains on South Oxfordshire and the Vale of the White Horse.

Oxfordshire County Council was created in 1973. During that time it has switched from being Conservative to long periods of No Overall Control – though even then usually still Conservative-led. There was a period in the 1980s when the political parties took it in turns to chair the different committees – in practice the bureaucrats being in charge without much political “interference.” The Conservatives have never been in opposition here before.

Results: Labour’s gain of Chipping Norton caught the attention of the media, as it seemed so incongruous – this is the wealthy area near where David Cameron lives (though the town has a Labour tradition). The Cotswold stone cottages with pretty gardens are “full of university professors”, the Labour councillor Geoff Saul declared adding: “That’s where I get lots of my votes.”

But the main story was of Conservative losses to the Liberal Democrats. Concerns over planning were the main factor. That is an issue for district councils rather than county councils. However, that was not a distinction that Lib Dem canvassers were entirely scrupulous about acknowledging during their doorstep conversations. The Lib Dems now lead the Council in a “progressive alliance” with the Labour Party and the Green Party. After decades as part of the establishment in the county, the Oxfordshire Conservatives must now adapt to becoming a resistance movement.

Jason Reed: Oxfordshire’s plan to become smoke free is yet another example of state overreach

2 Jun

Jason Reed is the founder of Young Voices UK and a policy fellow with the Consumer Choice Center.

In February of last year, Ansaf Azhar, the director of public health for Oxfordshire county council, unveiled the “Oxfordshire Tobacco Control Strategy”. Azhar had decided that the proportion of people living in Oxfordshire who smoke – 12 per cent – was too high and needed to be slashed. When fewer than five per cent of people smoke, an area can be considered “smoke free”. Azhar made it his mission to make Oxfordshire England’s first smoke-free county.

The Oxfordshire Tobacco Control Strategy was signed off by the county council in principle in May last year. You would be forgiven for thinking that since then, the director of public health at a local authority might have had more pressing matters to attend to than smoking. But Azhar has apparently continued his crusade against cigarettes undeterred.

He has now horrified right-thinking people up and down the country by declaring the council’s intention to ban smoking for outdoor hospitality. Although the plan currently lacks an implementation timetable or any other firm commitment, the fact that it is part of the plan at all says some very worrying things about the direction we’re heading in.

In the new world order of the nanny state, everything can be neatly categorised into good and bad. Everything is black and white – it’s all either vital or morally reprehensible. Once it is accepted that an activity is objectively “bad”, who could possibly oppose its being banned?

Of course, the real world, outside the offices of “directors of public health”, is rather different. It is not all black and white. There are lots of shades of grey. But nuance and freedom of choice aren’t all that fashionable these days.

Unfortunately for smokers, cigarettes have been deemed a social evil. Their existence is so objectively awful that the reasoning behind drastic measures to wipe them from the face of the earth doesn’t even need justifying. The result is that ludicrous policy proposals like the Oxfordshire Tobacco Control Strategy can be signed off and made reality with startlingly little scrutiny from those we elect to represent us and safeguard our civil liberties.

If you can bear it, I recommend a cursory read of the offending document, for novelty value if nothing else. It talks not of blanket bans, sweeping restrictions and ill-thought-out curbs on our freedoms, but instead of “creating smoke free environments”, as though we are being given a gift of something new to enjoy and ought to be grateful.

Most troubling is the way the document’s authors seem to be in complete denial that they are wielding the tools of the state at all. They write: “The interventions required to successfully de-normalise smoking and achieve a smoke free Oxfordshire may be considered as “nanny statist” or an assault on personal choice by some people. The whole system approach to make smoking less visible is not banning the choice of people who choose to smoke. It aims to create smoke free environments in more places in our communities, protecting the free choice of the nine out of ten residents of Oxfordshire who choose not to smoke.”

Oh, you thought our harsh new restrictions on what you can and can’t do in public were an assault on your freedom, did you? Don’t worry – if you look carefully, you’ll find that bans on common activities actually give you more freedom, not less.

The counter-factual logic behind the introduction of new regulations in the name of “public health” knows no bounds. If the council actually wanted to make Oxfordshire healthier, it would see that the answer is not to put yet more unnecessary strain on the hospitality industry at this impossibly difficult time.

Instead, the council should throw all its efforts behind supporting vaping as an alternative to smoking. More than half of Britain’s e-cigarette users – around 1.7 million people – are former smokers. Those nine out of ten Oxfordshire residents who don’t smoke won’t have to worry about any health risks from second-hand e-cigarette vapour. Even Public Health England concedes – with a great deal of reluctance – that vaping is 95 per cent less harmful than smoking.

