Richard Holden: It’s time for the Government to make more of Tory MPs’ achievements and fewer errors itself

23 Nov

Richard Holden is MP for North West Durham.

BBC Studios, Newcastle-Upon-Tyne

Everyone gets that it’s the job of the Her Majesty’s Opposition is to oppose, but its leader seems to have taken this to another level in recent weeks.

Not long ago, Keir Starmer was calling for HS2 to be scrapped. Now he’s saying it’s not going far enough. Captain Hindsight is probably wishing that he’d had a touch more foresight on this one.

At the same time, Labour deride the £96 billion investment in new rail infrastructure in the midlands and north as a ‘betrayal’. They conveniently skirt the markedly different records of the main political parties: Labour in 13 years managed 63 miles of new and electrified track. The Conservatives have managed over 1,000 miles, with hundreds of miles more of new and electrified track on the way.

All the above is important – but to my constituents feels too often like political knock-about. I endured it on BBC Politics North East this weekend up against Labour’s Ian Lavery. The record is useful for highlighting Labour’s duplicity, but not much else. And I can’t quite understand how the Government ended up wrong-footed on some of the biggest investment in the big picture in decades.

Drill down a little, and what my constituents are after is regional connectivity. Trains connecting major cities – the spine of the network – are great, but if you’d can’t plug into one of those hubs then who, in an area with no trains and a limited bus service, cares if it’s happening?

That’s the message from so many parts of the country who are interested in what’s happening to the ribs off the spine: they want to see some meat on them. For my constituents, it’s the real test on public transport delivery in our local areas – particularly in relation to buses, which the Government is doing so much work on – not the Westminster dance that the media obsess over.

This week, the Bubble has turned its collective attention towards Health and Care Bill – which delivers on another of our commitments, of the kind that governments of all shades have dodged for decades.

For this MP, the Bill also contains some important measures that I’ve been campaigning on for over a year that you won’t see splashed broadly across the mainstream media.

The Department of Health has taken up the mantle of my private members bill from the last session, and is going to ban so called virginity testing not just in England and Wales, but across our United Kingdom.

I cannot tell you what this means to campaigners from IKWRO Women’s Rights Organisation, Karna Nirvana and MEWSO – and their supporters – who have been banging the drum for change for years on women’s rights in this respect for years.

Too often, we think that issues around women’s rights have been solved, but it’s clear that there are major areas in which that just isn’t true. Banning the pseudo-science of so-called virginity testing is a good step in this area, and I have received assurances from Ministers that we’ll see hymenoplasty banned, too, in this piece of legislation – with amendments to be introduced in the Lords along the lines of my probing ones that have been backed by many MPs in the Commons.

Sajid Javid has been a true champion in this field, too, and picked up the mantle of ending under-18 marriage while on the backbenches . My colleague Pauline Latham has taken this on following Javid’s move back to the Department of Health and Social Care, and the initiative looks likely to progress soon.

With so much of the social policy debate space being taken up by arguments around trans rights in recent years, we too often forget that there are major issues around the rights of women and girls that need to be sorted out, too.

Another prime example is the campaign being led by Alex Stafford and Nick Fletcher down in the Rother Valley and Don Valley – demanding action in response widespread allegations of grooming gangs and child sexual exploitation in their towns and villages. The local Labour authorities have been, yet again, slow to act.

Time and again, when it comes to the rights of women and girls, it’s Conservative MPs leading on these battles. Fights that have been abandoned by Labour MPs (with some notable exemptions) who, long ago, became sadly too frit to take on the most socially conservative elements of British society.

On the ground in our constituencies and in Parliament, it’s backbench Conservatives leading the charge in so many areas – from levelling-up and fighting for better connectivity to the rights of women and girls.

At a national level, it feels like the Government is missing chances to highlight the good work that such Conservative MPs are doing. And that it is making a few too many unforced errors – especially when it comes to selling the positive changes we’re making for the country.

We got Brexit done. We’ve delivered the fastest and one of the most comprehensive vaccine programmes of any developed nation, and supported jobs and business through the pandemic. Employment is now higher than pre-pandemic, and we’ve got record vacancies in the economy. We are now delivering record investment in our transport infrastructure, our NHS and, at the same time, have a clear plan to get waiting lists, debt and taxes falling in the medium term. Conservative MPs are leading the way on major issues of social policy on the national level and in their communities – working day and night to deliver the investment they need.

The Opposition hate it and are led by a central London lawyer who does not understand, never mind connect with decent working Britain. And the media are, naturally, interested in the people rather than the policy. But we’ve got a great story to tell. No one will do it for us. It’s time to regain the initiative, and relentlessly make the case for conservatism.

