Social housing is a trampoline for Conservatives, not a quicksand out of which people can never escape

Yesterday saw a much needed Westminster Hall debate initiated by my colleague Steve Brine MP on Government Support for First-Time Buyers. In May 2009, some fifty per cent of all buyers were taking their first steps into the housing market. That figure has now fallen off a cliff, and is just twenty per cent of all buyers. The timing of the debate had an extra importance given the recent announcements by the Government in relation to reinvigorating right-to-buy and the NewBuy scheme. The debate was well attended by coalition MPs and there was a notable absence of Labour members save the Shadow Treasury spokesman.

 One of the key themes I sort to stress, borne out by the absence of Labour MPs at the debate, was that issues relating to housing and support for home ownership are in the DNA of the Conservative Party reaching far back into our history, and it should not be identified as an issue solely for the Left. Be it social housing or private home ownership, as a Party we know that the ability to build true communities and not just an assemblage of houses is founded on people having access to the housing ladder. Macmillan out built Labour, Ted Heath enabled 60,000 people to buy their own homes, and Thatcher opened up property ownership on a scale few believed was possible at the time.

In his 1948 work ‘Alternatives to Nationalism’ David Eccles spoke for Conservatives through the ages when he concluded: “Men are partly selfish and party idealist, and they give their best when they believe they have a reasonable chance to put something in their pockets and to realise a fragment of their dreams.” This is not about social engineering it is about hard working individuals and families being in a position to make good on their efforts to build a life for themselves in their own bricks and mortar. 

This has always been a cultural battle as much as a political one, as we have sought to overturn the sneering belief of so many on the left who see housing as a means of social engineering, when the vast bulk of people – 86% when last surveyed, according to DCLG – see home ownership as a natural objective, and would be keen to make the move to do so if they could afford it.

The great tension in housing provision has always been between providing quality and quantity of housing. Nye Bevan rightly believed that nothing was ever too good for the working classes – and if you were to visit such social housing projects as the Scheepvarthuis in Amsterdam (an early social housing project), you would see properties infinitely better than the tens of thousands of council homes thrown up in this country. Bevan actually wanted council housing to be so good that the middle classes would flock there from the suburbs.

 And maybe there is the nub. For too many on the left, their attitudes to home ownership have been denoted by an antipathy to the ‘lop-sided’ existence of suburbia as Modernist architects Alison & Peter Smithson referred to it in their  essay entitled ‘Urban Reidentification’. In the same essay, they went on to say that ‘the refuse chute takes the place of the village pump’ in the high-rise world of social housing they envisaged. What a hideous notion that the avant-garde French Garchey waste disposal system should somehow have become the left’s leitmotif for a better world! We never reached the apotheosis of European provision of social housing in any case – our showcase public housing, whilst architecturally imaginative, was never quite as treasured by residents as by architectural historians, as the example of Park Hill in Sheffield makes clear.

Perhaps it is best summed up by CP Snow in Corridors of Power – a Labour peer – when his chief character visits the home of a colleague on the edge of Clapham Common which he describes as ‘detached, but only just detached’ – that ever so slightly condescending twitch of the centre-left net curtains when it comes to class.

And what does this long record of our Party demonstrate? When the Conservative Party is supporting the strivers in our society it is at its best. Housing is not solely a policy issue for the Left. All too often we can apologise for our past and don’t celebrate what we have actually done. This can lead us to be reticent about standing up and making the case that the Conservative Party has done just as much on issues like housing as any other party, and we should continue in this vein now. Nor should we allow our coalition colleagues in the Liberal Democrats to plant a yellow flag next to housing policy and claim it for themselves, as they have done on so many other core Conservative issues. 

The biggest tragedy of all to emerge from housing policy under Labour was the collapse of right-to-buy to a low of just 15,000 as criteria was tweaked, discounts were whittled away and it was generally made harder to climb the housing ladder. A shocking legacy of this is that in 2010/2011 only 800 of the 2.1 million housing association properties were brought by tenants. Couple this with the Labour legacy of 50,000 people in temporary accommodation it is apparent that we need take no lessons from the Opposition when it comes to supporting strivers.

No wonder the campaigning group Priced Out are trying as hard as they are. Why should my generation not have the opportunities the previous one had? Two and a half million 20-34 year olds are living with their parents, many of them precisely because they are priced out of the market. It affects in particular labour mobility, since they can’t move to where the jobs might be if they are priced out of that market.

