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Ali Renison: To win in the north, the Conservatives must deploy their northern MPs

Alli Renison works for Business for Britain but is writing in a personal capacity. Follow Allie on Twitter.

Screen shot 2013-07-11 at 15.08.22In the bible of campaigning, if such a thing yet exists, under the “breaking into new markets” section should be Rule 1: identify existing reserves before starting over from scratch. This is a modus operandi which the Conservatives would do well to remember in formulating their attack strategy for the campaign ahead of the 2015 election, particularly in the North.

Re-inventing the wheel policy-wise needs to be complemented by having the right people in place to communicate the message to a wider and often Tory-sceptical audience outside of Westminster and the South, but CCHQ shouldn’t just focus on 2015 as a benchmark for making progress. There are several ways to start making an impact in this area right now, and all they require is making better and more frequent use of resources which have been right under our noses all along.

The first suggestion would be for the Conservatives in government to take a long, hard look at the sort of representatives they are trotting out to defend the party and policy lines in the media. We all know that Newsnight and the Daily Politics would prefer to grill an Eton-bred minister to make the case for why the ‘bedroom tax’ is not a tax. It’s convenient for the narrative much of the press and certainly Labour want to convey, that the Tories are dominated by posh-sounding out-of-touch elites who know nothing about the plight of ‘the ordinary man’.

For the floating voters switching on the Beeb on a Sunday morning or reading their local papers in Scunthorpe, seeing one of these ‘archetypal Tories’ reading out their lines is sufficient enough to entrench such stereotypes and any interest abandoned all in the space of a minute. We may think this an unjustified character assassination and playing the man rather than the ball but we have to start thinking like the general public. Additionally, with the opportunities which do exist through regional news programmes, Conservative MPs further afield from Westminster have to start doing a better job of equating national Tory themes and messages to local issues; Labour have for too long dominated the local agenda in the North.

This is not of course to say that CCHQ should dispense completely with wheeling out the likes of Jacob-Rees Mogg because of an unfairly prejudiced view that there is something fundamentally wrong with a good education and a certain manner of speech. But we need to seriously broaden our vehicles of choice to convey the message that being a Conservative is about helping working people in all walks of life make the most of what they have, and making it easier to go as far as they can dream – the ‘aspiration nation’ comes in all different shapes and sizes.

Who better to communicate these fundamentals than the Tory MPs up north that we already have, many of whom do come from working and middle class backgrounds (and sound like it) and who perhaps started out in life with the same unprivileged backgrounds that many people across Britain share, and became local success stories in their own right?

I can’t count the number of times I have overheard some of these MPs wistfully sigh that they never get asked to do the media rounds, opining that they could do as good a job, if not better, as the Ministers repeatedly hauled onto both national and regional platforms who sometimes come off as dispassionate bystanders with nothing in common with the local audiences who actually tune in.

We shouldn’t even have to wait for the likes of David Davis to inform these audiences, when challenged that they know nothing about life on a council estate, that actually there are plenty of Tories who do. CCHQ should be actively seeking out some of these MPs to help revamp not just ‘what’ the party is selling, but the ‘how’ as well. It would of course always help if CCHQ itself was comprised of as widely representative a stock of cultures and backgrounds as possible.

But box-ticking the diversity agenda throughout all of this is not sufficient; what matters most is authenticity – or at least the perception thereof. Eric Pickles is regarded by many outside – and to a lesser degree inside – politics as a lone token northerner, so the effort to pad out the Cabinet and the Conservative Party with a Yorkshireman or two and leave it at that is far from sufficient. Their presence needs to be seen, heard, and felt so that it actually gets across to the public that the Tories really are interested in listening to people north of Birmingham, not just paying lip service to them.

The importance of regional identity the further north you go cannot be overstated. The connection with voters can be made or broken in an instant in these areas. Superficial and judgemental a reality as that may be, we need to make far better use of the people we already have up there to make sure that invaluable connection is maintained long enough for the message to actually get across.

Building on the ‘who’ and ‘how’ resources the Conservative Party already has at its disposal should go beyond just drawing upon them in the media. Those at the top need to make a specific point of looking at how voter issues change across the UK’s geography (and this goes for Wales and Scotland as well). Policies can’t start off with a one-size-fits-all approach in mind. The 2020 group should ensure the consultation for the next Tory manifesto explicitly seeks out and responds to the views of local MPs across both depressed and regenerating industrial areas that make up the north.

Turning back to the present, Conservatives in Cabinet should be having regular meetings with these MPs so the people they represent are taken into account when Government legislation is drawn up, its impact being considered, and its message delivery being designed. Not favouritism or special treatment, but rather a more comprehensive and diversified consultation process.

The final humble suggestion for what CCHQ can do to help the party make (further) inroads into the north touches on a process that has proved broadly popular amongst both politicians and the public across the UK, and which has – in its limited roll out thus far – reaped real electoral dividends: the Tories should be commended for being the first party to head down the innovative path of open primaries and selection meetings. These are vehicles for change bursting with potential to reinvigorate public engagement with politics and are able to re-forge that link so that voters have a vested interest in their local MP as a person. This could be the means by which that hurdle of trusting the Tories in the north is cleared, or at least a sizeable dent in that stumbling block finally made.

New policies alone will never be sufficient to woo northern voters; the actual people courting them is the make-or-break factor. If candidates come through open selections that local voters already know – or can at least feel they got to know – before the election, the would-never-vote-Tory problem becomes surmountable. There is a sense of built-in legitimacy to these candidates, having already faced the public once before, that those selected through a closed-list process will never have come election time.

Martin Vickers is an example of someone whose lifelong local links to Lincolnshire saw him chosen in a semi-open primary where both members of the Tories’ priority approved list and those on the standard one who could claim a local connection battled it out in front of 130 people. Unsurprisingly, Vickers was also featured on ConservativeHome’s ‘Grit List’ of the top twenty Tories they felt should be featured on the TV and radio more, alongside other northern MPs such as Jason McCartney, Kris Hopkins, and Paul Uppal – all of whom were adopted as candidates in open selection meetings in front of local people.

On reflection, the percentage of Tory candidates selected in one of these ‘open primaries’ who went on to win in 2010 is staggering. Fully open primaries are of course not inconsequential as far as costs go, but if it had to come down to prioritising money between these and party conferences, I certainly think CCHQ would benefit from making efficiencies in expenditure on the latter. Spending a bit more on these transparent, direct-democracy boosting exercises ahead of 2015 could be the key to unlocking electoral success in the north.

I wish David Skelton every bit of success with his venture to help broaden the Conservatives’ appeal and bridge the North-South divide which has been an obstacle in their quest to win a General Election after so many years. But I hope both this new group and senior figures in the Tory Party realise there are a number of insufficiently-tapped resources and mechanisms already out there which need to be properly plugged into so that the process of reinvigorating the party starts now.


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