New LAB member polling has them rating Corbyn as their most favourable ever

January 21st, 2020

A reminder to LAB members about why so many GE2017 voters defected last month

Mike Smithson


Johnson’s opening gift to Starmer – scrapping HS2?

January 21st, 2020

Being portrayed as anti-north so soon after the election might not be smart

The biggest mistake that was made over HS2 was to call it just that. It sounds like a vanity project which is exactly what it isn’t. The new line would free up chronic under-capacity on the existing West Coast Main Line including for all the local and commuter services. If this had been billed as “West Coast Mainline upgrade” it wouldn’t have attracted anything like the opposition.

So a decision to scrap it has much wider implications than just being able to travel between London and Birmingham a few minutes  faster. For it was in the north and the midlands where the Tory campaign picked up the vast bulk of its seat gains. These helped it absorb the losses in Scotland and enable it to have a stonking majority.

To scrap it so soon within only a few weeks of the election victory has huge political dangers for the Tories in the parts of England where they prospered most and which Labour ‘s new leader would dearly want to win back.

The party has got so used to facing the feeble opposition that Corbyn’s LAB represented that it has failed to comprehend how the political world will change with a new leader. Whoever wins the current contest is going to be very different and more politically astute. What a great issue scrapping HS2 would be to Starmer

All Johnson’s promises on helping the north would pale into insignificance.

Mike Smithson


LAB leadership latest

January 21st, 2020


Political cross-dressing

January 20th, 2020

One of the oddest political developments is how certain concerns are seen as the exclusive property of one side or other of the Left/Right political divide, almost regardless of the nature of the issue or the reality of a party’s record.

Green issues, for instance. The general assumption is that being concerned about these puts you on the left side of the axis. Take this quote. 

“…..consumption, waste and environmental change has so stretched the planet’s capacity that our contemporary lifestyle, unsustainable as it is, can only precipitate catastrophes, such as those which even now periodically occur in different areas of the world.”

Who might the author be?(*) George Monbiot? David Attenborough? Caroline Lucas, perhaps? It is certainly a sentiment with which they would agree. The belief that the selfishness or indifference of existing (and past) generations has damaged (perhaps ruined) the next generation’s prospects and the planet is one widely felt amongst many in the Green movement. It is summed up in the description of our “contemporary lifestyle” (a consumer capitalist lifestyle naturally) as “unsustainable”. Implicit in it is the belief that only state action can put matters right.  

Both assumptions have a great deal of truth in them but need a rather more critical eye than they generally get. Some of the worst environmental damage has occurred in countries where the collective was considered far more important than the  individual, where a consumer lifestyle was an unattainable dream. The Soviet Union – in its determination to industrialise and exploit its natural resources – was a perfect example. Its consequences affect Russia and surrounding countries to this day: some of the worst air pollution in the world, contamination of the earth and groundwater in Dzerzhinsk, a former chemical weapons production centre, Lake Karachay now radioactive, having being used as a dump for nuclear waste, rivers so full of chemical pollutants that they cannot freeze even in sub-zero temperatures, the loss of 90% of Lake Aral etc. Resources may have been owned and managed by the state for the People (in theory) but the interests of actual people in having clean water, clean air and not being poisoned by harmful substances dumped where they lived were, in reality, ignored. All this has incalculable, long-lasting and harmful consequences for the natural environment, current inhabitants and the unborn. Nor is there much chance of this changing, despite Communism’s disappearance. Putin thinks climate change a Western theory invented to hold back Russia’s development.

No economic model has a monopoly on selfishness and unsustainability, it seems. But too often some in the Green movement give the impression that only Western capitalism is at fault, that punishment, blame and attacking the bad guys are almost more important than finding workable solutions to put matters right. The real criticism of groups like Extinction Rebellion is that their irritatingly stupid attempts to disrupt public transport, their desire to make people feel strongly about the issue (“Emotionality is the only way you can get people to do something” as one of their co-founders has said) risk provoking an equally emotional and opposite reaction in response. If being green is seen as a desire to impose a sort of ascetic hairshirt mortification on people, rather than a genuine attempt to find workable solutions, it will likely repel those whose support is needed if effective measures are to succeed.

