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Jonathan Scott: Is Cameron's message being heard in the North?

Jonathan_scott Jonathan Scott is a former Conservative councillor and head of the Yorkshire based Tory supporting think-tank, Conservative Vision.

Following the local elections in May, up and down the country, David Cameron said, the Tories had made big gains in what were once Labour and Liberal strongholds. Understandably, Cameron could barely contain his glee – having successfully spun the idea that the party might actually lose seats he was able instead to savour the sweet taste of electoral success.

So unfamiliar has this taste been for the Conservatives over the last fourteen years that there is a danger the party could allow its intoxicating effects to blind them to the geographical limits of our success.

Winning key seats in London is, of course, vital to the Conservative renaissance, but victory in the South should not be allowed to obscure the party’s real shortcomings in the North.

Indeed, if Cameron is not careful the geographical boundary between our growing strength in the South and our continuing relative weakness in the North, could harden into a political divide that will take years to overcome.

No one should doubt Cameron is moving fast, that he his changing the public and private face of the Conservative Party. But on the doorsteps in the cities and towns of the North of England, few Tory canvassers found the Cameron message of voting blue to go green, resonated with the party’s core vote or those contemplating switching their vote to the Conservatives.

In the urban heartlands of Leeds, Bradford, Sheffield and Hull, few if any Tory candidates found the voters exercised by the fate of the ice cap - so Cameron’s exhortation to vote blue to go green, only seemed to reinforce the impression in the North that we Conservatives had become obsessed with the kind of issues which are of great concern to the chattering middle classes of Notting Hill, but are of only peripheral interest to those loyal and former Tory voters trying to survive in the much less hospitable climate of our inner cities.

When Cameron talks of winning ‘up and down the country’ he may fool voters in the South, but for the party faithful in the North it strikes a hollow ring, since they know that the northernmost reach of this success stretched no further than the Midlands, were Coventry returned to Conservative control. In Yorkshire, for example, we lost seats in Bradford, Kirklees, and Calderdale and stood still in Leeds. Sheffield, Newcastle, Liverpool and Manchester remain virtual Conservative free zones.

During the Conservative leadership contest, David Davis made it a central plank of his campaign that the Conservatives could not hope to win the next General Election if they failed to make significant inroads into the urban heartlands of northern England. As long as the party remained a prisoner of its southern comfort zone, it would remain locked out of power without hope of parole. He was right!

Cameron, to his credit, seemed to acknowledge this fact. He brought the shadow cabinet to the North to hold its meetings, and made the point of visiting key cities such as Leeds and Manchester which suggest that Cameron both understood the need to shape the Tory message for the distinctive northern electorate and that he believed that message was beginning to connect. He was wrong, and he needs quickly to find out why.

At heart, Cameron’s failure in the North was not one of tactics but of a lack of strategic outlook. The party’s decision to appoint individual Shadow Cabinet Ministers who are responsible for the cities is a start, but he need’s to go much further.

A fundamental review of the party structure is essential. The party could consider the idea of a regional CCO, with a regional board and a full time Chairman.

A full time Regional Chairman could oversee the recruitment of more professionals in the areas of campaigns and the press? This could then lead to a regional press office and the establishment of a regional candidates list and training academy for those candidates. A northern policy development forum could be established and feed its ideas and proposals directly into the national policy review process but such a forum must be meaningful and its ideas and proposals must be paid more than lip service to. We must re-engage on a regional level with the business community that drifted away from us a long time ago. Our campaigning message and techniques need a radical overhaul. Cameron has many options but ensuring that a framework for delivering the message exists and creating the message itself is vital. Currently, we neither have the policies or enough personnel in place to make things happen on the ground.

The challenge for Cameron and for us as a party is to talk a political language that needs no translation in the North. It is a language of self-reliance and personal responsibility. It is a language of tolerance – but a tolerance whose limits are bound by the principles of fairness and justice. It is a language which is unashamedly proud of tradition, yet not fossilised to the point where it is resistant to change.

Cameron must not fuel the growing sense of resentment that exists in the North.

He understands the politics of climate change – over the next twelve months and beyond, he must read the political weather. A chill wind is blowing from the north – it would be a terrible blow to his fortunes and that of our party, if just when we are beginning to feel better about ourselves, we were to catch a terrible cold.

Related link by Mischa Balen: It's the north, stupid


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