Thoughts on the Tory Leadership

I shamelessly commented on the Conservative Leadership contest on the Facebook page of a correspondent who happens to be a member of the Conservative Party, and another friend suggested I share what I wrote more widely. I’ll never be a Tory, and in the family we try to avoid talking about the No. 1 Black Sheep, James Alexander Rentoul, the family member who turned his back on Home Rule Liberalism and became the Liberal Unionist M.P. for East Down…

Not when we can number William Megahey, Belfast socialist and art teacher, and designer of the Citizen Army’s Starry Plough Flag amongst the ancestors, or John Pinkerton, Home Rule Liberal M.P.  for Galway City. Not being a Tory runs in my blood.

Some friends are Tories however, and I recognise that at one time the Conservative Party was a sensible pragmatic party that gave us sensible pragmatic people like Paddy Crotty, who drove through the introduction of comprehensive education in Leeds. Every year in Leeds some wag in a branch Labour Party meeting would put Paddy’s name forward as Labour’s nominee for Chair of Education. And of course people like my friend Pete’s wonderful dad, who was Mayor of Ramsbottom. So here goes, with some additions.

“Richard, as Labour Party member, maybe I should say nothing. But, while I work hard to get expelled for pointing out that my Party’s Leader is the most important anti-Semite in British politics since Oswald Mosley, I can’t help intruding in the misery of others…

I’m unimpressed by any of the candidates on offer, bar potentially Rory Stewart. The Conservatives haven’t anointed a proper leader since Sir Alec Douglas-Home. Whilst Heath successfully brought the country into Europe, the most significant achievement of any Conservative Prime Minister since the war, his social gaucheness and lack of bottom opened the floodgates for the horrors who’ve followed since. Instead, the country needs some peace and quiet. As a non-Conservative, I’m looking for a Conservative leader who doesn’t scare me with zealotry (Thatcher, Howard, IDS) or laziness (Cameron). I also don’t think serious people wear baseball caps, ever (William Hague). I’m also looking for a Conservative leader who is comfortable enough in their own skin to be able to tell Conservative M.P.s and Conservative members to go hang.

Leading the Conservative Party should be a hobby for someone with significant landed interests dating back well before the Hanoverians. In other words, someone consensual, intellectually able, and irredeemably patrician; someone who has actually done something with their life previously; and crucially someone who regards the proper role of Conservative Party members as running fetes, signing cheques and keeping quiet. An M.C. after their name would be a bonus, or at least a D.S.O. And never repeat the mistake of electing a party leader without the grey matter upstairs to pass the Captain to Major cull, at which stage Her Majesty’s forces consign the brainless to early retirement. That way lies IDS, the kept man of a rich and obviously not very discriminating wife, who brought the brains of Bertie Wooster to British social policy…

So given those on the list, who? Not Johnson (bounder, bonkers, too few acres, and never tested by real life). Not Gove (took the axe to school sport, probably because he was too weedy for rugger at school). Not Leadsom and McVey (arriviste, lightweight, and garagiste). Not Malthouse (too few acres, no old money). Not Raab (too few acres, charmless, bonkers, no old money). Not Javid (too few acres, too prone to dog-whistle politics, wants to be loved by Conservative Party members). Not Cleverly (lack of estates, and his TD doesn’t pass muster as a proper decoration. – I was taught by someone with an M.C. and someone with a T.D. As a 13-year-old, I could tell the difference.) When someone talks to the class about dropping into Arnhem, you take him seriously. Not Hancock (no land, married to an ‘osteopath’, a brand of medical charlatanry not quite on a par with chiropractic). So at the moment you lot are left with Stewart…

The ideal Conservative Leader never wasted time on the drivel of Ayn Rand, but read all twelve volumes of A Dance to the Music of Time (again) whilst pinned down in a sangar in Bessbrook, Basra or Lashkar Gah. Get looking for a suitable Earl or a close relation…”

And get looking for someone with an arboretum, preferably with a decent amount of specimen Eucryphias, like those at the ancestral home of the Annesley family in Castlewellan. A family commitment to an arboretum demonstrates some seriousness and long-term thinking, and gives some intimation that you, and what you do, aren’t going to disappear…

There was a time when Conservative Leaders didn’t scare the rest of us, weren’t zealots on a mission, and were actually conservative…


A New Marshall Plan for the Working Class?

Good sensible stuff from Pat McFadden. It got me thinking.