Still, the similarity between Putin’s views and Trump’s determination to ignore scientific evidence about climate change and environmental harm, to view it as a conspiracy against American economic interests, is striking. It is one shared by a number of right-wing / conservative governments who seem to view green issues as a pretext for an attack on capitalism, growth and individual liberty, an excuse for state control over both economy and people. Hence the description of Greens as “watermelons”: ostensibly green but really reds under the bed (or your car) itching to ban your holiday flight.

If so, this is perhaps in part because conservatives have not as seriously engaged in the debate as they should (Mrs Thatcher’s 1990 UN speech notwithstanding) some preferring ad hominem attacks on the messengers demanding action or pointing out the undoubted hypocrisies of the “Do as I say not as I do” brigade.  Time has been spent contesting the science rather than on R&D. Or they have presented the argument as one between those wanting economic growth to help the poor and those rich enough not to worry grandly telling others what to do. It is a false – if superficially attractive – choice. An unsustainable economic model or lifestyle risks short-term growth followed by bust, which rarely benefits the poor. (Cynics might wonder at the remarkably convenient focus on the poor by those wanting no change to a system which suits them very well indeed.) 

On one reading, it is very unconservative to think that only economic growth, regardless of the consequences, matters, that only financial inheritances count. Edmund Burke described society as “a contract between the dead, the living and those yet to be born”. This beautifully encapsulates why we should want to preserve the best of the past, both man-made and natural, why we should consider ourselves temporary guardians of our world holding it in trust for the future, why we have an obligation to sustain it so that it can be passed on in good order, why we should not be so arrogant as to think we can use it as we want or so selfish as to ignore the considerations of future generations. Our politics should reflect the “democracy of the living world” (to misquote G.K. Chesterton) and not just the people currently in it.  

Conservation – of buildings, natural habitats, plant and animal species, ways of life, traditions and activities rooted in a love and understanding of place and our dependence on nature, developing sustainable – rather than wasteful – ways of living  – should not be seen as “Green crap” to be discarded when it all becomes too politically difficult or inconvenient. Being green is not just about saving polar bears or stopping fires and floods in faraway countries. It is about, for instance: housing developments at home being intelligently designed and built with sustainable community and transport infrastructure; people living in well built energy efficient homes; sustainable farming using natural processes producing high quality food (rather than Monbiot’s latest idiotic idea to put the Googles of this world in control of providing us with artificial food); discouraging waste – and not just bad stuff like plastics but material which could be used (why, for instance, don’t we value and use the magnificent wool from Herdwick sheep here rather than importing pashminas from thousands of miles away or using foam insulation?) and much else besides. Being green involves changes in attitude (less waste, repair not throwing away), individual daily actions and collective action by individual states, acting on their own and with others. It involves making some difficult political and economic choices – taxing air travel, for instance.

The dangers of appearing to be a (possibly reluctant) latecomer to an issue which now appears to be higher up the public’s agenda than before is that you are fighting on ground which has been defined by others. The issue is seen as a cause. Intensity of belief matters more than coming up with practical solutions. Criticisms may be viewed as arising from a lack of commitment rather than from evidence-based objections. You risk having no alternative practical solutions to put forward. Your conversion to such policies may be seen as a gimmick (“Vote Blue, Go Green”), inconsistent or as good intentions to be abandoned at the slightest political pressure. (How confident can anyone be that, if the price of an FTA with the US is to reduce UK environmental standards, that price would not be paid.) 

It need not be like this. The sustainability and fairness of our economic model, what growth means, whether it is possible to develop without despoiling, how to come up with practical action on climate change and the environment – not merely talk – are key political issues and ones on which the intelligent (small “c”) conservative voice should be heard.

(*) Pope Francis.



Two weeks into LAB’s leadership election and Starmer’s looking good

January 20th, 2020

It seems to have been going on for an eternity but it was just a fortnight ago that Labour’s NEC formally launched the election to choose a successor to Corbyn to lead the party following its fourth successive General Election defeat. The first round involved getting the backing of MPs while the second is about winning the support of constituency parties and affiliated bodies like trade unions.

