Guy Opperman is Conservative MP for Hexham. Here, he updates ConHome readers on his Pennine Walk and his bid to understand why Conservatives are struggling in the North. Follow Guy on Twitter.
Twelve days ago I set out on my walk through Yorkshire on my way to Scotland, via my home seat in Northumberland. I left with the intention of getting a better understanding of the problems we have overcome and the challenges that remain for the Party in the North.
I have visited urban cities like Sheffield, the big towns of Halifax and Keighley, the small manufacturing towns nestled between Huddersfield and Rochdale, and multiple rural towns and villages on the way. I have spoken to hundreds of people in churches, mosques, shops, pubs, B&Bs, community events, and at question and answer sessions with members and non-members alike. I am walking the rough route of the Pennine Way on my way North, but diverting to various towns and events most evenings as I go.
I've seen the good and the bad, the positive and the negative. I've seen the work our Yorkshire MPs are doing to engage with local communities. I've also witnessed for myself what happens when the English Defence League comes to town.
I twice went to Keighley, where the former head of Bradford Council, Kris Hopkins MP, has done a great job winning the town where he grew up. I joined Kris, and the Party Co-Chairman Sayeeda Warsi, on a visit to the Medina Mosque. This was two days after the English Defence League had attempted to stir up trouble in Keighley. I was struck by the efforts of Kris to work with, and for, the Kashmiri community. The open, honest and practical relationship Kris has personally built up was a real contrast to the way our party has struggled in the past to connect with BME communities.
It was a reminder that all election winning majorities, locally and nationally, are built on a coalition of voters. Rich and poor, north and south. As a party in modern Britain we need to engage and include all sections of society. We need to craft a message that appeals to all communities. If we just chase votes at election time we are on a hiding to nothing. We have to develop a genuine long-term relationship with all communities, from white working class areas in the North East, to multicultural communities in Yorkshire and the North West. People like Kris and Sayeeda are doing a huge amount of work on this issue in Yorkshire, and elsewhere.
Another good example is Jason McCartney, the MP for Colne Valley, who has successfully launched a volunteering week, where he is helping out in food banks and getting his hands dirty. We spent an afternoon painting a fence at the Standedge visitors centre with local volunteers.
When I was with Jason it was clear he was going to places where his electorate least expected him, with obvious benefits. His efforts demonstrated the key point that there should be no "no go areas" in our target and indeed our current seats. This is all part of the Yorkshire MP’s efforts to sell their message as local champions of the communities they represent, much better than we have done in the past. If we lack local political leaders, whether those are candidates or MPs, embedded in their communities, then our policies simply do not get through to the electorate. The electoral benefits will not necessarily be felt in the short term, but can be the key to unlocking whole new swathes of the electorate who previously didn't listen, or indeed trust, the Conservatives.
Last week I also spoke at two Conservative Dinners in Calder Valley and Skipton. Part of my journey is, I hope, an attempt to learn from our members in different Northern constituencies what is going right and what's going wrong for our party. Too often we forget that our members, officers and Councillors are the ones doing the hard yards, and they can often teach the Parliamentary Party an awful lot. They have stuck by our party through thick and thin. The Yorkshire members I met wanted straight answers and no spin. It is clear that being in a Coalition government has made it more difficult to articulate what the Conservative party itself stands for, both to our members, and the wider public.
The main lesson I take from my travels through Yorkshire is that to make a long term difference in the North we need to build the trust and respect of voters. That takes years not months. Like the MPs I met on the way North we need talented, engaging, hardworking Conservatives embedded in our communities, working to deliver our message. We need a sustainable long term commitment to areas which may not always have been true blue.
Next week I will report back on some of the policy points I have learnt so far, and report back on the journey as I walk through the North East.
One of the reasons I chose the Pennine Way is that I am raising money for the Great North Air Ambulance charity, as I continue my journey through the North East. If I can be forgiven a cheeky plug donations are welcome at www.justgiving.com/GuyGNAA. I have enjoyed reading your comments so far and I'd like to hear more. You can give me your views below or on Twitter or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org