First we need to remember that the Marshall Plan was really the brainchild of a chambermaid’s illegitimate son from Somerset, who left school at twelve. Who, unlike the current leader of his union, saw an under-performing Labour leader who didn’t stand up to fascism, and made him history…  And as we think about what Pat’s said, we need to build on, and not rubbish, the work of the Blair and Brown Governments.

Throughout the Blair and Brown years, and long before, I worked in regeneration, first in a local authority, then at Yorkshire Forward and finally at the the HCA. It was a fantastic and positive period. Things really got better. What we achieved was immense, and one of the reasons that I can never bring myself to work in the field again is the huge lie at the heart of policies since 2010.

I know the resources that John Prescott committed to programmes like New Deal for Communities, and parallel commitments in education and health. Nothing since has even remotely compared, and nothing expresses more clearly the fact that on disadvantaged communities, the Tories do window-dressing and deckchair rearrangement, and the Liberal Democrats, with essentially meaningless stuff like the pupil premium, can’t contemplate taking resources from well-heeled rural areas that might vote for them. If the pupil premium and free school meals were so important, why didn’t Lib-Dem County Councils find the resources to fund them themselves?

As Pat suggests, education is key, and we need to bury the idea that we don’t need participation in higher education. We do, although I’d argue that much more of it needs to be part-time, as part of employer-funded apprenticeship programmes leading to degree-level qualifications. With 600+ applicants for 30+ places, my old local authority, Wakefield, could have asked for 5 A’s at GCSE for any of its apprenticeship programmes. They led to higher level qualifications, and in many cases people who’d started on the tools in their teens had degrees and management qualifications by their late twenties or early thirties. This kind of approach is still par for the course with good employers like British Aerospace, the Armed Forces, many local authorities and RSL’s like Wakefield District Housing. It needs to be universal.

We need to be clear that in an increasingly complex world, with developing technology, 5 good GCSE’s, including English, Maths, a Science and a modern foreign language are the entry level qualifications for the labour market, and Labour politicians need to be honest with their electors. Children who don’t hit the standard are neglected children, and parents who don’t go all-out to support their children in achieving them are failing parents. Yes, some pupils will have specific learning difficulties that prevent them getting there, but we need to be honest about that, be clear about the learning difficulties, and identify other pathways, rather than hiding behind platitudes about little Jimmy being ‘more practical’.

Little Jimmy, because he doesn’t read well, write clearly and grasp maths (including stuff like algebra) is not safe on his own in a modern workplace. Simple as. Tractors have GPS these days, and modern production lines work with one person, able to diagnose and fault-find problems with machinery worth millions. We need to stop lying to kids and their parents that there’s some ‘practical’ alternative to academic achievement. Those days are dead and gone. And sorry, we don’t need hairdressers. Ever. They don’t export anything. I haven’t used one in ten years. Try it – you won’t regret it. Give the money you save to something genuinely useful, like XH558, Black Mike, the People’s Mosquito or the DPS.

We also need to be clear that regeneration needs to be holistic, and look at localities in their totality. Pat discusses the problems of poor infrastructure and historic dereliction. Colleagues were involved in English Partnership’s Coalfield Programme. It did clear up some appalling cruddy polluted sites, and former coalfield areas often look pretty darned bucolic these days. And, as well as wonderful parkland, it created lots of sheds where Poles, Bulgarians and Romanians now work in logistics… It didn’t bring a single STEM-led HE institution to any coalfield town. And, where higher level opportunities for coalfield residents are increasingly in cities like Leeds, Manchester and Sheffield, it fostered delusions that places like Leigh or Rotherham could compete with them.

Crucially, we need to look at its success in creating electrified commuter railway… Meters electrified? 0. In the pit village where I catch a train, it’s still a Pacer. Kiveton’s got a lovely country park, but the trains are still Pacers, and Leeds is still an hour away. What actually matters?

Finally, we need to be honest with people about where work is. In the 1880’s, the pit villages where I worked in Yorkshire were full of people with Staffordshire accents, who’d left there to work in the new deep mines in Yorkshire, in places like South Elmsall or Kiveton. Seams in places like Dudley or Bilston were worked out, and miners moved. There are huge opportunities now in places like London and the M11 corridor, and some local people take them up, but they invariably involve sleeping in a Travelodge, a Premier Inn, or a van during the week.

