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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James Blagden: Where to look for the results that matter this week? Wakefield, Worthing, Trafford and the Black Country

2 May

James Blagden is the Chief Data Analyst and the Head of Future Politics at the Onward think tank.

Will the local elections on May 5th be make or break for Boris Johnson? Local election results always come with caveats, but the outcome can give us a sense of what voters in key electoral battlegrounds are feeling about the main parties. We will get to see how the Conservatives are faring in the Red Wall and where Labour is making a comeback.

What should we look out for? First, there are a few newly-Conservative councils to keep an eye on.

The Black Country

In Walsall and Dudley, the Conservatives gained majority control of the councils in 2021. Onward’s recent paper, Another Brick in the Wall, showed how parts of the Black Country (among other areas) have shifted towards the Conservatives over the last decade, signalling the fall of the Red Wall in 2019.

In 2018, the Conservatives won 14 Dudley wards to Labour’s 10. And in Walsall, the Conservatives also pipped Labour to the post, winning 30 seats to Labour’s 26. These will be hotly contested and, for the Conservatives, are more defensive elections than elsewhere in England.

But, while Wolverhampton gained two new Tory MPs in 2019, the council is majority Labour (Labour 44 / Conservative 16). All the wards that the Conservatives won in 2021 are in these two seats: Wolverhampton North East and Wolverhampton South West.

A third of the council is up for election this time. But the Conservatives are only defending three seats, all in the south west, and all consistently Tory. There simply isn’t much scope for losses here. But, given the eight wards they won in 2021, we will be able to tell whether the Conservatives can keep up the recent momentum in the north of the borough.

Two Red Wall towns to watch out for: Grimsby and Hartlepool.

Both have new Conservative MPs, target seats for the party in the wake of post-Brexit realignment. And both are at the top of the list for Levelling Up funds. The Conservatives will need to demonstrate that the faith voters put in them in 2019 was not misplaced.

Just as we have seen in the Westminster elections, the wards in the Great Grimsby constituency have begun to turn towards the Conservatives in recent years. This reversal, for a town that hadn’t returned a Tory MP since 1935, is so pronounced that Labour failed to win any wards in the 2021 local elections; Conservatives won six out of eight.

The Hartlepool by-election win last year gave a welcome boost to the Prime Minister’s image. On the same day, the Conservatives also became the largest party on the local council, although they just missed out on gaining overall control. Things were looking up for the Conservatives’ prospects in Hartlepool but, following partygate and Labour’s lead in the national polls, the local elections will be a key test of how well Conservative support holds up in the area.


The borough of Wakefield in West Yorkshire is another one to watch because the council boundaries cover the constituencies of Wakefield and Hemsworth.

Firstly, Wakefield. The real test will come at the by-election, expected later this year. But the local elections might provide a sneak preview of the outcome. The borough council is currently a solid Labour majority and that won’t change. And Labour are defending 16 seats compared to the Conservatives’ five. But those five are mostly located in the Wakefield constituency, so a poor performance might indicate local disaffection with either the outgoing MP or the party more broadly.

Second, although the Conservatives have never held the Hemsworth constituency before, they came close in 2019, missing out by 1,180 votes. In the 2021 local elections, Conservatives won three out of six Hemsworth wards. Our analysis shows that political realignment is nudging the area towards the Tories, especially since the Brexit referendum, and we will be looking to the ward results in Hemsworth for an indication of whether the Conservatives are making further inroads into the Red Wall.


On the other side we have a traditionally Tory town that shows signs of drifting away from the party.

Even when Tony Blair won his landslide victory in 1997, the south coast seaside town of Worthing stayed resolutely blue. At the local and national level, Labour historically had a poor record in Worthing. Occasionally the Liberal Democrats will flair up and the Conservatives lose majority control of the council (as happened between 2002 and 2004). But the area was usually solidly Tory.

However, steadily, over the last few years Labour have gained ground in the town – from holding no seats at all in 2016, to 17 seats as of 2021. In fact, the Conservatives and Labour are tied on 17 seats each (with two Lib Dems and one independent). This time round, the Conservatives are defending eight seats. Labour are only defending four. So Labour only need to pick up two additional seats in order to take majority control of the council for the first time ever.


