Richard Holden is MP for North West Durham.
Chatterbox Café, Marketplace, St John’s Capel, Weardale
Grabbing a sausage bap (on brown, butter and brown sauce) and coffee (black, no sugar) from the Chatterbox Café in St John’s Chapel yesterday, I remembered it was Father’s Day, and that my dad had come up to campaign with me in the very spot where I was sitting last year. So a phonecall and a natter about how him and mum are managing – and I as no longer the least favoured child.
Like millions of other families across the country and thousands in North West Durham, the lockdown has really affected him and my mum. While she’s been doing more shifts as a ward clerk at the local community hospital back in East Lancashire, my dad has had to shield with my grandma, for whom he’s a carer and, therefore, socially distance from my mum, even in their own home.
As we slowly emerge from the global health pandemic element of Coronavirus though, for the country and my constituents, it’s the barrel of its economic consequences that we’re now staring down.
The biggest fall in GDP ever last week was made only too real last Thursday for many of my constituents. Back in my slowly opening-up constituency, I visited the large local employer who’d emailed the day before.
It makes the aluminium parts that go into the wings of planes (which allow a flex of up to 45 degrees – so when you see those plane wings move, it’s the men and women of Consett who’ve made that possible). They take on apprentices, and their highly skilled local workers earn, on average, just under £30,000 a year, with their most experienced workers earning about £40,000.
Due to the collapse in travel, the knock-on hit on the airlines, the further knock-on hit on aircraft leasing and the subsequent knock-on impact, therefore, on aircraft manufacture, they’re going to have to lay off half of their workforce – over 100 people.
Speaking to their plant manager on site on Friday, it was clear that, if it hadn’t been for huge investment in recent years and major efficiency improvements, the plant would now be under threat of closure. As it is, they’re in a position of being able to survive, and they have my commitment to do everything I can to help them secure more work from wherever possible.
This economic challenge that we’re now facing is at least as significant as the health one we’ve just faced. But the Left has barely mentioned it. Most of them are fine – all the polling shows that many of Labour’s most loyal graduate voter base in cities will have been on full pay, working from home.
Indeed, the activist left appear to have been most active at trying to ignite a culture war. Even Labour-led Durham Council has announced they are conducting “a review of all statues and monuments” a couple of weeks ago, as it simultaneously ignored the pleas of local businesses while coning-off previously open disabled parking bays in Crook, Consett and Willington, in order to prevent people from being able to get to the newly re-opened shops last week.
On a national level, after an early barrister’s bounce presenting his opening case, Keir Starmer has started to flap under cross-examination himself. Trying to keep the Labour membership, Labour councils such as ours, Rebecca Long-Bailey and the more extreme elements of the National Education Union happy by refusing to support the Government as it tries to get schools back makes him look increasingly tin-eared to the concerns of ordinary voters.
My constituents are also increasingly concerned about wanting to get ‘back to normal’ in terms of our NHS – with many having seen long-planned operations cancelled – so they want to get hospitals back to normal as soon as possible, too.
But the biggest concern is about the economy and, to my constituents, that means opportunities to work in good, well-paid jobs and local businesses that are able to thrive. Without demand returning, times are going to get increasingly tough. When it comes down to it, “levelling up” is certainly about improving health and education but the driver of that, as Boris Johnson said during last year’s Conservative leadership campaign, is the “other wing that Labour always forget about” – the strong and vibrant economy that pays for it all.
As we’ve seen over the last few weeks in terms of trade deals internationally with Japan, Australia and New Zealand, we’re well on the way. Britain’s approach to the EU, by which we seek a free trade agreement but will clearly take control back of our own borders, money and laws, is the right one to give certainty about what we’re after too. That’s solid, welcomed and good for the long-term.
During the next few weeks or so, though, the Government faces immediate challenges on how we drop a gear to get the economy accelerating again, as we move beyond direct state support from grants and furlough. When they do so, Ministers should consider the businesses small and large, from tourism to transport at the heart of those changes. The primary change we need to make is to switch from saying “what’s allowed to open” to instead specifying “what in the interest of public health needs to continue to be restricted.”
Good jobs are the foundation of a solid economy and society. As Starmer sits on the fence, pulled to a stalemate in a perpetual tug-of-war from both sides of his party, while locally Labour wastes time and taxpayers’ cash on trying to mastermind its own mini-cultural revolution, the overwhelming majority of what we must do is to tackle the impact of Coronavirus on the economy.
Ensuring that we get demand going to save as many jobs and businesses as possible, and deliver for the fathers and families of North West Durham and across our country must be our number one priority. At times like this, we need to remember the words of Iain Macleod, the only other person I’m aware of who entered politics after attending my old grammar school in North Yorkshire, who spoke at the Conservative Party Conference exactly 60 years ago: “The Socialists can scheme their schemes, and the Liberals can dream their dreams, but we in the Conservative Party have got work to do.”