A housing boom could lose the Conservatives as many votes as it wins


Luke Major

Britain’s rural landscape is under attack in the name of economic growth – despite David Cameron’s promise to lead the “greenest government ever.” The Prime Minister believes that the key to recovery is to build our way out of recession as was the case in the 1930s. But how much of our glorious greenery will we have sacrificed before we are satisfied with the rate of growth?

One significant cause of the threat to rural Britain is the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). Put forward in March 2012, with a presumption in favour of ‘sustainable’ development, it makes it extremely difficult to carry out the mandate of preserving the rural nature of the area in which rurally based Conservative Councillors are elected.

Not only does the nature of the NPPF suggest worrying implications for our idyllic landscape, but it also makes our Council look ‘spineless and inept’ as we were referred to in my first parish meeting two days after I was elected. We can no longer take the rural vote for granted. In my by-election back in May 2013, nearly all of the spoiled ballots I was shown had some reference to the lack of a UKIP candidate standing. Another more recent by-election in my area saw an extremely narrow victory for a Conservative where a UKIP member had stood against him. In most areas of my district, we nearly always see a huge victory against the sum total of Labour, Lib Dem and the Green’s vote combined.

I would not dispute that the vast majority of Britain’s countryside (over 90%) remains untouched, but it is where the development is taking place that is harming the Tory vote. According to the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), over one thousand hectares of green belt land (an area of open land around a settlement on which building is restricted) have been lost each year since 1997, covered in over 45,000 houses, spanning an area that roughly equates to a city the size of Bath. This is happening right on the doorstep of a great number of people who very often elect local Conservative Councillors for the purpose of preventing it. Is it any wonder that 13% of the almost exclusively Conservative Countryside Alliance now intends to vote UKIP in 2015?

The most frustrating aspect of the housing vs. environment issue is that plenty could be done to accommodate Britain’s growing population that would offend very few. Another CPRE report has identified derelict brownfield sites available for building approximately 1.5 million new homes. This would be on top of the 300,000 empty houses in the UK unoccupied for months, as well as the vast amount of land that our nation’s major house builders have permission to build on that could accommodate another 280,000 homes. Somewhat surprisingly, this report came after the last Labour government smashed targets to increase brownfield development by 60% before 2008, eight years ahead of schedule. Furthermore, back in 2011, local authorities identified an estimated 63,750ha of Brownfield land in England, up 2.6% from 62,130ha in previous year. Half of this land was derelict or vacant, with the other half in use, but with potential for redevelopment.

Clearly then there is a case for more ambitious targets in regions across the UK which could be encouraged through corporation tax relief for housing developers. The Conservative Party could even re-consider the Lib-Dems controversial Land Tax which would deter Greenfield development. Many commentators have pointed out that one of the main barriers to brownfield development is the uncertainties around cost, particularly during negotiations surrounding the clean-up operations of the areas on which they are to build, so the government U-turn to abolish Land Remediation Relief is welcome.

Eric Pickles’ recent announcement to grant more power to local councils could not have come soon enough. By making it more difficult to build on green belts, developers will naturally gravitate towards brownfield growth and focus on smaller urban properties that are more realistically priced for the people who need housing most.

Follow Luke on Twitter.

Nick Boles must combine planning with social justice, like the Victorian preservationists before him

Nik Darlington 10.26am

Nick Boles, the planning minister, would appear to have spent most of his time in office irritating conservationists, the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph about his plans to concrete over England’s green and pleasant land with suburban semis.

The truth, as always, is more nuanced than that. As Mr Boles demonstrated when delivering last year’s Macmillan Lecture, he has an eye for the grand idea and an even keener eye for the headlines. There’s more than an element of the young politician on the make about him, wanting to ruffle feathers and knock heads, something Paul Goodman mentions over at ConHome.

It is a controversial tactic, not least on two subjects this country holds close to its heart: house prices and the countryside. We are obsessed with house prices, to the extent that subliminally we quite like a housing shortage, because it perpetuates the conversation about ever-rising house prices (in honeypots and catchment areas, of course). Even if on the surface we are (rightly) outraged by the tall task of getting on the property ladder.

Yet it is a visceral fear of verdant fields falling into greedy developers’ hands that most stirs our little (and big) platoons.

