John Stevenson is Member of Parliament for Carlisle. Follow John on Twitter. This is the talk he gave to ConHome's Victory 2015 Conference. Over the next few days we will be publishing other presentations and talks given to the event.
In 1959 the Conservative Party returned 78 MPs in the north
of England. In 2010 it was 43 – and this was the best result in nearly 20
What is it that has made the north such barren electoral
territory for the Conservatives? It has not always been so, but at the moment
the Conservatives simply do not have enough northern MPs, councillors, and
councils. In some parts of the north, such as Manchester, there isn’t a single Conservative
councillor in the local authority. Our Parliamentary representation isn’t much
better. In my own county, Cumbria, we made little impact in Barrow or Copeland.
Why not? These are areas that should be perfectly winnable for the Conservatives,
but we have found it difficult not only to resonate with the electorate, but to
portray our message in a user friendly way.
I believe that the fundamentals for any successful party are Party, People, and Policy. If a party gets all the fundamentals right, it is almost
unbeatable. If it gets some of them right it can have some success. If it gets
none right, then its ability to perform well becomes severely hampered.
I believe the Conservative Party’s fundamentals are generally
on target in the south, but hard work is urgently needed in order to once again
appeal to the northern voter.
Our party brand in
the north is weak. The party is perceived as a southern party, perhaps even as
against the north. Anyone within the party knows this is nonsense, but it is an
image that must be effectively addressed and changed. There is a subtle fight
to be fought, and often isn’t helped by media representation. It is the
weakness of the party brand that undoubtedly led David Cameron to begin his reforming
efforts – the results of which, I think, have been mixed.
Policy is our real strength in the north,
but we simply do not take advantage of this. Talk to local people, listen to
what they would like changed, nationally as well as locally, and you could be
listening to an audio version of the Conservative manifesto. Crime, education,
tax, welfare reform, family values, immigration, and Europe – with the same
desired objectives as the Conservative Party.
Then ask which party they will vote for and you get the
answer, “Oh, we’re a Labour household.” We need to hammer home the fact that
our concerns are their concerns, and that our objectives are their objectives. Our
message has to be taken to them through everyday language and interaction – not
through sound bites crammed with jargon.
People is defiantly something that needs to
be addressed within the party. Voices and faces looking to represent the party
in the north have to start to resonate with the northern voter. Their concerns
have to be northern, their responses have to be northern, and their personalities
have to be northern.
The fact is that culturally and socially the north now has an
affinity with the Labour party. But if we get our fundamentals right, we can
begin to change this.
I believe that the most effective way this can be done is by
fighting the “air” and “ground” wars.
The air war is about the national activities and policies of
the party. It ebbs and flows according to the news of the day and the political
cycles. Some of it is within our control, some well beyond. But it is important that northern voices in
the higher echelons of the party form part of the national debate, and that the
language, topics, and policies put forward for debate are appealing to the
northern voter. For example, to many in the north talk of things like regional pay
and benefits sound like pay cuts – the debate shouldn’t even be entertained.
Similarly, uncalled-for attacks on the public sector, which forms a greater
part of the economy in the north, and which many people have strong attachments
to, are unhelpful. The Conservative Party is not anti-public sector, and
shouldn’t be afraid to say so through its policies. Many people in the public
sector share the party’s goals of a more efficient and better run service – the
party should be appealing to these people and looking for their support and
The ground war, on the other hand, is simply about hard
graft. An ongoing battle which has to be fought daily, weekly, monthly, and
yearly. It is relentless and involves local MPs, Councillors, activists, members,
and sympathisers articulating the Conservative cause. It is local and relies
heavily on us getting involved with the community centre committees, charities,
school governing boards, and hospital trusts. It is about ensuring that the
Conservative outlook and view of society and life is heard in communities up
and down the country. We have always been successful at this in rural areas –
we now have to start being as equally successful in urban areas, including
northern urban areas.
The reality for the Conservative Party is that winning in the
north is not an optional extra or a bonus; it is the only way we will construct
another majority Conservative government in our lifetime.