Saturday, 17 November 2012

Campaign in the North...a message for the Conservative Party


We often hear from London-based commentators that the Conservative Party has a problem in the North. Look, these men say, you have no councillors, no MPs and no organisation across the great cities of the North - Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield, Newcastle. How can you lay claim to being a national party when this pertains? And such wise men have a point.

Others tell the Party's leadership that they must have a plan for campaigning in the North. That the problem must be put right. And each time the psephological runes are read and Party managers decide that this isn't so - the solution (or rather the winning of an election) lies elsewhere.

The Tories have a 40:40 strategy for the next election. The aim is to defend their 40 most vulnerable seats and try and win 40 others to give the party a majority. So which 40 are in their sights? Normally, it’s an easy one to answer: you just look at the last election and count which seats have the most narrow Tory defeat.

If you’d done this, there would only be 9 Liberal Democrat MPs on the Tory hit list. But the Liberal Democrat vote has changed radically since the last election. So Stephen Gilbert, the PM’s political secretary,  has drawn up a new list, added in demographic factors, current polling data and consumer targeting. As a result, the  number of Liberal Democrat seats on the list more than doubled.

And of those 20 Liberal Democrat seats most aren't in the North of England - Solihull, Dorset Mid & Poole North, Wells, St Austell & Newquay, Somerton & Frome, Sutton & Cheam, St Ives, Chippenham, Cornwall North, Norwich South, Eastbourne, Taunton Deane, Eastleigh, Torbay, Cheltenham, Devon North, Carshalton & Wallington. Only Cheadle and Berwick-on-Tweed are in the North and neither are exactly typical.

There isn't going to be a plan for the North. There will be a few target seats - Bolton West, Wirral South, Halifax, maybe Morley & Outwood to annoy Ed Balls - but no plan looking beyond getting 316 MPs from anywhere. Right now the national Party's resource in the North consists of fewer than ten people working out of an office in Bradford. These people work hard and do a great job supporting campaigns from Carlisle to Grimsby and from Ellesmere Port to Ashington.

What there won't be is a strategy for the North or the redirecting of resource from London-based spin doctoring towards campaigning at the grassroots especially if those grassroots are a long way from nice London restaurants in places where people talk funny. The problem is that - as I'm sure Labour is in the South-West and Wessex - the Party is dying in the urban North. We are reaching the tipping point in Sheffield, Hull and Manchester where the situation is unrecoverable - as is undoubtedly the case in Liverpool. Worse still behind these barren places are a row of other places - Leeds, Bradford, Sunderland, Huddersfield, Salford - where only the efforts of a dedicated few folk (and the welcome collapse of Liberal Democrat aspirations) keeps the Party from the same oblivion as in those big cities.

We do need a plan but more than that we need some of the resources currently spent on sucking up to London-based journalists to be directed to the North, to supporting good quality campaign teams in these Northern cities. And this isn't just because it might help us win general elections in the future but because the alternative is to condemn Manchester, Liverpool, Newcastle and other Northern towns and cities to generations of corrupting single-party government from the Labour Party.

Having failed to resource - or actively support - campaigns for elected mayors, the Party now has to get back onto the ground, survey its wreakage and begin to build. We need to start campaigning against the deadening hand of the North's establishment - public sector panjandrums, Labour council leaders, trade unions and the occasional lawyer or property developer badged as "business".

What I do know is that, if we don't, there won't be a generation of Tories in Bradford to follow on from my generation. And I'm prepared to bet that the same goes for Leeds, for Hull and for Greater Manchester. It really is time for the Party to act. Further delay will be fatal for the Party in the North.


1 comment:

Tomsk said...

An obvious approach to combating single-party dominance in Northern would be to introduce proportional representation for local elections in England as is already the case in Scotland. It surprises me that no northern Tories to my knowledge are advocating this. Are they afraid of upsetting one-party Tory councils in the shires?