Richard Holden is MP for North West Durham.
The restrictions of the Corornvirus pandemic showed us that it doesn’t take long to adapt to a new ‘normal.’ As Parliament returned last week, the Palace of Westminster is feeling very much ‘back to normal’.
Whether it was the crowds massed on the pavement outside the Red Lion in Westminster, MPs in the chamber of the House of Commons, or the huge numbers of people at the Wolsingham, Stanhope and Weardale Agricultural Shows in North West Durham during the last few weeks, people have been voting with their feet as restrictions have been eased.
While the attitude towards the lifting of restrictions is ubiquitous, returning to my constituency after a week in Parliament reminded me just how stark the divide between ‘the bubble’ and the people can be.
For the last eighteen months, MPs have had to rely on what’s been happening on social media and been coming into their inboxes. Aside from individual casework issues, those channels are used by the most politically engaged members of the electorate with regard to policy. Since the easing of restrictions though, it’s been good to have those chats in the pub, shop, or at the local shows – with the nine in ten members of the public who don’t regularly reach for their keyboard to share their views.
With the party conference season about to begin – the fleeting moment when each of our major parties gets guaranteed extensive news coverage – if I were Keir Starmer or a Labour MP thinking about my future, I would be deeply concerned.
Beside my little gazebo at the Stanhope Show on Saturday, it was patently obviously that the Labour leader isn’t making inroads. For the constituents who knew his name unprompted, he appeared to be synonymous with playing politics during the pandemic and, as one constituent put it, “just like Corbyn, going against just for the sake of saying something.”
Labour’s recent stance ron delivering extra funding for the NHS has caused further puzzlement at best, but more oftem derision. “Everyone knows that the pandemic has caused a build up of waiting lists. I don’t understand what he’s doing!” said one 2019 Labour voter. “I don’t want too much more tax, but I heard Labour voted against more money for the NHS – I don’t understand how they could do that” said a traditional Labour voter who didn’t support that party in 2019, following up her comment with the view that she was very unlikely to vote Labour ever again.
Amongst those who are aware of him, Starmer has established a toxic dual reputation as both flip-flopping and politically opportunistic. It is possible that a 14,000 word essay that – according to media briefings – contains no policy will change that view, but I find that unlikely.
The real contrast between Westminster and the Wear Valley this week, though, has been on policy. It was always going to be tough bringing some of the financial support that was there during the pandemic to an end.
However, much of the coverage within the Westminster bubble has been quite lazy. “Red Wall Revolt” seems to have been the tone of much of the media coverage. The majority of last week’s Conservatives rebels, such as John Redwood, were long-standing Conservatives MPs.
With the bubble chatter obsessed by a potential reshuffle and the personalities involved (who’s in/out/up/down/sideways) it feels as though the journalists have got a headline, and decided they want to facts to fit it – while elsewhere they concentrate on the personalities. My constituents definitely don’t want to see money wasted. But they really do seem to grasp the bigger issues of the NHS and Social Care.
Lynton Crosby used to talk of ‘barnacles on the boat’ and, 21 months in, three national level barnacles now concern me ahead of the next election: the post-pandemic jobs recovery, NHS waiting lists, and getting a handle on illegal migration.
The first two look well within the Government’s sights, and the Immigration Bill is currently making its way through Parliament to deal with the third. These are big issues that need to be constantly monitored – but it’s clear that Ministers recognise how important they all are and are working on them.
That leaves the floor open for the Prime Minister to be positive – to be able to push the vision as well as show that we’re dealing with the big issues facing the country. I hope that he ‘doubles down on levelling up’ in his Party Conference speech. With Labour unwilling – and perhaps unable – to really change because they’re so divided, he has a clear opportunity to move on from the difficulties of the pandemic and to set out what I know he’ll have been wanting to talk about for the last 18 months.
Conveniently, Starmer is still stuck in an internal debate deciding whether or not Jeremy Corbyn can be both, neither, or one of a party member and a Labour MP. The Conservative Party are lucky with our enemy, and must make the opportunity that Starmer is presenting to us.