Dave Douglass, the veteran Yorkshire NUM activist writes about leaving a pit on the Tyne on Friday and starting at Rossington on Monday back in the sixties1. Council housing, and a huge nationalised industry with a personnel function allowed that to happen. Making it happen now means assaulting the huge edifice of embedded class-privilege that is the London Green Belt, and NIMBY planning policies across the Greater South East. If there are jobs in the south-east, working people in the North and Midlands should be able to take them up, and they should be able to bring their families. If the majority of local housing isn’t affordable to a couple on average wages borrowing three times their combined income, a local authority should not be allowed to refuse residential planning permission. For anything. Ever. Unless it’s a SSSI or a National Park. Otherwise, the socialist approach should be Build Baby, Build, Greenbelt Inferno…

The corollary is that people have got to be willing to move. As a Rugby League fan, and someone who’s had a soft spot for the London professional team ever since I watched Fulham play at the Polytechnic Ground in the mid-1980’s, I’ve always been struck by the fact that it’s been easier for London to recruit Australians and New Zealanders than Northerners. We need to get people from places like the Yorkshire coalfield to recognise that Sunday lunch does not have to be eaten at Mam’s, and that children can be looked after at nurseries, not just by mothers and aunties.

As an Ulster person, I left home for University in Leeds in 1980, and thereafter I saw my parents twice a year. Suck it up. You’ve got mobiles, Skype, Whatsapp and e-mail. I queued at a coinbox…

1. [Douglass, D. (1977). The Durham pitman. In R. Samuel (Ed.), Miners, Quarrymen and Saltworkers (1st ed., pp. 205–296). London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.]

A Note on Jam and Chutney…

Strangely, I’ve been asked a bit recently about jam and chutney-making, which I do quite a lot of… I was asked recently by a friend who had a surplus of greengages – this is what I suggested –

“Jam’s simple – 50:50 or thereabouts, preserving sugar to fruit. Greengages, as part of the plum family, are high in pectin, so use ordinary preserving sugar, not sugar with added pectin. (This helps setting when fruit is low in pectin).

Wash and stone fruit. Put in a large pan with just a little water on the bottom. Cook gently until fruit is soft. Then bring to boil. When fruit boils, add the sugar. Bring to the boil again. This needs to be vigorous – setting temperature will be 105 degrees. Test for set with either a thermometer, or using a saucer that you’ve chilled in the freezer. If the latter, take a spoonful of the mixture. If it sets and doesn’t flow on the chilled saucer, you can put it in jars. If not keep boiling!

When the jam reaches this setting point, put it in sterilised jars and cover. Sterilising can be done by washing jars and putting them in the oven at 100 degrees plus for ten minutes.

I get lids etc. from Wares of Knutsford. Jars are recycled and begged for…

Chutney is more slightly more complex. I use quite a few spices – cardamom pods, allspice, chillis, fennel seeds, mustard seeds, juniper berries – although you don’t have to. I also always use onions (well-chopped) garlic and peppers. Boil the spices with some vinegar – especially if you use cardamom or allspice (allspice needs to be crushed or ground). With the other ingredients – fruit, chopped onions, garlic, peppers – bung them in a big pan, and stew them slowly in vinegar until they’re soft. The vinegar/fruit ratio should be about 1 litre to 2kgs. Then add sugar (about a kilo for every 2kgs of fruit, although this is a matter of taste) – this is primarily to sweeten the mixture – not to help with setting. I use preserving sugar. Bring to a vigorous boil – this can take a bloody age – and the setting point is achieved when you can drag a wooden spoon across the pan and the channel it leaves behind does not fill up with mixture. I often give up before this nirvana is achieved…

I use white wine vinegar or cider vinegar, and I don’t mess around with diddy containers of supermarket vinegar. Get 5 litre containers of cider vinegar and white wine vinegar from Aspall, although other places might have it in sensible quantities.

Hope this is useful – a decent-sized preserving pan is a worthwhile investment – boiling can get vigorous and messy… I inherited my mum’s. It’s about the size of Rutland, and generally suffices… A long wooden spoon makes sense too – hot jam is bloody hot, as is a jam funnel…”

Good luck!

Whistling hopelessly in the wind…

An astounding piece of ahistorical twaddle from Danny Dorling and Sally Tomlinson in today’s Guardian.