And yet, in the 24-page Oxfordshire Tobacco Control Strategy, there is not a single mention of vaping, the most effective instrument for tobacco control we have. That begs the question: what do the public health authorities actually want, if it is not to make people healthier? When they flagrantly eschew proven harm reduction tools in favour of gratuitous centralised policy interventions, it becomes impossible to sympathise with their motives.

This problem stretches much further than Oxfordshire. In fact, the county is only a few years ahead of national public health outcomes. Its strategy mimics that of Public Health England, which is working towards Matt Hancock’s target of making England smoke-free by 2030.

The attack on effective harm reduction methods and the swing towards a new age of nanny statism comes from the very top. Last week, the World Health Organisation honoured the health minister of India for his work on “tobacco control” which notably includes banning vaping. A new APPG, chaired by Mark Pawsey, the Conservative MP, seeks to bring to a halt the WHO’s pernicious influence in areas like this. That task becomes more difficult with each passing day.

David Gauke: Demographic changes in the Blue Wall will work against the Conservatives – they must pay close attention

12 May

David Gauke is a former Justice Secretary, and was an independent candidate in South-West Hertfordshire at the recent general election.

This is a bit of a postscript to my article from Saturday. In the unlikely event of you not having read it (or that you are not going to rectify this unfortunate omission before proceeding to read this article), in summary I said that the election results were very good for the Conservatives with evidence of a vaccine bounce (the incumbents also did well in Scotland and Wales).

Furthermore, there was a political realignment in English politics that made it easier for the Conservatives to win general elections. A divide along cultural grounds, rather than economic or class grounds, left the Tories’ opponents split and their votes inefficiently distributed.

At the time of writing, we had seen some of the details of how Leave areas were swinging towards the Conservatives (most spectacularly in Hartlepool) but had not seen that much from the Conservative Remain areas, mostly in the south of England.

Now that we have got these results, the data shows that Remain areas are behaving very differently to Leave areas – large swings to the Conservatives in Leave areas, very small swings in Remain areas.

I thought I would take a look at two county council divisions in my old constituency of South West Hertfordshire. Berkhamsted is an attractive and prosperous market town. It is the type of place to which young professionals move from London when starting a family and then never leave.

As is not uncommon in Home Counties constituencies, the Conservatives have generally done better here in general elections than local elections, but Berkhamsted has always returned a Conservative county councillor (except in 1993 when the Conservative vote collapsed across the country), although not always comfortably.

In the last six elections, the Conservative candidate achieved between 40 and 45 per cent of the vote with the size of the majority varying depending up how the other parties’ votes were distributed. In 2016, the ballot boxes from Berkhamsted contained a large majority of Remain votes.

South Oxhey & Eastbury was a new county division which narrowly elected a Labour councillor in 2017.  It is made up of two contrasting areas. Eastbury is affluent Middlesex suburbia and solidly Conservative, but the bulk of the division is made up of a post-War London overspill council estate that has always voted solidly Labour (apart from 2009 when it infamously elected the BNP’s only ever county councillor). South Oxhey voted overwhelmingly for Brexit (“hardly any Remain votes at all” one of the counters told me on the night).

When Thursday’s results were announced, South Oxhey & Eastbury went blue with an eight per cent swing from Labour to Conservative which, looking at the district council elections, seems to have been the consequence of a strong Tory surge in South Oxhey. Meanwhile, in Berkhamsted there was a swing of 12 per cent from the Conservatives to the Liberal Democrats, reducing the Tory share of the vote to a record low of 30 per cent.

Admittedly, local factors are relevant (there is an unpopular local plan), but the Berkhamsted experience of affluent commuter area deserting the Conservatives was replicated elsewhere in the constituency in Three Rivers Rural and elsewhere in the county in Harpenden, Hitchin, Hemel Hempstead, Bishop’s Stortford and Hertford (all to the Liberal Democrats apart from Hertford which went Green). Looking outside Hertfordshire, places with similar demographics in Surrey, Sussex, Kent, Cambridgeshire and Oxfordshire did much the same.

Is this an immediate problem for the Conservatives? Taken in the round, probably not. The Liberal Democrats tend to over-perform in local elections compared to general elections. In individual constituencies, declines in some areas (such as Berkhamsted) were offset in part by advances in other areas (such as South Oxhey) – this is more complex than North versus South. And even if the realignment of British politics puts at risk affluent, well-educated, Remain-voting constituencies, there are far fewer of them than there are Labour Leave-voting seats that now look winnable for the Tories.