Yet I hear the criticism that schemes such as NewBuy does nothing other than help the big builders. Such critics should visit the stalled developments housing developments in my constituency where residents are frustrated that an uncompleted estate means the Council not adopting the roads, residents suffering poor quality pavements, in an area which attracts anti-social behaviour because so much of it is deserted. Building sites are also dangerous to children, who are attracted to play on them. Stalled developments are not just a commercial issue, but a social issue too.

Social tenants are staying put for longer, subsidised out of the private rented market, and so the turnover needed to accommodate those who find they need social housing explains lengthening waiting lists. Even those that are re-let rarely seem to go to the newly vulnerable. It would be easy and cheap politics to cite the union leaders in council housing, but the fact there are almost 2000 social tenants in Westminster who earn more than I do must surely give us pause for thought.

The fact housing associations are not mandated to make property available to buy – a fact Government will not be changing – creates an ever diminishing pool from which purchases can be made. If we are replacing affordable rented properties for every one sold with the new cap, I hope the Government ensures these are made available for purchase. 

Tenant mobility is the key to social mobility – be it geographical or tenure mobility. Trapped in a housing cul-de-sac with no exits.  Social housing should not be confined in ghettos, but rather spread across the community. 

The decision announced just this week that receipts from right-to-buy will be invested into affordable rent housing is, in my view key. MPs will be only to aware of the frustrations constituents have about waiting lists for social housing. By providing people with a ‘tenancy escalator’ into home ownership and then ploughing the receipts back into social housing stock, we can hopefully see some movement for those seeking entry into social housing for the first time. Tenant mobility is the key to social mobility. 

As I stated in the Westminster Hall Debate, social housing is a trampoline for Conservatives, not a quicksand out of which people can never escape. Different MPs cited different ages for the ‘average’ first time buyer – 35, 37, 39. But the one thing all those ages had in common was that the average was rising. That should give us more than just pause for thought.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Letter from Westminster, 5th December 2011

Paul Maynard MP

House of Commons, London, SDW1A 0AA

Dear Resident,

As I go out and about, or when people reply to this newsletter, it is obvious how much it is appreciated by local people.  So, please feel free to pass on to family, friends or colleges, or even print out and show people.  The more people who read it, the more people who get to see what their MP is doing.  You can also look at some of my speeches in the House of Commons by clicking on this link. Click Here.

In a week when economic turbulence, public sector strikes and European gridlock has brought home to us the potential reality of our economic position, it is always good to get back to the constituency – the real world – and meet up with the people of the local community to discover what they think and feel.

Friday morning saw me at Thornton Little Theatre with Lancashire Link. This is one of the nationwide ‘local involvement networks’ which the last Government introduced to replace the Public & Patient Involvement Forums (which in turn replaced a plethora of other alphabet-crunching acronyms). I talked for 25 minutes or so about the national policy picture, about the outcome of the Dilnot Review into the funding of long-term care and the likely costs of adopting the proposals. A spokesman from Lancashire County Council also spoke about some of the practical difficulties. But the questions from the floor brought home to me that in 10 years arguing for better recognition for carers we are still a long way off – GPs still don’t even have to identify carers to ensure they get the medical treatment they neeed as well as the patient they care for. And that is before we talk about the benefits trap too many carers still find themselves in. This is why MPs have so much casework – because the system still requires you to fit into their way of doing things, rather than building the system around your needs.

I then travelled on to Moor Park Health Centre for its official opening. It is, first and foremost, a superb building. Light and airy, it combines leisure, healthcare and a library. It even has a cafe on the ground floor to stop by for a cup of coffee.  The great and the good – I am sure you can imagine who I mean! – gave speeches welcoming the opening of the site, and real life patients and library users continued to enter and exist with some encouragement from the staff. Steven Croft, the Lancashire cricketer who hit the winning runs that gained us the County Championship for the first time in 77 years, pulled the cord which unveiled the plaque – as he is one of NHS Blackpool’s Health Ambassadors, there was a good reason for him being there besides being a cricketer! The Health Centre has three GP surgeries co-located there, with some 25,000 on their lists (myself included) so let us hope it goes from strength to strength. As those leading the tour around the North Shore Surgery suite confirmed, it is a great improvement on the properties in Holmfield Road that they were operating out of before.

