Lord Bates was Deputy Chairman of Campaign North in the last parliament. He was the Conservative Member of Parliament for Langbaurgh 1992-7, and Paymaster General 1996-7. He writes regularly for ConservativeHome. This is the speech he delivered at last weekend's Victory 2015 Conference.
When the prime minister went to Keighley in West Yorkshire last week to deliver a major speech on the economy there were some in the metropolitan elites who suggested that was a ‘courageous’ location to choose, being deep in the Labour heartlands.
Not so. Keighley is a the heart of a large ‘bloc of blue’ containing eight Conservative seats stretching from Pudsey (Stuart Andrew), through Shipley (Philip Davies), Keighley & Ilkley (Kris Hopkins), Dewsbury (Simon Reevell), Colne Valley (Jason McCartney), Calder Valley (Craig Whittaker) to Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry) and Pendle (Andrew Stephenson).
At that point the prime minister may not have been aware of the latest Lord Ashcroft Polls released on Saturday that showed that this area displayed one of the lowest swings from Conservatives to Labour in the country—in no small part due to the outstanding work of the aforementioned MPs.
This is not Scotland…
Prior to the 1997 meltdown of the Conservative vote nationally the Conservatives held only 17 seats across the North compared to 139 by Labour and 5 by the Lib Dems. Following the 2010 General Election the Conservatives have 42 seats across the North of England compared to 104 for Labour and 11 for the LibDems.
In Scotland in 1997 we lost all 11 Conservative held seats and the extent of the ‘recovery’ is that in Scotland we now hole 1.
Moreover, the strength of the Conservative base in local government is often underestimated in the North (see graph). This shows that the Conservative still control 17 councils in the North compared to the Lib Dems with just 1 and our representation is more widely spread than that of Labour with only six councils not having a single Conservative representative, compared to 8 councils where labour is not represented and 18 where there isn’t a single Liberal Democrat:
The Conservatives won the 2009 European Elections in the North of England with five MEPs’ compared to 4 for both the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats.
The most recent electoral test was the Police & Crime Commissioner elections when Conservatives won 4 of the twelve contests compared to Lib Dems who didn’t win any and most notably Matthew Grove the Conservative candidate in Humberside defeated the Lord Prescott.
There are many who question the Northern credentials of the current government and yet two of the three most senior Conservatives represent Northern constituencies: William Hague (Richmond) and George Osborne (Tatton) even if our beloved Mr Pickles has since travelled south for the sun.
Even in the House of Lords there are 19 Conservative members, most notably Sayeeda Warsi, compared to 12 Liberal Democrats and 33 Labour peers.
Is my argument that we can afford to be complacent? Not a bit of it:
- We do need to talk up the strength of our base in the North of England and that base in the North of England: 42 MPs, 5 MEPs, 19 Peers, 1204 Councillors, 4 Police Commissioners along with the volunteers and professional party campaigning team do need to pull together and make our voice heard.
- We do need more high profile ministerial visits to the regions accompanied by local MPs and councillors, building good links with the media in the regions and the prime minister has led the way.
- We do need to add to the number of Conservative candidates from the north on the Approved List for selection in northern constituencies as prospective MPs’.
- We do need to highlight the fact that Labour is virtually non-existent in many parts of the north and their campaigning reach is almost entirely funded and delivered through public sector unions.
We do need to make sure that qualified Conservative supporters get their fair share of public appointments rather than the data which showed that 77% of those appointed to public bodies with a political affiliation were Labour supporters.
- We could do with more members of the House of Lords from Northern and urban centres such as Newcastle, Manchester & Liverpool where we do not currently have parliamentary or local authority representation and there are a number of exceptionally qualified candidates from the voluntary party, business and local government who could do those jobs.
- Above all we need to show that the government policies are working in the North of England: with employment in the North of England now 8.6 million compared to a peak of 8.5 million prior to the recession and exports and new business start-ups are at record levels.
Let us not talk ourselves into a ‘Northern problem’ when what we have is a solid and hard earned base support and a great opportunity to build upon it.