John Redwood: Where have all the new Conservatives voters gone – and why?

27 Jun

Sir John Redwood is MP for Wokingham, and is a former Secretary of State for Wales.

Some Conservatives are taking heart from the fact that in Wakefield and Tiverton & Honiton by-elections, some Tory voters stayed away rather than switching to Labour. After all, it should be easier to persuade abstainers back than to tell switchers they are wrong.

 

In Wakefield there was also an unusually high percentage voting for fringe parties and candidates. Independent candidates normally get less than 1 per cent of the vote, yet one received 7.6 per cent, the Yorkshire party polled 4.3 per cent, and Reform and Britain First together got 3 per cent – more than the Lib Dems. Many of these voters could be attracted to a stronger Conservative offer.

 

Understanding why Conservative voters abstained or voted for independent candidates is crucial for the Government. The idea of a Red Wall is unhelpful. Voters in former Labour seats voted Conservative in 2019 because they wanted something different to the Labour offer of a bigger public sector, a preoccupation with political correctness, and higher taxes, not because they wanted the same with Conservative branding.

 

They wanted more than Brexit in name only. They wanted a proud UK to use her new freedoms to promote prosperity and to place the UK back on the global stage without limitation from Brussels. They had concluded that sending more money to the local Council, spending more on new public buildings, and looking for the civil service to make everyone better off was not workable.

 

They disliked the EU model of closing down much UK productive capacity to favour continental imports.  They wanted a more enterprising, freer UK where government helped people get on. They wanted home ownership for the many, more opportunities for self-employment, to set up a small business, to gain shares and bonuses by working for a good private sector firm, to receive the education and training needed for promotion Labour’s collectivist ideas instead stifled individual ambition.

 

They expected Conservatives to lower taxes, promote more employment, and back business. They assumed that more money for schools and hospitals would come along restraint on overall spending and the growth of bureaucracy. They did not want more quangos lecturing us on what we could say, how we should live our lives, and whether we should buy a heat pump.

 

They looked forward to ending the large payments to the EU and wanted overseas aid removed from countries with nuclear weapons or space programmes. Many people refused a free smart meter and opposed more surveillance as examples of creeping government control.

 

So why do so many now feel they have not got what they asked for? They did not expect a Conservative Chancellor to authorise huge extra quantities of money printing last year in a way that was bound to be inflationary. They did not ask him to underwrite with their money another £150bn of bond buying by the Bank of England, paying very high prices for the bonds. They certainly did not vote for a hike in National Insurance, a tax rise expressly ruled out in the Conservative Manifesto. They did not want IR35 strengthened further to put off people working for themselves.

 

They hoped that VAT would come down or be taken off things like domestic heating once we were free of the EU and able to set our own tax rates. When the Ukraine war added a further nasty twist to the inflationary spiral they expected the Chancellor to cut the VAT rates on electricity, gas, diesel, and petrol, not to use it as an opportunity to tax us more on these necessities.

 

So what should the Government do now to prove it has understood these voters? The main changes have to come from the Treasury. Bad economic policy is damaging. The hit to real incomes is too hard, taxes are too high, and current policy threatens us with a recession. The government needs a convincing growth strategy.

 

That requires immediate action to cut VAT on fuels to ease the squeeze and cut the prices. It means binning the planned increase in Corporation tax and stopping the attack on home produced energy through the planned windfall tax. The Chancellor rightly wants an investment-led recovery. He will not get that if he serves up higher business taxes and a recession.

 

The Government should go all out to create the best environment for business investment and growth in the advanced world. Strong businesses will bring more and better-paid jobs. The UK, following years in the Single Market, depends far too much on imports for temperate food, energy, and other goods which it can produce for itself.

 

If we matched the Irish corporation tax rate we could add to our capacity much more quickly and collect more in total business tax revenue. If the Treasury beefed up the freedoms in the Freeports that could help us grow new industries.

