Paul Maynard is Conservative Member of Parliament for Blackpool North and Cleveleys. Follow Paul on Twitter.
This is the first part of his two-part guide to winning votes in the North. The second part will be published tomorrow, 4th June 2013.
The first poem I ever studied at A-Level was Here by
Philip Larkin, a powerful evocation of the landscape and local geography of the
Humber estuary. It describes a notional train journey to Hull and beyond to the
tip of the Holderness Peninsula, and sweeps majestically across our northern
landscape: “Swerving east, from rich industrial shadows, and traffic all night
north … The piled gold clouds, the shining gull-marked mud, gathers to the
surprise of a large town”. That town was a Hull – a good example of a town in
the north where our political potential is not being met, and where we might
not even be aware there is potential, perhaps. Larkin was cruel about the
people of Hull, calling them a ‘cut-price crowd, urban yet simple’. Such
patronising views, thankfully, are not the views of the Parliamentary Party.
Rather, as with Larkin’s rail journey, many fellow MPs have
been on journeys round the North of late, travelling up hill and down dale in
search of some hidden magic golden lever that we need only pull for the
‘northern electorate’ [insert your preferred description here] to have the
scales fall from their eyes and see us in our fullest majesty,
suddenly electable again. Of course, no such lever exists. It isn’t about our
accent, our look, our educational background, our wealth, or any other single
identifying feature. It is about ensuring that we appear authentic, part of our
local community rather than emissaries from Planet Westminster speaking strange
tongues and bearing few gifts.
As much as I admire the work of think tanks like the IPPR,
and devotee that I am of transport devolution to encourage regional
development, even I realise the difference between good policy and good
politics. Standing on a damp doorstep explaining the intricacies of regional
transport funding priority mechanisms will not work miracles. The end result –
a better regional transport infrastructure which enhances economic growth
through enhanced connectivity certainly will. But focusing on policy tools
alone, rather than addressing the ‘image’ problem we all seem to like to think
we have, won’t provide the answer.
After endless seminars and pamphlets and hand-wringing, we
are left with an unhealthy obsession with what I call the 3Ms – millionaires,
Maggie and the miners. Never mind Labour, we accuse ourselves of favouring
millionaires, with having an unhealthy obsession with Margaret Thatcher, and
with having been damned for ever by a strike that took place when I was nine
years old. All of these deliberately miss the point, if only because they try
to relocate responsibility away from ourselves, it seems. There’s no
requirement to do anything if the past is to blame, other than wring those
hands that bit more.
We have all gone questing for the answer to a self-diagnosed
Northern Problem, and we have returned from the forage defining ourselves by
what we should not be, rather than what we need to become. And I don’t
mean whippets, flat caps or any other northern stereotype, either.
If we are saddled by a perception, which we feed, that we
under-perform in the north, the only genuine solution is to confront this head
on and deal with it. Conservatives in areas such as Salford and Wallasey in the
North West, North Tyneside in the North East, and towns like Keighley in
Yorkshire have shown how success in areas perhaps considered unlikely is not
unachievable. But the challenge is to universalise these bright spots. The lack
of councillors in major cities such as Liverpool, Manchester and Newcastle is a
millstone round our necks if only because it is a convenient shorthand for the
media to describe our ‘northern problem’.
We know what the ‘perfect’ campaign should look like. It
isn’t actually complex. Three or four newsletters a year from local
campaigners, the building up of a pledge base, an effective canvassing effort
year-round, a solid GOTV operation, and then the purchasing of the marked
registers to calculate the ‘yield’. It’s the ‘yield’ we often miss – how many
of our pledges actually voted. It is also a good way to assess the accuracy of
a pledge base. Imagine a pledge base of 2000 of whom half are marked as having
voted. That should indicate we take 1000 votes in that ward. If we only get
250, we know our pledge base isn’t accurate. So ‘yield’ matters.
Every ward starts to matter more too if we are to enter a
world of more frequent boundary changes. Consider the lessons of Bolton West,
where a ward was added from Wigan Council which had never been properly
contested by us for a good while probably. It had potential, but it required a
lot of extra input to get it ‘up to speed’. That we lost by only 92 votes demonstrates that no stone should ever be left unturned. As seats
become potentially larger, and local government boundaries less sacrosanct to
the Electoral Commission, we can’t allow opportunities to be missed. Nor can we
risk a safe seat being presented with the unwelcome surprise of a slab of
previously untapped middle-class wards from the neighbouring safe Labour seat.
That doesn’t mean we will know all the answers when we look
at any constituency. I’m always very wary of parachuting into a constituency
and telling them what they are doing wrong. It may be, for all I know, that
Atherton was the best organised ward in Bolton West on the day. But I do
know what the questions we should be asking are. I am still kicking myself for
not throwing more of a tantrum that we didn't have a proper telling
operation in one of my wards we narrowly lost in 2011. It could have been the
added element that got us across the finishing line.
There are no no-go areas for the Party. I wish I had a fiver
for every time I have heard that down the years. I know from my own time
standing for local government elections in the Labour fortress of Newham that
much can be built out of something with seemingly little promise. I stood in a
by-election in December with a 10% turnout (eat your heart out, PCC
candidates) in Custom House & Silvertown and ran a textbook campaign as
best I could with limited resources – lost by 578 to 329 to Labour, but my
yield was 80%. I stood in another by-election for the neighbouring ward a few
months later, slightly less promising territory, but still managed to ensure I
got my voters out (admittedly only 73 of them!). When boundary changes
rearranged matters for 2002, we came within 190 votes of taking a seat off
Labour after two year’s hard campaigning. It wasn’t perfect, but I learnt all
the time what made a difference and what didn’t.
Up in Blackpool in the summer of 2008, circumstances
conspired to give us an opportunity to snatch away Labour’s strongest ward in
my constituency. The right candidate (the local postmaster), the right campaign
(textbook, beginning to end!) and the right timing (Labour’s assault on the 10p
tax rate really hit many of their key voters here) saw us gain the ward with
55% of the vote, up 28% on a strong performance in 2007.
This gives me the confidence that even in the hardest
places, we can make a difference. But it needn’t be the hardest places
that we focus on first, as I will cover in the second part of my essay.