Saturday, 29 September 2012

On not needing extra troops north of the Trent - some strategy thoughts for my Party

Alex Massie writing in the Spectator touches on the vexed issue of the ‘North-South’ divide - at least in political terms. Referencing a piece by Michael Dugher in the Guardian, Alex says:

The north-south divide threatens Tory hopes of ever winning a workable parliamentary majority. Doubtless the Conservatives can make some gains in the south-east and the midlands but they must, surely, be closer to their ceiling in those regions. Which means they need to be more competitive north of the Trent.

As a Conservative in the North I find this subject fascinating. Indeed, the choice of the term “North of the Trent” is itself a historical curiosity. As players of the boardgame, Kingmaker, will know the northern bishops – York, Durham, Carlisle – lose their troops when venturing south of the Trent. Or perhaps, like modern day Conservatives, they need those troops to guard them from those who see them as creatures of a London-based, south-east focused culture.

The contention from Alex Massie – reflecting Labour commentors – is that the problem lies in political positioning. He appears to swallow the line that the issue is that northerners think Tories “nasty”:

But even when this is not the case there’s no doubt at all that being considered the Nasty Party and being seen to be just-fine-with-that-thanks is a more than rum approach to government. Politics is a communications business and it’s bizarre so many MPs and ministers seem to forget that.

It seems to me that – while I have a great deal of agreement with Alex on the “nasty party” problem – the core of the failure lies with policy not with communication. All the political parties have policies determined primarily by the culture of London but, for the Conservatives, this is compounded by the dominance of the South-East among the parliamentary party and (just as importantly) the voluntary party.

We see this policy problem with transport investment, with housing and with such issues as regional pay. There is no north of England filter through which to run these policies, no right-of-centre think tank in Leeds or Preston with the ear of ministers and policy planners. This problem is made worse by tokenism such as holding cabinet meetings in Manchester or appointing a “minister for the north”.

If the Conservative Party is serious – and I hope we are – about winning seats in Yorkshire, Lancashire and the North East, then it needs to find a real voice in the North.  Perhaps something as radical as recruiting the team to write the 2015 manifesto from the north and basing them in the north - not in Chester or Harrogate but in Barnsley, Burnley or Washington. And then making use of the great resource we already have up here – experienced local councillors who have spent decades fighting in Labour’s rotten boroughs.

It won’t happen but, if we are to take the north we have to listen to these voices. We have to appreciate just how the party is misunderstood by so many. And perhaps think a little about those folk living in three-bed semis near Oldham and on the hills overlooking Keighley. People who think they pay too much tax, who see too much waste and who worry about the cost of living. This was the simple message of the Thatcher years – work hard, keep what you earn, care for your family and look out for your neighbours.  And in return the government will take less from you, will help keep you safe, will protect our shores and will reward thrift and effort.

Even Tory voters in my neck of the woods think the party’s leadership too distant, too grand, and too posh. That they are, in truth, no more distant, no more grand and no more posh than that leaderships of Labour and Liberal Democrats does not matter; it is the Conservatives who are seen that way not the others. If we are to change then we must campaign in the language of the saloon bar not the language of the country supper. And this doesn’t mean being snapped holding a pint in some Berkshire gastro-pub but talking seriously about tackling inflation, cutting out waste and reducing taxes.

Above all, it means campaigning in the north – not by sending out patronising mailings from London or recruiting a few kids to work in “target seats” but by basing a real and substantial part of the Party’s activities in the north. By showing that we really do think the North matters.


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