David Skelton is the author of ‘Little Platoons: How a revived One Nation can empower England’s forgotten towns and redraw the political map‘. He founded Renewal, dedicated to broadening Tory appeal.
In many ways, I’m still pinching myself after the results in the North East last Thursday. My home town of Consett, once blood-red seats like Blyth Valley, and the heart of Tony Blair’s leadership in Sedgefield all voted Tory.
Places that saw being Labour as being part of their cultural, as well as their political identity, emphatically turned their back on Corbyn’s Labour. Friends and members of my family who once almost used “Tory” as a swear word started saying positive things about Boris Johnson a few months ago and could barely hide their distaste for Jeremy Corbyn and his brand of politics.
For years, Labour had been drifting away from their once core vote, taking these voters for granted and ignoring the region. Now they are reaping what they sowed and the North East has excellent MPs who will fight hard for the region, like Rick Holden in Consett and Dehenna Davison in Bishop Auckland.
Now we have to make sure that what could be a temporary realignment in the North East becomes a permanent and lasting political transformation.
Labour’s heartland voters have been drifting away from them for years, knowing that the party had long ago stopped embodying their values or even sharing their concerns. It was the Brexit vote that crystallised this. The referendum was the first time in a generation that voters in places like Consett and Blyth had been able to make their voices heard on the national scale. The response of the party that was founded to ensure working class representation was to snobbishly dismiss the vote and call for a re-run. Little wonder that voters responded to Labour’s sneering disdain with a clear rejection in many North Eastern seats that Labour once saw as their fiefdoms.
The challenge now is to ensure that this wasn’t a one off loaning of votes and instead turns the North East blue for a generation or more. As I set out in my recent book, Little Platoons, our goal should be to bring about fundamental economic transformation to towns that have been long forgotten and ignored by politicians of both parties. The mission of the Government, once Brexit is achieved, must be to tackle the regional imbalances that means the City of London has GVA per head of £300,000 and County Durham has one of £16,000.
If we can be seen to have delivered this profound change for the better then we can not only hold on to the seats we’ve gained, but also gain newly marginal North Eastern seats such as Wansbeck, Stockton North and Sunderland Central are brought into play as well.
It’s heartening that the Government has already committed to big infrastructure spending in the North East and they should not be half-hearted in their ambition. Northern towns were amongst the biggest sufferers from the catastrophic Beeching cuts and subsequent cuts to transport. This meant towns like Consett and Stanley, with substantial populations, have had to rely on over-priced buses (it costs over a fiver return to get from Consett to Durham) and often poorly serviced roads. The government should ensure that North Eastern towns are no longer treated as an afterthought when it comes to transport links and should consider ambitious plans to use rail and light rail to link up the towns of the North East.
Many of the towns in the North East that voted Tory are also still suffering from many of the economic and social consequences of de-industrialisation. Skilled, dignified work that people were proud of was often replaced with low skilled, insecure work. We should look to re-industrialise some forgotten towns and bring about an economic revival with an ambitious industrial strategy that encourages and incentivises industrial investment. This should include declaring those towns that have been stagnating the most in recent decades as “prosperity hubs” and allowing them to do whatever it takes, including through the tax system, to encourage industrial investment and become specialist hubs for various industries.
These towns should also be at the centre of a vocational education revolution, with schools and colleges working with employers to deliver a robust education based on skill and vocation. Employer-partnered vocational centres of excellence should also be based in these Northern towns. For example, a centre for advanced engineering could be established in Sunderland, in partnership with Nissan.
Finally, the Government should take measures to improve the vibrancy of Northern town centres, many of which have become scattered with charity shops, bookmakers, and discount outlets. The focus on out-of-town retail and business parks should be reversed and measures taken to ensure that town centres again become community hubs, as well as places to shop, work and run a business.
Labour has abandoned the patriotic and communitarian values of the North Eastern voters who once made up the party’s core vote, in favour of an urban hipster socialism. And Labour’s reaction to their defeat last Thursday suggests that they are disinclined to learn lessons. This creates a real opportunity for the Conservatives to make the most of diminished loyalty to Labour throughout the North East and to turn the region blue for many years to come. The kind of measures I’ve suggested should be accompanied by pro-worker policies, such as a higher minimum wage and lifting the National Insurance threshold.
We successfully campaigned as the ‘workers’ party’, and gained a clear majority of working-class voters. Now we must govern as the workers’ party. In doing so we can bring about economic and political transformation to a long-ignored part of the country.