If a contender wants to go down the affiliate route it requires the backing of bodies that consist of at least 5% of affiliate members including at least two trade unions. The constituency route to the postal ballot involves getting 33 constituency Labour parties to nominate them.

If the early constituency party numbers are indicative then it looks as though Starmer and Long-Bailey will dominate. On the affiliate pathway Starmer has already secured the 5% threshold but he does require one more to nominate him.

Based on what we’ve seen so far Long-Bailey and Starmer look set for the final ballot with perhaps Nandy making it as well. Thornberry and Phillips need some backing soon in order to remain relevant.

There have been three selectorate polls so far two from YouGov, with Starmer ahead and the other one from Survation with RLB in the lead. Looking at the details of the lower preferences in the latest two polls it’s clear that Long-Bailey is going to struggle in the final ballot unless she can make it with a majority on the first count.

It is hard to argue with the Betfair punters who currently make Starmer a 70% chance. That might change but there been little signs so far.

Mike Smithson


Buttigieg’s powerful new argument two weeks before Iowa : When the Dems choose an old insider they lose

January 19th, 2020

Their White House winners in recent times have been with young outsiders

I’ve just had an email from an old acquaintance who has recently visited Iowa where he attended a packed Pete Buttigieg meeting, asked questions of the young contender and got himself a selfie. This is from his email.

He said one thing that interested me: The Dems always do better when they have someone who is new to the National Stage – Obama, Clinton, even Carter, for example, were not from Washington. JFK was “next gen”. Whereas they never do well with older or more experienced Washington candidates. The Dems surely did well to choose JFK over Stevenson, who wanted to run for the third time, for example.  Hilary Clinton, Gore, Kerry, Mondale, Humphrey – all lost. Of course, having a non-Washington candidate doesn’t guarantee success (Dukakis, McGovern). But the claim that (older) insiders never win for the Dems is interesting. If he can get traction with that, then maybe people will wonder whether Biden is another Humphrey. 

Another thing that could hinder Sanders and Warren is that they are both Senators who in the two weeks between now and the Iowa caucuses will find it difficult to leave Washington because they’ll be tied up with the impeachment process.

Buttigieg has bet the farm on Iowa and there’s a good chance he’ll succeed.

Mike Smithson


Johnson/Cummings propose moving the House of Lords to York

January 19th, 2020

If not London then York is as good as it gets

There’s a single column story on the front page of the Sunday Times that reads like one of those spoofs you see on April Fools day suggesting that Johnson wants to move the Lords permanently to York. The paper’s Tim Shipman reports:

The prime minister last week ordered work to begin on the practicalities of a move, in further evidence that the Conservatives are serious about cementing their gains in what were once Labour’s heartlands. Disused government-owned land close to York railway station has already been identified as a prime site to build a new second chamber.

If York is chosen as the Lords’ new home, it will be the first time the city has been a centre of political power since the English Civil War, when it played host to the Council of the North.

As a former resident I think that it’s a good idea. If you’re going to move anywhere then York with it’s historical significance seems on the right tracks. After all the Synod of the Church of England meets in the city once a year. The Anglican church has managed to operate with twin centres of governance for centuries so why who not the UK parliament.

York played a big part in the early days of the creation of PB. I was appointed Director of Development at the University of York at the start of 2005 a few months after PB was created and bought an apartment backing onto the magnificent city walls. I left in the middle of 2007 the year that I retired to work full time on the site. This was the period when the site was establishing itself.

Where York stands out is that the transport links are so good with a fast and frequent rail service to London. Some services do it in two hours and there are good links throughout the whole of the north of England and, of course, Scotland.

York has a great sense of its own importance and sees itself as the natural second city. We don’t know how serious this proposal is but it could work.

York voted 62% Remain.

Mike Smithson


Infrastructure: the Conservatives’ necessary but misplaced priority

January 18th, 2020

The Custard Factory is one of Birmingham’s more striking developments.   Its current incarnation is as Birmingham’s answer to Shoreditch (a question that probably did not need asking).  Its history, however, stands as a warning to the government, a warning that it almost certainly will not heed.