Attlee’s greatest and most effective supporter was Ernie Bevin, who doesn’t get a mention here. Bevin was at the heart of the pre-1945 work on the implementation of the Beveridge Report. The post-1945 Welfare State is inconceivable without him. And of course, as Leader of the T&G, Bevin ruthlessly put the skids under George Lansbury as Labour’s Leader, making Clem’s ascent to the Leadership possible. And, uncomfortably for the authors,  it’s Lansbury, with his pacifism and his prayers for Hitler, who is Corbyn’s closest historical antecedent.

Neither do Dorling and Tomlinson mention Attlee and Bevin’s greatest foreign policy achievements – the Marshall Plan, NATO, and the preliminary work that led to the foundation of the EU. And, of course, the UK’s independent nuclear deterrent, which continues to ensure there are at least two sane permanent members of the UN security Council. In the era of Putin and Trump, we should be grateful. But, of course, Corbyn and his followers have never supported any of those developments.

If we want parallel figures for Corbyn in the 1945-51 Parliamentary Labour Party, we should think less of Attlee, and more of Konni Zilliacus and Sydney Silverman. Few remember them, and it would be a relief to think that Corbyn will also constitute a small and distasteful footnote in Labour’s history. Sadly, with the way that the polls are looking, it looks unlikely…

Corbyn and the Socialist Workers Party: Time to make a moral choice?



The Socialist Workers Party’s shameful cover-up of sexual assault, abuse and rape within the party has been detailed here and here. Not as bad as the decades of abuse perpetrated by Gerry Healy and others in the Workers Revolutionary Party, but very serious nevertheless.

The Socialist Workers Party have recently taken the lead in setting up another front organisation, called Stand Up To Racism. Those of us who know the SWP of old recognise the tactic. The SWP never involve themselves in anything unless they’re in a position to shape the agenda and make recruits. Given what happens to vulnerable young recruits in the SWP, should we be happy about this?

A number of speakers were invited to speak to its conference yesterday. A number of organisations involved in campaigning against racism and violence against women, including Black Lives Matter and Southall Black Sisters, made an appeal to those speakers to withdraw. A number of respected figures on the left, such as Owen Jones of the Guardian, did so. Jeremy Corbyn said he would, but didn’t.

Given that that people across the political spectrum are condemning Donald Trump’s justifications of sexual assault today, should the Labour Party Leader share a platform with an organisation that covers up rape?  And should Diane Abbott, the Shadow Home Secretary, be chairing one of their events? Until they confront their grim history of covering up sex abuse, there’s no place for the SWP in broad-based campaigns against racism.


Work In Progress: A Note on Housing…

This note serves two purposes.

First, it covers some background issues on the housing development process for the Faculty Challenge project we’ll be doing with first year undergraduates in Sheffield University’s Faculty of Social Sciences in February.

Second, it highlights links to some recent discussions of the subject in the media, as well as some of the think-tanks and advocacy groups involved.

I’m putting it up as a first entry on my slightly dormant blog, because it means it’s in one place, people can see it, and I can edit it and modify it as new ideas come into my head… The student project will use the discussion around a potential housing development in a local park to consider wider questions about how we reconcile protecting the environment with meeting the need for new homes.

It’s an important topic, and an area which necessarily has implications for all of the social sciences, and where all the social sciences have the potential to contribute valuable insights. As a scene-setter, this article by Andy Beckett in the Guardian makes some trenchant comments, as well as giving some useful background. In another Guardian article recently, Dawn Foster asked why houses in the UK are so expensive. In the Independent last year, Ben Chu covered some of the same problems.

Britain is one of the most expensive places in Europe to buy a home, and rates of new building have been consistently well below the nation’s projected housing needs since the 1980’s. This is mainly due to the reduction in social housebuilding in that period, but there has also been a significant real-terms drop in private house-building since the late 1980’s as well. It is also argued in a number of places that the British housebuilding industry builds to a low standard, and hasn’t adopted the innovative approaches that its European counterparts have.

It could equally be argued that it hasn’t had to. Companies continue to deliver returns on capital for shareholders, and most weathered the recession well. And, because of barriers to entry to housebuilding in the UK, they won’t face any competition in the near future. The last Labour Government commissioned a major report on housebuilding by the economist Kate Barker, which looked at the industry. More recently, the Lyons review undertaken for the Labour Party in 2014 considered the problem again. Finally, back in 2006, the delightfully named Swing a Cat website highlighted some of the quality issues.

