Beating the Tories: a democratic revolution

Boris Johnson’s decrepit, dishonest government was hit by two devastating by-election defeats in different parts of England last week.

Labour retook Wakefield in Yorkshire, a seat it lost to the Conservatives in the 2019 general election. More dramatically, the Liberal Democrats took Tiverton and Honiton, a seat that had been Tory since the dinosaurs were young. (OK, slight exaggeration.) That Lib Dem success saw the biggest ever majority overturned in a British by-election.

The Tory defeat has led to a debate about the need (or not) for anti-Tory parties to agree a pact to ensure the progressive vote isn’t split, which traditionally means the Tories win despite the opposition winning more votes. Margaret Thatcher famously enjoyed big majorities because of this.

Sometimes it doesn’t matter. Labour won a landslide in 1997 and 2001 under Tony Blair and the Lib Dems did well too. That was the reverse effect: anti-Tory voters teamed up to punish the Conservatives,

Could the same thing happen in 2024? Last week’s by-elections suggest it might. Tactical voting can work, especially when there isn’t a Jeremy Corbyn to deter Lib Dem voters or a Nick Clegg to deter Labour ones.

What about a repeat of the Tory tactics in 2015, saying Labour will be in the pocket of the Scottish National Party? I can’t see that having any traction in 2024. Boris Johnson is the greatest boost possible for the SNP. The SNP’s apparently unstoppable advance has been turbo-charged by the Tories and Brexit. Brexit is done, at least for now, but the return of a progressive UK government might be the union’s last hope. Especially if that government replaced the deeply undemocratic first-past-the-post voting system with some form of proportionate representation.

The progressive parties must state their case – their collective case – with confidence and brio. Take a leaf out of RMT leader Mick Lynch’s book – don’t let this battle be fought on a field chosen by the Tories. Britain – England, Wales and Scotland – must be better than this. Make the case for a fairer government that fights for all the people, especially those less well off, not just the privileged few who win every time with the Tories.

As a Welshman, I long believed that Wales was best served by being part of the UK. We are a small country that has traditionally looked east to our large neighbour England for trade and much more. Yet I have come to believe that the UK in its current form is a divisive, destructive influence. London doesn’t care (spicier epithets are available) about Wales. Or Scotland. Or Northern Ireland. Even worse, it will force any amount of destruction through that negligence, as Johnson’s poisonous rejection of his own agreement to the Northern Ireland protocol shows. The Tory embrace of Brexit has made our nations and their peoples poorer than they were before. How could Wales – or Scotland – do any worse alone than under destructive London rule?

The next five years will decide whether the UK has a future.

Mick Lynch: a text book lesson in winning the argument

Mick Lynch, the leader of the union that represents Britain’s railway workers, has become the media star of the past week. His calm, clever responses to hostile questions about the rail strikes have shown that disrupting people’s travel plans to fight for better pay needn’t be unpopular.

He brilliantly defused Sky News’ Kay Burley’s crazily over the top attempt to raise the spectre of a return to the violent picketing scenes of the 1970s and 1980s. Mick calmly turned to the tiny group of peaceful pickets behind him. ”That’s what a picket line looks like. We’ll try to persuade people not to go to work.” Outrageously Burley tweeted that Lynch was flustered – yet he was as cool as the cliched cucumber. The Sky presenter was the one losing her cool as her interview went nowhere. Lynch had the facts and the humour to defuse what could have been a tough interview.

The unions have a very good argument. So many people have had their real incomes slashed by 12 years of Tory austerity at a time when industry bosses have shown no restraint. The government may think that a summer of discontent will help it win back support. It didn’t work for Ted Heath in 1974 or Jim Callaghan in 1979. The cost of living crisis is going to get worse in the next year and Boris Johnson and his cronies have no answers. (Especially when Johnson tried to get one of those cronies to pay for a £150,000 summer house for his son in the grounds of Chequers.)

Keir Starmer should take lessons from Mick Lynch about how to win an argument. Right now, Labour’s leader is like a football manager winning 1-0 and determined to play safe and close down play at the risk of conceding a goal or two. He should be going for a convincing win.

In praise of Stephen Doughty MP

it has become fashionable to criticise members of parliament, and politicians generally.

”They’re all the same.” How often do we hear that? Yet so many polls show that we hold a higher opinion of our own MP than of politicians generally.