Another traditionally Conservative area to watch is the market town of Altrincham, in Trafford. Trafford Council is majority Labour, unsurprising for Greater Manchester, but the interesting part is in the south. Altrincham and Sale West has always been a Conservative constituency, but the Tories have been losing ground to the Green Party in recent local elections. There are now three Green councillors in Altrincham – a ward that, as recently as 2016, had three Conservative councillors. This Conservative-to-Green swing is not widespread, but is definitely something to look out for on May 5th.

We see a similar Conservative decline at the General Elections. Where the country has become seven-points more Conservative since 2015, Altrincham and Sale West has gone in the other direction, becoming 5-points less Conservative.

Looking further ahead, the shifts we see in towns like Worthing and Altrincham could be a sign of what we call a ‘blue drift’. These places are mostly in the South of England (but not always). They used to be bastions of Conservatism, but are drifting towards Labour or the Liberal Democrats. It’s happening particularly in Sussex, Surrey, Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire and Cambridgeshire. For some, this is a post-Brexit reaction; for others, it is a long-term 30-year trend.

Finally, some words of warning. Local elections are not General Elections. Turnout is typically much lower and different issues motivate voters. Local concerns and personalities dominate over national policy. It is worth remembering that the proper comparison is with 2018, when these council seats in England were last contested. If we look back at that time, this was when Jeremy Corbyn and an embattled Theresa May were about neck-and-neck in the national polls – a far cry from the Conservatives’ 12-point lead in December 2019. So the change may not be as dramatic as some are expecting.

However, by watching these key battlegrounds we can gain some indication of how Conservative target voters – both traditional and new – feel about the party.

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.

Local elections: The towns and cities that will be the real tests of Labour recovery

14 Apr

As I noted on Monday, there is an expectation from most pundits that Labour will strengthen its dominance in London. I suspect the results will be too uneven for any such clear verdict to be delivered. But even if it is, we really need to look beyond the capital, to the towns and cities across England, to assess whether Labour performance represents a serious threat. We have 21 unitary authorities and 33 metropolitan boroughs up for grabs this year. (I will consider the district councils tomorrow, where the main challenge to the Conservatives tends not to come from Labour.)

Birmingham is an obvious place to start – given both its size and that it has all its seats up for election. Labour has 62 of the 101 seats on the Council – the Conservatives 28, the Lib Dems have eight, and the Green Party one. Labour is doing a bit better in the opinion polls at present than in 2018, when the seats in Birmingham were previously contested. Then we had the Erdington by-election last month when Labour won with an increased majority. But it was a low turnout and the swing to Labour of 4.5 per cent was less than half what they would need to win an overall majority at the next General Election. Labour has a formidable campaigning machine in the city. These factors would suggest that Labour should be back with a clear majority – perhaps making modest gains.

Set against that are the Council’s serious failings – which have been detailed on this site by Cllr Meirion Jenkins. This makes predictions tricky. Perhaps if Brummies are displeased with the Conservatives nationally and with Labour locally they may look to the minor parties. However, the Conservatives are  putting up a vigorous fight.

Labour launched its campaign in Bury with a visit from Sir Keir Starmer. That gave them a chance to get some further publicity over Christian Wakeford’s defection. It is also a council where all the seats are being contested. But the choice of Bury shows a lack of Labour ambition. It is already a Labour Council (28 Labour councillors to 15 for the Conservatives.) At this stage in proceedings, Labour simply holding on in places it already runs like Bury – or Birmingham – shouldn’t be seen as good enough; they should expect to be gaining territory. If Sir Keir had gone a few miles west to Bolton that would have shown a bit more confidence. That Council has 22 Conservatives, with 17 for Labour.

Derby is a unitary authority under Conservative minority control. As only a third of seats are up for election this time Labour could not expect a clear victory. But they should be aiming to win most of the seats being contested and to alter the balance of power. This is one of the few places where Reform are fielding a full set of candidates. That may be of slight help to Labour if some Conservative votes are split off.

Peterborough, similarly, has a Conservative administration while being under no overall control and only a third of seats being contested. Paul Bristow gained the Peterborough constituency for the Conservatives at the last General Election with a majority of 2,580. Labour would need to win it back with a clear majority to be in contention next time. What indication will we get next month from the tally of councillors in that proud city?

