Why relocating the House of Lords to York would be a smart move by Boris Johnson

The government has more of an interest in appearing to improve the state of northern constituencies than in actually doing so. 

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There’s an intriguing story in this week’s Sunday Times: Boris Johnson is poised to relocate the House of Lords to York, as part of his commitment to closing the economic gap between London and the rest of the country.

Relocating bits of the public sector to other parts of the country was one of the last Labour government’s preferred routes to the same end. The biggest and most successful, though it only happened in 2011, shortly after Labour left office, was the creation in Salford of MediaCityUK, which involved moving parts of the BBC outside of London. When in 2017 the Centre for Cities examined how the relocation had fared, it found that despite having created some jobs in Salford, it had done relatively little across the rest of the conurbation, although there is some evidence that it has started to have knock-on effects across Greater Manchester.

Most of Labour’s relocations – administering tax credits and other social security functions, processing criminal justice outcomes – were the first casualties of the cuts in public spending after the party left office, so our ability to assess their long-term consequences is limited. But another enduring relocation, with a much patchier record than the BBC move, was the decision to move the Office of National Statistics to Newport, which shifted around 1,200 jobs but did not create many others. When David Cameron’s government reviewed the performance of the ONS in 2016, it found that the main effect had been to decrease the office’s effectiveness. Because of the relatively low number of graduate job opportunities in the area, very few people made the move as their partners could not find well-paid work – and while the ONS was able to fill the vacancies, it was not able to fill them at the same quality level as before.

The government has set itself an incredibly difficult task as far as the UK’s regional economies are concerned and it isn’t helping itself by treating 2019 as a “year zero”, before which no government did anything to tackle the problem. It’s a rhetorically good idea to act in this way – but the difficulty is that the government often appears to believe its own hype; leading it to repeat the mistakes of the past without building on the successes.

It would certainly help if our new government studied what previous governments have done before, but the job it’s trying to do may well be impossible. But the good news from a Conservative perspective is it’s not clear that it actually needs to be successful.

Why not? Well, it starts with a simple question: what is a “flourishing” town? It’s surely one with good transport links, good jobs, a thriving high street and so on. In other words, it’s St Albans in Hertfordshire, a constituency that the Conservatives lost in the 2019 election.

Why did the Conservatives lose St Albans? Because it’s rich in the demographics that the party has long struggled with, which both Theresa May and Boris Johnson made a point of moving away from: social liberals, graduates and people under the age of 40. That didn’t matter because Johnson's strength is among voters who are socially conservative, don’t have degrees, and over 40 – who are more numerous in Bishop Auckland in Country Durham, than St Albans.

Or, let’s take Wakefield, a constituency that the Conservatives won from Labour, and Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford, another Yorkshire constituency that Labour almost lost. There was a much, much bigger swing against Labour in the latter constituency than the former. Why? Because Wakefield’s economy is growing quickly and it is retaining more of its young people. You can see this pattern across the UK, whether in seats like Reading East and Canterbury, which Labour held, or seats like Reading West, where Labour lost but did much better than the national swing would suggest.

Don't forget that in a lot of the seats that the Conservatives won in 2019, they did so with fewer votes than Labour received in those seats in 2017 – the big difference between 2019 is of Labour disintegration and favourable demographic headwinds in the seats in question.

It’s far from clear that it is actually in the Conservative Party’s interests to improve the local economies of the seats that it won in 2019. It’s certainly in their interests to appear to be fixing the problem and largely symbolic measures like moving the House of Lords may be just the ticket. 

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Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.