So we should be fearful. This country is genuinely world-class at fewer and fewer things these days, but one of them remains our intricate rural tapestry, formed by centuries of attentive husbandry and preserved by decades of largely sensitive planning policies (even allowing for the monstrosities in post-war town centres). Nowhere on Earth can lay claim to a miniature idyll so ravishing.

Nevertheless, Mr Boles is correct. We do need to build more houses; and it is not about property economics or wholly about conservationist aims (however important), it is about social justice.

That was the goal of Victorian social reformers such as Octavia Hill, who strove to move London’s workers out of their slums and into pretty suburban dwellings, with trees and clean air, served by the new transport arteries of the Underground. Those social reformers were among the first modern preservationists too. The likes of Octavia Hill and Sir Robert Hunter founded the National Trust to preserve our heritage and rural splendour.

The story of the preservation of the view from Richmond Hill, for instance, in which the nascent National Trust played a small role, contains a poignant message about combining preservation and progress. The view was secured by an Act of Parliament only because nearly 200 hundred acres of protected common land was permitted to be illegally acquired for new suburban housing.

Those pioneering Victorian reformers believed in a compromise because it gave greater public access and allowed the building of extra homes for London’s mushrooming population. It also, for good measure, put the preservation of Richmond Hill beyond reasonable doubt.

Planning is a messy compromise. It always has been. Yet we have muddled along in the past and managed to maintain much of this country’s natural beauty. I do not doubt that Mr Boles’ intentions are in the right place, however he must follow this course in the footsteps of others with good intentions who have gone before him.

And he must tread carefully.

Follow Nik on Twitter @NikDarlington

No obstacle to Tories’ supporting more devolution after Scottish independence referendum is won

Andrew Morrison 10.48am

There are many things to be encouraged by in Ruth Davidson’s leadership so far. It is fair to say that Ruth is seen as a moderate, especially due to her pragmatic positions on social issues such as same-sex marriage and minimum unit pricing for alcohol.

The first stance is a recognition of a majority view and the fact Conservatives should not waste political capital on taking unpopular stands on social issues that are of no consequence to the truly pressing issues in our society, such as slowing social mobility, growing inequality between the best and worst performing state schools, and an increasingly inefficient Scottish NHS while life expectancy in some pockets of Glasgow is as bad as third-world nations.

The second stance is necessary in order to try and curtail Scotland’s disproportionately high alcohol consumption. A dogmatic approach against all forms of state intervention is not actually helpful if we are to achieve Conservative objectives such as reducing the number of problem households and cutting anti-social crime.

As for the pledged ‘line in the sand’ on devolution, this was offered during the leadership election and was designed to counteract fellow contender Murdo Fraser’s pledge to form a new pro-devolution centre-right party.

The Unionist camp will win the independence referendum, and win it by a clear enough margin to kill the issue dead for a generation. The campaign headed by the cross party Better Together group and the Scottish Tories’ Friends of the Union are designed to attract non-party political folk to our cause and are focusing the minds of all activists and elected politicians.

Ruth’s big challenge shall be the reversal of the ‘line in the sand’ position, to recognise that post-referendum a significant number of Scots shall sympathise with that point of view, especially as the mechanisms for administrating the tax-generating powers bestowed by the last Scotland Act are implemented and the public are made fully aware of the changes taking place.

For nearly everyone in the Union, the elephant in the room is the funding arrangement. The Barnett Formula. As a Conservative, I believe an organisation charged with the responsibility of representing the people also has the responsibility to show it is spending the people’s money sensibly.

My biggest criticism of the Scottish Parliament – one shared by others in the United Kingdom – is that the policies implemented by the Scottish Government have no impact on the tax revenue received by them because it is supported by the UK Treasury.

There is no incentive to rejuvenate Scotland’s under-performing economy because it will not translate into a direct boost in tax revenue. The Economist once compared MSPs to ‘teenagers living on an allowance’ – and like teenagers, that usually leads to discussion on whether they earn their keep sufficiently or not.

Tory reformists believe in reforming public services, welfare and the tax system in order to achieve a fairer, safer, more prosperous and coherent society. This reforming instinct extends to reform of the constitutional settlement that exists between Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England. It naturally follows that moderate Conservatives would not blindly rule out any further devolution of powers.

I believe Ruth Davidson is a moderate, reforming Tory and will accordingly construct a compromise on greater fiscal autonomy and further devolution but only after the independence campaign is soundly defeated.