The Custard Factory’s name is not, like so many new developments, the product of a random buzzword generator, but a simple statement of its origin.  Until 1964, Bird’s Custard was manufactured on that spot. And then as a direct result of government industrial policy, it desserted the site.

In the decades after the Second World War, Birmingham’s economy boomed.  In 1961, Birmingham household incomes exceeded those of London and the south east.  Successive governments fretted about how Birmingham and London were leaving the rest of the country behind.  Central government took direct measures to spread their success to more deprived regions. First they restricted industrial development, then they restricted office development.  The city of a thousand trades was booming and this was a crisis. Introducing the order placing restrictions on office development in 1965, the government minister saw this as a “threatening situation”.

In words that now seem prophetic, the MP for Sutton Coldfield at the time opposed the measure:

“This Order is a kind of penalty on the success of the West Midlands and Birmingham, imposed admittedly by the Government in order, as they believe, to help somewhere else. There is a growing anxiety in Birmingham that the Government may have carried too far this process of siphoning off the prosperity of the Midlands to other areas. I can give examples which are germane to this Order. In Birmingham on Monday I heard of firms, which provide employment similar to that affected by this Order, being forced to leave the city. These firms, to a considerable extent, are firms which are independent of cyclical fluctuations of trade.

The manufacturers of Bird’s Custard, a food product, who have been in the city for a great many years, were quoted as an example. The motor industry, on the other hand, is a cyclical industry and whilst Birmingham is very prosperous, it and the Midlands, to the extent of dependence on the motor industry, are living dangerously in their prosperity. Therefore, it hurts these areas the more when industrial and commercial employment of a non-cyclical kind leave the area. Such a movement can prove a great future potential loss to the city and surrounding area.”

The Order was highly effective, at least so far as Birmingham was concerned.  Birmingham no longer has the problems of success. It has a lower GVA per head than the national average – and lower than Liverpool, for example.  It was, however, much less effective at boosting the economy of struggling areas, many of which have remained in relative decline to this day.

55 years on, and Britain has another government looking to siphon off the prosperity of successful regions to struggling areas.  There isn’t much evidence that the government has any better idea how to do it this time than it did in the 1960s.

The government seems set to divert infrastructure spending away from the areas of the country that are prospering to the forgotten north.  This isn’t a new idea either. Nor did it prove a particularly successful idea either. At the same time as Birmingham’s business was being run off, the Humber Bridge was commissioned.  Hull and Grimsby are better connected to each other, but both still languish economically. A lot more than infrastructure is needed to breathe new life into depressed areas of the country.  Past experience has shown that if you only build a field, they won’t come.

The government doesn’t really have a choice.  Its newly-elected backbenchers made great play in their local campaigns of fighting for infrastructure investment.  If they don’t deliver, they’ll be up against it at the next election. If you’ve successfully won seats on the basis that your opponents have taken their voters for granted, you really can’t afford to take them for granted yourself.

This gives the government two big problems.  First, if it is going to invest in infrastructure in previously forgotten areas, it is going to come up with a clear rationale for how it is going to prioritise investment.  Previously, governments have worked on the basis of a cost-benefit analysis (which is why London has done so well – as by far the most prosperous and successful area of the country, projects can easily demonstrate bang for buck).  If that metric is to be abandoned, what is going to be put in its place? The government has as yet given no clear statement of principle but without one, the likelihood of pester power winning out is high, with projects allocated on the basis of influential backbenchers’ ability to buttonhole ministers.  Majestic herds of albino pachyderms can be sighted lumbering towards us on the horizon.

And second, if improving infrastructure is a necessary but not sufficient condition for reviving failing areas of the country, what else is the government going to do?  Shooing business away from London won’t work. Wooing it away might. Again, however, the government has so far shown no trace of having thought about how it might do this.  

The big risk is that the government will fail to provide the investment in infrastructure that the successful parts of the country need and instead provide investment in infrastructure in the declining parts of the country without providing the additional support to provide the economic turnaround that they urgently need.  The country has enough problems at the moment without massively misallocating resources at a time when the public finances are already under serious strain. The government needs to set out some very clear principles. And soon.

Alastair Meeks