At a local level, however, there three reasons to be concerned. First, given that the electoral logic suggests that the Red Wall will be a bigger priority than the Blue Wall, Government policy will prioritise the Red Wall – if necessary at the expense of the Blue Wall (someone is going to have to pay for “levelling up”).

Second, demographic changes in these areas work against the Conservatives. The loyal Conservative vote is often quite elderly and the likely population increase will predominantly be newcomers from London. The pandemic is only likely to accelerate the process of these places becoming more graduate-heavy and small L liberal.

Third, a share of 40 per cent for a Government is very high. No doubt the vaccine rollout has made a big difference and, assuming the Conservatives will still be in office in 2025 (and not many are betting against that), achieving a similar share of the vote would be quite some achievement.

All of this suggests that the loss of a few southern seats on Thursday might not be a crippling wound for the Conservatives, but nor is this temporary.  The Tories will do very well to get many of these council seats back and there may be more to come.

Daniel Hannan: Super Thursday’s results weren’t a victory for conservatism, but for our leader: Brexity Jezza

12 May

Lord Hannan of Kingsclere is a Conservative peer, writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.

It was, as every pundit rushed to explain, an incumbency vote. The Conservatives held England, Labour held Wales and the SNP held Scotland. In a crisis, people rallied to the regime.

Yes. But let’s spell out, in full depressing detail, precisely what kind of regimes they were rallying to. They were rallying to free stuff. They were voting gratefully for administrations that were ladling out grants, subsidies and interest-free loans. They were cheerfully endorsing the idea of being paid to stay at home.

Indeed, they had little option but to vote for these things. Who was offering an alternative? What politician, in the current mood, wants to be the gloomster reminding everyone that accounts must be settled? Who feels like being a Cassandra, droning on about how the debts of the past 14 months will drag us down for years to come? I mean, look what happened to Cassandra.

The rise of big government is paradoxically bad news for Labour. Boris Johnson has always had a thing about bridges, airports and other grands projets. Even before the pandemic hit, the man who once described himself as a “Brexity Hezza” was starting to unscrew the spending taps. But the lockdowns altered the fiscal terms of trade utterly and irretrievably. Not so much Brexity Hezza now as Brexity Jezza.

Corbynistas are claiming belated vindication. “You see? There was a magic money tree after all! Your guy is spending more than our guy ever promised!” Yes, he is. And that is precisely Labour’s problem. How can Keir Starmer – how can anyone – criticise the government for not spending enough? The usual Labour line, namely that they’d be more open-handed than those heartless Tories, is redundant.

If it can’t attack the Government on fiscal policy, what else can Labour go for? Sleaze? Yeah, right, good luck with that. The country decided early on that it was fond of the PM. Sure, he might be seen as a bit chaotic, but he is doing things that people like. At a time when he is leading the UK through a world-beating vaccination programme, moaning about a redecoration that is not alleged to have cost taxpayers a penny is not just pointless, but self-defeating. Labour has made itself look unutterably small during a crisis. Wallpaper for Boris, curtains for Keir.

Green issues, then? Again, forget it. The PM has embraced the eco-agenda as wholeheartedly as any head of government on the planet. Labour would, as voters correctly perceive, pursue the same agenda, but in a less cost-effective and market-friendly way.

With economics, sleaze and environmentalism off the table, Labour is left only with the culture war. Oddly, this is one of the few issues that unites Corbynites and Starmerites. The trouble is, it doesn’t unite them with anyone else. The two Labour factions squabble furiously on Twitter, but both are leagues away from the patriotic working people who used to be their party’s mainstay.

As Khalid Mahmood, the Birmingham MP, put it after the result: “A London-based bourgeoisie, with the support of brigades of woke social media warriors, has effectively captured the party”. Mahmood was the first British Muslim MP, and is generally happy to take up causes for his co-religionists outside Birmingham. But he has little time for identity politics – at least, not in the deranged form that the British Left seems hell-bent on importing from the United States. In common with most Brits of all ethnic backgrounds, Mahmood a patriot, proud of having had ancestors in the Merchant Navy in both world wars. That his love of country should set him at odds with the Labour leadership is telling.