Dudley will be another important test. The Conservatives gained control last year winning 23 seats to just three for Labour. Another third of the seats are up for election this time. Will Labour get trounced again or show signs of revival?

Wakefield Council already has a big Labour majority. Not only has Imran Khan, the local MP, been expelled from the Conservatives after being convicted of sexual assault but the Conservative councillors have been in disarray. So it is likely Labour will do well here in advance of the expected Parliamentary by-election.

Even in this category of council elections, it is not always a straightforward Labour/Conservative battle. As noted on Tuesday, Sheffield is a contest that puts Labour under pressure from the Green Party and the Lib Dems. Then we have Sunderland where Labour is being challenged by the Lib Dems as well as the Conservatives.

It should also be noted that we have elections for the new unitary authority of Somerset, with all the seats being contested. That will be an important battle between Conservatives and the Lib Dems. In another unitary authority, Wokingham, only a third of seats are up. But that is another place where Conservatives will need to watch out for a Lib Dem revival.

There are other places – notably Liverpool and Manchester – where Labour are already dominant. But while the elections next month are skewed to existing Labour territory there are other areas that are more competitive and so offer a genuine challenge for them. The sense I get is that while they may consolidate here and there, they will not make dramatic gains. Yet that is what they need to be able to make a credible claim to be on course to victory at the next General Election.

David Willetts: Yes, let’s have more white male working class students. And new universities, too – some in the Red Wall.

3 Dec

Lord Willetts is President of the Resolution Foundation. He is a former Minister for Universities and Science, and His book A University Education is published by Oxford University Press.

The forthcoming White Paper is the crucial opportunity to shape a coherent agenda for levelling up – if Michael Gove, Neil O’Brien and Andy Haldane can’t crack it, then nobody can.

But even before it is published some specific policies are being launched which help to flesh out the idea. The Education Department has just made a really important shift in policy to boosting access to higher education. Its significance for levelling up may not have been fully appreciated. It is a brave challenge to the conventional wisdom that too many people go to university.

Many Conservatives do not approve of Tony Blair’s target for 50 per cent of people under 30 going to higher education. I myself don’t like targets, and it did not apply during my time as Universities Minister. But even without any such target, more and more young people are going to university. For young women, the participation rate has now reached 61 per cent – compared with 47 per cent for young men.

The guilty secret for Conservatives is that in many prosperous Tory constituencies the participation rate is now well over 60 per cent. If there is a social and economic problem of too many people going to university it is most acute in places like Kensington, Guildford, Winchester, Hertfordshire, Buckinghamshire and the affluent suburbs of Sheffield and Manchester – even though these areas don’t seem to be suffering too much as a result.

But meanwhile, there is one group above all who have remained stubbornly resistant to the blandishments of higher education – white working class boys.

The Government has just appointed a new Director for Fair Access and Participation at the Office for Students Nadhim Zahawi and Michelle Donelan have followed up with a robust statement about what his priority should be:

‘White British young males who received free school meals are amongst the least likely to enter higher education, with just 12.6 per cent progressing to higher education by age 19 by 2019/20. …We would like to see the OfS rewrite the national targets to better align with this new focus, and renegotiate A&P (Access and Participation) plans with providers to meet these new priorities…”

It is a welcome recognition that higher education can and should boost social mobility. Perhaps the mood in Government is beginning to shift away from just complaining that too many people go.

This initiative opens up the crucial question of how this improved access is to be achieved. If we don’t want to see more people in total going to higher education, then universities will have to cut back on places for other groups. That would means that those traditional Tory areas with high rates of participation are going to have to cut back so as to make more room for students from Red Wall seats with much lower participation.

But somehow I suspect that the Government is not going to embark on such a civil war within the new Conservative electoral Coalition. Instead, the aim will be for this group of white young British males to catch up with higher participation groups. That means more places at university. This has always been the logic of higher education expansion ever since Robbins.

There may be an attempt to say that these young men should do different subjects. We certainly do need to ensure there are good opportunities for technical higher education. But it would be a pity if we restrict the arts and humanities to the middle classes at prestigious universitiesm and assume that young working class men should all be doing technical qualifications.

Nadine Dorries criticises the BBC for being too middle class – she would not find it acceptable if it replied that working class people should train to be engineers and plumbers, rather than journalists and broadcasters: it is hard to see how such an approach could be a basis for our higher education policy either.