After doing so, the centre-right in Scotland can realise it’s full potential by talking about how one raises the taxes which are spent on public services, and consequently get Scottish political discourse on to discussing what we get out of public services such as housing, education and health rather than merely what we put into them.

Andrew Morrison is a member of TRG Scotland, serves as the current Vice-Chairman of the Scottish Conservative & Unionist Party West of Scotland Regional Council, and stood for election recently at the Local Authority elections in May 2012. Andrew previously stood for the Holyrood constituency of Glasgow Pollok, being ranked number three on the Glasgow regional list.

Robbing the retirement fund to house the young - are you mad?

Sara Benwell 1.43pm

Another day, another bonkers financial plan from Nick Clegg.

At the Lib Dem conference in Brighton, Mr Clegg announced his nascent “pensions for property” scheme.

How would it work?

The scheme aims to enable first-time buyers to tap into their parents’ or grandparents’ retirement savings and allow them to take out a deposit.

It is as yet hazy on details, but it seems that parents would be allowed to sign an agreement with their child’s mortgage lender promising that a lump sum will be allocated towards the child’s home financing costs.

Essentially, a retired (or nearly retired) parent with a £60,000 pension pot could promise that a chunk of this (around £15,000) would be used as a deposit on a child’s first home.

The scheme will be targeted at parents who have built up a pension fund worth around £40,000 and are nearing retirement. Lib Dem officials have estimated that as many as 250,000 households could fit these criteria, including public sector workers such as teachers and nurses. Those with more valuable pensions would be able to use the scheme, but ministers have argued that they are likely to have other financial assets that they can use to help their children.

Why is it bonkers?

There are two reasons that this scheme doesn’t make sense. The first is that it won’t solve the problem that it sets out to solve; the second is that it may cause further problems in a pensions industry that is already riddled with them.

Why it won’t solve the problem

We have an alarming lack of affordable housing for young people. It is nigh on impossible for most of us in their twenties and many in their thirties to buy their first home. Particularly in London. I’m a twenty-something and it’s depressing to consider the amount that I throw away on rent and that at this rate I’m unlikely to be able to save enough for a deposit and get a mortgage until I’m about 55 years old. Nevertheless, Mr Clegg is mad if he thinks that stealing from pensions will save the young.

This scheme will only make a difference to a relatively small group of people with a pension pot of a certain size.  Furthermore, it seems likely that a lot of people who will be able to swap part of their pension for their child’s property may have other methods of helping their children out. Those whose pensions sit below this threshold will not be able to join in the fun, and those with a pension pot of significantly higher than the 40k mark are unlikely to take this route anyway. Also remember that at 55, most people will be able to access this tax free sum anyway and do with it what they wish – be that go on a cruise or help their children to buy a house.

If you believe (how could you not?) that we have problem with unaffordable housing for the young, how can you possibly think that a scheme which will change the fortunes of so few will solve the problem? If the problem is that houses are too expensive, allowing the vast minority of the populace a potential solution won’t make an iota of a difference to the fact that houses are too expensive for the majority.

What we need is more affordable housing, which would allow people to buy property that is within their means. If anything, this scheme is likely only to make houses more expensive, as it pushes more people into putting up deposits for houses they can’t afford.

Why it might make the pensions crisis worse

Firstly, one has to question how a scheme like this would actually work. Would it apply to all pensions schemes? How can lenders assess the risks involved if a pension scheme were to go bust? It seems likely that lenders would be very cautious when it came to lending to occupational pensions schemes, for instance.

One must also ask how well this policy would sit with other pensions policy and regulation. If changes are made to the access that people have to their pensions or to the tax-free lump sum entitlement, where will this leave the scheme? It seems that if this is even to get off the ground it needs to be more fully integrated with wider pensions policy.

The biggest problem is that this could leave retired people short of funds when they eventually come to giving up work. Already, the country is faced with a problem where not enough people are saving adequately for retirement and various schemes such as NEST are being implemented to try to change this. Guaranteeing this money as a deposit for a child’s home could mean that when it comes to retirement people are left with insufficient funds. What we don’t need is a system where people aren’t left with enough money to retire on.

Otto Thoresen, director general of the Association of British Insurers, told the Independent: ”Pensions are designed to mature into a decent retirement income, not for other purposes. Any scheme which uses pensions as a guarantee must ensure that it does not inadvertently make the saver worse off when they retire.”