Years ago, many MPs visited their constituency once or twice a year. They regarded councillors as the people to sort out problems experienced by constituents. But now MPs (and members of the Senedd in Wales and of the Scottish parliament) take very seriously their responsibility to help constituents with all manner of problems.

My family has reason to be very grateful for this trend. Years ago, former Welsh first minister Alun Michael helped my parents secure their right to attendance allowances, as we had failed to do so through the normal byzantine process, despite Mum’s near-blindness and Dad’s immobility.

A decade or more later, Alun’s successor as MP for Cardiff South and Penarth, Stephen Doughty, has been magnificent during an even greater crisis.

I wrote a week ago that Dad, Bob Skinner, was embarking on a long-awaited cruise. Sadly, unknown to me, by the time I wrote that post Dad was in the medical bay of P&O Cruises ship MV Ventura. He had fallen getting out of the lift and fractured his hip.

He was looked after magnificently by the P&O Cruises team (note: there is no connection between P&O Cruises and the venal P&O Ferries who sacked its crews a few months ago).

Dad was taken to hospital in the first port it came to, Vigo in northern Spain. He has been looked after wonderfully by Vithas Hospital in Vigo, and I flew out to be with him and support him.

But we had a problem. His travel insurers were not communicating and the hospital was, understandably, concerned whether they would be paid. I then found, to my horror, that Dad had bought travel cover from a company not authorised to sell insurance in the UK. At that point, I thought we were totally alone.

I tweeted Stephen Doughty, Dad’s MP, last night and he phoned me this morning, and promised to help. Within an hour or so, on a Saturday morning, he’d phoned the insurers and the Foreign & Commonwealth Office. Soon after I had a call from the hospital to say they had just received a guarantee that they would be paid by the insurers. (We’d been about to send £10,000 to the hospital to pay Dad’s bills.) I have rarely been so relieved in my life. Stephen’s intervention was crucial. Just now, the insurers have been in touch about repatriation arrangements. Having been in the depths of despair this morning, I am now feeling confident that we will get Dad home.

Stephen didn’t have to do this. He could have spent a leisurely Saturday morning after a no doubt busy week as an MP and shadow Europe minister. But Stephen cared. He acted. All our family are so grateful.

This isn’t a party political point. MPs of all political colours take their responsibility to constituents very seriously. Friends have spoken of the wonderful support provided by the Lib Dem MP for Chesham and Amersham, Sarah Green. Tragically Jo Cox and David Amess gave their lives in fulfilling that duty. I have met Stephen Timms and Nigel Jones, who were both attacked at their MPs surgeries; sadly Andy Pennington was murdered defending Nigel. I am profoundly grateful for their selfless commitment. So is my father, Bob Skinner.

I’ll end on a family tale. I told Stephen that my mother took Dad’s job as reporter on the Penarth Times in 1944 when Bob joined the army aged 18. The following year, 1945, Mum was very unimpressed when James Callaghan made disparaging comments about the paper during the election campaign that elected him and swept Labour to power. Forty years later, I accompanied Dad to a meeting with by then former prime minister Callaghan (whom I greatly admired) to secure work permits for Hong Kong musicians performing at the Cardiff Festival of Music.

I had just graduated and Sunny Jim asked me what I wanted to do for a living. ”I’d like to go into PR or journalism,” I replied. Ignoring me, he turned to Dad and commented ”They all want to do that now, don’t they!” He wrote a note to then Tory employment minister Alan Clark, got it couriered over and soon after we returned to Cardiff with the crucial work permits, allowing the concert to go ahead at St David’s Hall. An early lesson in the influence of an MP – especially one of very few people to have been chancellor, home secretary, foreign secretary and PM.

The day Boris Johnson had his lockdown party…

Millions of words have been written about Boris Johnson’s illegal lockdown parties in 10 Downing Street. A nation has expressed its outrage, which will not be assuaged until Johnson resigns as prime minister.

The stories about the May 2020 party, to which over 100 people were invited to bring booze and enjoy the lovely weather, have brought back vivid memories of that extraordinary lockdown spring.

Like almost everyone in Britain, but unlike Johnson and his team, we obeyed the rules. We knew how important this was to keep safe, minimise the spread of the virus and protect the NHS. On my daily exercise, I kept local and was more careful than normal when cycling down steep hills – the last thing I wanted was to put pressure on A&A by crashing.

