Richard Salt works in hospitality and catering. He founded ThinkNorth, a policy and grassroots organisation for the North of England and Scotland. He is a former Chairman of Leeds City Conservatives.
The North of England and Centre-Right policy should be the focus of the Conservative Party at the next general election. The party needs to start thinking past Brexit, at the grassroots and elsewhere
It annoys and frustrates me when I see our supporters pulling each other apart about Brexit, and fixating on issues related to it, such as who will make our new “Blue” passports when we leave the EU. When forming my group, ThinkNorth, I made a firm commitment that we would not make Brexit a priority, and that we would focus on our six core values: localism, unionism, empowering individuals, free markets, social responsibility and strong defence.
Brexit is important, and I voted to leave. It needs to be implemented in the best way for the country, but we have serious domestic issues which need to be tackled. It’s good to see the Government announcing initiatives over the last few months: with these, we need to bring the North back onto the agenda, and tackle some serious disparities between it and the South.
This disparity, and the London-centric approach of many connected to the Conservative Party, is the reason why I founded ThinkNorth. It is in the North that the party must win new parliamentary seats in order to break the current stalemate we have in Parliament. Unfortunately, Brexit it has swung the party to the Right, and Jeremy Corbyn has pushed his party over to the Left.
With this action, both parties have relinquished the centre ground. This shows in the polls in which, until recently, both parties stood at around 40 per cent. The Liberal Democrats are still a wounded animal with only eight seats in Parliament, and are in no position to fight for the centre ground. So with the third largest party, the SNP, very much on the left hand side of politics, we need to take that centre ground.
As so many elections have shown in the past, both the Conservatives and Labour only win elections when they move into the centre. Tony Blair did it successfully, and David Cameron still got a working majority, even if it was a small one.
We’ve shown that Conservatives can win Northern seats with great successes on the border of Scotland, which was helped by the success of the Scottish Conservatives. Indeed, we are seeing some successes in northern councils for the Conservatives too.
To achieve electoral success in the North, we need to appeal to the place in which most of the general public consider themselve,s and that is in the centre. We need to take David Cameron’s vision from the 2015 election, and create policy which will help the North to prosper.
Policy is the key – which was very much highlighted in the disastrous 2017 general election manifesto, which turned its back not only on our core voters, but pandered to the Left, with a short-sighted view that we could win Northern seats which have been Labour strongholds for years.
Recently, a new think-tank, FREER, has emerged to champion a free economy and Centre-Right policy. This group is vital, as its focus is on policy which will elections, and it is looking at domestic policy, and not Brexit. ThinkNorth is looking forward to working with this new initiative.
The Northern Powerhouse Partnership chaired by George Osborne made a strong case for the North and, subsequently, the Northern Powerhouse Parliamentary Group, which is chaired by one of our Patrons, John Stevenson, has also contributed greatly to the cause. But until the Government makes the decision to make a substantial commitment to the North, the hard work from this partnership and others like it will be limited.
The policy we need should be for the benefit of the North. Take the transport infrastructure of the region. It needs to be a infrastructure which connects the great cities of the North and Scotland. The issue that I have with HS2 is: will it not turn out to be just a faster way of sucking the talented people of this region to London? The current plans from the Government, though good, don’t go far enough.
Then there is housing, which is in a far worse situation than in the south, and further investment is needed to develop brown sites in our cities. We also need to be encouraging businesses to set up in the North. The Government went part of the way in helping by letting councils set their own business rates, although Labour, which controls most northern councils, is maybe less committed to this cause than Conservative councils.
Enterprise zones and investment in new technologies in the North is also essential, especially in areas which have been hit by the decline of traditional manufacturing industries and the coal industry. This does not necessarily mean Government investment but, rather, more incentives for businesses to operate and invest in the region.
Recently, education has been under the spotlight, after the Children’s Commissioner warned that the education of children in the North is being affected by poverty and poor schools, with children in low income families in London three times more likely to go to university than Northern children in Hartlepool. Then there is unemployment, which is higher in the North East compared to the South East. In 2016, it was reported that ten of the 12 top struggling cities were based in the North, while no southern cities were in the top 12 or 24.
I have high hopes that, once we have Brexit behind us, our Government will pick up the gauntlet thrown down by David Cameron and George Osborne, and make North as one of the Government’s priorities, so we can put power back into the “Northern Powerhouse”.