The culture war is where Labour is weakest. Corbyn was more or less openly anti-British, siding automatically with any nation against his own, regardless of the issue. Starmer at least sees why this is unpopular, and does his best to be photographed from time to time with flags. But, coming late and awkwardly to patriotism, he offers a slightly cringe-making version. The country at large – not just Labour’s old base, but the 80-plus per cent of us who think that, with all its faults, Britain has been a benign force down the years – senses his inauthenticity. As I write, opinion polls suggest an 11-point Conservative lead.

The combination of social liberalism and extreme internationalism that Corbynites and Stamerites share is, outside a few cities with big universities, unpopular. That may change over time, of course. The historian Ed West, rarely a man to look on the bright side, believes that demographic change will eventually align the electorate with Labour’s purse-lipped culture warriors. The population, he glumly notes, “is going to be more diverse, more urban, more single, more university-educated and more impoverished by rental prices” – all trends that help Labour.

Perhaps so. Indeed, as Henry Hill noted on this site yesterday, the one region of England where the Conservatives have started slipping is my old patch, the South East. Local election results saw reverses in Kent, Surrey, Sussex, Oxfordshire and (by extrapolation from the new boundaries) Buckinghamshire. But, to be brutally frank, it makes little difference. Under the first-past-the-post system, the Tories can slide a lot further in the Home Counties without endangering more than three or four MPs. For the next couple of election cycles, at least, the Long Awokening won’t much matter.

No, far more alarming is the way in which fiscal conservatism has simply disappeared, an early casualty of the lockdowns. Even as the country reopens, there is almost no talk of cutting spending back to where it was, let alone of starting to repay our debts. Just as after 1945, a collective threat has made us more collectivist. We crave big government. We feel we have earned a pay rise, and we vote accordingly. The Labour Party may have had it; but so, alas, has the free market.

Is the Blue Wall round the Home Counties in danger of cracking?

11 May

Overall, the local elections in England have produced great results for the Conservatives. They have enjoyed high-profile victories for the mayoralties in the West Midlands and Tees Valley, and seen gains in councils across the north.

But whilst they currently benefit from a divided opposition, Tory strategists would do well to remember that a realignment can be a two-edged sword. As the party focuses on broadening its appeal to a new coalition of voters, it risks alienating parts of its traditional base.

This is the basis for what some are starting to call the ‘Blue Wall’: more than 40 constituencies “which have been held by the Conservatives since at least 2010, where Labour or the Liberal Democrats have overperformed their national swing in 2017 and 2019 and where the Conservative majority is below 10,000”, as Matthew Goodwin explains. If CCHQ isn’t careful, these could follow those London seats where the party was competitive, or even won, in 2010 but is deep underwater now.

Some results from the weekend, such as the Conservatives’ loss of control in Cambridgeshire, are already being held up as examples of this trend, which as our Editor reported yesterday were described by one pollster as “big red flashes which under someone better than Starmer could cause chaos”.

But what is the situation in other Tory heartlands, such as the Home Counties?

In Hertfordshire, the party retained overall control but lost five seats – including that of David Williams, the council leader – whilst the Liberal Democrats made gains. It was a similar story in the Isle of Wight, where the Tories lost four seats and their leader.

In Kent, the Tories fell from 67 seats to 61, whilst Labour and the Greens advanced.

Buckinghamshire was electing a unitary authority for the first time, so there is no direct change, but according to the Bucks Herald “their lead over other parties has slimmed down slightly this time”, again whilst the Lib Dems gained ground.

On and on it goes. In Surrey, the Tories fell from 61 seats to 47 at the expense of the Lib Dems and various independents and residents’ associations.

In Oxfordshire they lost seven seats whilst the Lib Dems gained seven, leaving the two parties almost neck at neck at 22 councillors to 21.

They lost three councillors in East Sussex, and eight in West Sussex.

And despite the Conservatives advancing across the North, its a different story in one of the areas where they have traditionally done well: they lost four councillors to Labour in Trafford, cementing the Opposition’s control over what was once ‘Manchester’s Tory council’ by picking up Ashton upon Mersey, Daveyhulme, and the village of Flixton.

Whilst local trends don’t necessarily presage Westminster ones (Watford has a Conservative MP and not a single Tory councillor), Sir Graham Brady’s majority in Altringham and Sale West was halved in 2017 and contracted again in 2019, even as the party made gains elsewhere. Might it be that this prosperous suburban area, which returned a Conservative MP even in 1997, might drift out of the Tory column over the next decade?

Naturally, it doesn’t follow that all of these results are part of some grand pattern. Local issues will invariably be in play, and some of it may be the sort of backlash against a ruling party that one normally expects to see in ‘mid-term’ contests such as these.