One also wonders how this scheme will work amidst a move towards defined contribution pension schemes, when annuity rates are falling as a result of QE and falling stock markets.  How can you guarantee a lump sum of your pension when you don’t know how much it will eventually be worth, and if the downward annuity rate trend continues you’re likely to have a much lower retirement income than expected?

It’s all very well saying that we’ll help parents to help their children get on the property ladder, but this is all for nothing if it comes at the expense of increasing the problem of Britain’s underfunded retirement system. It seems bizarre that when we already have a pensions crisis caused by people not saving enough for retirement, Mr Clegg seems to think that we can use people’s pensions to try and solve the problems of unaffordable housing for the young.

Let’s only hope that this idea gets shelved in that cupboard of bizarre Lib Dem economic policies before we worsen the pensions crisis without helping the mortgage finance problem at all.

If by some miracle it does go ahead, I’m looking forward to the look on my mother’s face when I tell her she has to give up part of her retirement fund so that I can buy a house…

Follow Sara on Twitter @sarabenwell

Is David Cameron jumping the Tory electoral gun on welfare reform?

David Cowan 10.16am

Occasionally, among the static noise of 24-hour news, there comes a speech that matters. Yesterday’s by David Cameron, on welfare reform, was one of them.

The Government has already made good progress towards a better welfare state with the Universal Credit, Work Programme and the £26,000 benefits cap. But we now know that the Prime Minister and Conservative ministers have only just begun.

David Cameron is hitting back against the “entitlement culture”, which has gravely undermined a sense of “collective responsibility” that used to be so strong. It is at the heart of the ‘big society’ project to rejuvenate civil society. It is also absolutely spot on. If the state constantly intervenes in our lives instead of allowing us to live as individuals and communities, taking responsibility for our own actions, then it creates a client state of automatons.

There is already a ‘welfare gap’ between those who choose not to work and those who work and save for their family’s future. This is not because everyone on benefits is workshy but because of the perverse incentives produced by an overcomplicated system which simply isn’t working.

David Cameron is entering a potentially transformative phase in his premiership. This is not the end of ‘compassionate conservatism’, rather it is a reaffirmation of it. Instead of the lazy assumption that poverty is a problem solved by income redistribution, we are offered a more nuanced understanding. Mr Cameron highlighted the real causes of poverty, such as drug addiction, family breakdown, poor education and debt. Most importantly, he articulated the most effective solution to the problem:

"Compassion isn’t measured out in benefit cheques - it’s in the chances you give people…the chance to get a job, to get on, to get that sense of achievement that only comes from doing a hard day’s work for a proper day’s pay.

That’s what our reforms are all about. Transforming lives. Helping people walk taller.”

Elsewhere in the speech, the ‘Wisconsin model’ established during President Clinton’s administration in the US offered some inspiration: it proposes a two-year time limit on benefits, and for people receiving benefits to carry out full-time community work.

Mr Cameron also spoke about how couples on benefits were having children they obviously could not afford without state support. He proposed that income support should be stopped and additional child benefit limited for families with more than three children. Tougher measures on housing were also mooted, such as lowering the housing benefit cap further and stopping it completely for under-25s.

Deeper cuts to welfare budgets should not come as a surprise. George Osborne has already announced, in last year’s Autumn Statement, two more years of cuts and, in his Budget speech this year, the need for £10 billion of further savings from welfare by 2016 (to be outlined in the next Spending Review).

Political considerations are crucial. Downing Street’s director of strategy, Andrew Cooper, is largely responsible for the policy - his polling research showing that the benefit cap was among the Government’s more popular policies. It can prove how welfare reform is a ‘wedge issue’ on which both the Lib Dems and Labour are viewed as out of touch with the ‘striving classes’. Tougher welfare reform has now become the centrepiece of Conservative differentiation.

David Cameron has crafted a long-term vision for welfare reform that extends beyond this Parliament and establishes the groundwork for the Conservative party’s general election campaign in 2015. Undoubtedly his thinking his correct and needed but it should be some cause for concern that the coalition partners are distancing themselves to such an extent three years out from that election. The coalition needs a renewed unifying mission that goes beyond deficit reduction. A new Coalition Agreement, formulated by people such as David Laws, is what is needed now, not ‘differentiation’.

Mr Cameron’s speech is precisely what the Conservatives need to help them win in 2015. But it may have come a bit too early.

Follow David on Twitter @david_cowan

If the younger generation won’t bother to vote, it’s no wonder the policies don’t favour them

Sara Benwell 10.34am

We all hear talk about the 'lost generation', the young people today struggling in a climate of few jobs, a steep housing ladder, and dwindling prospects of a good pension. I’m one of them.

The average age of a first-time buyer is well into one’s thirties and rising. Graduate debt is also on the up, and the state of the public finances means future generations will be picking up the baby-boomers’ bills for some years to come.

The past few years have witnessed a remarkable explosion in youth activism, supposedly a response to this demographic and economic ‘pinch’ (to borrow the terminology from a brilliant book by Tory minister David Willetts). But the fact is that until young people vote in larger numbers, nothing will change.

Before the 2010 general election many young people were enthused by the Liberal Democrats and pre-election polling seemed to indicate that Nick Clegg’s party had captured young people’s hearts and minds by speaking out about university fees and other issue important to the youth of today.

Regrettably for Mr Clegg, those young people failed to turn out to vote when it mattered.

Here’s the deal. The highest proportion of voters in the UK is overwhelmingly over 65. In fact, that cohort comprises approximately one-fifth of all voters. So the question is, if politicians know that more over-65s shall vote than any other demographic, and that young people are the unlikeliest to vote, who is likeliest to garner the most attention? The grey vote.

You could argue that young people don’t vote because they don’t identify themselves with any of the traditional political parties, and that politicians should therefore try harder to connect with them. Turn the system on its head.

Sadly that doesn’t work. It is what the Lib Dems tried to do and many young people said they intended to vote for them, but didn’t.

So the message the younger generation is sending to politicians is this: “Don’t bother considering us when it comes to policies, because even if we like what you’re saying, we still won’t go out to vote.”

When put like that, it’s no wonder that policies don’t favour young people. Of course politicians will focus on pensioners, who are statistically more likely to put an all-important ‘X’ in the box.

Of course, there is a sizeable minority of younger people who do want to engage with politics and who do vote. Yet unless we all start voting, nothing will change. It is a vicious cycle.

I genuinely believe that if I don’t vote, I am giving away my chance to have a say on how I want this country to be run. And while young people may not think any of the traditional parties entirely match their world-view, there must surely be a candidate out there, someone, somewhere, to vote for.

I hate to be one of those people that harps on about what a privilege it is to be able to cast a vote. But it is. People have fought for it, throughout the world and throughout history.

Maybe we do feel like a ‘lost generation’, and maybe we do feel as though nothing’s going our way. So maybe we should exercise the precious rights we have, take a chance, and shape our own future.

Follow Sara on Twitter @sarabenwell

It is simple: we cannot allow the offensive and malicious Ken Livingstone back into City Hall

Craig Barrett 11.39am

Polls polls polls! "Boris lead narrows!" "Ken less popular than his party!" "Boris more popular than Tories!" "Only 12% of people believe that Ken is honest!"

While opinion polling has become much more sophisticated, anyone who watched the 1992 general election coverage on Easter Monday would know that only one poll matters: when you enter your booth and wield your pencil (unless you live in Tower Hamlets, of course).

With just one week to go until the election for London’s mayor, the current polling serves only to allow campaigners to twist and spin to whatever advantage possible and to remind people (like me) that we should be doing more to help.

I feel a bit sorry in some ways for the London Labour party. They have had a candidate forced on them who seems to owe no loyalty to them barring the right to campaign under their banner and deploy their activists for his own ends.

Had Labour picked someone else, Mr Livingstone, who believes the mayoralty his divine right, would have run as an independent candidate as he did in 2000.

Mr Livingstone’s campaign is a goulash of undeliverable policies, bold but inaccurate pronouncements about his Tory opponent, and craft attempts to shift the media’s focus away from his own activities. It is not so much that Mr Livingstone is a stranger to the truth, it is more that lying and smoke-screens come easier to him.

To Mr Livingstone, it matters not that he has no power to restore the EMA, or that the TfL ‘cash mountain’ is intended for investment rather than fare giveaways. To Mr Livingstone, it matters not that the only experience he has to validate his comments on Boris Johnson’s tax affairs comes from his own hypocritical tax avoidance. To Mr Livingstone, it matters not that what spews from his mouth is offensive to one group of Londoners or another.