Later in the afternoon, I held one of my biannual Parliamentary Hotel Advisory Boards, and am grateful to the Imperial for allowing me to borrow a room. We covered a wide range of issues – as we always do – ranging from the Government removing the requirement for an alcohol license to offer a bottle of champagne in a welcome pack, to removing the requirement for having endless no smoking signs up in every B&B. We also discussed the website TripAdvisor, who I am meeting in the coming week, to discuss the large number of concerns hoteliers have about the site.

Down in Westminster, we were celebrating Lancashire Day in style with a visit from (more cricket) the County Championship trophy (which I got to hold!) as well as an array of Lancashire-produced food from Eccles cakes to pork pies to beer celebrating Fleetwood’s 175th Anniversary. It wasn’t just Lancashire MPs there, but anyone and everyone, so you can imagine the supplies went rather quick.  We also had representatives from the local tourism sector there, more importantly, and discussions are underway about what local MPs can do to help promote domestic tourism in the year to come.

Speaking-wise, I participated in two debates. The first was on sudden death from epilepsy – something which needs to be highlighted continually so that more and more know of a risk they are not informed about at diagnosis necessarily. The second was to consider the report the Transport Committee I sit on assembled on bus services. I was categorical that local bus companies have to improve their consultations, and make them a real listening exercise. It was a neat coincidence, for example, that in the week Moor Park Health Centre opened, I was looking into the issue of inadequate bus services to a location 25,000 rely on. I also spoke about the importance of Dial-a-Ride services, the continued threat to Rideability here in Blackpool, and my ongoing campaign to extend concessionary fares to community transport services which as regular readers will know is an issue I have been on about for a while now.

Last but not least, I rounded off my week with a magnificent evening at Fleetwood’s Marine Hall with the Fleetwood & District Choral Society who performed a section of Handel’s Messiah, with some superb soloists, alongside the Northwest Sinfonia and fellow local choir Sylvan Sounds. If you haven’t been to see Fleetwood & District Choral Society, you really ought to do so as they are magnificent. Have a look at their website, www.fleetwoodchoral.org.uk, and put 12th May in your diary, as that is their next concert when they will be performing Vivaldi’s Gloria and Rutter’s Requiem along with a range of solo pieces yet to be announced. I am delighted to be one of their patrons, and they are the sort of ‘unsung local heroes and heroines’ that don’t always get the attention their hard work deserves.

 

Yours sincerely,

 

 

Paul

Paul Maynard MP

01253 473071

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Letter from Westminster 28th November 2011

Paul Maynard MP

House of Commons, London, SW1A 0AA.

 

Dear resident,

Saturday morning was a curious combination spent in Sainsburys on Red Bank Road. I did a bit of a ‘Fareshare’ food drive, and a bit of a mini-surgery. More about Fareshare later. But doing a supermarket surgery is often a bit of a step into the unknown. Of all the people who stopped me, only two were ‘negative’ (insert definition here!) whilst the remaining, vast majority were nothing other than extremely pleasant and supportive. Of course, that doesn’t include all those who walk past giving you side-long glances that suggest if they did have a thing or two to say, it wouldn’t be entirely positive.

A few remarked that I was brave standing there. However, it is an important part of my job as the Member of Parliament to make myself available to the public in as many different settings as possible, and at different times – and if people have critical things to say, it is part of being accountable. It is always good to get feedback, and even the positive comments give me a little more encouragement to keep working hard. I am gratified how many say they enjoy reading the Letter from Westminster – and one gentleman even said he had taken up last week’s recommendation to try the cooked breakfast at Wyre Country Park and agreed with me! Not all locations or mechanisms work in terms of productive interaction, but clearly there is a place for the supermarket surgery every so often, and I am very grateful to both Tesco’s and Sainsbury’s for allowing me a space in their stores.

Sainsburys were also running, by complete chance, its national Fareshare drive to bring more food to those in need. Fareshare (www.fareshare.org.uk) is an excellent charity which is seeking to tackle some of the underlying effects of ‘hidden hunger’ here in the UK by gathering in unsold stock from the food industry nationwide. It ought to shock us – and it shocks me – just how many increasingly rely on food parcels in this country. And it isn’t always just about household income, as there can be many reasons underlying having recourse to a food bank. But we should set it against the amount of food waste in this country – not just the food we purchase ourselves, which we do not consume, but also the food that isn’t purchased in the first place. I am as guilty as anyone in that I sometimes find myself throwing away food because it has gone past its use by date without me eating it. Reading up on Fareshare is certainly make me think again about my patterns of food use. 

