Matt Western – 2017 Maiden Speech in the House of Commons

Below is the text of the maiden speech made by Matt Western, the Labour MP for Warwick and Leamington, in the House of Commons on 12 October 2017.

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am grateful for the opportunity to make my maiden speech in this important debate. Although I have spoken several times already in the Chamber, questioning the Prime Minister and other Ministers, this is indeed my formal introduction to the House.

The past five months have been extraordinary, and it is a great honour for me to represent Warwick and Leamington, a constituency that also includes the town of Whitnash and a number of villages. I wish to place on record my thanks to them. I would also like to thank my predecessor, Chris White, for the work he did as a constituency MP, and specifically his support for the charitable sector and the local games industry. He served the community well, and I wish him well. It is work that I will most definitely build on.

It is a happy coincidence that my maiden speech should coincide with the news, published yesterday in The Independent and by the BBC, that Leamington has been declared the happiest town in the UK. Delightfully, the survey that led to this finding was conducted after 8 June, which doubtless explains everything.

My constituency is not only the happiest place in the UK. Apparently, it was one of the first provincial towns in England to possess the other key attribute of happiness ​—a good range of Indian restaurants. You do not need to take my word for it: whilst a predecessor, Sir Anthony Eden, liked to quote from Shakespeare, in this instance I am going to quote from the historian, Lizzie Collingham, author of a definitive history of curry:

“Leamington was one of the first provincial English towns to have a selection of Indian restaurants. The area’s very proximity to Coventry and Birmingham, where many of Britain’s Bangladeshi and Pakistani immigrants found work in the car industry, made it, where Indian food is concerned, one of Britain’s pioneering towns. It still is.”

As if to underline that, one of our very many local establishments was proclaimed winner of Midlands Curry House of the Year and shortlisted for the national awards. So none of you should need any inducement to visit the locality—and you will be most welcome.

But good eating is not all it has to offer. My constituency has been home to such luminaries as Joseph Arch, a 19th-century pioneer in unionising agricultural workers and in championing their welfare. Arch also agitated for the widening of the franchise—ambitions that were to some degree fulfilled in the Representation of the People Act 1884. In the ensuing 1885 general election, Arch was returned as the Liberal MP—we can all make mistakes—for North West Norfolk, making him the first agricultural labourer to enter the House of Commons.

My constituency was also home to Randolph Turpin, who was considered by some to be Europe’s best middleweight boxer of the 1940s and ‘50s, and went on to become the undisputed middleweight champion of the world, in defeating no less than Sugar Ray Robinson. And it was home to Sir Frank Whittle, one of Britain’s greatest inventors, the creator of the jet engine, and indeed once to my hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins), the as-yet-unknighted Toby Perkins.

Warwick is famous for its glorious castle, the seat of the legendary kingmaker Guy of Warwick. It is the medieval county town for a shire that once included both Birmingham and Coventry. Today that would be some county. Leamington, its noisy neighbour, is perhaps now the happiest town in the UK but was certainly not favoured by the late John Betjeman in his poem “Death in Leamington.” Fortunately, Betjeman saved his greater wrath for elsewhere, famously inviting “friendly bombs” to rain down upon a different town. In fact, despite being a major manufacturing centre, the constituency was not the victim of significant bombing in the second world war, unlike neighbouring Coventry, sadly, but during the war it was the seat of an important team of camoufleurs—artists and engineers who played a leading role in developing the art and science of camouflage. It is interesting that one of the constituency’s most significant contributions to the defence of our country back then was through design.

Design and innovation permeate the recent history of our towns. In the post-war period, the legendary Donald Healey set up his car business on the Emscote Road in Warwick, going on to produce some of the finest sports cars the world has ever seen. Not far away, Malcolm Sayer was designing the E-Type Jaguar. I am proud of my constituency’s impressive contributions to design and technology and its continuing role in developing innovative technologies of all sorts. That continues to this day with the world-leading Warwick Manufacturing Group, which is part of the University of Warwick and has collaborated with industry, Government and other ​universities in developing battery cell technology, new materials, and digital applications. It is therefore no surprise that what is still referred to as the gaming industry finds itself home here. Along with Dundee, it leads the industry with more than 50 local businesses, employing 2,500 people and generating £188 million in turnover, and it is about to grow exponentially. I am proud that it is leading the revolution in not just virtual reality, but augmented reality. I can honestly say that I have seen the future— through a headset.