 

There are some signs that the Business department does want us to produce more of our own gas at a time of global shortage. The new oil and gas fields including Jackdaw, Cambo, and Rosebank should be brought into use. That will cut our CO2 compared to importing Liquid National Gas, create more better paid jobs, and give the Treasury another tax windfall.

 

There is some work now on a domestic food strategy. We could grow so much more for ourselves at a time of Russian induced shortage. Instead of EU grants to pull the trees out of our orchards we need UK help to replant. The UK, with access to more gas, could rebuild some of its lost chemicals and fertilizer industry.

 

This cannot await a late autumn budget. Every day we send out a high tax anti-business message more investment will be delayed or diverted. All the time we continue with current policy a sharp slowdown or a complete stop to growth is inevitable. The UK deserves better and can do better. Now is the time to set out a bold strategy for freedom and growth. If we do this the voters will return. We need a new Conservative way forward.

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Lord Ashcroft: My focus groups in both by-election battlegrounds find the Tory vote halved on 2019

17 Jun

Lord Ashcroft KCMG PC is a businessman, philanthropist, author and pollster. For information on Lord Ashcroft’s work, visit www.lordashcroft.com.

By-elections are hardly ever convenient for a government, but next week’s contests in marginal Wakefield and supposedly safe Tiverton & Honiton are especially inopportune.

The events that precipitated each of them have hardly helped, judging from my focus groups of 2019 Conservatives in both constituencies this week.

“It’s a bit more serious than partygate, isn’t it,” as a man in the West Yorkshire seat put it. “OK, he was found guilty but the thing that got me was that part of the Tory party was told before he was elected. They knew beforehand but stood by him.”

Not everyone agreed (“it was an individual – people like that can get into everywhere”) but there was no doubt the former MP Imran Khan’s offence had “tarnished things.”

In Devon, some were sorry to see the demise of Neil Parrish. “Being a farmer, I think it’s a shame. He was a farmer himself and he was a good advocate for us.”

Even so, he had to go. “There’s a combine called the Dominator, so I can see that, but he did do it a second time. He’s done the right thing and resigned. It’s what it was, silly boy, and it’s a shame because he was a good MP.”

Some of the women took a different view. “I thought he was a right numpty before that,” said one, “so it wasn’t a surprise. I just thought, you are such an idiot.” Even so:

“I think it might not have been a bad thing for the Conservatives because the new lady, Helen, seems really good. She was a teacher. She knocked on my door yesterday. There was something refreshing about her. She wasn’t a middle-aged man, she didn’t embody the typical Conservative MP, so that’s swaying me towards her.”

“If his face comes through my letterbox again…”

Participants in both constituencies had been deluged with literature (“I had nine from the Lib Dems last week, all the same person, Richard Ford. If his face comes through my letterbox again… My dog doesn’t eat the post but now I wish he did”).

But despite the circumstances and the frantic local campaigns, national issues would dominate most people’s decisions – not least their view of the prime minister.

There was no appetite for another confidence vote, which many would see as a distraction from real priorities (“it’s over and done with, they need to forget about this and focus their time on things that matter and moving forward”).

At the same time – there being no constitutional requirement for voters to be consistent – some in both places said they could not vote Conservative again while Boris Johnson was in charge.

“He stood up in the House of Commons and said, ‘I have been informed that no rules were broken at the parties I didn’t go to’. Then you find out that he was at them, which was a blatant lie to everyone in the country. I can’t trust a single word that comes out of Boris’s mouth from now on.”

You trusted every word before? “No, but I could trust a percentage of them. Now it’s zero trust.”

“The fact that he can’t even brush his hair in the morning has really started to grate on me.”

Some said that, for them, the revelations had tipped the balance against him: “He’s a character, a bit of a geezer in an Eton sort of way, but there’s a fulcrum isn’t there? And I think he’s slightly tipped that fulcrum now. He’s gone from being the loveable rogue to being someone who’s lost credibility”; “The fact that he can’t even brush his hair in the morning has really started to grate on me.”

