David Cameron with potential Tory candidates, Kelly Tolhurst (left) and Anna Firth (right). Photo: Getty
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Rochester and Strood: what is the Tories’ postal primary, and who’s running?

By-election hopefuls.

The Tories are preparing to fight the Rochester and Strood by-election with all their might on 20 November. They are up against Mark Reckless, one of their backbenchers who recently defected to Ukip. They’ve already lost Clacton to former Conservative Douglas Carswell, giving Ukip its first elected MP, and want to hold Rochester and Strood to quell the encroachment of Nigel Farage and his merry men on parliament.

It’s clear the Tories are in overdrive, amid reports that Reckless fears being “smeared” by CCHQ, and considering the distaste felt for their ex-MP (one cabinet minister told me at party conference that, “he’s a complete dick”).

One of their strategies is a postal primary, allowing constituents – whether party members or not – to select their candidate for the seat. This is a sign of a party desperate for new ideas, and democratic cut-through, as one party insider informs me it’s an “incredibly expensive” process. It requires the initial letter to be sent, then a freepost reply to state whether or not a ballot is desired, and then a ballot paper being sent.

Constituents are able to meet the candidates and ask them questions in meetings held around the area. There was controversy yesterday, as reporters from national papers complained that they were excluded from one of these meetings, advertised as “public”:

The two candidates contesting this postal primary, one of whom will be selected on 23 October, are Kelly Tolhurst and Anna Firth.

Who are they?

 

Kelly Tolhurst

The Tories are keen to point out that Kelly Tolhurst has “lived and worked here all her life”, in their postal primary letter to constituents. She is the daughter of a boat builder, runs her own small business in marine surveying, and has been a councillor on Medway Council for over three years. She represents Rochester West ward, and is the cabinet member for school improvement.

On her website, she cites her top priority for the area: “Pressing the government and the council to get immigration properly under control – to ease pressure on services and make sure social housing is made available to local people first.”

 

Anna Firth

The Telegraph has repeatedly defined Anna Firth first and foremost as a “stay-at-home mother”. On her Twitter bio, her own description reads: “Councillor, Barrister, Mother of Three”. She left her job as a medical negligence barrister to bring up her children, and now serves as a councillor on Sevenoaks District Council – also in Kent, but perhaps not quite as local as her rival. She grew up in nearby Essex to an engineer and a schoolteacher.

Unlike Tolhurst, she doesn’t mention immigration as one of her priorities on her website, but has made headlines by voicing her support for a points-based system barring unskilled workers like “a fruit-picker in Romania”. She said in a recent meeting:

I think we need the same immigration system that we have, the five points system, which currently applies to people coming to this country from outside the EU. We need the same system to apply to those who come to this country from inside the EU.

Once we have that system in place then I think we will have a sensible immigration policy. One that says if you come to this country with skills we really need – say you’re a brain surgeon or something in Australia as opposed to someone who has no skills, a fruit picker in Romania – then we say yes.

If you come into this country with a job, we say yes. If you come into this country because you’ve got the money to support you and contribute to this country, we say yes. But otherwise need to say we can’t support you. That would be my policy.

This supports Ukip’s proposed Australian-style system for immigration. It diverges embarrassingly from David Cameron’s stance. Though the Prime Minister has suggested he’s working on a “game-changing” policy regarding EU migrants, he does not currently hold Firth’s view to call for an end to “uncontrolled” migration from the EU. She said, “we have had uncontrolled immigration. We are a small island. We must have controlled immigration.”

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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The 2017 Budget will force Philip Hammond to confront the Brexit effect

Rising prices and lost markets are hard to ignore. 

With the Brexit process, Donald Trump and parliamentary by-election aftermath dominating the headlines, you’d be forgiven for missing the speculation we’d normally expect ahead of a Budget next week. Philip Hammond’s demeanour suggests it will be a very low-key affair, living up to his billing as the government’s chief accounting officer. Yet we desperately need a thorough analysis of this government’s economic strategy – and some focused work from those whose job it is to supposedly keep track of government policy.