Moreover, the British economy is so inter-connected that we need people with a wide range of skills. So, for example, one of the biggest barriers holding up on the Government’s ambitious investment in infrastructure is the need to conduct archaeological surveys of historic sites which are briefly revealed before they are built over. But there is a shortage of archaeologists. It would be wrong to miss out on this rare opportunity to learn more about our history so we need urgently to train a new group of development archaeologists.

The Government’s pressure to boost the shockingly low rates of university participation by young working class men is going to push up total demand for university places. Furthermore, there was a surge in the birth rate during the first decade of the Millennium which is now pushing up demand for higher education. And then there is the surging demand from overseas students – higher education is one of our best export industries, worth £30 billion a year.

Add all this together, and UCAS are expecting a million applications a year for places in British universities by 2025. Instead of pretending there is going to be a fall in student numbers, we need instead to be planning for a substantial increase.

That then opens up another issue: where are all these extra students to go? One possibility is that our current universities grow even bigger. But I’m not sure students want massive universities, and anyway there are physical constraints on their growth in some of our cities.

Instead this era of expansion is an opportunity to create new universities in the places that don’t have them – the cold spots. It is also a fantastic opportunity for innovation with new providers coming in offering a different prospectus.

That is what is happening with the New Model Institute for Technology and Engineering at Hereford, which is on its way to becoming a university. Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge is developing a new campus at Peterborough which is planned to become a university. A Further Education College, such as the excellent one in Hartlepool, might expand and aim for university status.

Blackpool resisted having a university so it went to Lancaster instead: now there is an opportunity for them to correct that mistake. Wigan, Wakefield, Grimsby, Yeovil, Doncaster, and Thanet are all places which might aspire to have their own university. The Government could launch a competition to enable places to bid for a new higher education institution perhaps partly funded by local business partners needing to recruit more graduates.

The surge in demand for higher education is a fantastic opportunity to deliver levelling up. The Government should seize it.

This year there are a record number of Mayoral races. West Yorkshire is the latest addition.

2 Apr

Already this week, I have contemplated the Mayoral contests for London, the West Midlands, and Tees Valley. Those will probably be the highest profile elections, but there are a number of other Mayoral contests taking place.

James Palmer, the Conservative Mayor for Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, is seeking re-election. Last time he won by a clear margin – though there is the note of caution that the election took place in 2017 at a time when Conservative fortunes were generally buoyant. The only really difficult territory is Cambridge itself. In that city the Conservatives have no council seats at present; it is a Labour/Lib Dem battleground. All the seats on Cambridge Council are up for election this year.

Palmer was previously the Leader of East Cambridgeshire District Council and worked in the family dairy business. Since becoming Mayor, he has written on this site about his work on transport infrastructure, apprenticeships, and promoting business investment.

A closer result last time was for the West of England Mayoralty. This post is to lead the West of England Combined Authority which covers the local authorities of Bristol, South Gloucestershire, and Bath and North East Somerset. Tim Bowles, the Conservative incumbent is standing down. Samuel Williams is the Conservative candidate. He is a businessman who was the candidate for Bristol Mayor two years ago. Some local authorities have a directly elected Mayor instead of a council leader. Some regions have a Mayor with a wider role – in addition to the local authorities. This means some places have two directly elected Mayors – those in Liverpool have one for the City and another for the region; those in Tower Hamlets have one for their borough and another for London. Those in Bristol have one for their city and another for the West of England. The Conservative candidate for Mayor of Bristol is Alastair Watson. He is a former Lord Mayor of Bristol – a quite different role. I hope that is all clear.

Andy Burnham is surely very likely to be returned as the directly elected Labour Mayor of Greater Manchester. He won with a big majority in 2017 – even though there were some spectacular Conservative successes elsewhere. Political expediency appeared to triumph over consistency with his messages regarding lockdown. We did see some interesting General Election results in 2019 – not least the Conservatives gaining Leigh, the constituency Burnham himself used to represent. It comes under Wigan Council. Other councils in the Greater Manchester Combined Authority include Bolton, Bury and Trafford which have reasonable levels of Conservative support. But Manchester itself has no Conservative councillors while Oldham and Salford remain challenging. However, in Salford the Conservatives have been making progress and now have eight councillors. Salford has its own directly elected Mayor. Arnie Saunders, a Conservative councillor described by the Salford Star as a “jovial rabbi”, is the Conservative candidate. The Conservative candidate for Mayor of Greater Manchester is Laura Evans. She has written about her candidacy for us here.