For example in Tunbridge Wells, the LibDems caused much excitement by seizing control of the borough council. But all five of the wards at county council levels remained in Tory hands.

But the example of Oxfordshire, where the party held 51 out of 73 seats in 2009 ,but has been on a downward trajectory ever since, suggests that CCHQ can’t take such comforting explanations for granted. And by the time it becomes obvious that a council is properly trending away from the party, the best moment to take action will have passed.

Down the line, this would have implications for general elections if London overspill and sky-high house prices see more seats follow Brighton and Canterbury into the Labour column – a prospect which is reportedly already concerning Tory MPs.

But will it be enough to spook those MPs into doing what’s necessary to fix it? The Government is right to believe that its hold on the ‘Red Wall’ rests on expanding home ownership. But it has so far failed to overcome the self-interest of southern MPs and get them accept the blunt fact that the same thing is true of the ‘Blue Wall’ too. Somehow, ministers need to get sufficient houses built to put home ownership and family formation within reach of young professionals.

It will take much greater study to assess the true nature and scale of the problem. But the party needs to be across it and prepared to act. The sorry state of the Labour Party shows just how badly the voters can punish those who take their homelands for granted.

Previous success makes the county council elections challenging for the Conservatives

25 Mar

Earlier this week I considered the elections for Police and Crime Commissioner elections and the district councils. As these were last contested in 2016, they offer the potential for Conservative gains. By contrast, the county councils represent a problem of success for the Conservatives. They were last fought in 2017. After Sir John Curtice did some number crunching, he declared that the results equated to a projected national vote share of 38 per cent for the Conservatives, 27 per cent for Labour, 18 per cent for the Lib Dems, and five per cent for UKIP. Current polling suggests a healthy Conservative lead over Labour but not as high as that – the latest one I saw had it at nine per cent. Perhaps that is a crude measure to rely on to forecast local elections over a month away. But it gives a broad indication that the Conservatives will be on the defensive for this electoral category.

Elections will take place in 21 counties – Cumbria, North Yorkshire and Somerset still have county councils but they are being excluded due to proposals to switch to unitary status in those areas. Of those, 19 are Conservative controlled. Two are under No Overall Control. Those two – Oxfordshire and Nottinghamshire – are Conservative-led coalitions with the backing of independents. One would normally expect the Conservatives to be easily winning in Oxfordshire. We shall see if the little local difficulties of four years ago can be overcome this time. The difficulty might be that even if some independents are seen off, the Lib Dems pose an increased risk.

So far as the more general political barometer is concerned, Nottinghamshire is of greater relevance. Along with Derbyshire and Lancashire, it is traditional Labour territory. For Labour to be doing well they ought to be winning these counties outright. It should not be enough for the Conservatives to be doing badly and some hodge-podge coalitions. Yet even for Labour to become the largest party in these counties would require a significant number of gains on four years ago. In Nottinghamshire, we have 31 Conservative councillors with Labour on 23. Derbyshire has 36 Conservatives, Labour on 25. Lancashire saw 46 Conservatives returned last time – only 30 for Labour. If Conservatives managed to win in these counties, even lose a few seats, it will be a good result. Even if they need to come up with a deal with some independents, after negotiations in smoke filled rooms (not that smoking is allowed in council offices these days), they should be relieved. In most of the other counties up for election Labour start with a tally of councillors in single figures.

What of the Lib Dems? They also start from a low base. Even in Devon they only have half a dozen seats. The Conservatives won a huge majority last time. They are denied the chance of a contest in Somerset – which is among the more promising territory for them. If they are guided by their encouraging district council election results in 2017 they will be looking for gains in Cambridgeshire (where they currently have 16 councillors) and Essex (where they are on eight.) It would be surprising if they gained any Council but they might be beneficiaries of some confusing results. If Labour narrow the gap; the Conservatives hold in some places; plus the Green Party and independents pick up some seats; then we could see more hung councils – a situation in which the Lib Dems, with the flexible political approach, would be well placed to adapt to.

But could the Green Party make the electoral challenge for Labour and the Lib Dems harder, by splitting the woke vote? Most county councils do not have a single Green Party councillor. The highest tally is in Suffolk where they have three. Yet some opinion polls have them roughly level with the Lib Dems. April 8th sees the close of nominations so if there are more Green Party candidates than last time, that will give an initial indication that they may be on the up.

