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Good morning. The big political story in Westminster is the emergence of another photograph of Boris Johnson appearing to flout lockdown rules, with a glass held aloft in November 2020, while England was under a four-week lockdown.
But there is not a lot left to say about it all. At this point, you either think the prime minister broke lockdown regulations, or you don’t. The evidence from the polls, the North Shropshire by-election and this month’s local elections is that most people think he did. The damage to Johnson’s public standing is a serious electoral handicap for the Tory party. Conservative MPs haven’t moved against him because they aren’t — yet — enthused about any of the alternatives.
Given the above, I’ve written about two cool studies that to my eyes matter rather more to the future of British politics: the first is by the Nuffield Politics Research Centre, the second by the Office for National Statistics. Reach us at the email address below.
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All in all, it’s another brick in the Red Wall
What happened in the 2019 general election? One part of the story was that seats which usually have a Labour MP but are the difference between a small Tory majority in the House of Commons and a large one, did what they always do and turned blue.
Then there is the more significant set of seats in the so-called “Red Wall” — constituencies where the Conservative party had underperformed the constituency’s underlying demographics. These are the constituencies first identified by the pollster James Kanagasooriam (here’s the original Twitter thread and his Political Studies Association paper).
Since then, the term has become unhelpfully broad, ranging in meaning from “anywhere the Labour party has been defeated electorally since 1997” to “anywhere Labour might be defeated in the future”.
At Westminster, you will often hear people talking as if the seats in the Red Wall are either a) just marginal seats that the Conservatives held until 1992 or in some cases 1997 and regained in 2019, or b) some kind of alien land stuffed full of voters who don’t care about competence or corruption, provided they get a steady diet of Brexit and nativism.
A useful corrective comes in the form of a new academic study by Jane Green, fellow at Nuffield College, and Roosmarijn de Geus, lecturer at the University of Reading. According to the researchers, what unites most Conservative voters, old and new, is economic security. Income levels and education may vary, but economic security does not. Women, graduates and ethnic minorities — all groups that are more likely to vote Labour than the national average — are more economically insecure. This is one big reason for the divide in electoral preferences. And the authors warn that applying the characteristics of “seats in the Red Wall” and assuming they hold for “Conservative voters in the Red Wall” is a category error.
They also discuss a fascinating future divide between the ‘will haves and won’t haves’:
We show that the most economically insecure in Britain are younger non-graduates (women under 50 and men under 40), and younger graduates feel more secure in relative terms to non-graduates. There is a risk they could become “won’t haves” and “will haves” due to their differences in family wealth and likely income returns, even though both groups face a very harsh economic climate now.
That new divide and its implications globally are the focus of my column in today’s Financial Times. But here in the UK, the most important lesson for both parties is that despite continually changing voter patterns, in many ways, voting behaviour falls down to one thing: “the economy, stupid”.
There goes the last great subterranean railway
The Office for National Statistics has released a report on the future of hybrid working, using data from their opinions and lifestyle survey. The short version? The proportion of people working across the office and at home has increased since February 2022, when stay-at-home restrictions ended in both England and Scotland. The number of people who expect they will work mostly at home rose by 12 per cent between February and April.
Most people in the UK who do it enjoy hybrid working. And, as my colleague Pilita Clark notes in her column this week, hybrid working is on the up across large chunks of the world:
People are working at home for an average of at least one day a week everywhere from Singapore (where it’s actually 2.4 days) and Canada (2.2 days) to Brazil (1.7), Turkey (1.7) and Greece (1.2).
There are three points that I think are worth making here. First, given its widespread adoption and its popularity among workers, hybrid working is here to stay.
The second point is that this will reshape the UK’s electoral geography. Several Conservative MPs have told me that a growing number of knowledge workers from London have moved into their patches — and that these workers have brought their anti-Conservative politics with them.
We don’t know quite how this will shake out politically. The Labour majority in London seats such as Erith and Thamesmead or Putney can afford far fewer voter losses than, say, the Conservative majority in Bracknell can withstand. But we should be alive to the possibility it will produce unexpected results at the next general election.
The third, and most important point, is that this has big implications for the revenue model of UK public transport (and indeed public transport across the world). It’s funded on the basis that the income from fares will be able to cover the fixed costs of running public transport. Gill Plimmer and Philip Georgiadis have written an engrossing read on Crossrail and the future of metro systems across the world. Here’s the key paragraph:
Nearly all large transport projects require government subsidies, even if they eventually generate some of their income from fares. But the shock of the pandemic and the longer-term fall in passenger growth is blowing a hole in transportation budgets, presenting a challenge for policymakers, even as the threat of global warming accelerates the need for environmentally friendly travel.
The UK is in some ways exceptional, because since John Major’s privatisation of the railways, public transport in the UK has been a net contributor to UK government coffers. The era of private rail operators returning a surplus to the Treasury was disrupted by the pandemic. It now looks like it has gone for good. That is another fiscal headache for the chancellor Rishi Sunak and anyone who replaces him. Not forgetting the policy headaches generated by Brexit, our ageing population and the costs of the pandemic more broadly.
Now try this
I saw An Cailín Ciúin (The Quiet Girl) in the cinema yesterday. It’s wonderfully directed by Colm Bairéad. The storytelling is done with subtlety and intelligence. I shed a tear at the end. But in truth I felt as if the film had played me like a fiddle. It was a masterfully constructed exercise in making me cry at the end but somehow felt less than the sum of its parts.
Anyway, everyone should go and see it because a) it’s beautifully shot and b) the more people who see it, the more people I’ll be able to talk to about it. And do read Jude Webber on the political debates around the Irish language at the moment.
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