Next Thursday, 1 July, the voters of Batley and Spen will choose a new MP to replace Tracy Brabin, elected in May as the first mayor of West Yorkshire. If the Conservatives prevail, as some polls suggest they might, we shall once again be talking about Boris Johnson’s conquest of so-called “red wall” seats, the Tories’ electoral pillaging of Labour’s heartlands, and Sir Keir Starmer’s chances of survival as party leader.
For now, however, the spotlight has settled on the prime minister’s own potential predicament in the South, flagged up by the Conservatives’ defeat in the Chesham and Amersham by-election last Thursday: without question, a famous victory for the Lib Dems in which their candidate, Sarah Green, overturned a Tory majority of 16,000 with a 25 per cent swing.
Already, her triumph has inspired much speculation about Johnson’s vulnerability in the “blue wall”, and the price he may pay in traditionally Conservative areas for courting Labour voters in the North and Midlands with his “levelling up” strategy.
In 23 of the 29 seats in which the Lib Dems came second to the Tories in the 2019 general election, a 10 per cent swing would oust the incumbent – an appetising prospect for the party’s leader, Ed Davey, who has been smiling like a man woken from cryogenic sleep to be told, bafflingly, that he has won the lottery.
Folded into this surging narrative of Tories-in-peril has been the decision of John Bercow, the former Speaker, to join Labour. The modern Conservative Party, he told yesterday’s Observer, is “reactionary, populist, nationalistic and sometimes even xenophobic,” and no place for anyone “motivated by support for equality, social justice and internationalism. That is the Labour brand.”
All of which has encouraged a seductive argument: namely that the people of Chesham and Amersham have shown that Johnson is not, after all, electorally invulnerable, and that Remain-leaning voters, in particular, have had enough of his lying, evasion, mismanagement of the pandemic and cheap culture wars.
Furthermore (the argument continues), they don’t see why they should pick up the tab for levelling up. In yesterday’s Sunday Telegraph, the Tory candidate in the by-election, Peter Fleet, explicitly connected his defeat to the PM’s yearning to spend, spend, spend.
Voters who would usually cast their ballot for the Tories, he wrote, “fear a return to a bloated public sector which stifles private enterprise and demands ever higher taxes”. Clearly still smarting from his humiliation, Fleet then made it personal: “They very much like and respect Rishi Sunak, and they do not expect fretful Tory backbenchers to push the chancellor into saying yes to every request for more and more public spending from the benches opposite.” Miaow.
In 1992, after Labour’s fourth successive general election defeat, Giles Radice wrote a Fabian pamphlet called Southern Discomfort, which famously spelt out the party’s problems in the South and its need for an entirely new message if it was to achieve power. Are the Tories now, against all traditional expectations, experiencing their own version of this geographical nightmare?
If the politics of the past 30 years – since the rise of Tony Blair in the mid-1990s – has a lesson, it is that no category of voter can be taken for granted in an electoral landscape mostly drained of the old tribal allegiances. It is true, too, that voters will balk at the “levelling up” agenda if they see it as no more than pork barrel politics, siphoning off wealth from the South to buy more Tory seats in the North and Midlands.
What is less plausible is the idea that the disillusioned fiscal Conservatives described by Fleet would switch en bloc at a general election for Labour or Lib Dem candidates. A protest vote in a by-election is one thing; the overturning of an 80-seat Tory majority by a progressive Starmer-Davey alliance quite another. More to the point: why dislodge a high-spending government by electing one that would spend even more?
Let us take a step back, and put all this in perspective. The voters that gave Johnson a bloody nose in Chesham are David Cameron’s people. The former prime minister understood them completely, and his “modernisation” strategy as Opposition leader between 2005 and 2010 was engineered specifically to allay their concerns and win their support.
Who are these voters? They are university-educated but not conspicuously bookish (Robert Harris, yes; Sally Rooney, no); socially liberal to the extent that they recoil from vulgar expressions of bigotry and divisiveness, and may well have been to a gay wedding. They love to fill Sunday afternoons talking to friends about the best schools in the neighbourhood and their plans for foreign holidays over long lunches of slow-cooked lamb. At sundown, they argue amicably over glasses of Pinot Grigio about the influence of Carrie Johnson, Prince Harry, and the propriety of Love Island.