It’s too soon to judge how the boundary review will impact the next election – but it’s fun to try

8 Jun

There was some excitement in this morning’s papers about the impact of the proposed reforms to constituency boundaries. Suggestions that Ben Wallace, the Defence Secretary, might lose his seat have made headlines.

Expert psephologists are being rather more cautious about projecting any partisan impact of the changes. These are, after all, only initial proposals. Whilst MPs won’t get an opportunity to vote the Boundary Commission’s eventual map down, the parties do now have an opportunity to feed back.

Historically, the Conservatives have not always handled this process well. Anthony Seldon, in his book Major: A Political Life, noted how in the 1990s: “weak local organisation and coordination led to the fumbling of the opportunity presented by the Boundary Commission review.”

With discipline breaking down as the post-Thatcher era began, apparently there was at least one instance of two associations turning up to a boundary meeting with separate barristers. As a result, an anticipated 40-seat gain for the Tories ended up being a mere five.

There may be a lesson there for today. Not because of a similar risk of association infighting – the process is, like everything else, much more centrally organised these days, and is in the hands of the veteran Roger Pratt at CCHQ. But because there’s also another reason not to jump to conclusions about “the biggest shake-up of boundaries in decades”, which is that the old logic of the reforms has been rather overtaken by the 2019 election.

When the plans were first mooted under David Cameron (alongside the unsaleable intention to cut the number of seats), equalising constituency sizes hurt Labour, which won large numbers of disproportionately small seats, and thus boosted the Conservatives. But with the Tories having broken through in a lot of those seats at the last election, that happy outcome is now much less certain.

And when we examined this question as part of our ‘Securing the Majority’ series last summer, some MPs also warned that a serious boundary shake-up could wipe out the first-term dividend newly-elected parliamentarians often enjoy.

So a full picture of the partisan impact of the changes will have to wait. But it nonetheless interesting to take two snapshots of the battlefield – one in the ‘Red Wall’, and one in the ‘Blue Wall’ – and prognosticate a little. Follow along at home with this very handy interactive map, courtesy of Election Maps UK.

Blue Wall

For the latter, let’s look at true-blue Buckinghamshire. All seven seats here returned Conservative MPs at the last election, and most by comfortable margins. What impact are the proposed changes likely to have?

Overall the county gains a seat, rising to eight. This has been done by carving the new seat of Princes Risborough out of the southern parts of the Aylesbury and Buckingham constituencies.

Despite this Milton Keynes notionally loses one, with Ben Everitt’s seat of Milton Keynes North, already a county constituency, shedding its remaining territory in the town and becomes Newport Pagnell, likely to be rock solid. Meanwhile Buckingham would absorb parts of the old Milton Keynes South to become Buckingham and Bletchley. Given that Greg Smith enjoys a majority of over 20,000, this is unlikely to cost him much sleep.

Milton Keynes South, what’s left of it, becomes just Milton Keynes. As a more urban seat it is likely to be closer to Labour than it was, although Iain Stewart’s comfortable majority of 6,944 ought to see him through.

Aylesbury changes shape quite dramatically, shedding a swath of southern territory. The new seat is much more concentrated on the town itself, and may also therefore be more competitive for Labour.

Both Chesham and Amersham and Wycombe remain roughly the same, although the latter becomes ‘High Wycombe’ – a rare example of the Boundary Commission’s enthusiasm for longer names being a force for good. It is the county’s most marginal seat and will probably continue trending away from the Party. On the other hand, Beaconsfield becomes Marlow and South Buckinghamshire for no obvious reason.

Overall then, little for CCHQ to complain out. These changes might put one or two seats slightly closer to the opposition, but this is probably offset by creating a new, quite safe Tory seat.

Red Wall

Now let’s look at an offensive battlefield: South Yorkshire. The Conservatives made a handful of gains here in 2019, but there is plenty of scope for growth – especially in the wake of the dramatic results at the locals, which saw the Party go from zero seats to 20 on Rotherham Council.

According to local sources, “winning all three Rotherham seats on these boundaries is a decent prospect.” Minor changes to Alexander Stafford’s seat of Rother Valley are unlikely to make much of an impact, Rotherham itself becomes “slightly more winnable”, and Wentworth and Dearne loses the Dearnes (the area with the weakest Tory vote) and is reborn as Rawmarsh and Conisbrough.

Doncaster Central (Labour majority: 2,278) becomes Doncaster Town by taking part of Don Valley that is “very good for us” – in fact local Tories suggest that “on these boundaries we should be looking to win it.” The consequence is that Don Valley itself may be harder to hold, although Nick Fletcher should probably be OK. Likewise, minor changes to Penistone and Stocksbridge are apparently unlikely to cause Miriam Cates much difficulty.