Liverpool City Region is even more solid Labour territory – though it does include Wirral. Steve Rotherham, a left winger and former Labour MP, is standing again. The Conservative candidate is Jade Marsden.

But there will be more interest in the contest for the directly elected Mayor of Liverpool City Council. Joe Anderson, the Labour incumbent is not seeking re-election. He was arrested in December after accusations of corruption. The replacement Labour candidate is Joanne Anderson, no relation, who emerged after a messy selection process. The three who made an earlier shortlist – all Labour councillors – were barred from standing. Given that commissioners have been sent in to run the City, the election result is rather otiose for the immediate future.  Katie Burgess is the Conservative candidate. She certainly has no shortage of material for her campaign messages about Labour mismanagement.

West Yorkshire is electing its first Mayor this year. The West Yorkshire Combined Authority has the following member councils: Wakefield, Kirklees, Calderdale, Bradford and Leeds. That area includes Shipley, which comes under Bradford – represented by the Conservative MP Philip Davies. Keighley, another Bradford constituency was gained by the Conservatives in 2019. Calder Valley comes under Calderdale and has a Conservative MP. Most encouragingly we have the constituency of Wakefield – which was gained by Imran Ahmad Khan for the Conservatives at the last General Election. Parts of Leeds are covered by the constituencies of Pudsey, Morley and Outwood and Elmet and Rothwell – all three with Conservative MPs. (Morley and Outwood includes some wards that come under Wakefield Council.)

Then we have Dewsbury – another seat gained by the Conservatives at the last election and now represented by Mark Eastwood. It comes under Kirklees – as do another Conservative constituency, Colne Valley.

Yet even if we take the 2019 General Election as a guide – a cheerful set of results to reflect on – Labour would still have been slightly ahead among votes cast in this region. Some of their MPs still had big majorities – notably in Bradford. The electoral system for the Mayoral race may make it tougher still – with Green Party and Lib Dems voters tending to give Labour their second preferences.

Tracy Brabin is Labour’s candidate. She is currently the Party’s MP for Batley and Spen. She was embroiled in controversy after issuing a statement attacking the teacher suspended by Batley Grammar School for showing a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed, but then changing her stance. The Conservative candidate is Matthew Robinson. He’s a councillor in Leeds and works helping children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Robinson is the underdog but this should be a competitive race.

James Blagden: The Government cannot assume its majority is safe. It must continue to win over “Contract Conservatives”.

3 Dec

James Blagden is a researcher at Onward.

The day after last December’s election, the Prime Minister thanked those who “lent” their support to the Conservative Party. People who had never voted Conservative before, in places that had never returned anything other than a Labour MP, gave Boris Johnson their vote. But how many ‘”lent” votes were there, who are these temporary Tories, and can they be persuaded to stay?

The commentary this time last year was not about lent votes but “tactical voting” – the idea that voters would tactically coordinate and switch their votes to block a specific party. Remain United, People’s Vote and Best for Britain all attempted to persuade campaigners to align behind Remain parties and built websites to help them decide who to vote for.

But most of the evidence suggests that this kind of tactical voting – voting to block a particular candidate – simply didn’t happen. Labour suffered a historic collapse and the Liberal Democrats defied expectations in the wrong direction.

In fact, while many did lend their votes to non-ideal parties, this was contractual not merely tactical. In 2019, reluctant votes for the Conservatives were not just votes against challenger parties, but votes in return for a specific outcome.

In No Turning Back, Onward’s major analysis of the post-2019 electorate, we find that one in five Conservative voters supported the party despite it not being their ideal choice. Why? Mostly to “get Brexit done”. A majority (56 per cent) of these “Contract Conservatives” said they were voting to deliver Brexit, compared to 34 per cent of other Tory voters.

Contract Conservatives were more likely to have backed Leaving the European Union in 2016 (87 per cent) compared to other Conservative voters (74 per cent). In a sign of their antipathy to Jeremy Corbyn, they were also three times as likely as other Conservatives to say that they were voting to stop a party they disliked from winning.

But their political allegiances are febrile and there is reason to believe this group are not yet secured. 64 per cent said that they would ideally support the Brexit Party – and 34 per cent had voted UKIP in either 2015 or 2017.

Nor were Contract Conservatives too enthusiastic about the Conservative Party itself: only a quarter (25 per cent) voted for the party because they thought the Conservatives offered the best policies or had the leader who would be the best Prime Minister – compared to 57 per cent of the rest of the Conservative coalition.

But irrespective of their motivations, the Conservatives’ new voters have remarkably similar values to those already loyal to conservatism. In fact, they almost exactly overlap with other Conservative voters across both the economic and social dimensions. Both groups want politicians to be tough on crime and immigration and to invest in and support communities and local economies.

They are not particularly small-state or free-market: a majority support tax rises to pay for the NHS and boost public spending. They want a Government that regulates more rather than less and pushes businesses to do more to retrain workers in this country rather than bring in labour from abroad.

In the areas that they differ, these voters are dragging the party left on economics and right on culture – away from the coalition that David Cameron built. Contract Conservatives are more in favour of cutting the foreign aid budget than other Tory voters and more likely to think that immigration has made the country worse overall.

They are slightly more egalitarian and less meritocratic: 70 per cent think there are always opportunities in this country if you’re willing to work hard, compared to 83 per cent of other Conservatives. Both groups strongly believe that, as a society, we should encourage people to take more responsibility for themselves, but Contract Conservatives are less likely to think that unemployment benefits are too high (63 per cent, compared to 70 per cent of other conservatives).

The electoral impact of this cannot be overstated. This group of contract voters is roughly equal to 3.2 million people. Without these electors, the Conservative national vote share would have been 33 per cent in 2019, rather than 45 per cent, and their majority would have halved from 80 to 42.

Because millions of people voted Tory despite the Conservatives not being their ideal choice, the Party managed to net an extra 19 seats. These include Blyth Valley, Sedgefield (Tony Blair’s old seat), Great Grimsby and Wakefield. Overall, contract voting was decisive enough to alter the result in 63 constituencies – many in the Conservatives’ favour and with the largest swings in constituencies that had the highest support for Leaving the EU. In Bassetlaw and Great Grimsby around seven in 10 people voted for Brexit. Contract voting boosted the Conservatives by an extra 15 per cent in both of these places.

But this exposes the vulnerability of the 2019 Conservative coalition. If, in four years’ time, these contract voters feel let down or the Government has failed to deliver for them, then many of the iconic Conservative gains could fall back to Labour. The margin is very thin. As little as a 4.3 per cent swing from the Conservatives to Labour would be enough to generate a hung Parliament in 2024.

Given the link between the 2016 referendum result and the 2019 Conservative landslide, it is essential that the Government gets Brexit done. But that begs the question: What will replace Brexit as the central motivation for Contract Conservatives to keep voting Tory? If Brexit is resolved, why vote Conservative?

The Spending Review last week demonstrated that the Chancellor sees public services investment and levelling up as the two key policies that can fill the gap. He is right to focus his firepower there. Ultimately voters wanted to “get Brexit done” in order to invest in the NHS or boost regional growth, not just to leave the EU.

The challenge for the next three years is to show them that the Government has a plan for doing so after we leave. The Government’s increased NHS investment and new National Infrastructure Bank – something Onward called for – are important downpayments on that message.

The critical point is that the Conservatives cannot assume that the majority is safe. In fact, the softness of the vote and the changing nature of the electorate means it looks superficially large and could easily be lost. This means that the party has no option but to deliver on its promises, to level up left-behind places, and in doing so consolidate a new coalition that can endure. There must be no turning back.

Anand Menon: Our latest research finds that the Conservatives are divided on economics, but united on culture.

30 Jun

Anand Menon is Director of the UK in a Changing Europe.

Dominic Cummings must be rubbing his hands with glee. As more and more questions are raised about what some are calling the ‘lethal amaterurism’ that has characterised the Government’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis, the country spent most of June distracted by furious arguments about race and statues.

This has moved the debate on from Boris Johnson’s chief advisor’s unique approach to optical health. More importantly, a debate about values rather than health outcomes suits the Government down to the ground.

