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12 October 2012

Heresy of the week: Sorry, but there were no good leader’s speeches this year

The pundits have spoken: David Cameron gave a good speech; and, last week, Ed Miliband gave a good speech; and, the week before that, Nick Clegg gave a good speech (well, no one actually remembers what Nick Clegg said, but it can’t have been that bad otherwise we would’ve done).

So, everyone’s a winner. But, you know what, the pundits are wrong – and here’s the proof: if the three speeches had never happened, would we now know anything less about how our political leaders propose to tackle the great policy challenges of our time?

Let’s take just one example: the relative decline of the north of England, which is of direct relevance to Ed Miliband’s theme of ‘One Nation’ and to David Cameron’s hope of winning a majority in 2015. Here, courtesy of the Economist, are some key facts:

  • “Between 1997 and 2010 gross value-added, a measure of output, grew by 61% in the three northern regions. In London and the South East, it shot up by 92% . According to a study by the Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change at the University of Manchester, the state accounted, directly and indirectly, for 64% of the jobs created in the north between 1998 and 2007, against just 38% in the south.”

Crucially, this isn’t because there are too many public sector jobs in the North (at least, not more so than anywhere else), but, rather, because there are too few private sector jobs:  

  • “Whereas government spending is spread fairly evenly across the country—nurses and teachers are needed roughly in proportion to the population—private-sector growth has been heavily concentrated, mostly in and around London.”

Thus with the reduction of public sector payrolls, the impact is felt most strongly in the North:

  • “In the North East, where the public-sector is proportionately the largest and has shrunk fastest, the unemployment rate has risen by 1.2 percentage points over the past two years. In the North West and in Yorkshire and the Humber it has risen by 0.9 points. In the South East, by contrast, unemployment is almost unchanged, while in London, it has actually fallen by 0.3 points.”

This is a huge structural problem and without a solution it will hold back our economy and paralyse our politics for decades to come – but did we hear anything in any of the three speeches that was equal to the scale of this challenge?

The Labour Party is a policy-free zone, so there was nothing that Miliband could have said even if he’d wanted to. David Cameron, however, leads a Government making important policy progress on three fronts – education, welfare and decentralisation. Cameron had a lot to say on the first of these, something on the second, but very little on the third. For a Northern audience, there was nothing said to make Conservative reforms relevant to local priorities.

The Economist notes that the key to economic revival away from London and the South East is to “persuade more professional types to move northward, bringing their jobs with them.” In this respect, providing decent local schools is all-important. And yet the part of the country, which has made the greatest progress on Academies, Free Schools and higher education standard is London – which, economically speaking, needs it least.

David Cameron’s speech this week was a well-structured, well-delivered statement of Conservative principles. If it has also inspired the party faithful to fight for those values, then one could concede that was, in fact, a good speech. A great speech, however, has to inspire people in both the heartlands and beyond.


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