They were (and remain) unsettled by the uncouth sloganeering of the Brexiteers and wish the referendum had never happened. They didn’t like the prorogation of Parliament in 2019 one bit, but they liked Jeremy Corbyn less, and stuck with the Tories in the last general election.
And now? Though many of them used to find Johnson amusing as “an original,” “authentic,” and “a breath of fresh air,” his shtick is beginning to get on their nerves. That said, they aren’t remotely ready to vote for Starmer as prime minister, and perhaps never will be.
Above all, they don’t want anything disrupting the suburban or semi-rural life that they have worked and paid for. This is why those who have said that the Chesham by-election result was “only” about the government’s proposed planning reforms are missing the point spectacularly. For this demographic, planning is hugely important, as central to their worldview as immigration was to the anger of the Brexiteers.
In August, Robert Jenrick, the Communities Secretary, launched his Planning for the Future white paper. Technical as this 84-page document is, its governing purpose is straightforward: to overhaul, once and for all, the system that was established by the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act. The planning process is to be digitised, accelerated and integrated with the government’s net zero emissions targets.
Enacted with vigour, intelligence and confidence, these reforms would start to unblock the bureaucratic arteries that, for decades, have thwarted the housing revolution so badly needed in this country. It is nothing short of scandalous that, at present, it takes an average of five years for a residential property development to go through the planning system.
According to data from the Land Registry, house prices rose by almost eight per cent last year, while earnings remained flat. Young people will emerge from the pandemic less equipped than ever to climb on to the property ladder. The supply of new affordable homes and social housing remains disgracefully sluggish.
There are wrinkles in the white paper that need to be ironed out. Without plunging too deeply into its arcane details, there is a legitimate debate to be had about the proposed replacement of Section 106 obligations (which oblige developers to build a certain proportion of social housing) with a national infrastructure levy (intended to achieve the same purpose). The proposed safeguards against developers buying land and then sitting on it are not yet strong enough. And there is the question of how much new housing should be specifically allocated to first-time buyers and with how much mortgage assistance.
In their general trajectory, however, the reforms are precisely what is needed. Johnson’s declared objective – to help create a “Generation Buy” – is exactly right, and a slogan to which he should be held. He is correct that the planning system is presently a joke, slowed down by “newt-counting delays”, and that we have permitted a grotesque inversion of the natural intergenerational order, whereby the interests and hopes of the young are now subordinated to the asset-hoarding privilege of their elders.
In this respect, planning is not a technocratic issue; it is existential. Nor is the crisis confined to these shores. As the American scholar Joel Kotkin warns in his book The Coming of Neo-Feudalism, the ever greater concentration of land and property ownership in fewer hands risks the creation of a new and dangerous form of social division. “Our new overlords,” he writes, “do not wear chain mail or top hats, but instead direct our future in jeans and hoodies.”
Since the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979, a great crusade has been fought – at least in theory – against vested interests of all kinds. Yet affluent property owners in green or suburban areas have been almost entirely exempt (when chancellor George Osborne suggested to Cameron that the time had come for wealth taxes, he was told in monosyllabic language what he could do with that idea).
It is one of the unacknowledged moral outrages of English life: that the bucolic view from the homes – or second homes – of a certain caste of citizen is allowed to matter more than the life chances of young people, or the need for thousands of families to escape seedy B&B accommodation.
Which is why the Chesham by-election result was anything but a liberal uprising. It was a reactionary reflex by those who, in their hearts, believe that England belongs to them, and that nobody has the right to imperil their bucolic idyll with lots of new buildings and the people that would inhabit them.
The defeat has given a great many southern Tory MPs a serious attack of the jitters, and there was intense pressure over the weekend upon the PM and Jenrick to dilute their proposals and to yield to this newly energised cohort of Nimby voters. If Johnson is half the radical he claims to be, he will do nothing of the sort – but instead double down and call their bluff. That, after all, is what a big Commons majority enables a reformer to do.
On this occasion, our wayward PM has made the right call, identified a true injustice, and should proceed without blinking. Fire up the concrete mixers. Pour, baby, pour.