Yet evidence of partygate fatigue was abundant, especially in Devon: “I think with what’s going on around the world, there’s a lot more important issues than a few MPs having a beer and a get-together”; “I lost a family member in the pandemic who I didn’t see, so I get why people are angry, but it’s done. There’s no point in just going over and over it”; “Labour just use it as a campaigning thing to bitch about the Conservatives. I’m a bit over it to be honest.”

“There are exactly the same pictures of Starmer with a few of them eating and drinking.”

Moreover, it was clear that for many voters the issue was no longer an exclusively Johnsonian or even Tory problem, but a case of class misconduct reminiscent of the expenses scandal. “It’s just about which of them get found out,” a woman in Wakefield observed. “They deny it and deny it until there’s proof.”

“They’re both as bad as each other,” said another constituent. “There are exactly the same pictures of Starmer with a few of them eating and drinking. And it’s like, hang on a minute”; “It depends what’s going to become of beergate or currygate or whatever it is. He’s been pointing the finger at Boris, but give it a few weeks and we might all be pointing the finger at him.”

Keir Starmer’s pledge to resign if fined by Durham police had impressed some voters (“I give him some credibility for that”) but carried clear potential pitfalls.

If, as seems possible, the constabulary concludes that rules were broken but declines to issue a fixed penalty notice, any attempt to stay in the job would be met with disdain. “The principle of what he said was that if I broke the law I will stand down”; “It would just be a clever way of getting out of it. He’s going to get away with it, isn’t he?”

“If you sign something, you bloody well do it. You can’t just say ‘we’re going to break the law’.”

When asked what they thought of Johnson’s premiership aside from partygate (an admittedly “Other than that, how did you enjoy the play, Mrs Lincoln”-type question), there were plenty of supplementary complaints.

If spiralling living costs were not the government’s fault, the help on offer seemed to many like a drop in the ocean (“when they did the fuel duty decrease it went down 5p and then up 10p the next day”).

Levelling up sounded more like a slogan than a policy (“I believed it, but I don’t believe it now. They put in little bits of money so they can say they’re doing it, but it’s not proper long-term investment that will improve the economy”).

Some were aghast at the government’s position on the Northern Ireland Protocol (“If you sign something, you bloody well do it. You can’t just say ‘we’re going to break the law’. You can’t behave like that”).

“I don’t think Boris has had a fair crack at being prime minister.”

But there was also a widespread feeling that the Government’s pre-partygate record was not too bad: “I think the man’s a bumbling idiot, but he’s done a fantastic job under the circumstances. The vaccine rollout was the best in the world;” “I thought the furlough scheme was brilliant. I was really impressed by that.”

Most thought the response to Ukraine had been good given the constraints, and views on the Rwanda policy were no worse than mixed. Indeed, some felt that despite being in the job for nearly three years, Johnson had not yet had a real chance to show what he could do:

“I don’t think Boris has had a fair crack at being prime minister. He got in and then boom, covid hit. So how much of his time has been focused on this rather than what he set out to do?” “We voted him in before covid, and the bloke’s had a shit time, hasn’t he? I can’t understand why anyone would want the job of leading the country.”

“A rich kid trying to get down with the poor kids. It just doesn’t ring true.”

But there was precious little enthusiasm for Labour, even among the Tories’ sternest critics. Though Starmer was an improvement on his predecessor, this did not mean they were impressed: verdicts in Wakefield included “sneaky” and “false”.

“I felt that Corbyn was more genuine, even though I didn’t agree with the things he stood for. Whereas for Starmer my word would be ‘sly’;” “He spends more time slagging Boris Johnson off than putting something forward. I know it’s part of the job, but it’s the same thing every bloody day;” “A rich kid trying to get down with the poor kids. It just doesn’t ring true.”

While Labour had a new leader they still seemed:

“London-centric. They’ve lost their roots. They’ve got a perfect opportunity, a government losing credibility, a cost-of-living crisis, but they haven’t come up with alternative solutions, they’re talking about things like transgender. People want to know if they’re going to have the money to pay the bills. They’re too much into what’s seen to be right rather than doing what’s right.”

