Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.
The People’s Priorities
Usually, my inbox is flooded with emails on every conceivable subject, from animal rights to free school meals and Universal Credit. But, bar a few robotised missives, I have had barely a peep from Harlow residents about Lulu Lytle, John Lewis, wallpaper or sofas. Neither has interior design been mentioned on the doorsteps to our local council candidates.
Although this may be unfathomable to the Westminsterocacy, is this really that surprising? The country has been in a state of national emergency. We appear to be getting over the worst of the pandemic, the vaccination programme has exceeded all expectations and the gradual padlock removal from the lockdown gates is upon us.
In the run-up to local elections, much of the farrago is seen as political opportunism. Not least with the leader of the Labour Party posing in John Lewis with a wallpaper roll – an Ed Miliband “bacon roll” moment (although at least this went viral).
So, without counting chickens, I am relatively hopeful for these elections. Conservatives have run a gritty street campaign focusing on affordable housing, education and skills, and value for council taxpayers. Good Conservative councils cost you less.
Meanwhile, in a hangover from the Corbyn era, in my constituency of Harlow, a Labour Candidate has been campaigning and organising a petition against an army Cadet course in a local school. Not quite the people’s priorities. Starmer has a lot of work to do if he is to change his party a la Blair.
In the meantime, every good wish to Conservative council candidates and to all campaigning volunteers activists, every good luck and success. You deserve it.
The Watchful Peace
Whatever happens tomorrow at the polling stations, it really does mean that, in terms of the pandemic here in the UK, the era of the “Watchful Peace” is upon us.
Unlike last summer, during which I dutifully munched holiday burgers to “Eat Out to Help Out” and naively imagined the worst was over, this time it really does feel a little different.
If we can keep various Covid strains from entering the country (or at least like South Korea, successfully knocking them on the head when they arrive), we could get back to the way things used to be, before March 2020.
The question is, of course, how back to normal will things ever be? Is everyone just going to crowd back on commuter trains, or spend hours in traffic driving to and from work on the M1, M4 and M11? Will the urban Pret a Mangers suddenly fill up once again? Can our larger office buildings in the City be rejuvenated as the worker-bees return?
For my part, I hope not. It is not that I want to stay at home – far from it. I am looking forward to the day when Parliament is back to its old self once again.
However, if there can be more balance between work and home life, surely that can only be a good thing? If people spend more time in their own communities, local economies, small businesses and employment all stand to benefit, not just those of large cities. If there is less commuting and travelling, that means less traffic, pollution and more importantly, a significant cut to the cost of living.
I believe that employers should decide where they need their employees to be, but many will be more imaginative than they have been in the past. There are huge savings in office costs to be had and potentially more productive workers.
With the advent of Microsoft Teams and Google, connections are that much easier. Of course, nothing will ever substitute human relationships and face-to-face meetings, especially networking and sealing the deal. However, I suspect under the watchful peace, it will be more quality over quantity.
Not forgetting the private sector workers who kept the show on the road during Covid
But in speaking of the above, I am just referring to those employees who have been able to work from home during the pandemic – predominantly, the so-called “professional classes”.
The other day, I was called by a national newspaper asking me if I would give a supportive quote to the idea of public sector workers getting a medal for all they have done during the pandemic. “Absolutely”, I said, “but what about all those millions of workers from the private sector who also kept the show on the road – the supermarket workers, delivery lorry drivers, couriers, pharmacy employees and many more besides?”
Unlike the employees I was referring to in the previous segment, not only don’t they have the luxury of even having the option of being able to work from home, but travail for long hours on low pay. There are no 38 Degree-style automated campaigns battling for their wage increases, or a proper pension.
Recognising the millions of people in the private sector who did so much during the Coronavirus can’t just be about a medal. I have long believed that the central purpose of levelling up must mean cutting the cost of living for those just about managing.
The Government should recognise their contribution by focusing on further tax cuts for the lower paid and strengthening their employment rights so that these workers can also enjoy a quality of life.