Lord Hayward, the Conservative peer and elections expert, says:

“I would certainly anticipate that Labour will make gains. Derbyshire would be their top target. In the elections in 2013 they won it with a big majority. Staffordshire has moved out of their reach but they will be looking for significant progress in Nottinghamshire and Lancashire. The national swing to them since 2017 may be mitigated by the popularity of Boris Johnson in the Midlands and the North but it would still be a surprise if Labour did not make significant gains. For the Lib Dems seeking a breakthrough, the coronavirus restrictions over the last year will have been a particular problem. They still have an edge on other parties when it comes to their local campaigning machine. But the lockdown has prevented them from exploiting that.”

It would be unrealistic for Conservatives not to brace themselves for some setbacks in the county council elections. But there is a good chance that a drubbing can be averted.

Darren Grimes: Johnson must face down the teaching unions with Thatcher-like resolve

12 Aug

“As Conservatives, we believe absolutely in equality of opportunity – the idea that every child, in every part of the country, should have a fair chance. It is not only the most important thing we can do to unleash the UK’s potential, but is at the heart of creating a fair and just society.”

That’s page 13 of the Conservative Party’s winning manifesto last year; a manifesto that secured Boris Johnson an 80 seat majority, saw seats that had always been red change with chameleon-like ease to boast a shade of blue, banished Jeremy Corbyn to the dustbin of history and ensured we could, finally, heal the divide and Get Brexit Done.

That, my friends, will have all been for nothing if the Prime Minister does not face down the teaching unions with Margaret Thatcher-like resolve. With warnings of Covid-19 growing inequalities between our richest kids and our poorest kids, Johnson will be rejected by the aspirational working class that voted for him in large numbers, whose hard slog is made easier in large part by an understanding that they’re ensuring a better lot for their sons and daughters.

The National Education Union, in providing its half a million members with a “checklist” of 200 safety demands for the reopening of our schools, has proven itself to be more concerned with being a thorn in the side of the Conservative Party over being the guardians of children’s interests. One item on the list asks the Government to answer: “Does the timetable include sufficient creative subjects, and space for dialogue and sustained thinking?”. There can be nothing more outrageous than to play politics with the future of our kids.

While Keir Starmer stands idly by as unions attempt to wreck the future of our children, raising questions about just how tough he would be in the top job, the Prime Minister can stand strong knowing that he has the public on his side if he decides to take on the unions. YouGov found that 57 per cent of Brits agree that schools should open after the summer, with only 25 per cent believing they should not.

Evidence from the Public Health Agency of Sweden, in a document titled Covid-19 in schoolchildren: A comparison between Finland and Sweden, compares two similar countries with very different approaches to lockdown: Finland was conventional in its closure of schools, Sweden famously much bolder in its refusal to countenance such an illiberal approach to its economy and society. The report concludes that the closure of schools had no measured effect on the number of cases of Covid-19 among children: “Children are not a major risk group of the Covid-19 disease.”

In a further boost for science-based evidence, on Monday morning, Russel Viner, a member of the UK’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies and President of the Royal College of Peadiatrics told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that “reopening schools is one of the least risky things we can do.” He then told Times Radio that there’s “at least five studies from around the world” that would suggest “there’s very, very little transmission of this virus in schools.”

How many times have you heard this government boast of how heavily it is following the science, they’re absolutely mad for “the science”! If that’s presently the case there will be absolutely no wiggle room for it not to return our schools to normal without a moment’s hesitation and resist following Labour in kowtowing to union pressure.

While our kids have been banished from our schools, I was delighted to learn of the Invicta Academy, that has delivered virtual lessons in English, Maths and Key-Stages 1-4 via Zoom in the likes of London, Surrey, Oxfordshire and Lancashire. The message from the entrepreneurial and community-minded founders of the project to the obstructive teaching unions is clear: if you try and delay the reopening of our schools, we will find a way to ensure our nation’s kids don’t suffer.

The problem is that it isn’t kids in Surrey or Oxfordshire that will suffer the most. According to the UCL Institute of Education, our kids on average understood 2.5 hours of schoolwork per day during lockdown. This, however, varies widely with 28 per cent of children in the South East doing more than four hours of offline schoolwork a day, compared with only nine per cent in the North East. Perhaps unsurprisingly, 31 per cent of private schools were delivering four or more hours of live online lessons a day, with state schools at a paltry six per cent.

The Prime Minister must be the champion of those who suffer disproportionately from our educational divide and disadvantage that his government’s response to Covid-19 has widened further. If, or when, it comes to future lockdowns, which would be utterly ruinous for the British economy, employment and wider society, our schools simply must keep the doors open from next month.