Boris Johnson must sweat the small stuff to change lives post-Brexit

Rachel Wolf is a founding partner at public policy research agency Public First. She co-authored the Conservative Party’s election manifesto in 2019.

LONDON — Writing a manifesto is uniquely terrifying. You won’t win the election with it, but you might lose it with a catastrophic sentence or idea.  You know that if your party wins, officials will pore over every sentence. Parliament will accept legislation based upon it. Campaigners occasionally dismiss manifestos, but they are critical to governments.

So a year ago, when the Conservatives were swept back into Downing Street with a huge majority, I mostly remember weak-kneed relief. Later I felt some pride that we had produced a series of promises that should both be delivered, and that were deliverable.

Now, a year on, we are in a worse state than we started. We have less money. Town centers are on their knees. Goodwill has diminished. The hill got steeper, and we’re still at the bottom.

The government also has three gargantuan tasks on its plate — managing the economic and health aftermath of the pandemic (and despite the wonderful vaccine news, it seems we still have a few months before we’re even in the aftermath); Brexit, which remains in groundhog day; and reaching greenhouse gas emissions of net zero. These three absorb the energy and attention of every department. Is expecting any other domestic policy achievements lunacy?

They’re going to have to try. Not because it was “in the manifesto” — the government would have a perfectly good justification, at this point, to change their commitments. But because the core thread of the last manifesto was change, and they need by the next general election to show people that things are different.

To be more specific, they need to show that towns are doing better; and that new jobs, including new green jobs, are going to local people. If they don’t, people in the midlands, and the north, but also the southwest, in coastal towns, and some of the outskirts of London will say: “What was the point?” The people who did not vote for Margaret Thatcher, or David Cameron, or Theresa May, who were unmoved by promises of economic competence, will think: “Oh well, I gave the Conservatives a go, but it didn’t help us. Next.”

Wounded civic pride

Why, amidst these huge global questions of climate change and trade relationships, am I talking about towns?

We’ve been polling and talking to people in post-industrial towns for a while now. Most recently, we published a report this week for retailer Primark in the aftermath of the closure of some famous British high street chains. We held a number of focus groups and polled people in towns across the country. 

What we heard was a sense of wounded civic pride. People are deeply proud of where they live, and it is the primary source of their identity. They feel embarrassed and angry about what is happening to their towns. Shops are closed, the cenotaph has graffiti on it, people often feel unsafe. The pandemic has accelerated an existing decline.  When the town opens up again, what will there be to do? In a lot of places, there’s an event — a local fireworks display; an event in the park; a well-known market — that has disappeared. No one knows why. People can’t park in the center and the buses are an expensive, irregular joke.

Many of the government’s flagship “leveling up” projects, designed to better fund parts of the country long-neglected by governments in Westminster, are long-term. Big infrastructure — trains, roads, which allow cities to become bigger and more productive — takes time to build. Creating new research and development clusters around universities, and spinning out innovative companies, will take decades. Underlying economic infrastructure like broadband and cloud is vital, but it won’t show tangible, visible results for a while.

If the government wants to show it really understands people and places, it is going to need to use its vast plethora of funds — the leveling up fund, the towns fund, the safer streets fund — to invest in the physical fabric of places, and in supporting shops, events, and culture. Bluntly, it needs hanging baskets: the “small stuff” that sounds boring in a speech, but actually matters to people and gives them renewed pride in where they live. If we are going to move to a hybrid “remote working” model, where people can live and spend their money where they live, making it a nice place becomes both more important and more sustainable.

So do local jobs. The recent net-zero announcements by the government focused on jobs for a reason — people care about them, and a classic “construction stimulus” for green infrastructure is sensible in the aftermath of the pandemic. They now need to make sure that local people are trained for and can get those jobs. Near-full employment was one of the Conservatives’ most impressive legacies from 2010. If net-zero is the core driver of new jobs from the government’s point of view, it needs to map them carefully to these areas and link them to the local colleges and universities.

The government is going to have a tough 2021. It faces hard fiscal decisions, Brexit and major international meetings on climate change. These will be how people judge their competence. But they also have to show local improvements that people can see and feel. We promised them a year ago and we still need to deliver them.

Read original article here.