Fareshare plays a key role in providing that surplus food to charitable groups that can make use of it – from day care centres to hostels to breakfast clubs at schools. The regional depot for the North West is in Trafford Park – but I would also highlight the local work of the Fylde Food Bank run by Mr & Mrs Turner (www.fyldefoodbank.co.uk) who also do superb work across the Fylde Coast.  If you know of a local charity or organisation that may benefit from Foodshare, do let me know and I will get in touch with them.

This whole topic also tied in nicely with my visit to Boundary Primary School on Friday, where they are setting a superb example in terms of growing their own fresh produce on their available ground. Sadly, they haven’t been allowed a pig yet – a new case for me to work on! But I was struck by the energy and enthusiasm of their head Dayle Harrison – proof once again that school leadership is an important quality in raising educational attainment.

Slightly earlier the same day, I had a sneak preview of the new St Mary’s school building. It looks like the building site it is – at the moment – but the concept is clearly emerging, and it is clear just how excited the pupils are at moving in. We also had an excellent presentation from the pupils ahead of the Durban Climate Change Conference, so I shall be writing to Chris Huhne as promised.

Down in Westminster, I have been in and out of the Chamber as usual, speaking on disability hate crime this week. In advance of the debate, I met with the family of Gary Skelly, who you may have seen on the BBC’s Inside Out programme on Wednesday night. Gary was murdered just over a year ago in a disability hate crime, and last Monday’s programme was very, very powerful. They have set up a community group called FACE (www.facefacts.org.uk) whose website is well worth a look. There is coverage of the family here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-merseyside-15815155 and I am sure you will find it (and the film you can access via the website) as shocking as I did. I still cannot believe that any human would find it acceptable to make someone ‘dance’ in order to have a cigarette from them – how degrading.  

 As well as that I was guest speaker at the Conservative Disability Group’s colloquium in London, as well as speaking at the Epilepsy Action Patron’s Reception (I’m Vice-President) at the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace. As a by-the-by, and not that Her Majesty needs any advertising, but the souvenir shop is well worth a visit should you ever be in London. Of course, should you ever be in London, I would hope you stopped by the House of Commons first to see me!

So ends another thought-provoking week.

Yours sincerely,

 

Paul

01253 473071

16 Queen Street, Blackpool, FY1 1PD.

Check out my YouTube channel: click here

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Letter from Westminster 21 November 2011

Readers of certain tabloid newspapers may have been under the impression I was ‘on holiday’ last week. Far from it. Although Parliament was not sitting on Wednesday and Thursday, MPs were still out and about doing their jobs. If anything, I think I ended up working harder on these two ‘free’ days trying to catch-up on the backlog of things to do, emails and letters and everything else. I remained down in London partly to make sure I caught up on the piles of un-read reports on my desk – which in turn stimulate yet more things for my hard-pressed staff to deal with – and partly to ensure I attended the Board Meeting of the Prison Reform Trust, of whom I am a trustee. 

At the back end of last week, we were pleased to welcome the children of Langdales School to an interactive session on Kenya, and what life is like for children over there. My energetic impersonation of a Masai warrior dancing thankfully did not (literally) bring the house down, but it certainly meant the afternoon went with something of a bounce.

On the Monday, I was delighted to welcome the Tourism Minister to Blackpool along with the Business Leadership Group, councillors and others. John Penrose, the Minister, is the MP for a seaside town himself – Weston-super-Mare in his case – so he knows the challenges towns such as Blackpool and Cleveleys face. He made clear he was impressed with the changes that are occurring in the town, and the benefits investment in the Tower and the Winter Gardens, as well as the co-operation with Merlin, has brought. We also got a sneak tour round part of the Blackpool Dungeon, sitting in the pitch black being spattered by heaven knows what.

That meant a late arrival in London on Monday evening, but I thought it worthwhile as it can be so difficult to prise Ministers out of Whitehall to show them the real world that I didn’t want the Minister to miss the chance to see the progress we are making on the Fylde Coast.

Next day was a Seminar for the Transport Select Committee, fresh from its report on HS2. The topic was Sustainable Transport, and we heard from a number of academics about the ‘difficulties’ of encouraging people to change their transport behaviour. We heard, for example, that despite a £5,000 grant, only 768 have bought electric cars in the last year, yet we are establishing a national network of power-points to recharge them. A classic ‘chicken and egg’ policy problem. Do we invest in the power-points, and hope people buy the cars, or do we wait until the cars hit a tipping point, and demand for the power-points can become market-driven.