Elsewhere there is churn but less change: the rejigged boundaries in Barnsley will apparently produce broadly similar results to the status quo, as will alterations to Ed Miliband’s seat in Doncaster North (although this remains winnable). Likewise, nobody seems to expect any exciting results from a relatively conservative reshuffling of Sheffield.

On the face of it, a rosy outlook for the Party. But of course, South Yorkshire is an area where the old electoral map survived the last election. There are others, such as South Wales. But the impact of the reforms could be quite different elsewhere.

Emily Barley: For voters in Rotherham, the “take back control” message means control of their own lives

30 Apr

Emily Barley is the Deputy Chairman Political of Rotherham Conservative Federation and was the Conservative Party candidate for Wentworth and Dearne at the 2019 General Election.

On Thursday next week, voters go to the polls across England in a series of local elections. Though important everywhere, the Conservative Party will undoubtedly have its eye on the areas that make up the crumbling red wall, watching carefully to see if the new Conservative voters who switched in 2019 have stuck with us.

Rotherham, where I am one of three Conservative candidates in Hoober Ward, is one such place. After decades of Labour rule, and the area becoming world-famous for all the wrong reasons, Conservatives are seriously challenging this time. Our team of candidates is strong, local to their wards, and, since restrictions were lifted to allow canvassing, has been out and about knocking on doors and talking to residents.

Thousands of conversations in the last few weeks have shown that the Conservative vote is holding up well since the General Election, where we won one constituency, Rother Valley, and slashed the Labour majorities in the other two that make up the borough. Even more positively, we have been finding brand new switchers – people whose loyalty to Labour was seriously tested during the Corbyn years and then broken completely by the election of out-of-touch Starmer as the Leader.

They tell us that the party they supported for decades is lost to them and that while the Conservative Party has not yet won their loyalty, they feel closer to us than anyone else and will be voting Conservative in May.

So far, so good.

But I fear we have a developing problem: what I’m hearing on the doorstep about what people want from their Government does not appear to match what the Government believes they want.

In many ways, the easy part was Brexit. 67.9 per cent of people living in the Rotherham area voted to leave the EU, giving a clear instruction to Westminster. But though Brexit has been delivered, the story has not yet concluded, and that’s because the ‘take back control’ message meant more to people here than simply getting out of the EU.

For them, the vote to leave the EU was an expression of confidence in the UK’s ability to succeed in the world as an independent nation, and it was a vote for a different kind of government, more in touch and with smarter policy decisions to fit Britain. Most importantly, the way they feel about Britain’s right and ability to be independent is also how they feel about themselves.

That’s a roundabout way of saying that folks up here simply don’t like being told what to do, how to think, and how to enjoy their lives.

One area where the government is totally disconnected from what their new voters want is the nanny state. I live and campaign in a part of the world where people value their right, as adults, to choose for themselves on junk food, smoking, and drinking.

And so I’m worried that we’re set to repeat the mistakes of the Labour Party: who thought voters in these areas were simple to understand, easy to win over, and not smart enough to decide for themselves.

Covid-19 has changed a lot of things, and you could be forgiven for thinking that the way people in Rotherham have accepted the at-times authoritarian intrusion in their lives means that they are now more open to being told what to do, but that is not the case. As reasonable, level-headed Yorkshire-men and -women, they understand what a crisis is, and they have made an exception that will shortly run out.

As the crisis fades, there is an opportunity to move forward in a different way, showing that Conservatives understand and respect people’s desire to take back control. A shift in focus is needed – far far away from telling people what to do and lecturing them on the consequences of their actions in the way Boris and his government have grown all too comfortable with. Instead, we should be giving people information, showing them alternatives and their benefits, making it easier to make healthier choices, and leaving the decisions to them.

This means dropping any suggestion of bullying tactics like junk food taxes or minimum unit pricing for alcohol, and it means building on the helpful encouraging tone of the NHS Better Health programme.

There’s an opportunity too, to move away from the EU’s outdated approach to e-cigarettes, reforming volumes and strengths, and looking at how best to embrace new technologies.

Breaking from the EU on this would be yet another benefit of Brexit, and would go down particularly well in Rotherham, where smoking rates are higher than the national average and people are heartily fed up with being told off about their habit.

As things stand right now, the Conservative Party’s relationship with new Conservative voters is more precarious than it seems. The polls look good as we enjoy the protection of people’s goodwill, but if we repeat the disrespect of the Labour Party by telling them how they should live their lives and failing to recognise the full implications of their wish to take back control, we run the risk of pushing them away. A new approach to public health, rooted in treating people as the adults they are, is required.