Martin Callanan MEP is Chairman of the European Conservatives. This is the text of the talk he gave to ConHome's Victory 2015 Conference on 9th March. Follow the ECR Group on Twitter.
The ConservativeHome conference was an excellent
initiative by Tim, Paul, and the team. Being one of only three elected parliamentarians from the North East region, I was asked to sit on a panel about 'Winning in the North', alongside Lord Bates and Stephan Shakespeare from YouGov.
The most common misperception we make is that Margaret Thatcher was hated in the north of England, and our fall in support was as a result of Thatcherism. Actually, when she was in power we had many seats in the north, and the Party represented a much better geographical spread than it does today. Ultimately, as a Geordie, my impression of people from my region is that they share very many Conservative values. They are patriotic and have pride in the country's institutions such as our Queen and our forces. They want to work hard and get on. They believe in a strong sense of community and want to see crime stamped out.
So what has gone wrong?
I think that part of the problem was the government's response following the attempts to broaden and restructure the economy of the North. We threw government money at it. As a result, we created a bulging public sector, and a culture of dependency. Don't get me wrong, the money helped in some places, but it also created a swathe of people who relied on big state spending to keep their state jobs, or to maintain their benefits payments.
At her speech during the conference, Theresa May talked about vested interests. Clearly, in the North, we have given many people a reason to vote for parties that support a big state, because they believe they are supporting their own interests too.
Weaning the north off of large amounts of taxpayers' money is not going to have an immediate effect. However, I believe we can still cut the size of the state and win in the North, if we have a narrative which resonates well.
That message has to be that we believe in helping people to get on, but that we also fully support those who cannot. At the moment, the idea of an aspirational society (and the notion that anybody could become a millionaire) may seem a little far fetched to many people who are living hand-to-mouth and day-to-day.
In the north, looking at some of the polling, issues like energy prices are seen as far more important than in the south. So we do need to be careful that we don't bang on about helping, for example, home ownership, which may resonate well in the south, when what people in Teeside really need is help with heating their council house.
Nevertheless, as long as it is suitably tailored, I believe that the aspirational message still chimes with people who have never been afraid of a hard day's work.
Education will be key to achieving this goal. Our schools need to instil in young people the value of hard work, and the principles of competition. They need to tell their students that they are not destined to have a menial job but they can achieve anything they like. And it should end the Islington snobbery that says that only a University graduate can go on to be a success. Some of the most successful people in the country left school in their teens and practiced a craft.
For me, one of the most striking findings from Lord Ashcroft's presentation was that an accurate indicator of political support can be measured by the question 'does x share our values'. Lord Bates made a good point that we need to begin to hone more local candidates. It's not right that prospective PPCs see many northern seats as a stepping stone to a Home Counties seat, with their presence in the area being dictated by train times out of Euston station. Instead, we need to work with and cultivate more local candidates who know and sympathise with the local issues in the region. I would say that the same principle probably works for other parts of the country as well.
Frankly, we also need to stop focusing on the kind of issues that may exercise the voters of more comfortable areas, and start to address the real gritty issues that most of the country cares about. My worry is that our attempts to 'detoxify' our brand have been led by, and aimed at, the Islington elites or the Chipping Norton set, rather than those areas that we need to win. So, in order to win the north, we need fewer husky rides and more hard-nosed policies that will help people to get on.
Most importantly, we need to get over this perception that we cannot win in the north of England, that our values are not relevant or subscribed to, and that the Tory Party is consigned to having to sweep the board in the south in order to win an election. It is possible. Infact it is vital.