We (or rather me) also had a lively discussion about how to encourage more people to cycle as I reflected on the welcome some of the cycling initiatives in Blackpool have received!

Friday saw me visit Collegiate School, somewhere I know has undergone a renaissance under new head Cherry Ridgeway. Its results – and reputation – are soaring, and I was highly impressed by her no-nonsense approach. I also was greatly encouraged by her view that we should not have low expectations of children merely because of the difficulties they may have encountered in life – it chimes exactly with my view that we need to be ambitious and aspire to be the best we can be in life. Slowly but surely, the educational climate in Blackpool is improving, in my view. The Government’s focus on the quality of teaching is, in my view, crucial.

I then went on to Hart’s Amusements to meet with the owner Charles and other people with an interest in the Illuminations. I was encouraged by the desire to ensure the Illuminations are depoliticised as far as possible, and I recognise the need to ensure they have some long-term financial predictability. I know many have been concerned at reports that the Bispham tableaux may not be occurring for much longer, but I was reassured to hear that this has never been on the cards. It is a classic example of how the Illuminations can be victim of the local rumour mill!

I finished off with two hours on Saturday morning in Tesco’s Cleveleys, where some of you will have seen me. I actually had quite a few complementing me on the Letter from Westminster, so it ensures I know my time is well-spent crafting it. As is inevitably the case when you are in the public eye, not every encounter was so cheering … but I do wish people wouldn’t swear at me in front of the youngsters!!

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Letter from Westminster 15th November 2011

Police Station Update

Bitter sweet news that despite an enormous campaign and massive public response, with 20% of recipients returning their postcards, Bispham’s public desk at the police station has been saved, but sadly Cleveleys will be closing after all.

There are few phrases more likely to inspire cynicism in the general public than “We are consulting on x … “. To most of us, myself included, that usually suggests minds have already been made up, and someone somewhere is just going through the motions. So when Lancashire Constabulary announced it was ‘consulting’ on plans to shut the public desk at Bispham Police Station and close down Cleveleys Police Station, my heart sank. However, my job is to be everyone’s eternal optimist, and not give up without a struggle. So I sat down, hatched a campaign plan, and decided to use people power to show the Chief Constable that our police stations do matter.

So you can imagine my pleasure when I heard that Bispham has been spared. It was made clear to me that my campaign had played a major factor in the decision. Having delivered 5,000 postcards around the Bispham area, and getting some 20% returned, it was very clear that the weight of public opinion demonstrated that shutting Bispham down was not an option.

So why then is Cleveleys closing despite getting a similar 20% response rate? Have we not lost the battle? Far from it. I always knew Cleveleys was a harder task, as Bispham was never going to shut completely, and operations at Cleveleys had already been substantially run down. I continue arguing for a shopfront location on Victoria Road, or premises shared with other essential community services in the locality. I will be writing to the divisional commander to request a meeting to discuss this, so the struggle goes on.

So one out of two is not bad – one more than I thought we might achieve when I set out on this. I doubt Bispham would have remained open if the postcard campaign had not been organised. It should also be pointed out that this was not a taxpayer-funded campaign – all those 10,000 postcards were funded by the Paul Maynard Campaign Fund, the limited contents of which are generated by coffee mornings, brunches, dinners and a range of other fund-raising activities, for which I am always grateful. But I equally realise that one of the key parts of my job is initiating local campaigns just such as this.

In other news …

That was Friday’s big news, but I have done other things in the past week.

I am writing this having just returned from the Remembrance Service. This year, I attended the service at Thornton’s War Memorial, and invited my constituency chairman Ian Benson to represent me at Blackpool’s Cenotaph. I attended both the Two Minute Silence at the Cenotaph on Friday morning, as well as the Festival of Remembrance at the Norbreck Castle Hotel on Friday. Nonetheless, it is always frustrating that on the Sunday morning I cannot divide myself in two to attend both.

After the service, and after a quick change of clothes, it was back to Rossall Beach to help out at one of their regular beach cleans. In what can only be a tribute to their effectiveness, it had to be one of the cleanest beaches ever, as I struggled to find much rubbish. This was more likely due to the absence of any harsh weather or violent storms in recent weeks, which usually throw most rubbish upon the beach. After the beach clean, I was also able to drop by a ‘skating session’ at the ice rink in Cleveleys for children with Type-1 diabetes to listen to the stories of some of the parents about the care they receive.

