Political Update from Mark Garnier MP - May 2021

May is always a good, newsworthy month for politics. With one election or another, usually followed by the Queen’s Speech, there is much for political pundits to get stuck into.

These recent polls were more noteworthy than usual. With a bunch of elections carried over from last year’s Covid cancellation, and the country emerging slowly from lockdown, with quite an economic hangover, there was a lot of opportunity for the country to judge the government, albeit by proxy. And for Labour, this was a first opportunity for Sir Kier Starmer to show what he has made of leadership so far.

As it turned out, not much.

The party of opposition suffered a sound drubbing in its heartlands. Perpetual Labour parliamentary constituency of Hartlepool turned blue – and by miles – in the first parliamentary by-election of Starmer’s leadership. He needs to be worried. Hartlepool was one of 30 Labour held “safe” seats where the Labour majority is less than the UKIP vote in 2019. All things being equal and no UKIP candidate, those seats could all go to Conservatives at the next election. In Tees Valley, the Conservative candidate for the metro mayor took 3 out of every four votes cast. This doesn’t have the appearance of a one off: this feels like a wholesale rejection of Labour’s now well entrenched image as a party for the wealthy metropolitan elite. Labour’s successes in Cambridge only serve to build on this view.

This is important for the country as politics needs effective, coordinated and united opposition. With the opposition in disarray, policy isn’t given the proper scrutiny it needs. We all need Labour to do better.

Meanwhile in Scotland, we move ever closer to another independence vote. Whatever your view about Nicola Sturgeon, she is a hugely effective politician.

The legal position on a further referendum is clear. For such a ballot to be enforceable, it needs to be supported with an Act of Parliament. Anything less would just be a very expensive opinion poll, without any chance of being enacted.

Sturgeon is a master at the art of reasonable persuasion. Her argument is that leave supporting parties now have the majority in Holyrood. Why wouldn’t Scotland, she asks, be entitled to IndyRef2? After all, she goes on, they won’t do it until the pandemic has passed, and all its doing is asking a question. And Brexit changes the landscape since the lest referendum, so it is justifiable.

This argument may well persuade even the Scottish unionists to support her referendum, being persuaded that the Westminster government’s behaviour is anti-democratic. TO allow a referendum risks losing the union: to deny one risks entrenching further independence support. Directors of businesses in Scotland may well want to add Scottish independence to their risk register.

The Queen’s Speech starts to address the fight back for those of us who support the Union and who value Scotland’s contribution to the UK. There is talk about building infrastructure across the whole of the UK, spending on road, rail, busses and 5G connectivity. The post COVID-19 recovery plan is one that looks to boost the economies of all four nations. Spending more money on the NHS – health being devolved – results in similar subsidies going to Scotland and wales and NI under Barnet consequentials.

This is good stuff, but I suspect that we will start to see a lot more central government activity going on north of the border, and the problems that an independent Scotland would face, from doubtful oil revenues to huge problems regarding setting up, financing, and managing a central bank and currency.

But the Queen’s Speech is much more than just the start of love bombing Scotland and rebuilding after COVID-19 – both of which are incredibly important.

The so-called levelling up agenda is a serious attempt to both deliver political promises to those red-wall seats, and to build on our economic success.

There have already been a number of rounds of grants passed out to regions – town centre funds are one such grant and there have already been announcements of further rounds. The Treasury and DCHLG already setting up regional offices in the midlands and north and I have no doubt that we will see more governments departments spreading their wings outside the south east.

But it is the lifetime skills proposals that attract I suspect will make more of a difference. With half of school leavers not going to university, there is a large swathe of the population who have a great deal to offer that doesn’t need a degree. And with the economy changing rapidly, businesses will need to adapt ever faster to meet the needs of their customers. And that needs and agile workforce that can also adapt to changing demands on their skills.

We are now in a period of political stability – a far cry from 2019. There are risks, and the global pandemic has presented a huge set of challenges, both social and economic. But there is an interesting sense of measured optimism out there.