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HS2: broken Tory promises

What a surprise. After countless promises to build a high speed rail line to Yorkshire, Boris Johnson confirmed that the Tory government was cancelling the eastern leg of the HS2 line to Leeds and Bradford.

It just shows you can never trust UK governments – especially Tory ones – to invest outside South East England.

If there had been any justice, construction of HS2 would have started in the north rather than London. The English capital gets a staggering £864 per person in transport spending compared with a pittance of £349 in the north of England. But when the government wanted to save money, it was the north that paid the sacrifice. Not the ever-spoilt money pit of the south east.

HS2 works, Chalfont St Giles, 2020

Yes, many in the south protested against HS2. But rather than cancelling the project, the Conservatives blew extra billions on a tunnel for HS2 under the Chilterns, including our village of Chalfont St Giles.

Leeds and Bradford are rightly outraged. (Bradford has the worst rail services of any major English city.) But spare a thought for Wales. Despite HS2 being billed as Britain’s railway, it will go nowhere near Wales, or Scotland. A cynical Tory move led to HS2 being treated as an ‘England and Wales’ project. So no extra money will flow to Wales under the Barnett formula.

Work begins, Chalfont St Giles, August 2020

There’s a sensible debate to be had about how to invest in green transport for the 21st century. HS2 may not be the right, or only, answer. But why is Britain, the country that invented railways, the nation with the fewest miles of high speed railways in western Europe? As I blogged when HS2 was first proposed, Britain’s Victorian rail network is hopelessly ill-suited to high speed trains. British Railways conceived the tilting Advanced Passenger Train in the 1970s to overcome the limitations of the West Coast Mainline, built in the 1830s and 1840s. By contrast BR chose Brunel’s Great Western mainline for its InterCity 125 high speed services because it was so level and straight, unlike its rivals.

The moral of the saga of HS2’s cancelled easter leg is that London politicians – especially one as cynical as Boris Johnson – will always favour the south east. Talk of levelling up is all bullshit. They simply don’t care about the north, Wales or Scotland. But as long as English voters keep reelecting London-biased governments, nothing will change. The case for Welsh and Scottish independence just grew stronger. Perhaps a Yorkshire National Party will follow…

PS: I reported on the HS2 works in Chalfont St Giles in August 2020 here.

The day I met Michael Heseltine

Me and Michael Heseltine

It was a tumultuous time in British politics. Prime minister John Major had just resigned as leader of the Conservative party in a desperate attempt to get his critics to put up or shut up.

All eyes were on Michael Heseltine, whose challenge to Margaret Thatcher in 1990 destroyed the Iron Lady’s premiership. Major’s fate appeared to be in Hezza’s hands. Would he slay another Tory prime minister? No – days later, he affirmed his loyalty to Major, who made him deputy prime minister.

The night I met him, he was in good spirits. The occasion was a reception at B.A.T Industries, the owner of Eagle Star, the insurance company I worked for. We had something in common: when he returned to government under Major as environment secretary he set up a competition called City Challenge. Inner city areas had to bid for funding by partnering with the private sector. I was seconded by B.A.T Industries to Lambeth Council to bid for funding for Brixton. Hezza had reportedly told Lambeth not to bother as jt had no chance. (The Tories had long memories of Lambeth’s left wing leadership in the 1980s under Red Ted Knight.) It seemed a daunting assignment.

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Climate crisis: the train must take the strain

What an irony. Thousands travelling to the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow were stranded in London after the two rail lines to Scotland were closed by severe weather. Many took flights instead.

Trains have a vital role to play if we are to tackle the climate crisis. As Clare Foges explained in an excellent column in The Times (Trains are key to getting net zero on track) rail travel creates 14 grams of CO2 emissions per passenger mile compared with 158 grams by car and 285 by plane. Yet Britain’s railways and governments seem to do everything in their power to encourage us to take more polluting forms of transport.

Family travel – at a cost

Cost

Travelling by train in Britain is eye-wateringly expensive. A Which? survey, quoted by Foges, found that domestic flights are typically half the price of the competing rail ticket, yet six times worse for carbon emissions. I’d love to travel by train more often, but even for one person the cost is punitive. If you’re travelling as a family, you may need to take out a second mortgage. Saving the planet? All the odds are stacked against us. Esoecially as the UK government has just announced a cut in the tax payable on domestic flights, just days before COP26 began. Madness.