The week in Westminster had something of an international flavour, as I got to meet Tony Abbott – Australia’s Liberal Party leader, and a politician I have huge admiration for. Sadly, prior commitments to my All-Party Parliamentary Group for Young Disabled People meant I had to turn down the invite of a lifetime – at least it was for me – to have lunch with John Howard, the former Australian Prime Minister, who remains my political hero (see my recent blog at https://maynardmp.wordpress.com/2011/11/09/what-would-john-howard-do/ for proof of that). I also had an Israeli dimension, with a Member of the Knesset from the centrist, pro-peace Kadima Party Nachman Shai attending a breakfast where we had a ‘full and frank’ discussion about the state of affairs in Israel.

 An interesting meeting took place at Bispham Village Chambers on Friday between myself and Matthew Berry (who I just bumped into again on Red Bank Road walking his dog!) who runs Berry Financial Planning (www.berryfinancialplanning.co.uk) and wanted to talk to me about how many people are failing to maximise their pension payouts by just opting for the easy, default option rather than going to what is called the ‘open market’ option that could net them substantially more for their annuity. It is something one of my colleagues, Harriett Baldwin, is trying to improve upon – and she has my full support. Matthew and I hope to do a little more together to publicise the issue, so I will save my powder for now.

Readers may also be interested in my brief contribution to a debate on youth unemployment called by the Labour Party: http://www.theyworkforyou.com/debates/?id=2011-11-09a.366.0&s=speaker%3A24764#g389.0

It was a classic example of only having four minutes in which to say an awful lot, and having to focus on ensuring that we spoke about whole numbers as well as percentages – but I risk veering off into party political points, so I will let you look at the debate for yourself and judge … Reading the Hansard won’t allow you to enjoy the full effect of the verbal onslaught I received from the Labour spokeswoman for daring to ask a factual question! Talk about the hairdryer …

An awful lot more went on last week, which I don’t have space for, but I hope what is here gives you a flavour of what I have been up to.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

What Would John Howard Do?

One of the problems of having a researcher called Boon is that I am always sending emails to Bono. Mistyped, I doubt he ever gets them, and I doubt he would like them if he did. I am actually quite surprised I haven’t seen him at one of these Occupy Wherever camps yet – you would have thought it was just his thing. I have yet to walk past the encampment outside St Paul’s. I don’t intend to. Like many, I have followed the confused decision-making of the Church authorities, the passion of the participants, and the controversy they have caused. I am still not entirely clear what they actually want – indeed, I am not sure I have identified what it is they don’t want either. Such lack of clarity need not wholly obscure their worthwhile message that people don’t think the ‘system’ is in ‘balance’. Insert your own definitions for those two terms.

As a practising Catholic, I find the eternal question that the campers seem to pose of ‘What would Jesus do?’ an interesting one also. And a valid one. I have always believed that doubt is an essential component of faith. If we don’t continually challenge ourselves about our beliefs, be they political or religious, then those beliefs slowly wither like an unwatered plant. So placing myself in the position of Jesus, and asking what he would have done, is not without merit. The answer may be a controversial one. Did he not turn the money-lenders out of the temple, and tell a rich man he would find it hard to enter the kingdom of heaven? Did he not also advise us to render to Caesar what is due to Caesar? In the end, faith is a personal matter, and such decisions are matters for our own conscience.

But to ask the question what I as a Christian should do as an MP is a useful challenge to merely blindly following – not that loyalty itself is not without its virtuous merits. It has helped me rationalise my position on a wide range of moral issues that I have confronted – and made me think through why I oppose such disparate interventions as the death penalty or euthanasia. But those are moral issues.

Far harder to rationalise in this way are the supposed ‘simpler’ policy choices.

In such situations, might I recommend asking “What would John Howard do”? He remains a hero of mine. He won four elections in a row, and didn’t do so by accident. He did it by recognising that the secret to building a conservative majority in Australia was to be seen to govern ‘for all of us’ (his 1996 election slogan) and to be ‘relaxed and comfortable’ about the country he sought to govern, and inculcate such a ‘relaxed and comfortable’ feeling amongst the electorate.

If we are to govern alone post-2015, I would argue we need to start cultivating both of these concepts now, and understanding the John Howard template far better than we do now – a topic I will come onto in future blogs.