For a few, Starmer would do, but even here the endorsements felt grudging.

“I’m not particularly keen on Starmer but I think he could get the job done. He’s still very upper class but it’s not the sort of Spitting Image thing we’ve had for the last two years. It’s been like watching the Muppet Show.”

“I was frightened of Corbyn, but I’m not frightened of Starmer.”

Significantly, though, he had managed to neutralise the fear of a Labour government that had worked to the Tories’ advantage. “I was frightened of Corbyn, but I’m not frightened of Starmer,” one man in the Devon seat told us – an important point where the prospect of a Labour-Lib Dem coalition could be a central Tory theme at a general election.

“I thought the Lib Dems were good at knocking the nuttiness out of some of the Tory policies in the coalition, so maybe if they were with Labour they would do the same.”

Not that the Lib Dems had made much of an impact on our participants, leaflets aside.

“They’re the Labrador Party, they hoover up all the crumbs off the carpet and make a big thing about it. There’s no real policies or anything in place. Ed Davey is not the most magnetic personality in the world either, is he?”

Even so, some said the party would make a useful repository for protest votes in the by-election, though perhaps a temporary one:

“On the ballot there should be an addendum under the Lib Dem box saying, ‘We’re only voting for you because we’re traditional Tories, but get your act together because you’re doing a bad job’.”

“I want to give him a kicking but I’m struggling with the mindset that they’re all the same.”

Others said they found the alternatives so underwhelming that they would make the same point by staying at home. “I want to give him a kicking but I’m struggling with the mindset that they’re all the same;” “I want to give my vote so someone who will make a difference, but who is that? I’d vote Green, but I want my vote to be useful.”

Anecdotally, around half the 2019 Tories in our groups said they would probably switch or stay at home next Thursday, giving no reason to doubt the received wisdom that both seats will change hands. But on the evidence of these groups, their significance as predictors of the next general election is limited.

Some have decided: “We need some consistency. It’s been like a soap opera – we’ve had Brexit, then covid, and since then it’s been a complete bitch-fest. We need to move forward,” said one participant; “If Boris Johnson is leader of the Conservatives in two years’ time I will not vote for them,” said another.

But when it came to choosing a new government, most had a long way to go: “I would struggle with Boris because I think he’s dishonest and an embarrassment to the country. But whether I’m happy with the other political parties, that is the more difficult question;” “There’s a lot of water to go under bridges. Let’s see what happens”.

“You need something about you to run the country, don’t you. That’s why I liked Boris. I think he’s lost a little bit. He doesn’t seem as carefree and easy going as he did, which is understandable. But I still think he’s got something about him. Let’s see what the next part of the movie brings.”

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Brigid Simmonds: The gulf between ministers and voters on attitudes towards responsible gambling

14 Jun

Brigid Simmonds OBE is Chairman of the Betting and Gaming Council.

This month’s by-election in Wakefield was always going to be hugely significant, but after the last few days in Westminster, the scrutiny is only set to intensify.

When the polls do finally open on June 23, regulatory reforms of the betting and gaming industry are unlikely to be the deciding factor for most voters, not with so many other pressing issues occupying minds.

But ask those same voters how they feel about plans emerging from Westminster to overhaul rules governing their hobby and it is immediately clear the debate triggers passionate reactions.

Because this is an issue which goes to the heart of the expected role and reach of government – a government that is very quickly having to rearrange its priorities to win back the trust of voters and its own MPs.

Much is presumed about how ordinary people feel about betting and gaming, but the BGC went and found out, hiring respected research agency Public First to conduct focus groups in so-called Red Wall seats, including Wakefield.

Their findings are stark – especially when it comes to perceived government interference on how grown-ups should be allowed to spend their money.

When confronted with suggestions Ministers are looking to introduce blanket affordability checks, forcing punters to provide personal documents to prove they could afford to bet money they have already paid tax on, there was nothing short of outrage.

