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Meanwhile in other news

January 24th, 2019

What’s happening on the High Street & other developments

This month, the newspapers, television, radio and social media have been consumed by Brexit. You might have noticed.

In other news, Marks & Spencer have announced the closure of another 17 branches. Patisserie Valerie has gone into administration, with up to 3,000 jobs at risk: 70 branches are closing immediately. Santander is closing 140 branches across the UK, putting over 1000 jobs at risk. With Debenhams also closing stores and HMV in administration, many retailers are under heavy pressure and the traditional high street is being hammered.

It’s not just the high street that’s seen big news. In the last week, Sony has announced that it is to move its European head offices from Britain to the Netherlands. Dyson’s head offices are moving to Singapore. Philips Avent are to close their factory in Glemsford, Suffolk, with the loss of 400 jobs. AXA XL, an insurer, is relocating jobs to Dublin.

You can overdo the doom and gloom. On the other side of the coin, employment is touching record highs, as are job vacancies, and wage growth has picked up. The good news is less visible than the bad news because the disasters are usually big and the good news is largely comprised of many small decisions.

Many can and do choose to see these things through a Brexit prism. The desire to create new Remain and Leave parables is strong among many who have closer affinities to adherents to a faith than to rational politicians. There is something in it too.

In reality though, the continuities are more striking than the changes. Employment data, though not wages growth, have been surprisingly strong throughout this decade. Conversely, the high street has been hollowing out for a decade or more: Woolworths went bust in 2008. Both the Netherlands and Ireland have been filching work from Britain for many years too: Shell’s headquarters migrated to the Netherlands in 2004, for example.

This leads on to three important points. First, Brexit is just one motor of change at present, and not an especially big one. There are many other more powerful motors driving current trends. It might be attracting all the attention at the moment but Brexit is not solving the problems of the age, far from it.

Yet many people voted for Brexit because they perceived Britain to be going in the wrong direction. And so to my second point, which is that the process of Brexit is doing nothing to lead to the change of direction that they crave and may in fact be intensifying the previous trend. Manufacturing continues to be hollowed out, high streets continue to be gutted. If you look at where the damage is being done, the Leave-voting heartlands continue to be hammered.

For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath. Every single one of the latest 17 M&S closures are in areas that voted Leave, including Boston, Newark, Rotherham and Deal. The recent positive benefits have been felt elsewhere.

My third point follows from this. At present Leave supporters seem intent on securing Brexit as an end in itself. At some point, however, they will notice that globalisation has continued and that things have deteriorated further. What are the political parties going to say to them at that point? Brexit is not a policy but a framework which policies can inhabit.

Despite claiming the mantle of the party of Brexit, the Conservatives have been so consumed by the architectural challenges that they have not looked at what the soft furnishings might entail. Labour, less weighed down by the obsessions of a lunatic mainstream, have given some thought to this and have built much of their messaging on this around the Centre For Towns prospectus that Lisa Nandy co-founded.  

The fallout from the process of Brexit provides many challenges for the Conservatives, not the smallest of which is whether they can remain a single party and reunite around a fresh prospectus. At some point they are going to have to start thinking about the challenges that the public are actually facing on a day-to-day basis rather than engaging in theological disputes over the eschatological nature of Brexit. If they don’t, they face a rout at the next general election at the hands of the Labour party, which at least has some answers to these questions.

There are no signs of this happening. While the Conservatives remain neck and neck in the polls with Labour, they’re strategically in an awful position, lacking any forward-looking prospectus at all. This failure was exposed in the general election campaign in 2017 and it nearly cost them power. They look set to be making the same mistake again next time. They’re currently marginal favourites on Betfair to win most seats next time round (last matched at 2.08). Right now that looks like a clear lay.

Alastair Meeks