In his Australia Day speech of 2006, John Howard said:

“Today I want to locate this nation’s sense of balance at the centre of the modern Australian achievement and to explore its character. The balance in our economic life between the public and the private, the balance in our national identity between unity and diversity, the balance between history and geography in our global strategy, and the balance in our politics between rights and democratic responsibility.

Balance is as crucial to a well-ordered society as it is to a full human life. It should not be mistaken for taking the middle road or splitting the difference. Nor does it imply a state that is static or a nation at rest.

Quite the opposite. A sense of balance is the handmaiden of national growth and renewal. It helps us to respond creatively to an uncertain world with a sense of proportion.

Keeping our balance means we reform and evolve so as to remain a prosperous, secure and united nation. It also means we retain those cherished values, beliefs and customs that have served us so well in the past.

The great struggle of Australia’s first century of nationhood was to reconcile a market economy with a fair and decent society. At the start of the 21st century, we have found a healthier balance in our political economy between public and private – one in keeping with the times and the contemporary character of the Australian people.

We encourage individual achievement and self-reliance without sacrificing the common good. We value our independence and chafe against bureaucracies that deny us choice and the capacity to shape our daily lives. Yet we are determined not to let go of the Australian ethos of a fair go for all.

The permanent challenge for Australia is to avoid the extremes of big, overbearing government on the one hand and laissez-faire indifference on the other.”

Just reading this makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up. It is, to me, the ultimate statement of conservatism. That philosophy of ‘balance’ must be ever-present. Without it, we shall fail to win again, just as we failed to win outright in 2010. This is not just the balance between rights and responsibilities which Labour harped on about so often. Nor is it some middle-of-the-road excuse for avoiding what are seen as ‘tough choices’. If anything, it is perhaps the more difficult path to take, since it risks satisfying neither the big-statists nor the nascent faux-Tea Partiers in this country. It may be the road least travelled on the centre-right these days, but it is still the right path.

John Howard’s political strategy is one I believe we have a great deal to learn from. I decided to deliberately depress myself over the weekend. I still own the set of notional constituency results for 1992 based on the 1997 boundaries which Rallings & Thrasher of the University of Plymouth’s Local Government Unit computed. I could bore you with a detailed critique of the methodology, but those days are thankfully behind me. The ring-bound volume, picked up in the Norrington Room of Blackwells all those years ago after weeks of waiting, is slightly battered and bruised, having been much consulted in the intervening twenty years. But it is also electrifying.

It was fascinating to see that in 1992, the notional Conservative majority for the then Blackpool North & Fleetwood seat was over 7,000. The Conservative vote was only just shy of 30,000. Admittedly in a slightly smaller seat, I could only manage just over 16,000 – and I doubt I was entirely to blame! Falling turnout has not only afflicted the north of the Fylde Coast – I am sure one could point to similar statistics across the country.

But even if we compare it with the latest notional results computed by the Guardian for the newly proposed seats, Blackpool North & Fleetwood sees Conservative support at only just over 24,000 – in a slightly larger seat.

So this reinforces the achievement of Sir John Major, who managed to persuade 14,000,000 people to vote Conservative in 1992. Blair in 1997 could only manage 13,500,000 – and Major in losing managed 9.4 million. In 2010, David Cameron achieved 10,700,000.

Yet Sir John is frequently derided now as the man who led us to cataclysmic defeat in 1997. We forget he also led us to a pundit-defying victory in 1992 – and won the most votes ever. Clearly he did something right.

Maybe I have been in politics for too long, but the moments when the hairs stand up on the back of my neck seem to get fewer as the years go by. But one instance when it did happen, on the day the election was called, when I was as high as a kite, Mr Cameron stood outside County Hall, with the Palace of Westminster in the background, to speak of the ‘great ignored’. This struck a chord in terms of how I have always viewed my role in politics – concerned that the interest groups which don’t shout loud enough don’t get heard, even though what they have to say may be just as worthy. John Howard would have thought of the ‘great ignored’ as those who weren’t part of the ‘intellectual universe’ inhabited by the Labor elite in Australia. And I would say the same is now the case here in the UK.

John Howard poses a challenge to the Conservative Party that we must live up to if we are to do ourselves, our members and our supporters justice. In future blogs, I will look more closely at what John Howard’s methods actually represent in 2011 in the UK.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Is civil service part of our infrastructure requirement?

