I grew up by the seaside, and have always counted myself lucky to do so. Despite being an island nation, with so much of our history tied up in maritime commerce and adventure, it is remarkable how many of us rarely visit the coast.
There is something about the sea which has a deep impact on those who live near it – perhaps it's the constant changes between rough and calming weather, or the opportunity to see for such a distance without interruption. You never meet anyone who used to be a coastal resident who says they are glad to see the back of it.
Whether it's for that reason or some other cause, coastal constituencies have always had a distinct, if under-appreciated, character of their own, too. Current discussions about how to succeed in different seats nearly always rest on the supposed North-South divide, but ignore the more subtle ways in which we are divided by our geography.
As one MP representing a coastal constituency put it to me, such seats "often have more in common with each other than they have with their fellow northern or southern seats". In the past this was all the more pronounced, when the tendency of the vast majority of people to holiday within the UK formed towns from Brighton to my own home town, Whitley Bay, with a universally recognisable "seaside resort" mould.
The resemblance between coastal towns may have become more variegated as London's commuter belt expanded in the South and the industrial economy declined in much of the North, but the resulting patchwork still has a lot in common. Cosmetically, the burned out skeletons of old victorian piers are still dotted around the coast, and I defy you to find a seaside town without at least one amusement arcade which has seen better days.
The decline of their traditional tourist economy, the collapse of the British fishing fleet and the inherent tendency to be literally at the end of the line in terms of transport infrastructure have left many seaside constituencies facing similar problems, too.
Poverty, particular caused by the seasonal nature of the remaining tourist trade; a feeling of being neglected by government as a result of rarely sitting on the main road or railway between major cities and even lower educational attainment are all far too common. Only last week Ofsted found that children educated in coastal communities regularly miss out on the benefits of national policy initiatives, which harms their career prospects in often already difficult economic circumstances.
There are political similarities, as well. It was notable in the recent local elections that UKIP performed even better at the coast than elsewhere, for example, building on a long-running trend of seaside euroscepticism.
In towns which were once home to large fishing fleets, it is likely that this trend started with the Common Fisheries Policy's decimation of the British industry. However, it has grown far beyond the ex-fishermen, feeding on a wider sense of disillusionment with politicians who seem focused on cities and don't care about the towns which people once flocked to in hordes every summer. As well as the alienated working class, there are of course still large numbers of people who retire to the seaside, too.
There have been attempts in the past to design a proper strategy for these seats, based on an understanding of what they have in common with each other regardless of their region. Before the last election, data from the Mosaic demographic analysis system helped CCHQ to identify the broad trend. Mark Simmonds, MP for Boston and Skegness (a constituency where, incidentally, UKIP performed extremely way in May) wrote an aptly-titled report: "End of the Line: Our Plan for Coastal Towns" (PDF).
Many of the policies therein were very sensible but, as a number of MPs suggested, the strategy was incomplete – not through any fault on the part of Simmonds or CCHQ, but because there was not enough time to properly understand the data and the issues at hand. The report was published in January 2010, and these were the days of early experiments in combining Mosaic and Merlin data to inform campaigning on the ground.
With so many marginal seats sitting on the coast – be they marginals the Conservatives currently hold or marginals we would like to win – this must be the time to start a more intensive strategy targeted at seaside constituencies.
Given the financial situation, there is a limit to what the Government can do in policy terms (though the Coastal Communities Fund, financed by the income from the Crown Estate's marine assets, is certainly a good start). But there are a number of other steps we could take to ensure we are well-prepared to fight them on the beaches, as it were:
- Instead of simply pairing coastal PPCs with a nearby MP as their mentor, seek to pair them with a sitting coastal MP who can share more relevant knowledge
- Treat coastal seats as a distinct group within the "40/40" marginal seats – both in terms of the policy challenges they face and in terms of analysing their new Mosaic demographic data to understand the electoral features they have in common
- Establish a group within the Conservative Parliamentary Party specifically made up of coastal MPs, to raise the pressure on Ministers to address their shared issues
Ultimately, with deep-seated feelings of disillusionment and resentment of the neglect they have experience at the hands of central government, it will be a long, hard slog to win coastal seats. Trust and votes will only be won by demonstrating commitment and energy to communities which have for many years been let down by politicians. But patient, unstoppable determination is another thing we can learn from the sea.