Martin Vickers is Member of Parliament for the Cleethorpes Constituency. Follow Martin on Twitter.
For 16 of my 26 years as a councillor I represented the Scartho ward, first on the Great Grimsby Borough Council and then, after the formation of unitary councils, as part of North East Lincolnshire Council. Though not an absolutely safe ward, indeed I had an enforced rest in the mid-90s when the Labour Party were winning almost all before them, but it is, or should I say was, the safest Conservative ward in Grimsby covering some of the leafiest suburbs but also a council estate and a large estate of 1960/70s properties – the homes of Mr & Mrs Average – many of whom are those that determine the outcome of General Elections – swing voters; hard-working and aspirational, many the children of parents who benefited from the policies of the Thatcher era most notably by buying their council home. Last week it elected a UKIP councillor. Why?
When I lost the seat in 1994 New Labour were speaking for Mr & Mrs Average, they could identify with the language of Tony Blair. I won back the seat in 1999 – two years into the Labour government, partly because the gloss was already coming off the Blair project and partly a result of my five years of campaigning on local issues.
Now after just two years of the Coalition our message is muted; swing voters can’t identify with our message. We can’t convince voters that we are "on their side" when we give top-earners a tax cut leaving Mr & Mrs Average reeling under increased energy costs and paying more and more at the petrol pump.
Local factors can determine local elections. In 2003 a joint Conservative/LibDem campaign in North East Lincolnshire highlighting the incompetent financial management of the then Labour administration reduced Labour from 23 councillors to just six producing a coalition that restored the Council’s financial position.
Last week the UKIP literature had seven pledges, five of which were national issues. It was those national issues that spoke to Mr & Mrs Average – Europe, law and order, immigration. They see a Government appearing weak because they can’t deport a known terrorist. They want robust policies on crime and reassurance that their jobs will not be lost to cheaper immigrant labour. Similar electoral surprises have happened before and will do so again. I can remember the rise and fall of the SDP, the Green Party surge in the 1989 Euro elections and many more.
Delivering a message that has widespread appeal and reassures our core support doesn’t mean we must abandon other policies. The idea that House of Lords reform risks losing us support is nonsense. Are we to believe that on Election Day people will wake up and think "this Government has reformed the House of Lords, I’m appalled I must go out vote them out of office!"
The public remain cynical and disillusioned about the political process, witness the recent turnout figures. Halving the number of members in the Upper House, putting them on a proper salary rather than what the public perceive as an open to abuse attendance allowance, with a clearly defined role will have electoral appeal. All we need to do is stop talking about it and get on with it.
As Corporal Jones would say: "don’t panic". I am confident the leadership and party can recover from the present downturn in their fortunes if we refine our message and speak to Mr & Mrs Average. Only if we do so will we retain the many northern marginals gained in 2010.