Paul Maynard MP: The Surprise of the North
Paul Maynard is Conservative Member of Parliament for Blackpool North and Cleveleys. Follow Paul on Twitter.
This is the first part of his two-part guide to winning votes in the North. The second part will be published tomorrow, 4th June 2013.
The first poem I ever studied at A-Level was Here by Philip Larkin, a powerful evocation of the landscape and local geography of the Humber estuary. It describes a notional train journey to Hull and beyond to the tip of the Holderness Peninsula, and sweeps majestically across our northern landscape: “Swerving east, from rich industrial shadows, and traffic all night north ... The piled gold clouds, the shining gull-marked mud, gathers to the surprise of a large town”. That town was a Hull – a good example of a town in the north where our political potential is not being met, and where we might not even be aware there is potential, perhaps. Larkin was cruel about the people of Hull, calling them a ‘cut-price crowd, urban yet simple’. Such patronising views, thankfully, are not the views of the Parliamentary Party.
Rather, as with Larkin’s rail journey, many fellow MPs have been on journeys round the North of late, travelling up hill and down dale in search of some hidden magic golden lever that we need only pull for the ‘northern electorate’ [insert your preferred description here] to have the scales fall from their eyes and see us in our fullest majesty, suddenly electable again. Of course, no such lever exists. It isn’t about our accent, our look, our educational background, our wealth, or any other single identifying feature. It is about ensuring that we appear authentic, part of our local community rather than emissaries from Planet Westminster speaking strange tongues and bearing few gifts.
After endless seminars and pamphlets and hand-wringing, we are left with an unhealthy obsession with what I call the 3Ms – millionaires, Maggie and the miners. Never mind Labour, we accuse ourselves of favouring millionaires, with having an unhealthy obsession with Margaret Thatcher, and with having been damned for ever by a strike that took place when I was nine years old. All of these deliberately miss the point, if only because they try to relocate responsibility away from ourselves, it seems. There’s no requirement to do anything if the past is to blame, other than wring those hands that bit more.
We have all gone questing for the answer to a self-diagnosed Northern Problem, and we have returned from the forage defining ourselves by what we should not be, rather than what we need to become. And I don’t mean whippets, flat caps or any other northern stereotype, either.
If we are saddled by a perception, which we feed, that we under-perform in the north, the only genuine solution is to confront this head on and deal with it. Conservatives in areas such as Salford and Wallasey in the North West, North Tyneside in the North East, and towns like Keighley in Yorkshire have shown how success in areas perhaps considered unlikely is not unachievable. But the challenge is to universalise these bright spots. The lack of councillors in major cities such as Liverpool, Manchester and Newcastle is a millstone round our necks if only because it is a convenient shorthand for the media to describe our ‘northern problem’.
We know what the ‘perfect’ campaign should look like. It isn’t actually complex. Three or four newsletters a year from local campaigners, the building up of a pledge base, an effective canvassing effort year-round, a solid GOTV operation, and then the purchasing of the marked registers to calculate the ‘yield’. It’s the ‘yield’ we often miss – how many of our pledges actually voted. It is also a good way to assess the accuracy of a pledge base. Imagine a pledge base of 2000 of whom half are marked as having voted. That should indicate we take 1000 votes in that ward. If we only get 250, we know our pledge base isn’t accurate. So ‘yield’ matters.
Every ward starts to matter more too if we are to enter a world of more frequent boundary changes. Consider the lessons of Bolton West, where a ward was added from Wigan Council which had never been properly contested by us for a good while probably. It had potential, but it required a lot of extra input to get it ‘up to speed’. That we lost by only 92 votes demonstrates that no stone should ever be left unturned. As seats become potentially larger, and local government boundaries less sacrosanct to the Electoral Commission, we can’t allow opportunities to be missed. Nor can we risk a safe seat being presented with the unwelcome surprise of a slab of previously untapped middle-class wards from the neighbouring safe Labour seat.
That doesn’t mean we will know all the answers when we look at any constituency. I’m always very wary of parachuting into a constituency and telling them what they are doing wrong. It may be, for all I know, that Atherton was the best organised ward in Bolton West on the day. But I do know what the questions we should be asking are. I am still kicking myself for not throwing more of a tantrum that we didn't have a proper telling operation in one of my wards we narrowly lost in 2011. It could have been the added element that got us across the finishing line.
There are no no-go areas for the Party. I wish I had a fiver for every time I have heard that down the years. I know from my own time standing for local government elections in the Labour fortress of Newham that much can be built out of something with seemingly little promise. I stood in a by-election in December with a 10% turnout (eat your heart out, PCC candidates) in Custom House & Silvertown and ran a textbook campaign as best I could with limited resources – lost by 578 to 329 to Labour, but my yield was 80%. I stood in another by-election for the neighbouring ward a few months later, slightly less promising territory, but still managed to ensure I got my voters out (admittedly only 73 of them!). When boundary changes rearranged matters for 2002, we came within 190 votes of taking a seat off Labour after two year’s hard campaigning. It wasn’t perfect, but I learnt all the time what made a difference and what didn’t.
Up in Blackpool in the summer of 2008, circumstances conspired to give us an opportunity to snatch away Labour’s strongest ward in my constituency. The right candidate (the local postmaster), the right campaign (textbook, beginning to end!) and the right timing (Labour’s assault on the 10p tax rate really hit many of their key voters here) saw us gain the ward with 55% of the vote, up 28% on a strong performance in 2007.
This gives me the confidence that even in the hardest places, we can make a difference. But it needn’t be the hardest places that we focus on first, as I will cover in the second part of my essay.