Chris Green is the Conservative Party PPC for Bolton West. Follow Chris on Twitter.
The North-West of England is clearly going to be a difficult electoral nut for the Conservative Party to crack wide open. Almost any discussion about it seems to carry the idea that there is a toxic legacy from the Thatcher era and that we, the Conservative Party, do not have any councillors in Liverpool or Manchester and are therefore electorally insignificant up here. But whilst there is some continuing bitterness against Lady Thatcher and we do have a lack of councillors in the cities, this is not representative of the region as a whole.
Take Manchester for example: in 2014, the remaining Lib Dems will be cleared out of the city - so there will be 100% Labour councillors (including one Independent Labour). The headline is obvious for the newspapers, but it does not reflect the North West or even Greater Manchester.
I just have to think back to the 2012 Labour Party conference speech of Ed Balls to see how people get things wrong:
“…to be back here in Labour Manchester: four Labour MPs, three world class universities, two world-beating football teams, one Labour Council. And not a single Tory Councillor in this whole city - not a single one.”
Manchester has many great qualities - but having two world-beating football teams is not one of them. It was disappointing that Ed Balls didn’t know that the home of Manchester United is in neighbouring Trafford - which has a Conservative-run council. Just as bad, the media either didn’t know any better or didn’t care: perhaps it is overlooked since a well-run Conservative Council in Greater Manchester doesn’t fit into the media narrative. During the 2012 Police and Crime Commissioner elections, of the North West’s five counties, the Conservatives won two and ran Labour very close in Lancashire. In 2010 we also saw our North West MPs double in number.
In Bolton West, Labour has gained ground in the two local elections since 2010. Part of this is due to normal protest against the government of the day, and part must also be due to the performance of the Coalition Government. I would be interested in hearing any claims that it is due to what Labour are achieving locally or the agenda they are setting nationally. The message I continually hear is about the cuts -and that people want the government to focus on the economy and jobs.
Immigration, the failure to extradite foreign criminals and the EU referendum are also often mentioned. These are the issues that concern the voters in Bolton West – and everywhere else it seems - and the Coalition’s achievements in these areas will determine whether we have a Conservative MP here and a Conservative majority government in 2015. As Paul Goodman has previously highlighted, the Party has the Soho and the Easterhouse modernisation movements. Almost invariably the Soho element costs us support in Bolton West and the Easterhouse element wins us support.
Whether you support the policy or not, if for weeks on end the start of every news bulletin and the front page headlines are about division over same-sex marriage, most people will conclude that the Government is not focussed upon the economy and jobs. Similarly, subsidising wind farms and solar panels and passing those costs on to the hard-pressed worker who is already suffering from high inflation and yet another pay freeze is going to make winning his vote difficult. Most people know that high energy costs drive manufacturing overseas. During the Labour years, there was, in effect, a recession in the engineering and manufacturing sector within Bolton, and at the same time there was a large increase in public sector work which has further unbalanced the local economy.
The average salary of the residents of Bolton is a little over £23,000 so it is not surprising that most people here think that capping benefits is a good idea - but consider £26,000 as generous. Immigration is no doubt great for the wealthy who enjoy a discount on their au-pair, plumber and restaurant, but it is not so good for the worker who sees his pay undercut by foreign competition. Moving net immigration towards the level of the 1980s is a positive move, but even having a net immigration of zero would still mean 350,000 migrants settling in Britain every year. However, Britain certainly needs to be open to the entrepreneurs, engineers, etc. we need.
It is always tempting to speculate on what Lady Thatcher would think or do in any given circumstance, but we can be certain that Labour’s mantra of “something must be done” would not be part of her thinking. Labour seemed to have spent their 13 years in power believing that every problem must be dealt with by government, no matter how large the increased taxation or borrowing - we can all draw up our own lists of non-jobs that were created to meet these demands.
Part of the problem with modern government is that it interferes too much in people’s lives, burdening workers with too much taxation and non-workers with a culture of dependency. It does not help that people are taxed into falling below a poverty line only to be told to feel grateful to the state for their benefits which take them back just above the poverty line. Politicians will never be loved or perhaps even liked but by ensuring the state does what it needs to and no more they may be less disliked and even respected for their achievements.
A highlight of the 2013 Budget was the Chancellor, with the support of the local Labour MP, freeing the Potteries ceramic industry from the Climate Change Levy. Ceramics, like much industry and manufacturing, is very energy-intensive so I would like to see this exemption applied to industry in the North of England. At the moment, Northern Ireland has a reduced CCL burden ,and it would be an excellent way of giving targeted support, reducing the North/South divide and rebalancing the economy. The Climate Change Levy was introduced by Labour, and they watched as manufacturing relocated to the Far East. Ed Miliband, as Energy and Climate Change Secretary, had the chance to remove the burden but failed to act – perhaps he overlooked the cost of energy, as he imagined that he only had responsibility for climate change.
As a recently-selected candidate for one of our Target 40 seats, you can imagine that I am confident about our prospects as a Party in 2015 and in particular for Bolton West. From responsible levels of immigration to withdrawal from Afghanistan; rigorous education to economic reform; and welfare to work to our commitment to an In/Out EU Referendum we are doing the right thing and I am looking forward to taking on Labour to help win a Conservative majority government.
P.S. I will be running the Greater Manchester Marathon on Sunday 28th April so please support the Bolton Hospice and the great work they do.