Good news. George Osborne has been to Israel to see what he can learn about inward investment. All too often, when we hear the word ‘Israel’ it is always in connection with the Middle East Peace Process. We have negative mental images. Just this once, I would like to think about something where Israel over-achieves, especially compared to the UK.

As the Jewish Chronicle reported, “Mr Osborne, whose wife and children chose to spend the half term holiday touring Israel, flew to Ben Gurion on an El Al flight. However despite being offered a seat in first class, the budget-conscious Chancellor chose to remain in economy”. Ever the politician, and well done! Nonetheless, I hope he picked up some useful lessons during his time there.

Back in August, I was amazed to read in The Economist that “When it comes to finance, Britain lags not only Silicon Valley, where many entrepreneurs see investing in the next generation as a sort of moral responsibility. In 2010 high-tech firms in Israel attracted $1.3 billion in venture capital, nearly twice as much as in Britain, whose economy is ten times as big”. Boston Consulting Group says we spend more money per head as a nation online – yet we don’t seem to lead the world in innovation online. We produce great ideas, but fail to turn them into commercial ventures – other countries snap them up.

I must confess I had never envisaged Israel as ‘silicon desert’. Yet it is. David Willitts, our Minister for Science & Innovation, was also in Israel last week to launch a new Hi-Tech Hub at the British Embassy. Employing 6 people, it will promote better links between Israeli entrepreneurs in hi-tech industries and London as a place to do business in, especially around Tech-City, the so-called Silicon Roundabout.

However, Silicon Roundabout is making slow progress and struggling to compete with Dublin for the big names if press coverage is to be believed. Twitter has just opted for Dublin, for example. With corporation tax half what it is in the UK, Twitter’s decision may be seen as understandable, and is part of a wider push to make Ireland the hub of the global digital economy as it tries to re-emerge as the Celtic Tiger it once was. The Government over here is taking steps in the right direction – corporation tax is falling by 1% each year between now and 2014, down to 23%. But clearly that is still more than Ireland.

The scale of Ireland’s challenge is perhaps encouraging greater policy innovation. Take the games industry – a sector where we do well, but could be doing even better. A recent report by Forfas has pinpointed how Ireland will seek to take a share of this burgeoning industry. What is Forfas you might well ask?

Their website says “Forfás is Ireland’s policy advisory board for enterprise, trade, science, technology and innovation.   It provides independent and rigorous research, advice and support in the areas of enterprise and science policy”. Have a look at their recommendations here. Just what I reckon we need in this country – some sound policy advice that Ministers can then act upon. Maybe I am just insufficiently familiar with the Department’s activities here in the UK, but I am not sure we have similar arms-length bodies in this country providing challenging advice in quite the same way? And many may be confused that DCMS now deals with the creative industries rather than BIS. We’re doing well at creating a macro-structure for successful firms to work in, but I wonder how well we are doing at micro-policy level?   

Wired magazine also had an interesting article this week about why Silicon Roundabout is not yet hitting its full potential, and why Dublin is ‘talk of the town’. You can read it here but one key quote is about understanding why those who have come to East London have done so, thereby suggesting what we need more of: “What these entrepreneurs have found in east London is affordable rents, a local ecosystem where connections can be easily made, a decent pub or two, and an organic community broad enough to include design firms and tinkerers among the big-money international names such as Last.fm and ad agencies”.

If all the above sounds too much like economic planning to you, then so be it. I am not in favour of setting specific targets as to what each sector should be doing. But I do want to see us understanding what the economic growth sectors are likely to be, and ensuring that Government is either getting out of the way – if that is what will help – or ensuring it is doing all it can to create the enabling environment that will let entrepreneurs make progress. Economic growth at the moment is never going to be easy, and it is for that reason that we must redouble our efforts to identify just where that growth will come from. 

In this country, many on the right take a very purist approach to ‘intervention’ in the economy. By and large, it certainly is a bad thing. But we are also competing in a global market, and we should not kid ourselves that our competitors are not seeking to extort every ounce of competitive advantage they can. There is no point standing loftily above the fray. And we have seen David Cameron and other Ministers placing much, much greater emphasis on leading trade delegations to emerging economies like India and Brazil – something the last government did not seem keen to do so much of.

It is now clear that we need to do more, since the world is becoming even more competitive. And to do that, we need to ensure our infrastructure is adequate. Maybe it is time we saw the Civil Service as part of that national infrastructure?

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized