One of the struggles of our age is between the professionals who claim politics is all about responding to detailed polling, and the amateur democrats who believe politics should be about principles and judgement.
Some claim the way to “do politics” is to poll the marginal seats and the marginal voters, finding out exactly what they want to hear, or even want they want from government, and giving it to them. If you take this approach to extremes a political party that wants to win a General Election has its policy and its statements dictated by small groups of voters in highly marginal seats.
Others are high on principle but short of votes. They set out what they believe and want, and leave it to chance and to the electorate to see if they win any or enough seats.
As these caricatures suggest, a successful party or candidate needs a bit of both. You do not win if you are unwilling to reach out beyond your core support. You are unlikely to be trusted to govern if you never compromise and merely represent a minority group of the electors. You are also unlikely to be trusted to govern if enough people think you are prepared to change your views and policies every time a poll shifts in crucial marginal constituencies.
People do expect some consistency of approach. Governing is different from crafting electoral messages. Governing well is the best way to get re elected. If you govern well much of the message takes care of itself. It still helps to have a good way of explaining what you have done and what you want to do next. Governments also have to remember that a good record is only part of the offer. People are more interested in what you will do for them in the next Parliament than in what you have done for them in the last. If you have governed well they are more inclined to listen favourably to your offer. If you have governed badly it will be difficult to get their trust for what you want to do next.
One reason why polls often improve for a government as an election approaches is people change they way they judge. Between elections people tend to judge a government by absolute standards. Could they have done better? Could they have backed what I wanted ? Could they have avoided that mistake? As an election approaches people are reminded that it is a contest between two very human groups of people to govern. The contest is then an easier one for the government. The question shifts. Not did they do well by absolute standards, but did they do better than the other lot?
Conservatives will win more votes from the success of the economy in generating jobs and fostering gr0wth than they will from any clever message. As always a party needs to balance its principles, its core voters, and its outreach to new voters it needs to attract. Polls are relevant background, but should not determine what the party does or says.
One of the reasons the EU now has so much influence over how we are governed is the permanent threat of infraction proceedings which hangs over lost Whitehall departments. Departments like Environment, Climate Change and Energy and the Business department are very constrained by EU law owing to the large n umber of Directives, regulations and Treaty articles that apply to them. Even more domestic departments like Welfare and Education are being dragged into the EU net as the powers of the EU expands. We were told tax stays outside EU jurisdiction, yet there have been a series of cases over VAT (an EU tax) and Corporation Tax which force changes to UK tax law.
The existence of a supreme court in the form of the ECJ means at any time the UK can be found guilty of failing to implement a Directive, or failing to enforce a Directive or regulation properly. Much of Whitehall’s time is taken up with revising and amending so called UK law to fit it into the pattern of Treaty and Directive law which we have to accept. All our c0mpetition law, for example, was put into EU shape by the last Labour government.
Past Ministers have often presented a new UK law as a desirable item thought up in the UK when they should have said it was being introduced entirely so we can comply with the EU. The latest row over Data Retention was really a row over the application of EU law, though many politicians and the media seem to want to present it as an entirely UK based debate.
Ministers in many departments are very controlled by the framework and detail of EU law and policy. It is high time this was better understood and more fully debated. I have tabled some questions to find out what has been the recent pace of EU law generation department by department. Some departments find it difficult to keep up with the ever active EU legislative machine.
As the dust settles after the departure of Michael Gove from education it is time to consider what a future government should do to continue the reforms and improve the opportunities young people have from attending our state schools.
Mr Gove drove through a substantial increase in the number of Academies, a programme started by the previous Labour government. He introduced a number of Free schools. He sought to make exams more demanding and raise the esteem of qualifications. He strove to increase the use of phonics to teach literacy. He presided over the remodelling of some exam syllabuses.
Although he is a keen advocate of the Swedish model of freer schools and academies, he did not adopt the Swedish model of allowing for profit companies to lease and run state financed schools. Although he allowed some schools as his predecessors did to select on abilities in music or sport he did not allow any expansion of selection by academic ability through re-opening the lists of grammar schools. Though he is a keen advocate of parental and student choice, he did not go far in allowing people to spend the sum the state allocates for their child where they wish. Greater choice rests on similar application and selection methods to those of past governments, allied to more places at a greater range of schools in some locations.
So do you wish to see an end to the Gove reforms? Do you want them to continue? Or would you like to see more radical reforms to beef up choice and extend the range of types of school and styles of provider on offer?
Water management is a Cinderella subject for Manifesto writers that should in 2015 come to the political ball. We both have too much of it at time of flood, and too little of it in times of drought. There is nothing new about this. All my lifetime we have alternated between difficult floods in winter and water rationing in hot summers. Some say this is going to get worse. That’s even more reason for us to get better at preventing these extremes of outcome.
Fortunately solving the one can help solve the other. If we had more areas of ground where we could capture and hold water during times of flood, we could have more reservoir capacity for times of shortage. The water industry is reluctant to build more reservoir capacity to avoid shortages in rare hot years. It takes this view partly because it always has in mind very large units, and partly because the regulatory system makes financing such projects difficult.
Maybe we need a series of smaller projects attached to rivers which are flood prone, capable of taking water in in wet periods and putting it into the water system at times of shortage. Some of this could be part of the new housing projects around the country, as housebuilding adds to the risk of flash flooding as more of the land that absorbs water naturally is put under tarmac and concrete. Over to you, Environment Agency.
Some critics of the imbalances in our UK economy between London and the rest point out that London does better in public spending per head that some other less prosperous parts of the country. They also point out London does well in attracting large capital projects like Crossrail. Why don’t other parts of the country have the same?
It is not true to say that high public spending per head is the cause of London’s prosperity. The second most prosperous UK region is the South-east, with much lower public spending per head and no major projects. Higher levels of per capita income are mainly driven by high private sector employment levels, high levels of education and training in the workforce, a high concentration of high value added activities in the private sector. The South-east economy does well despite the absence of sufficient investment in rail and road capacity, with full up commuter trains and regularly congested roads.
London has attracted substantial transport investment in recent years because it has the most congested systems of anywhere in the country. As the London economy draws in more people and generates more income and wealth, so there is much more travel demand. The antiquated street system cannot possibly meet the needs for individual road travel, so large numbers need to go by tube or train or bus. London has critical mass for public transport, and needs more of it as the economy grows.
I am all for spending money on major transport projects elsewhere, where the demand justifies it. If other cities are short of rail and road capacity they should be given financial help to meet the needs. It is unlikely to cause the growth they are seeking, but is a necessity when the growth occurs. Few places enjoy anything like the intensity of pressure on public transport that London creates, which is why many places need better road connectivity.
Let me return like a moth to the flame to the question of UKIP. I get plenty of criticism on this site for fighting the good fight against the use and extension of EU power on the simple ground that I do not join UKIP, who happen to agree with some of my views. I will try again to explain why I and other like minded Conservative MPs will continue to battle for the restoration of UK democracy as Conservatives.
Some UKIP supporters claim to value UK democracy, but they refuse to recognise or accept its results. They have this odd idea that there is a natural UKIP majority of all voters out there just waiting to take us out of the EU, when the reality of election after election is different.
The main reason I do not support UKIP is I do not believe it can deliver its fundamental promise of taking us out of the EU. The second reason is I do think we need to negotiate a new relationship with the EU which preserves our trade and other matters like shipping, aviation and pipelines rights. UKIP never talks about what kind of relationship it would want with the EU on exit and how it would achieve this. The third reason is we have to take the majority – preferably a large majority – of the British people with us as we change this relationship.
Over 20 years of trying UKIP has not won a single Parliamentary seat. Its best chances came at Eastleigh and Newark in this Parliament, when UKIP support was at its highest in polls. It won neither. All the polls show it will not win a single seat in 2015. There would need to be a seismic shift in the polls in its favour, taking it to a higher level of support in a General Election than it managed in a European election. No commentator or independent observer think that likely. The reluctance of UKIP to select high profile candidates for possible target seats for 2015 and get them working also implies UKIP themselves do not expect to win anything.
Democratic politics is about the day to day work of looking after a constituency, listening to your voters, and representing all, including those you disagree with. It is about trying to win the big public debates, to move opinion in the direction you think will do most good for your fellow countrymen and women. I think principles do matter in politics, but those of us who have certain democratic principles have to understand that we only have the right or the opportunity to implement them when enough of the public agree and will vote for them. Compromise and toleration are also important parts of democracy. They do not mean all who practice these democratic traits are traitors or liars as some UKIP supporters constantly assert.
Starting today I am producing a series of pieces which invites bloggers to send in their ideas on what should be on offer in a Manifesto for May 2015 in various areas.
Let us begin with roads. The Labour years saw little roadbuilding, followed by substantial further cuts in capital as their response to the financial crisis at the end of their period in government. The Coalition lived with most of those cuts for the first half of this Parliament, but is now relaxing the controls on capital expenditure.
As more than 85% of our travel needs are met by road vehicles, a growing economy clearly needs more roadspace. Some wish to see their town or village bypassed, as heavy traffic still thunders through some settlements. Some wish to see more capacity on the main motorways and trunk roads, as the core network is under considerable stress at busy times of day. Some wish to see improvement in local roads, as they find blocked junctions and bottlenecks on crucial parts of the local network when taking children to school or trying to get to work or home or to the shops.
