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Richard Holden is MP for North West Durham.
BBC Studios, Newcastle-Upon-Tyne
Everyone gets that it’s the job of the Her Majesty’s Opposition is to oppose, but its leader seems to have taken this to another level in recent weeks.
Not long ago, Keir Starmer was calling for HS2 to be scrapped. Now he’s saying it’s not going far enough. Captain Hindsight is probably wishing that he’d had a touch more foresight on this one.
At the same time, Labour deride the £96 billion investment in new rail infrastructure in the midlands and north as a ‘betrayal’. They conveniently skirt the markedly different records of the main political parties: Labour in 13 years managed 63 miles of new and electrified track. The Conservatives have managed over 1,000 miles, with hundreds of miles more of new and electrified track on the way.
All the above is important – but to my constituents feels too often like political knock-about. I endured it on BBC Politics North East this weekend up against Labour’s Ian Lavery. The record is useful for highlighting Labour’s duplicity, but not much else. And I can’t quite understand how the Government ended up wrong-footed on some of the biggest investment in the big picture in decades.
Drill down a little, and what my constituents are after is regional connectivity. Trains connecting major cities – the spine of the network – are great, but if you’d can’t plug into one of those hubs then who, in an area with no trains and a limited bus service, cares if it’s happening?
That’s the message from so many parts of the country who are interested in what’s happening to the ribs off the spine: they want to see some meat on them. For my constituents, it’s the real test on public transport delivery in our local areas – particularly in relation to buses, which the Government is doing so much work on – not the Westminster dance that the media obsess over.
This week, the Bubble has turned its collective attention towards Health and Care Bill – which delivers on another of our commitments, of the kind that governments of all shades have dodged for decades.
For this MP, the Bill also contains some important measures that I’ve been campaigning on for over a year that you won’t see splashed broadly across the mainstream media.
The Department of Health has taken up the mantle of my private members bill from the last session, and is going to ban so called virginity testing not just in England and Wales, but across our United Kingdom.
I cannot tell you what this means to campaigners from IKWRO Women’s Rights Organisation, Karna Nirvana and MEWSO – and their supporters – who have been banging the drum for change for years on women’s rights in this respect for years.
Too often, we think that issues around women’s rights have been solved, but it’s clear that there are major areas in which that just isn’t true. Banning the pseudo-science of so-called virginity testing is a good step in this area, and I have received assurances from Ministers that we’ll see hymenoplasty banned, too, in this piece of legislation – with amendments to be introduced in the Lords along the lines of my probing ones that have been backed by many MPs in the Commons.
Sajid Javid has been a true champion in this field, too, and picked up the mantle of ending under-18 marriage while on the backbenches . My colleague Pauline Latham has taken this on following Javid’s move back to the Department of Health and Social Care, and the initiative looks likely to progress soon.
With so much of the social policy debate space being taken up by arguments around trans rights in recent years, we too often forget that there are major issues around the rights of women and girls that need to be sorted out, too.
Another prime example is the campaign being led by Alex Stafford and Nick Fletcher down in the Rother Valley and Don Valley – demanding action in response widespread allegations of grooming gangs and child sexual exploitation in their towns and villages. The local Labour authorities have been, yet again, slow to act.
Time and again, when it comes to the rights of women and girls, it’s Conservative MPs leading on these battles. Fights that have been abandoned by Labour MPs (with some notable exemptions) who, long ago, became sadly too frit to take on the most socially conservative elements of British society.
On the ground in our constituencies and in Parliament, it’s backbench Conservatives leading the charge in so many areas – from levelling-up and fighting for better connectivity to the rights of women and girls.
At a national level, it feels like the Government is missing chances to highlight the good work that such Conservative MPs are doing. And that it is making a few too many unforced errors – especially when it comes to selling the positive changes we’re making for the country.
We got Brexit done. We’ve delivered the fastest and one of the most comprehensive vaccine programmes of any developed nation, and supported jobs and business through the pandemic. Employment is now higher than pre-pandemic, and we’ve got record vacancies in the economy. We are now delivering record investment in our transport infrastructure, our NHS and, at the same time, have a clear plan to get waiting lists, debt and taxes falling in the medium term. Conservative MPs are leading the way on major issues of social policy on the national level and in their communities – working day and night to deliver the investment they need.
The Opposition hate it and are led by a central London lawyer who does not understand, never mind connect with decent working Britain. And the media are, naturally, interested in the people rather than the policy. But we’ve got a great story to tell. No one will do it for us. It’s time to regain the initiative, and relentlessly make the case for conservatism.