James Wharton MP: Conservatives should reject lazy left-wing generalisations about "the North East" being affected as one by government policies
James Wharton is the Member of Parliament for Stockton South.
Surely the most frustrating thing about being a Conservative in the North East is the fashionable belief that our values “do not sell” in the region. All too often we buy into the rhetoric of our opponents and allow them to set the terms of debate. Margaret Thatcher’s legacy is a powerful example; I have lost count how many times I have been told that people in the North East do not like her. Labour MPs throw around “back to the 80s” as a criticism of government policies they oppose and all too often we let them get away with it. Yet in 1987 Mrs Thatcher won five seats in the North East, when in 2010, after years of decontamination and social action, David Cameron won only two: Hexham and Stockton South. We need to think long and hard about why this is the case.
I could use this platform to argue for more cash with which to buy votes, whether through new roads or enterprise zones or whatever else takes my fancy. Of course I do often make the case for spending in my region, but not as a way of buying popularity. I make the case when I believe it is the right thing to do. We cannot buy our way out of this particular political challenge. For proof of this we need look no further back than the excellent Teesside and Tyne and Wear Development Corporations, which regenerated huge areas in the late 1980s and 1990s. In Stockton South alone the Teesside Development Corporation created the Tees barrage, Teesside Retail Park, Teesdale Business Park and Preston Farm Industrial Estate. It transformed acres of wasteland into vibrant commercial centres and in 1997 the sitting Conservative MP Tim Devlin, who had delivered so much for the communities he represented, was swept from office with a swing of over 16%.
The Conservative message is frustrated by the reality that the North East is itself a political construct, with the regional boundaries drawn pretty much arbitrarily. Think tanks and politicians use the region concept as justification to proclaim that some policy or other is “bad for the North East” and we immediately move to defend ourselves, not realising the terms of reference have already been framed to our disadvantage. I represent Stockton South, which is in Teesside. I also care about and will fight for the North East, but to pretend it is one uniform place running from the North Yorkshire border to Scotland is a fallacy. People here do not describe themselves as “North Easterners”; we are from Stockton, or Hexham, we’re Geordies, Smoggies or Mackems if we choose any label at all. We should never accept a political debate framed purely around geography, or Labour will always be able to falsely claim the Conservatives are a southern party for southern people.
As an example, cutting certain aspects of welfare is a popular policy and fair, not just on taxpayers, but on those who find themselves caught in the benefits trap. As there are proportionately more people on benefits in the North East than in most regions, this can be framed as cutting more money from my region than others, therefore this is a policy that some would say hits the North East hardest. Just see the IPPR report “Well North of Fair: The implications of the Spending Review for the North of England” if you think this interpretation of the way the debate is framed an unfair one. The reality, of course, is that taxpayers here are just as angry about abuses of welfare as those elsewhere, if not more so, because they see it, and the damage it is doing to once proud communities, on their doorsteps. The Government’s approach to welfare is popular and it is right; if anything it should go further, yet we see the debate shifted to a geographic one that somehow turns this vote winner into an attack on a whole region.
We need to talk about our successes more, and to stand up for what Conservatives really believe. I do a lot of regional TV, because we hold so few seats up here and, as “the only Tory in the village”, I get to provide balance whenever Labour MPs criticise government policy. The long term damage of the “Conservatives hate the north” narrative can be seen in the way things are reported and we are fighting against a hostile tide much of the time. There are few of us on the ground to do this, but that makes it all the more important we redouble our efforts.
If we really want to win in the North, we need to set out a vision of where the Government is taking us that cuts through this lazy regionalisation and grabs the attention of our natural supporters. Many people in the North are as Conservative in their outlook as the most ardent Party members in the South, but the Conservative brand is so tarnished they cannot bring themselves to vote for us. When they hear the intellectually shallow “this hits the North East hardest”, we want them to dismiss it as the rubbish it is. We should not concede to debate on narrow geographic terms: the left wing tendency to generalise and assume everyone in the “North East” is the same or is affected in the same way is a grossly un-conservative approach.
Mechanistic explanations of deficit reduction and long-winded discussions about interest rates or competitiveness are a hard sell and do not cut it. We need to frame our approach in words that mean something to people who are not political anoraks, and set out what we are doing for you and your family. We need to show that we are firmly on the side of people who work hard and want to get on. Our opponents are more interested in those who do not want to work or who have vested interests in living largely at the taxpayer’s expense.
Government in this country does too much, costs too much and wastes too much. Your taxes are too high and your children are being saddled with a debt that, if left unchecked, will make it impossible for them to compete in the global economy and enjoy the quality of life you have today. Only by addressing these things can we set Britain on a path to a brighter future, and the North East will be as much a part of that future as the leafiest Home Counties suburb. If we articulate that we really believe in something and we know where we are going, we can cut through the chaff of day to day political debate and win in the North again. Mrs Thatcher did it. The message from northern constituencies is that we need to be unrepentantly Conservative – apologising for what we are will get us nowhere.