Mr Livingstone has given us no compelling reasons to vote for him; no policies on which any Londoner can be certain of his delivering. His crony-aplenty, wasteful record in City Hall speaks for itself.

Contrast that figure with Boris Johnson, who has actually delivered on his promises - whether policing, sustainable housing, tax freezes and others - and whose plans are both costed and practical.

But above all else, consider two vital points. First, I am not old enough to remember Mr Livingstone’s reign as leader of the Greater London Council but I know enough to understand it for what it was: a publicly funded one man crusade of self-justification, with money poured down the drain to embarrass Mrs Thatcher’s government or to challenge its actions in the courts.

The Mayor of London must speak for the city with an independent voice, but they must also be able to co-operate with central government to ensure the best for the city. For at least the first three years of the next mayor’s tenure there will be a Conservative politician in 10 Downing Street and while Mr Johnson and Mr Cameron may not be close personally, they do at least have a mutual understanding and interest.

Boris Johnson is a doughty fighter who has regularly exercised his inherent independence to seek the best for London. Mr Livingstone’s egomania and pathological hatred of the Tories will mean that were he to be elected next week, it would be the start of at least three years of pitched battles on meaningless fronts, all paid for by London’s rate payers.

Second, and perhaps most important, Mr Livingstone’s public utterances over the past few months demonstrate the type of man he is.

Whether suggesting that a councillor in Hammersmith & Fulham ought to “burn in hell…and…flesh be flayed for demons for all eternity”; whether suggesting that gay bankers in the Middle East could be mutilated; whether suggesting that London’s Jewish population is too rich to vote Labour; or whether simply another cheap insult at a critic, Mr Livingstone appears oblivious to the effect of his own words.

It is not good enough for the Labour party to say “Ken is just being Ken”, or words to that effect. Mr Livingstone is no Jed Bartlet, and the fact that many in the Labour party are doing their best to distance themselves from their own candidate shows the whole strategy is a farce.

In a few months, the eyes of the world will be on London and other cities around the country as Britain hosts the Olympic & Paralympic Games. Boris Johnson may be gaffe-prone but unlike Mr Livingstone his gaffes are rarely offensive and certainly not malicious. We in this great and historic capital city cannot afford to have as our mayor a man who appears to set his stall deliberately to offend others.

For this reason, above all others, I urge you to back Boris Johnson as Mayor of London.

