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.
For the first 22 days in August I have been walking from Yorkshire to Scotland, stopping off at multiple places along the way, from big cities to small towns, meeting hundreds of people, and trying to get an understanding of what our party needs to do to win in the North.
There are no easy answers but certain clear themes emerged from the conversations I had at the 14 events I attended whether it was with party members or the public in village halls, churches, pubs, clubs, or mosques.
In my piece last week I noted the importance that a hard-working MP or candidate can play, how we need to engage all communities, and not be shy about delivering our message on the doorstep, even in our toughest areas.
This week, building on what I was told, I want to set out the policy ideas that could just lead Tory revival in my own patch, the North East and across the North:
1. Freeze Petrol and Diesel taxes until 2015
I welcomed the effective tax break that we have provided by increasing Personal Allowances. Yet only a handful of people I met had a clue about how it would affect them. Every single one of them seemed to know exactly how much it cost to fill up their tank. Tim has discussed this politics of making sure we help the man in the street in more detail here.
Certainly the message I take with me from places like Halifax, Darlington and Haltwhistle is that people are willing to accept the tough decisions on the economy, but at the same time they need real help with the cost of living. Freezing the cost of petrol and diesel is something I believe should be at the heart of our Conservative offer to voters. It also compares well to the multiple petrol tax rises inflicted by Labour, which often hit the 'strivers' hardest.
This would also be a tangible and direct policy shift which would have a clear, positive impact on voters. It is exactly the kind of policy that may just give our Northern Tory-inclined voter a vision of what we stand for.
2. Reject Regional Pay
Under Labour the public sector was too big. Yet too often I worry our rhetoric casts the blame for this on the workers themselves, rather than Gordon Brown and his hapless cronies. We need to make it clear that we, as Conservatives, support the hard working people in our public sector. It's not their fault Labour built an unsustainable economic model for the North, and it’s not their fault we found ourselves at the wrong end of boom and bust.
It's also worth remembering that public sector workers make up an important part of any majority winning coalition of voters. In one IPSOS MORI poll in the run up to the General Election they found that 32 per cent would vote Conservative, 29 per cent for Labour and 19 per cent for the Lib Dems. We must respect the trust those public sector workers put in our party.
That is why I believe we should, as a clear signal to the public sector in the North, reject Regional Pay. A nurse in Middlesbrough, where fifty six percent of the people she will see live in the most deprived part of England, should not be paid less than a Nurse working in a genteel part of the Home Counties. Even worse, it reinforces every anti Conservative message ever spun by Labour and their Union paymasters. We need to make it clear that we value our public sector workers and reject regional pay.
3. Adopt a clear Industrial Policy
This Government has made it very clear that, unlike Labour, creating jobs in the public sector will not be its economic answer for the North. On that it is absolutely right. However, there is a second part of that equation which I worry we are still failing to articulate. What is the North East for? What role does the Government see for the region as part of UK PLC? I don't want a planned economy but I do want to see a clear and frank Industrial Policy, which sets out a vision for the economic future for places like the North East. I have called in the past for a dedicated Minister for Manufacturing, a sector I would see as key to any Industrial Policy.
We need to be articulating a clear business led vision for the future of the economies of regions like the North East, and the North as a whole. By 2020 there is a estimated to be a need for around 2 million new people trained in engineering, science and technology. Without a joined up coordinated approach this opportunity for the North to revitalise its skills base could be missed.
We have had some good private sector news in my region, a new train factory in Durham and more investment in Nissan to name but two, but that good news needs to be a sum of more than its parts. It has to add up to a bigger picture. But until we set out our economic vision, the Labour's mantra of 'Its all about Cuts' will be all that a new generation of people in the North associate with the Conservative Party. We can't allow that to happen. Especially when Labour’s plan is a return to Brownite economics.
4. Invest in Northern Transport Infrastructure
As I made my way North, and up through the North East into Scotland, I was reminded by many people how bad the transport links are. North South the major motorway, the M1/A1 goes from 3 lanes down to 2 and then falls to just one lane before it gets to Scotland. East to West across the region the train stock is poor and outdated.
Earlier this year the IPPR think tank estimated 84 per cent of the Government's £5bn infrastructure programme would be spent in the South and just 6 per cent of it in the North. If we are serious about rebalancing our economy, and increasing economic activity and business competitiveness in the North, then investment in transport infrastructure must not just be centered around London. In the long term we should devolve a significant sum of infrastructure investment to our newly created Local Enterprise Partnerships. Upgrading the A1 would be a relatively simple and significant step in the right direction.
5. Deliver Broadband for the North
The government's pledge to provide the fastest broadband of any major European country is a welcome one. Yet it remains vital that our race for speed doesn't leave behind the many towns and villages across the North still struggling for any connection at all. Broadband infrastructure is less of a luxury and more a basic necessity, whether you’re a provincial start up or a farmer trying to deal with the RPA.
Government investment in broadband across Yorkshire, Durham and Northumberland is a valuable commitment but the devil is in the delivery. Better broadband will boost our regional economies, in particular the tourism sector, and the ability for SME and micro businesses to grow outside the big cities.
Cutting the cost of petrol, spelling out an economic vision for the North, rejecting regional pay, investing in Northern transport links and delivering rural broadband may not be enough to win over the North alone. But it would be a real start.
I’m keen to hear your policy ideas in the comments. Thank you to everyone who supported to my 275 mile Charity Walk. You can still donate at www.justgiving.com/guygnaa.