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‘Didn’t agree with his politics but…’

The saddest news

I was sad to read that James Brokenshire MP had died. He was an effective and thoughtful minister, and a role model for anyone wanting to serve their country through politics. I once took part in an event alongside him in the early days of the coalition government.

It was no surprise to see a flood of tributes on social media, but many people struck a jarring note by prefacing their remarks ‘I didn’t agree with his politics but…’ This is crass. It is as if they think people will think badly of them for praising a political opponent. They are hardly risking the opprobrium heaped on Irish leader Eamon de Valera who visited Germany’s representative in Dublin in 1945 to express Ireland’s condolences on Hitler’s death.

Labour’s leaders were much more sensible, paying unreserved tributes to James. Keir Starmer and his deputy Angela Rayner were eloquent and generous. Rayner’s comments were far better judged than her vitriol a few days earlier when she described Tories as scum. That was ill judged – Labour needs to win back voters who have switched to the Conservatives, and calling them scum isn’t likely to help.

Politics is a tough trade. Its disciples have been exchanging insults for centuries. But in an age when death threats are regularly made against politicians on social media (and just five years after the murder of Jo Cox MP), let’s be more respectful and choose our words with care.

Going the extra 1.61 kilometre

When inches ruled Britain

Britain has been happily using a mixture of metric and imperial measurements for half a century. So yesterday’s headlines that the government plans to overturn EU restrictions on selling goods in pounds and ounces are far more symbolic than real. A sop to Telegraph readers. Inevitably, that paper called it a Brexit triumph. The more mature and modern Times called imperial a dead weight, adding the plan should not go the distance.

The current rules themselves are pretty mild. They say that traders have to display metric as well as imperial weights when selling goods – something sensible sellers do anyway, given the nation’s children have been taught metric measures for 50 years.

Like many British people born in the sixties and seventies, I switch effortlessly between metric and imperial. If I’m cooking, it’s millilitres and grams. (Why would anyone punish themselves by cooking in ounces, fluid ounces and the rest?) If I’m making anything, the simplicity of metric makes that the natural choice. But I measure my bike and car journeys in miles, my beer in pints and my height in feet and inches.

People often say Britain’s switch to metric has taken a long time. Parliament first debated going metric in 1818. But the real change came in the 1960s, as metrication began in earnest at the same time Britain prepared to ditch the shilling for decimal currency in 1971. I had a few lessons adding up in ‘old money’ (that must have been in 1969 or 1970) but I never remember being taught about imperial measures. Education in Wales had gone metric. So too had the BBC’s Blue Peter: I remember baffling the owner of Lendons model shop in Cardiff in 1974 when I tried to buy craft materials in millimetres, following the presenter’s instructions!

I doubt many traders will take advantage of the new freedom to sell only in pounds and ounces. But the move will do no harm. While I opposed Brexit, I do share the unease at unnecessary regulations that restrict everyday life and business. Ironically, however, UK governments have been a past master at this. When turning Brussels regulations into UK law, they often made them even tighter.

If Telegraph readers want to celebrate this modest freedom with a pint of warm beer with a restored crown mark on the glass, let them. But the rest of us will barely notice or care.

Britain, Wales and Europe, 25 years on

I wrote this article early in 1995. As the UK prepares for the possible disaster of a no-deal break up with the European Union, I reflect that I got it right 25 years ago.

The Senedd in Cardiff on Brexit day.

Europe – a dangerous obsession

Rob Skinner, March 1995

British democracy is at crisis point. Not just because fifteen years without a change of government has left the nation restless for change. Not even as a result of former ministers making sleazy, easy money in a privatised quangocracy.

No, this crisis is a case of obsession. The subject of this obsessions is Europe, the perpetrators politicians and the media alike. This single topic dominates news bulletins, current affairs programmes and the leader columns of the national press. Yet it utterly fails to stimulate the nation.

The Euro-debate is almost entirely the preserve of the political professionals. Europe and its future currency is for most of the British people the non-issue of the decade. It rarely if ever puts in an appearance in public bars and at dinner party tables.

If the loudly debated referendum on the single currency took place tomorrow, Britain’s polling stations would almost certainly be lonely places as the electorate used their time to fulfil other, more pressing needs.