“It’s removing all forms of self-responsibility whatsoever. That’s just somebody dictating to you about your money. It’s a bad idea,” said one focus group member, a male retail assistant from Wakefield. In Wolverhampton, a female council worker added:

“I’m shocked to be honest, it sounds like something from a big brother style country. We can’t seriously be doing this sort of stuff in a free country.”

“The Government shouldn’t be sticking their noses in. I should be allowed to do what I please with my money,” said one male factory worker from Doncaster.

These reactions aren’t just a passionate defence of an individual’s right to do as they choose, they are also a response to fears of the Government overreach, what many term the nanny state. It is this that drives a wedge between MPs and voters, and which fuels the disconnect between Westminster and the rest of the country.

A female shop assistant from Blackpool, added: “It’s making a mockery of people and their ability to just be grown-ups. We don’t need telling how to live our lives – it’s completely too far for me.”

“I don’t think politicians live in the real world. I don’t think they have a clue what people like us do”, said a female community assistant from Stoke. Another Stoke panel member added: “None of them actually go to the bingo or casino on a Friday do they?”

Betting is hugely popular; 22.5m people enjoy a flutter once a month, while around 17.5 million people visit a casino each year and over two million visit bingo halls.

It is clear for the overwhelming majority, visiting a bookmaker, casino or bingo hall is akin to visiting a pub or restaurant with friends, an inherently social activity. That provoked another emotion identified by the research: the anger many felt at the patronising way many spoke about their hobby as if it were ‘problematic.’

They see it everywhere: sneering newspaper editorials; some MPs’ obvious antipathy to something they simply do not do themselves; health campaigners increasingly shrill denunciation of a something they clearly believe is seedy and should be discouraged.

They do grown adults a disservice. This research is clear: just like the BGC, voters want proportionate measures that protect vulnerable players, but do not spoil the enjoyment of the vast majority who bet safety.

A male driver from Wakefield, said:

“I know what I want to spend and I know what I can afford – I’m not daft. I know what I’ll put on. There might be days like a big horse race or something and I’ll do extra but I’ve usually saved up for that.”

Another man, in his 30s from Durham, added: “I usually spend a set amount every month on betting. We set it aside and that’s all I do.”

At the BGC we have always known the popularity of betting. But this study exposes the weight of feeling ministers will confront if industry reforms reach beyond what voters deem proportionate.

When voters go to the polls in Wakefield, they may not be thinking about betting and gaming, but they certainly will be thinking about the role of government, and where it should and should not be intervening. This week has brought that reality into sharp relief.

This study illuminates something else: that there is a gulf between the views of the recreational punter and those deciding the future of the regulated betting and gaming industry.

And when it comes to a sector enjoyed by 22.5 million, that is supporting 119,000 jobs and raising £4.5bn in taxes, ministers would do well to pay heed to this community worker, who will be placing her vote in Wakefield this month, and ensure the decisions they take are closing that gulf, not widening it:

“I don’t think politicians live in the real world. I don’t think they have a clue what people like us do. And I don’t think they care, quite frankly. I think they like to be seen, to be actively aware of what’s going on. But I think when it comes down to it, I don’t really think they have a clue or care.”

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Candidates selected for Wakefield and Tiverton and Honiton

23 May

ConservativeHome is happy to announce the successful candidates for the upcoming by-elections in both Wakefield and Tiverton and Honiton. Imran Ahmad Khan faces sentencing today following his conviction for molesting a 15-year old, which he is appealing, and his subsequent resignation as the MP for Wakefield. Even in the gruesome circumstances of this by-election, holding the seat will be a challenge since it only turned Conservative for the first time in 87 years in 2019.

Defending his 3,358 vote majority – and hoping to restore the party’s tarnished brand – is Councillor Nadeem Ahmed, leader of the Wakefield Conservative Group from 2014 to 2021, a councillor there since 2006, and an ambassador for the Holocaust Educational Trust. He defeated Laura Weldon, the 2022 council candidate for Wakefield West, and Tanya Graham, the former candidate for Bradford South in 2015 and 2017.