The constituency’s relative economic buoyancy is exactly that: relative. It has depended on the single market and the customs union, together with our openness to attract the best in the world. Football clubs, such as my beloved Arsenal, have benefited similarly. Warwick and Leamington is an exceptionally diverse, international and multicultural community. Engineers, designers, academics and working people of all sorts from Europe and around the world have made the area their home. As Leamington’s proud restaurant history reminds us, it has also long been home to distinguished communities originating from the Indian subcontinent, who have played, and continue to play, an important role in the economic and cultural life of the west midlands. By way of example, our magnificent gurdwara is now celebrating its 50th year. That diversity explains in part my constituency’s openness to international business and migration. It voted remain in the EU referendum. Since the vote, residents and representatives of Warwick University, Jaguar Land Rover and other businesses have consistently voiced their concerns to me about the impact of Brexit. They tell me that they simply want clarity and certainty—urgently. Economic matters are critical in their planning, and they expect Government responsibility, not party infighting. I am confident that they would agree with me: no deal, no way. They are right to worry.

The prolonged lack of clarity over the post-Brexit landscape on the British economy is an issue for the majority of my constituents. Some have already voiced their concerns about potential exclusion from the EU’s data protection framework, which would impede the continued free flow of data among EU and EEA states, without which businesses and the economy will suffer. The Lords EU Select Committee states that we are facing a dangerous cliff edge in that regard. Data is critical in our society and for our businesses, but we need strong safeguards. I echo the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) about what data means, particularly for the younger generation, who, interestingly, can be viewed as a data commodity, but we must not allow our young people to become a commodity.

My constituents are already noting Brexit’s impact on the region’s ability to attract and retain the talented skilled workers on which it relies, and they are worried about the continuing weakness of the economy overall. The economy is extremely fragile and vulnerable to currency fluctuation and interest rate changes. Since 2015, we have witnessed a surge in unsecured household debt, which has reached levels not seen since 2007-08. Consumption growth—the sole driver of the UK economy for nearly a decade—is faltering, partly because much of that growth was driven by the £35 billion windfall that households received in PPI repayments. That is some economic stimulus by any measure. The effect of ​that short-term windfall is now tailing off. Since 2011, that extraordinary, one-off cash injection helped to fund, for example, higher retail car sales and new kitchens, but for little longer. Car sales have been falling since April 2017, which is as good an indicator as any that consumer confidence is declining significantly. Investment growth—the real driver of wealth—has failed to return to the UK after the financial crash of 2008, but only here. Growth in all other developed nations now exceeds the UK’s.

Like so many of the Government’s claims, assertions about Conservative economic competence have proven ill founded. UK debt has continued to rise. The Government have failed to meet their own economic targets. Real wages have fallen by 15% for many in the public sector and have been stagnant for most. CPI inflation is rising and will soon exceed 3%. Household budgets are being truly squeezed. Sterling has fallen by up to 20%; by contrast, personal unsecured debt has sky-rocketed.

Individually, those elements would be concerning enough; together, they augur serious concern. At the same time, the cost of housing is rocketing. In my constituency, average rents have increased by 26% in the past six years. In the past 10 years, only 50 council homes have been built in the area although 2,400 people are on the housing waiting list. Last year, 705 people applied as homeless to the local authority—130% up on 2010, compared with a 29% increase nationally over the same period. Some 3,600 people in my constituency regularly use our food banks. There are several night shelters in our towns and in recent months the numbers attending have doubled. The work there is increasingly important and I place on the record my thanks to Margaret, Chris, Susan, Vishal and all the other volunteers.

Quite simply, the housing market is broken. As has been confirmed by a Prime Minister not known for her Marxist principles, the energy market is also broken. As with so many Government announcements these days, it is too little, too late. Energy is ripe for revolution and it is vital that we should take this opportunity to democratise it. That will bring prosperity to all, as well as address the urgent crisis of climate change.

In his maiden speech in 2010, my predecessor stated that Warwick and Leamington had excellent frontline services. He was right: in 2010, we did. Seven years on, we do not. We have lost police—in Warwick, we have lost the police station. We have lost teachers, full-time firefighters, and health professionals from the NHS. Many are demoralised. I will not continue because all hon. Members face the same reality in their own constituencies.

What can we do? The International Monetary Fund has one suggestion: rebalance the tax system. A report just published by the IMF finds that higher income taxes for the rich would help reduce inequality without having an adverse impact on growth. Perhaps implementing some of the Labour party’s policies would be a good start to getting us on to a more secure economic footing as we face the enormous disruption of Brexit. Perhaps that is an announcement for next week. My constituents, whether residents or businesses, need, now more than ever, a strong Government ready to protect jobs, deliver a shared prosperity and enable all to flourish. Above all, I will speak for them. That is the vision that I will represent in Parliament. I thank hon. Members for their attention.​