It seems to me there are four key dynamics the Budget must address:

1. British spending power

The spending power of British consumers is about to be squeezed further. Consumers have propped up the economy since 2015, but higher taxes, suppressed earnings and price inflation are all likely to weigh heavily on this driver for growth from now on. Relatively higher commodity prices and the sterling effect is starting to filter into the high street – which means that the pound in the pocket doesn’t go as far as it used to. The dwindling level of household savings is a casualty of this situation. Real incomes are softer, with poorer returns on assets, and households are substituting with loans and overdrafts. The switch away from consumer-driven growth feels well and truly underway. How will the Chancellor counteract to this?

2. Lagging productivity

Productivity remains a stubborn challenge that government policy is failing to address. Since the 2008 financial crisis, the UK’s productivity performance has lagged Germany, France and the USA, whose employees now produce in an average four days as much as British workers take to produce in five. Perhaps years of uncertainty have seen companies choose to sit on cash rather than invest in new production process technology. Perhaps the dominance of services in our economy, a sector notorious hard in which to drive new efficiencies, explains the productivity lag. But ministers have singularly failed to assess and prioritise investment in those aspects of public services which can boost productivity. These could include easing congestion and aiding commuters; boosting mobile connectivity; targeting high skills; blasting away administrative bureaucracy; helping workers back to work if they’re ill.

3. Lost markets

The Prime Minister’s decision to give up trying to salvage single market membership means we enter the "Great Unknown" trade era unsure how long (if any) our transition will be. We must also remain uncertain whether new Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) are going to go anyway to make up for those lost markets.

New FTAs may get rid of tariffs. But historically they’ve never been much good at knocking down the other barriers for services exports – which explains why the analysis by the National Institute for Economic and Social Research recently projected a 61 per cent fall in services trade with the EU. Brexit will radically transform the likely composition of economic growth in the medium term. It’s true that in the near term, sterling depreciation is likely to bring trade back into balance as exports enjoy an adrenal currency competitive stimulus. But over the medium term, "balance" is likely to come not from new export market volume, but from a withering away of consumer spending power to buy imported goods. Beyond that, the structural imbalance will probably set in again.

4. Empty public wallets

There is a looming disaster facing Britain’s public finances. It’s bad enough that the financial crisis is now pushing the level of public sector debt beyond 90 per cent of our gross domestic product (GDP).  But a quick glance at the Office for Budget Responsibility’s January Fiscal Sustainability Report is enough to make your jaw drop. The debt mountain is projected to grow for the next 50 years. All else being equal, we could end up with an incredible 234 per cent of debt/GDP by 2066 – chiefly because of the ageing population and rising healthcare costs. This isn’t a viable or serviceable level of debt and we shouldn’t take any comfort from the fact that many other economies (Japan, USA) are facing a similar fate. The interest payable on that debt mountain would severely crowd out resources for vital public services. So while some many dream of splashing public spending around on nationalising this or that, of a "universal basic income" or social security giveaways, the cold truth is that we are going to be forced to make more hard decisions on spending now, find new revenues if we want to maintain service standards, and prioritise growth-inducing policies wherever possible.

We do need to foster a new economic model that promotes social mobility, environmental and fiscal sustainability, with long-termism at its heart. But we should be wary of those on the fringes of politics pretending they have either a magic money tree, or a have-cake-and-eat-it trading model once we leap into the tariff-infested waters of WTO rules.

We shouldn’t have to smash up a common sense, balanced approach in order for our country to succeed. A credible, centre-left economic model should combine sound stewardship of taxpayer resources with a fairness agenda that ensures the wealthiest contribute most and the polluter pays. A realistic stimulus should be prioritised in productivity-oriented infrastructure investment. And Britain should reach out and gather new trading alliances in Europe and beyond as a matter of urgency.

In short, the March Budget ought to provide an economic strategy for the long-term. Instead it feels like it will be a staging-post Budget from a distracted Government, going through the motions with an accountancy exercise to get through the 12 months ahead.

Chris Leslie MP was Shadow Chancellor in 2015 and chairs Labour’s PLP Treasury Committee

 

 

 

Chris Leslie is chair of Labour’s backbench Treasury Committee and was shadow Chancellor in 2015.