The media star a heavy responsibility for this sorry saga. Radio 4’s Today programme, in particular, has been dominated by Euro-obsessed talking heads for what seems an eternity, while the surfeit of Sunday political punditry on British television finds Europe a lazily easy choice for discussion.

Yet the obsession simply confirms what everyone outside Westminster’s cloistered circles has long suspected: that politicians are hopelessly out of touch with the real world, and incapable of tackling the issues that their constituents care and worry about.

Most people see Europe as a distraction. They long for a government and opposition that tackle the real issues of the day, such as unemployment, crime, rising taxes and the sense that Britain has become a less caring, more ugly society. For many, the great fear is not the loss of the UK’s economic sovereignty but the loss of something much nearer to home – their jobs.

None of these issues is being tackled. Instead, a sterile, futile debate dominates, which looks for all the world like an endless battle between two foolish lovers. The weakest, most enfeebled government in living memory seeks to impose the very thing it lacks – authority – on the country. A cynicism fired by years of misrule is now raging out of control, threatening Britain’s self confidence as a nation.

As a Welshman, I see Europe as an opportunity, not a threat. I believe in a Europe of many countries and cultures – not just a Europe of nation states. The doomed debate that has riven the Conservatives is very English rather than British. It speaks eloquently of a nation uncertain of itself, suspicious of outsiders and nervous of its smaller neighbours within the United Kingdom.

This is high irony. How could the dominant tribe in the British Isles, the English, have become so fearful, so lacking in vision of confidence that they have largely destroyed Britain’s standing on its own continent?

The crying shame is that Europe is important. There must be a proper debate about Britain’s future. We should be looking for ways to put right the failings of the democratic process in the European Union and within these islands. And we must be open and humble enough, for once, to recognise that the United Kingdom might profitably learn from democratic experiences beyond these shores.

John Major has sought sanctuary behind an ugly word – subsidiarity. Yet this strange and unfriendly term signals the way to make Europe and Britain more democratic. The principle is that decisions should be made as locally as possible. Yet in the UK, under John Major’s desperate leadership, the concept has been hijacked, and given a new, sinister meaning. That mother – the Mother of Parliaments – knows best. Yet who truly places trust in the traditional Westminster system in 1995?

Subsidiarity needs a new, more attractive name. The Welsh word agosrwydd means nearness, and has been suggested by David Morris MEP and Martin Caton as a far better epithet.*

If the English aren’t ready to accept a Welsh word for what might be the most important democratic principle of the dying years of the millennium, then nearness will serve just as well. It is a compelling sentiment, an idea whose time has come. The European Union is here to stay, and Britain’s future is inextricably linked to it. For non-state regions and countries like Wales, Scotland, Baden Würtemberg and Catalunya, being part of a wider family is a historic development that arguably makes the break up of nation states like the UK less likely. But it is only less likely if the nearness principle puts greater power in the hands of regional governments such as a Welsh Senedd.

John Major talks of a triple lock within the burgeoning Northern Ireland peace process. In a wider concept, three links also hold the key to unlocking the eternal dilemma that has dogged Britain for a quarter of a century: regional identity, our British identity and the European dimension. Only by creating harmony between all three, and recognising their legitimacy, will we ever escape this constitutional conundrum.

In this anniversary year [1995], of all years, we must look back to 1945. Not only to commemorate the huge sacrifices made to secure our generation’s freedom and future. But just as nobly to recall how the European ideal was born, in the ruins of a continent that had allowed evil and hatred to carry all before it.

After Warsaw, Aschwitz and Dresden, reconciliation might have been expected to have taken decades to bear fruit. Yet amidst the tragedies of an  unimaginable numbers of lives, the determination to forge a different Europe was born. Since those dawning days, the idea of Britain and Germany taking up arms against each other, or Belgium and France being overrun by a continental army, has become inconceivable.

Now the challenge for Britain’s politicians is to shake off their obsession and start treating Europe as something that is part of everyone’s lives. Votes can only be lost over this issue, not won, and it is time for Eurosceptic and Europhile alike to recognise the basic truth. The year of the last great second world war anniversaries would be an appropriate time for Britain belatedly to throw away the empty rhetoric and start to build a future for itself.

* A Europe of the Peoples – the European Union and a Welsh Parliament’ – ed John Osmond, Gomer Press 1994