Follow Craig on Twitter @mrsteeduk

How to thaw the frosty relationship between the political class and the public

Iain Martin 11.07am

Like all other political anoraks, I spent my Easter Monday gluttonously indulging in chocolate and BBC Parliament’s re-run of the 1992 general election night.
As someone whose political memory began in 1997, it shocked me both how much and how little has changed in politics.
Recession, the break-up of the union, rising home repossessions and rising levels of unemployment are once again the key issues of the day. The challenges we face are not new challenges but challenges we have faced at many points in our history and the solutions we as a ‘politcial class’ propose are rather uninspiringly similar to those used in the past.
As a party which is so dominated by historians, it is hardly surprising that the best solutions we have are nods to the past, such as deregulation, the right to buy your council house and enterprise zones (which Nik covered last August); nor should this be taken as a bad thing.
It is a good thing that the polarised debates of the past around socialism and capitalism are no longer. Yes, we still have the political cycle and the natural oscillation between the ‘left’ and the ’right’ - change is fundamental and forever will be. It is both heartening and shameful that our politics has converged to a point where the cliff-edge for families to receive child benefit is one of the main talking points.
While avoiding the needless and misinformed romanticising of 1950s Britain as a close-knit society, intrinsically egalitarian and altruistic, it is striking how more than ever what matters most to people is the ability to consume, to have some luxuries, to afford a second holiday.
As a society we recognise the challenges we face, we all have friends, acquaintances or family members who have suffered from the recession; we can see how young people are struggling to find work, we want the government to act. This Government has acted by raising the personal tax allowance, by lowering corporation tax, through welfare reform.
The Government must do more to protect the most vulnerable and get the lowest paid back into work, yet it knows to go too much further would mean greater restraints on spending or increasing the burden on higher earners.
Society has been well briefed by politicians of all sides on the need for ‘austerity’, yet when austerity bites society is, in some quarters, rejecting it. This hypocrisy is regrettable, though understandable given the political climate we are living in.
Arguably the biggest challenge facing this Government is the disconnection between the people who run the country and the people who live in it. It is by no means a problem caused by this Government but one which it much address if it is to achieve its goals.
In 1992, Britain opted for John Major - a leader who they trusted, who understood them, who was a safe pair of hands at a time when Britain required someone to drag this country out of a recession.
Britain rejected the triumphalist, flashy, arrogant pseudo-socialist Neil Kinnock in favour of a firm hand on the tiller. The highest turnout ever seen in a general election demonstrated the nation’s trust in a man who represented Britain’s psyche at that time better than any of the alternatives.
We, as a party, won votes in all parts of the country and astonishingly acheived a better swing in Scotland than anywhere else in the country. The ‘one-nation’ tradition was preserved.
Eighteen years later we have a deeply divided nation with life expectancy, average earnings and unemployment so wildly heterogenous across our nation. This, sadly, is reflected in the political geography which now exists and the obvious north/south divide which has emerged in recent years. Much of this must be attributed to the cynical, unsustainable, politically motivated, short-sighted policies of the previous Labour government who ‘solved’ unemployment through public sector job creation in the north.
Political disengagement is often measured by the strength of the ‘other’ parties and in a recent poll UKIP acheived 11 per cent support, enough to put anyone off their dinner.
It would be easy to dismiss UKIP as a temporary sponge for the disaffected (and Prof Tim Bale did so persuasively for the Spectator yesterday).
But to dismiss UKIP entirely would be a grave folly. Since 1992, we have lived through internal bickering on matters European, cash for questions, cash for honors, cash for access, an expenses scandal, broken promises and unpopular ’liberal’ interventionism. Westminster has shrunk into a self-absorbed, self-obsessed and at times self-loathing bubble fuelled by the tribal and vindictive media. It is no surprise that the public as a whole are more sceptical of politicians than ever.
In the cities and towns of Britain there are millions whose lives are barely touched by the actions of politicians. They ask themselves: ultimately who can make a difference to my local area, to my local schools and communities? They just want clean, safe streets and opportunities for their children.
The Government’s solution to this is truly exciting. The Localism Act, wholesale reform to the schools system and, most notably, directly elected mayors in our towns and cities.
We now have an irreversible cult of celebrity which pervades urban Britain. Many friends in my hometown of Whitley Bay idolise the likes of Alan Shearer and Cheryl Cole but could not name their MP (Labour’s deputy chief whip Alan Campbell, for what it’s worth) or their local councillors.
Directly elected mayors are a way of bridging the gap between Westminster and the public. Naturally, Whitehall is disinclined to cede power. But this could be a genuinely transformative move towards a more one-nation form of government.
It must be allied to lasting political reform. The Government must seriously look at reform of the trade union movement and funding of political parties, of course, and it will no doubt do this.
What it must not ignore, however, is the selection and subsequent election of MPs. The death of political party membership can be taken as a surefire sign of dissatisfaction and disengagement with the political system. To dismiss the decline in party membership as an irrelevance would be to miss one of the fundamental problems in modern British politics: the lack of charisma, the lack of inspiration, the lack of energy from our political elite.
Time after time, we see our politicians on the television in suits looking as though they are funeral-bound, morosely defending or attacking the government of the day’s position like puppets.
Where are the characters? Those who can motivate through speech and action the voters to engage in debate? They have disapperared in part due to the media’s obsession with gaffes, thus influencing leaders into promoting bland but safe candidates, but in part due to the decline in local political activism and membership.
The typical local party selection meeting is attended by a very small number of members who rarely represent the demographic of their constituencies. It is staggering that in many cases someone who might represent 70,000 constituents can be selected by less than a hundred local party members. Or in the Labour party’s case, a den of union fixers.
Each party has a responsibility to broaden their outreach. The open primaries which were trialled by the Conservative party at the last election were an excellent start. They encouraged people as Dr Sarah Wollaston, who had not even considered a role in politics, to stand for election.
To introduce open primaries across the country would require both financial investment (opening the possibility of state funding) and political investment, it would certainly be a radical reform requiring an immense amount of political will. It is decisions like this that can define governments as genuinely radical, that can be quietly transformational. To simply trust that the ‘lost generation’ will naturally return to the fold would be to ignore a fundamental problem and to miss a rare opportunity to make a lasting difference.