Neil O’Brien is MP for Harborough.
British politics is like a car that has been hit by a side-on collision.
The Brexit vote smashed sideways across traditional party and class divides, sending large chunks of Britain’s political machinery spinning through the air, while crunching together strange new alliances.
Conservative activists mainly voted Leave, and Labour to Remain. But in areas where house prices were over £500,000, 70 per cent voted to remain, while places where house prices were just £100,000, 70 per cent voted to leave. Places that were “unwinnable” or “unlosable” for a one party suddenly… aren’t. It’s telling that there have been a record 89 occasions where an MP has changed party since 2017 (some moving more than once).
So far Boris Johnson has done a much better job of grabbing the flying pieces of British politics than Jeremy Corbyn: the latest opinion poll showed something that would once have been unthinkable: the Conservatives ahead of Labour among working class voters, in the north, in Scotland and in London.
Of course, the course of any general election is always uncertain. But the present conventional wisdom is that we need to keep our old friends, holding off the SNP and Liberal Democrats, while making new ones and driving deep into Labour territory in the north and midlands.
There’s loads that we need to do to keep softer, more liberal, younger voters. Obviously we need big initiatives on the environment and the other issues I wrote about last time. But this piece is about how we reach out to Our Friends In The North (and Midlands).
A new label has already been invented for voter we are trying to reach – “Workington Man”, named after the kind of constituency we need to win to win nationally.
A former mining town on the Cumbrian coast, Labour has a majority of 3,925 in Workington, and we haven’t won it since the 1970s. But then again, the same was true of neighbouring Copeland, until local Conservative champion Trudy Harrison took the seat off Labour in 2017.
What pollsters mean by Workington men (and women) are older, mainly white, home-owners in small towns and cities, who support Brexit, want less immigration and are tough on crime. But they want more spending on public services, and the NHS is the second biggest issue for them. They think globalisation is bad, and live in areas with a strong Labour history. They think it has become harder for people like them to make a decent living and think the wealthiest in society have generally earned their money by exploiting others (though three quarters of all voters agree with these statements). They are unhappy about deindustrialisation and want government to support British industry.
While the north and midlands account for 39 per cent of the population of Britain, 29 out of the 50 most marginal Labour seats (58 per cent) are found there. Despite the disastrous campaign of 2017, we already picked up some of the kinds of seats we need to win: Mansfield, Middlesbrough South & East Cleveland, Walsall North, Stoke on Trent South, North East Derbyshire.
How do we now win over Wakefield, Warrington, and Wolverhampton South West? And in the longer term, how do we best serve people in these communities? As well as our popular domestic policies – 20,00 more police, ending soft sentencing, boosting school and NHS funding, what’s the right policy for these places?
Some investments that might help are immediately popular with voters (say a new tram line or a new cultural facility). Others might not interest voters much, but might be more effective over the long term, like tax breaks for capital investment and innovation in poorer areas. Ultimately areas succeed or fail on their ability to attract private business investment.
We need some things that make a positive difference right now (like the Prime Minister’s new “Our Town” grants to clean up town centres) and also policies that work long term – like providing money and help to local councils to rationalise town centres hit by internet shopping, which will often involve turning parts of them into residential areas.
There is a big choice to make about our fiscal rules before the campaign starts. Do we say that we will keep debt as a share of GDP falling, and have a simple, clear, distinction from Corbyn? Or should our rules focus on controlling day-to-day spending, while taking advantage of globally low interest rates to give the country and massive infrastructure upgrade, with smooth new black by-passes, closed railway lines reopening and freaky-quick broadband rolling out across the nation? There are big arguments on both sides.
Boris Johnson should make more of his personal story: twice mayor of Europe’s biggest city, he is the most famous person from local government. He has a personal passion for levelling up and empowering less favoured places.
Perhaps the detailed plans government set out for quite specific areas in the 2015 campaign could make a return? In that election we launched things like “The Long Term Economic plan for Cornwall” and “What we will do in the first 100 days for Cornwall.” They helped focussed the mind of government.
Getting less well off places to grow faster is hard, and many well intentioned politicians schemes have failed or even been counterproductive. But in some way Britain hasn’t tried: Sadiq Khan gets his own big pot of money for transport and housing – something no other area gets – and London had taken nearly half the housing spend.
For decades, we have spent half our science budget in Oxford, Cambridge and London, while businesses own research is way more balanced across the country.
That leads me to the germ of a thought. One thing we underplay in getting less rich areas moving is research and development. R&D isn’t a big issue for most voters, but it’s the very essence of economic growth. Investment in R&D has fallen miles below the international average over decades. Business investment is half the rate in Germany and a third of the rate in techno-superpowers like Korea and Israel.
But as well as jacking up investment in research, we need to change what we do with it. Apart from the brief period in which David Willetts identified “eight great technologies” where we had potential to lead, UK research has had no sense of strategic direction. But a scattergun approach won’t work. We also do too much primary research, and too little industrial development, allowing competitors to exploit our ideas. Under 40 per cent of our R&D spending goes on industrial development, compared to over 80 per cebt in China. Let’s make initiatives like SBRI work and make SMART grants easier to get.
Let’s back firms to invest much more in R&D, spread government investment across the country and make it more focussed on industry. Let Boris be the man to bring the white heat of the technological future to places that for years have felt consigned to the past.