Meanwhile, down in Tiverton and Honiton, Helen Hurford has been announced as the candidate hoping to replace Neil Parish, noted tractor enthusiast. Hurford is a former headteacher, and has taught in schools across the constituency, before setting up her own business in 2019. One unsuccessful candidate was Pru Maskell, a councillor in Devon, and, like Hurford a member of the Conservative Women’s Organisation. Faxing Labour – it did not take an All-Women’s Shortlist to produce an all-female final roster, only the talent one would naturally associate with a potential Conservative MP.

Applications open for a candidate to defend Wakefield

17 Apr

The last week or so has not been brilliant for politicians named Imran Khan. Whilst the former Pakistan Prime Minister, masterful all-rounder, and husband of Jemima Goldsmith has been pushed out of power in Islamabad, Imran Ahmad Khan has triggered a by-election in Wakefield. This follows his conviction for sexually assaulting a 15-year-old boy and his expulsion from the Conservative Party.

Whilst this should rightly be the end of Khan’s political career, it is also an opportunity. Specifically, an opportunity for a keen Conservative willing to defend Wakefield at the upcoming by-election. Accordingly, it has come to ConservativeHome’s attention that the Party has now written (well, e-mailed) to invite applications for candidature.

The specifics are obvious. CCHQ wants applicants who can display strong links to the constituency or neighbouring areas. The vacancy is intended for those with a Comprehensive or Key Seat Pass, and the Seat CV attached with the e-mail is required to be returned by interested candidates by Monday 18th April at 4pm.

The fight for Wakefield will be a fascinating content for those of us with an eye on the next general election. This is a prime ‘Red Wall’ seat. Before Khan won it in 2019, it had not had a Conservative MP since 1932. It voted to Leave by 62 percent in 2016. Average incomes and the number of degree-holders are below the English average.

Since Labour need a swing of 3.75 percent to re-take Wakefield, it is exactly the sort of seat Sir Keir Starmer must win to reach Downing Street. A Labour victory here, a year on from the remarkable Tory victory in Hartlepool, would cause many to suggest that the Johnson, Brexit, and vaccine factors are losing their hold over the ‘Red Wall’ – and that the opinion polls are bang on target.

The New Statesman team have crunched the numbers and expect a Labour win by 7 points or so. Which is what one might expect, in a marginal with a current majority of 3,358, two and a half years into a Parliament, and with the country hurtling towards a cost-of-living crisis. As such, whilst it will be fun to turn this contest into a barometer for 2024, a Conservative lost here would not be a surprise

Khan resigns, and the Prime Minister faces a Red Wall test in Wakefield

14 Apr

Imran Ahmad Khan has decided to resign as Member of Parliament, meaning that Boris Johnson now faces an electoral test in a bona fide Red Wall constituency.

According to his statement, this is because the drawn-out nature of legal proceedings mean that he won’t be able to effectively advocate for his constituents for months yet, having already left Wakefield “without visible parliamentary representation for a year.” He adds:

“Even in the best case scenario, anticipated legal proceedings could last many more months. I have therefore regrettably come to the conclusion that it is intolerable for constituents to go years without an MP who can amplify their voices in parliament.”

This may be the case; other media reports suggest he did intend to stick it out and fight his appeal as an MP before the strong backlash against Crispin Blunt’s supportive comments earlier this week.

Either way, the Prime Minister now has a very important fight on his hands. Wakefield was one of the more spectacular prizes won in 2019, having previously been held by Labour since 1931. Whoever is selected to fight it will be defending a majority of just 3,358.

The result will give Tory MPs hard, real-world evidence about the impact of the Paterson fiasco and Partygate on the Prime Minister’s and the Party’s standing with the voters in the Red Wall. They have been reluctant to strike so far, but a Labour win will be harder to ignore than the polls.