John Stevenson is Member of Parliament for Carlisle.
One of the first items of post I received after being elected MP for Carlisle in 2010 was a copy of the General Election map. It was colour coded to show the new constituencies and which party held them. It was this map that prompted me to write my first article for ConservativeHome.
In that article I talked about how the map was a very pleasing shade of blue. Well, it’s as nothing compared to the 2015 map! The new map shows that pretty much the entire South of England and huge swathes of the rural Midlands, Wales, and North are Tory blue.
Our election victory was a triumph and we deserve to be delighted with the result – and the mandate and majority that it has given our Party. But a large part of our success was due to winning Liberal Democrat seats that really should have been Conservative all along.
That’s not to belittle the success of our candidates in turning those yellow patches blue – the difficulty of dislodging local Liberal Democrats is a well-known trope amongst campaigners for very good reason.
However, just as in 2010, if you begin to look closely at the map and to look for patterns, there remains some obvious issues for the Conservative Party which it must continue to address. I maintain that if we are to build on the success of this election, there remain three parts of the country we must target. These are – cities, the North, and Scotland. And since the last election, the truth is that we have made little electoral progress in these areas.
The good news is that we are now in a much better position to make some real headway in these places.
In terms of our urban appeal, in southern – and some midland and northern – urban areas I think the image of the Conservative Party is actually changing. In 2010 I said that the Party was perceived as a rural party; five years on, and I think this is much less the case.
It hasn’t yet translated into huge urban gains – but this is a slow process about changing the image of our party, what we stand for, and who we represent. An emphasis on inward investment, infrastructure, and local government are key areas where we can show the Conservative Party is the party of cities and towns as well as the countryside.
In the north, the Chancellor’s Northern Powerhouse project has really started to gain traction. The devolution of powers and responsibilities to Manchester is a pretty radical step – and the positive project is now associated pretty much entirely with the Conservative Party. This project needs to be expanded across to Liverpool, to urban Lancashire and Yorkshire and up to Cumbria.
Just as importantly, the North East needs to be a part of the project. This is Labour heartland, and it is here that the Conservative Party needs to make breakthroughs. I do not accept that it is impossible – that these areas will always and only vote Labour. If the result in Scotland shows us anything, it’s that Labour’s core support is remarkably soft. But the Conservatives need to give people in the North a reason to vote for them – and a good one at that.
Part of this breakthrough has to be achieved by changing the Tory “brand” in the North – but it also has to be achieved by tangible policies that have a noticeable effect.
As for Scotland, to a large extent the normal rules of politics have changed up there. Again, I actually think this provides us with a huge opportunity.
There is a clear need for an appealing centre right party in Scotland. Ruth Davidson had a great referendum campaign – and performed fantastically in the Scottish leadership debates not by attacking her opponents or pretending to be something she wasn’t, but by proudly defending and espousing Conservative Party policies.
This has given us a good platform to kick-on from for the Scottish Parliament elections – but with the inevitable transfer of further powers from Westminster, I think the Scottish Conservative Party has to seriously begin to think about the idea of separating completely from the national party, and becoming an autonomous organisation – continuing a separate fight for the union and conservative values north of the border.
This site and others have already talked about the window of opportunity that the election result has presented us. Aside from issues of reform such as boundary changes and the House of Lords – which really are simply a matter of fairness and constitutional balance – having a Conservative majority Government presents us with a political opportunity to show the country that a Conservative Government really is on the side of people who work and aspire to better their lot – wherever they live in our country.
A one-nation Conservative Party can only call itself such when it puts up a real fight in seats in the north, urban areas, and Scotland – and does so with sincere Conservative policies. So let’s use this momentum to change the political map – literally!