The referendum of 2016 polarized the country along values lines (between social liberals and social conservatives) rather than along the left-right cleavage that traditionally structured political competition.

Source: British Election Study

Nor was this a one-off phenomenon. The values division laid bare by the referendum went on to shape the nature of subsequent electoral competition. Think back to last year’s election.

The fact that the Conservatives won seats like Wakefield, Bishop Auckland and Workington, or that they won by 21 per cent among working class voters is testimony to the realignment that had taken place in our politics.

So too is the fact that in seats where over 60 per cent backed leave, the Tories increased their support by an average of six per cent, whereas in those seats where more than 60 per cent voted Remain, the party’s vote actually fell by three points.

The argument over statues that has been such a central part of the Black Lives Matter protests in this country has mobilized that same division. And it is terrain on which the Conservatives are relatively well equipped to fight.

Recent work carried out by the UK in a Changing Europe compares the attitudes of MPs, party members and voters, by asking each group a series of questions about fundamental ideological attitudes. The findings are revealing.

When it comes to social values, the Conservative clan looks relatively united. Even more importantly, on values they are far closer to those crucial voters who switched from Labour in 2017 to the Conservatives in 2019 than to Keir Starmer’s party.

But when it comes to the politics of left versus right – questions like whether ‘there is one rule for the rich and one for the poor’, and the idea that ‘ordinary working people do not get their fair share of the nation’s wealth’ – the picture could hardly be more different.

Conservative MPs are to the right of both their own party members and Conservative voters, and significantly to the right of those 2019 Labour-to-Conservative switchers. Labour, on the other hand, is not just far less internally divided but considerably closer to those lost voters.

Looking forward, then, the Conservatives have an interest in maintaining a focus on values. Think of it this way. On the (feigned) threat to Churchill’s statue in Parliament Square, the Conservative Party spoke with one voice and rallied behind Boris Johnson. When it comes to the economic response to Covid-19, the party’s backbenches are increasingly restless.

The easing of lockdown will focus attention firmly on economic recovery. How these issues are framed then takes on crucial importance. We face another decade in which political life will be shaped by the impact of an economic crisis.

The Conservative narrative may well seek to major not on the details of the economic response – on how great the role of the state should be, or how we pay for ballooning deficits – but on arguably more ‘ephemeral’ concerns.

Conservative commentators are already queuing up to point out that it is surely no longer a priority to publish gender pay gaps, or to ‘suffer a little for the sake of the planet.’ Others argue that fads like the war on plastic have been made redundant by the virus.

It seems Number 10 is, in the short term, planning a number of ways of triggering values divisions. The Sunday Times reported that the Government is planning to scrap plans to allow people to change their legal gender.

Other reports suggest that some in Downing Street are encouraging the Prime Minister to launch a ‘war on woke’. The hope is clearly to profit from profound values divisions within Labour’s electoral coalition and detatch voters who might, if it really were all about the economy, stupid, support the centre-left rather than the centre-right.

For Labour, then, the key will be to find a way to nullify this strategy. Paul Mason has rightly argued that the party must focus on coming up with a more convincing narrative about reshaping the role of the state in the economy, as a means of uniting a coalition that has fractured over the last decade over values questions.

The party now has a leader that the public, including Leave voters, find broadly convincing – and one who is going to be less easy to label as an unpatriotic ultra-liberal.

A narrative about economic fairness unites Labour and has the potential to tap into the ideological attitudes of the median voter.

The Government’s current plans to emerge from lockdown will create millions of economic losers, and the Conservatives look set to incur significant governing costs.

A laser like-focus on the economy and on the steps needed both to recover from the post-lockdown slowdown in such a way as to tackle the numerous inequalities that the pandemic has highlighted could command broad support, not least among those voters that fled the party last year.

As the recent Labour Together review of the 2019 election concluded, Labour could win by building support for a ‘big change economic agenda’ that neutralises cultural and social tensions.

Whatever happens, the relative impact of the two cleavages – left vs right and social liberal vs social conservative will be crucial. The relative success of each side in imposing its own agenda on the political debate will help determine who ultimately triumphs.

This article is a cross-post from the UK in a Changing Europe’s website.

Read the Mind the values gap report here.