As a minimum I suggest we need a continuous south coast highway to dual carriageway standard from Kent to Southampton. We need more capacity to Felixstowe and the east coast, on the M3 and M4 westwards, on the M25, on the M2 and the M1. We need a fully dualled A303 to the west country, more capacity across the Pennines, an improved A1 (M) all the way to the Scottish border, and better links between the major northern cities.
Assuming Scotland votes to stay in our union this September, we will find devolution back on the agenda soon afterwards. All three main parties have promised more powers for Scotland. All three will I am sure wish to honour that pledge.
This time it will not be possible to duck the issue of who governs England? It will be too unfair for Westminster to carry on as if nothing had happened with respect to the government of England, whilst the rest of the UK led by Scotland gets yet more powers for self government in their own Parliament and Assemblies. The SNP agrees with me about this. The SNP does not think their MPs at Westminster should settle matters for England that are settled for Scotland in the Scottish parliament.
I write again about this because recently I was invited onto a 5 Live discussion to tackle the issue of England. My fellow disputants were Jim Murphy for Labour and Menzies Campbell for the Lib Dems. The other two are both Westminster MPs sitting for Scottish seats. Their approach was simply unacceptable to England.
It is true they did preface their remarks by saying this was primarily a matter for England. They could say no less, as they and the whole political establishment have always said Scottish devolution and independence is entirely a matter for Scotland. However, they both went on to accept there will be an English devolution problem, and expressed the view that this could be handled by more devolution of power to regional government or local government in England.
No, No, No. I had to force my way back into the conversation to remind them I was the only one representing England. I spoke for England, and said my country was fed up with attempts from outside to balkanise and split it up. The last Labour government attempted this, and were strongly rebuffed in their own heartland of the North-east where the public said they did not want regional government. If Scotland is going to have control over some of its own taxes, so will England expect no less. We will not need the help of Mr Murphy or Sir Menzies Campbell to impose taxes on England when Scotland is doing her own.
UK consumers pay dearly for their fuel, mainly thanks to the very high rates of tax on petrol and diesel, and substantial tax on domestic fuels through company tax and VAT as well. In the debate on Scotland’s future the issue of oil and gas tax revenue is more narrowly focused on Petroleum Revenue Tax, a tax on production, and on corporation tax on the producing companies. So what has been happening to this?
The trend of tax revenues on production from the North Sea has bee downwards for sometime. This is another area where the Treasury has been too optimistic in recent years. In June 2010 the Treasury forecast £1.8bn of Petroleum Revenue Tax in 2013-13, and £1.7bn in 2013-14.
Instead they received £1.7bn in 2012-13 and £1.1 bn in 2013-14. Current forecasts are for much lower figures from here than the 2010 estimates.
On June 2010 the Budget forecast £8.7bn of offshore corporation tax revenue in 2012-13 in total, and £8.9bn in 2013-14. Instead the Treasury collected just £4.4 bn in 2013-13, and £3.6bn in 2013-14, or 60% less than the 2010 forecast.
As the oil province declines, so the tax take will reduce substantially. The government is having to offer more tax offsets and lower rates to encourage more marginal production, whilst total volumes decline. Once again past forecasts have been far too rosy about higher tax rates and definitions, forcing not only lower estimates but also a change of policy to a less penal regime.
I am often asked how bad would a Scottish exit be for the UK economy?
I reply by stating that I would like Scotland to stay in the union. It is important it is their choice, and even more important that they then unite behind the democratic decision they are about to make, whichever way it goes. I still expect Scotland to vote to stay in.
The facts are straightforward. Scotland has 8.3% of the UK population. At current rates of economic growth it would take three years to replace the lost Scottish output. At current rates of inward migration it would take a generation to replace the lost numbers of people, but as the aim is to bring the rate down more it would take a couple of generations. I am not recommending that we have to seek to replace the lost people, merely trying to give a sense of relative size.
Scotland receives 9.3% of total UK spending. Whilst the Scottish government and the UK Treasury disagree about some of the detail, they say that Scotland receives somewhere between 122% and 116% of the public spending per head of the rest of the UK.
Scotland contributes 7.3% of the Income Tax revenue of the UK, 2% lower than her share of the public spending. Other taxes are variable, from the 14.1% of total UK spirits duty the Scots pay, down to 5% of Stamp Duty.
The SNP point out that Scotland contributes the lion’s share of production and company taxes on oil and gas output. As we have seen , these tax revenues are now in decline, reducing the Scottish total tax contribution.
One of the big arguments is over how quickly this will decline. If it does so with no obvious replacement, then Scotland in the UK will need to draw more money from the rest of the UK to make up the shortfall.
The English case to keep Scotland in the Union is based on history, politics and sentiment. It is not an economic necessity from England’s point of view.