Neil O’Brien: Policies for a new Britain – in which the central point for new Tory MPs is moors on Sheffield’s edge
Neil O’Brien is MP for Harborough.
The rain fell. As the weeks of the campaign went by, bright orange Halloween pumpkins rotted on doorsteps, while Christmas decorations gradually went up. Across the country floods came and receded. The short days got even shorter.
A man in a beautiful big Georgian house with a very large Apple Mac in the window told me that we had ruined the country. A man in a bungalow on an estate told me that he’d voted Labour his whole life, but this time he would be voting Conservative.
Leaflets went soggy in the drizzle. Towns and villages turned on their Christmas lights. More rain fell, and then, at the end of it all, there was a flood tide of a different kind. A blue tide, sweeping across the country, particularly in the midlands and north.
That flood has washed away old familiar landmarks. The Beast of Bolsover is gone. Jo Swinson is gone. Jeremy Corbyn is going. The “People’s Vote” campaign has shut down in the light of… how people voted. “Workington Man”, much discussed at the start of the campaign, really did turn Conservative, and sent Mark Jenkinson to Parliament.
Laura Piddock, who’d vowed never to be friends with a Conservative, was replaced by one: Richard Holden.
The Conservative Party has been profoundly changed by the election. Since 1997 we’ve gone from having from three per cent to 34 per cent of seats in the North East. From 13 per cent to 43 per cent of seats in the North West. From 13 per cent to 48 per cent in Yorkshire. From nought per cent to 35 per cent of seats in Wales. And from 24 per cent to 75 per cent of seats in the West Midlands.
Our new intake are 30 per cent of the parliamentary party. And their seats are different. In 2001, we had just no seats in the 30 per cent most deprived constituencies in England. In 2010, we had 24. Now it is 49 of those seats. In 2001, we had just 14 seats in the most deprived half of England. Now we have 116.
Look at the change another way. Average out where in English Conservative MPs elected in 2017 represented, and the centre point was down in the Speaker’s leafy Buckingham constituency. Average out the newly elected Conservative MPs in England in 2019, and the central point is out on the wild and windy moors on the edge of Sheffield. It would take you a long time, but you can now walk almost the whole length of the Pennine Way without leaving a Conservative constituency.
The Prime Minister also has the chance now to go on an epic trek: one to change the face of British politics forever.
It goes without saying that we need to keep our promises on GBD (Getting Brexit Done) and the NHS. But we can’t let Whitehall just KBO with business-as-usual.
I don’t think we will. The signs of last week’s earthquake have been there for some time, and people like Dominic Cummings have the most been attuned to them. Even some of the 2019 strategy has been road-tested before. Under Cummings in 2001, the no euro campaign ran “Never Mind the Euro, what about our hospitals?” flyposters, riffing on famous the Sex Pistols album cover.
In the James Frayne/Dom Cummings led-campaign against the North East Assembly in 2004, the campaign had a strong anti-politics-as-usual slant, with ads condemning the cost of the proposed “talking shop” for ordinary people.
But now we have a majority, how to respond to the dissatisfaction that’s been growing for so long?
Once we get Brexit done, we should be conspicuous in the use of our new freedoms. We could axe the hated tampon tax or cut VAT on fuel. We can improve animal welfare, banning live exports and puppy smuggling. We could end the absurd practice of paying child benefits to children living overseas. We could help small business, reviewing legislation that curtails lending like the CRD IV and Solvency 2. We could replace bureaucratic EU regional development funding with something better, and end the environmental waste of the CAP and Common Fisheries Policies.
Things like the review of sentencing and end of early release are key to showing the county is under new management.
But the question I am most interested in personally is whether we can have a bold enough economic policy that people in the newly gained Conservative seats can see the difference in five years’ time.
Let’s be clear: many of the places we’ve gained have suffered economic decline for many decades. There is a good economic case for levelling up: there are no major countries that are richer per head than Britain and have a more geographically unbalanced economy. More balanced growth is stronger. But to get it, we need to mobilise in an unprecedented way.
I’d suggest four ways to level up.
First, rebalance the government’s most growth-enhancing spending. Spending which most spurs growth is too concentrated on places that are already successful. We should rebalance spending on innovation, transport, housing and culture to lift the performance of poorer areas. Government should rethink the focus on current demand levels and current strengths which creates a vicious circle for less wealthy areas.
Second, we should recognise that Britain has de-industrialised more than any other G20 country since 1990; that the UK’s tax system is currently uniquely hostile to manufacturing and other types of capital-intensive businesses; and that this has a particularly negative effect on lagging parts of the country which are more reliant on manufacturing.
Despite its small share of overall GDP, manufacturing makes an outsize contribution to productivity growth and compared to professional services is more likely to happen outside city centres.
While manufacturing accounted for around a quarter of productivity growth nationally since 1997, it provided 40-50 per cent of productivity growth in poorer regions like Wales, the West Midlands and North West. More generous capital allowances would help lagging regions, but currently EU rules limit the places in which we can offer such allowances. Let’s use our new freedom.
Third, lets recognise the centrality of private sector investment in growth. Moving public sector jobs around doesn’t cut it. We need private inward investment. That means souping up DIT and making sure we are using every weapon including tax breaks to attract higher end private sector jobs to poorer places.
The highlight of the Conservative manifesto for me was the pledge to invest a stonking £3.2 billion a year in R&D by the end of the Parliament. But unless we spend differently, it won’t benefit lagging areas.
So, fourth, we have to shift the balance of government R&D: from mainly in universities to more happening in firms. From fundamental research, to more applied (like in China and the Asian economies). And from half the core budget being spent in three cities, (London, Cambridge and Oxford) to a distribution more in line with the geographically balanced spending of the private sector.
And more. We should learn from the Connell Review and the way the US uses ringfenced budgets for innovative procurement to put rocket boosters under small tech firms. We should build up innovate UK and make it easier to get SMART grants too.
Obviously, there are a zillion other things: sorting out the over-expansion of low-value university arts courses and under-investment in apprenticeships. Building on funding to fix run down town centres… there’s masses to do.
But above all, somewhere in Whitehall there has to be a strong central point to make all this happen “by any means necessary”.
We start with a huge river of goodwill from this election. Now we need to channel it to get the wheels turning again for places that feel left-behind.
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