The UK housebuilding sector has become increasingly consolidated into a relatively small number of companies, a process chronicled in Fred Wellings’ excellent history of the sector. In 2015, the six major publicly quoted house builders in the UK are Barratt (founded in 1958), Bellway (1946), Bovis (1885), Persimmon (founded 1972, subsequently absorbing John Laing, founded 1848), Redrow (1982) and Taylor Wimpey (1880). They’re all British-owned, listed on the London Stock Exchange, and apart from Redrow, were all significant players in the UK housing market in 1980. For some further background on how housebuilders work, Sarah Payne has reported some useful qualitative research on their response to the recession, as well as their approach to brownfield development.

Contrast this with another item that on which British consumers spend large amounts of hard-earned cash, their cars. In October 2015, the top 10 selling car in the UK market was the Ford Fiesta, followed by the Vauxhall Corsa, the Volkswagen Golf, the Ford Focus, the Nissan Qashqai, the Audi A3, the Volkswagen Polo, the Nissan Juke and the BMW 1 and 3 series. None are made by UK-owned companies.

For those old enough to remember, in 1980 British Leyland still had 15% of the UK car market; Nissan, Toyota, and Honda wouldn’t produce cars in the UK until the end of the decade; and what is now BMW’s Cowley plant was still producing the Austin Maxi. A Ford Fiesta of that era with the standard 950cc engine delivered 33mpg. A current entry level Fiesta with a 1.0 litre engine delivers 65mpg.

Are some patterns beginning to emerge? Is the UK new-build home of 2015 bigger, better and cheaper to run than the 1980 equivalent?

Housebuilding doesn’t operate like most other industries, in particular in terms of its key raw material, land. After all, as Thomas Aubrey points out in a recent Policy Network report, the cost of land represents at least two-thirds of the cost of a new home. This represents a huge change from the 1930’s, when many of the UK’s current suburbs were built, when as Brian Green points out land values represented as little as  2% of the cost of a home.

The process by which a piece of development land is brought to market, sold and developed for housing may take twenty or thirty years. Generally, a landowner or housebuilder will identify a potential site for housing development. How things proceed then depends on whether the land is allocated for housing under the relevant local authority’s local plan. If it isn’t, the landowner or developer can still apply for planning permission, but in most local authorities they’re unlikely to get it. If the planning permission is refused, they can appeal to the Secretary of State, but if the local policies on which the refusal is based are sound, the appeal is unlikely to be successful.

Most new sites are brought into the planning process when the Council’s planners are drawing up a new local plan. These documents have changed title over the years – Local Plans, Structure and Unitary Development Plans until 2004, thereafter Local Development Frameworks, and more recently Local Plans again… However the key common features are

  • they cover all the land within a local council’s area
  • they set out policies about what development can and can’t take place, and where
  • they’re supported by evidence (in the case of housing by an assessment of local housing needs)
  • and finally, they’re subject to both consultation with the the public and other stakeholders such as businesses and developers

Once complete, the draft documents go to a public inquiry held in front of an inspector appointed by the Secretary of State. The developer or landowner will be hoping that the council includes their proposed site within the draft document, but if they don’t, they can be heard as objectors at the public inquiry. This can be costly, with most objectors opting to be represented by senior barristers with an expertise in planning law.

The process is also time-consuming. The first Local Plan activity in which I had any involvement was that around the Harlow Local Plan, in 1987. The key feature of this plan was the expansion of the town eastwards to create major new housing estates. After the Public Inquiry, the final plan wasn’t actually adopted until 1995, with the new housing development completed in 1998, more than ten years after comprehensive plans were initially put forward. These had probably been in development since the early 1980’s, and whilst a succession of Governments have sought to streamline the process, new development proposals will often be subject to objections from local residents, and other developers and landowners. So for a landowner or developer, the process of bringing a site to market requires patience, planning, upfront investment and skills in navigating the planning system. For a more thorough explanation of how the system works, Gallent and Tewdr-Jones book, Decent Homes For All provides a useful, though dated, introduction. The planning process can take years, but for the lucky winners, the upside is that the rewards can be immense, as this blog post by Malcolm Tait in the University’s School of Urban Studies and Planning demonstrates.

Needless to say, the system has its detractors.  From a developer perspective, John Stewart blames reforms to the planning system which were introduced in 1991. Academically, the system also has its critics, with Paul Cheshire suggesting that the planning system has turned houses into an investment asset.