Richard Holden is MP for North West Durham.
“You’ve got two eyes, two ears, and one mouth – use them in that proportion”: a piece of advice doled out for generations from sensible people to their wayward young across the ages.
As an MP, that’s sometimes a strange balance to strike. There is a constant pressure to make your views known – and it’s always important to get your point across before political opponents inevitably attempt to define you – but if you don’t look and listen, you’ll never get the full picture.
Throughout the pandemic, I’ve continued my surgeries, as well as meetings with local people and groups across North West Durham. Of course our political opponents will try spin the Government’s response to the crisis for their own ends, but the word on the street (or more precisely on the video call apps with which we’re now all becoming over-familiar) is that, with obvious frustrations and fears, the Government has stepped up, and is doing the right thing.
Obviously, some wily opposition operators will try and set unachievable goals, and attack the Government in ‘gotcha’ moments. But whether it comes to hospitals starting elective surgery, schools slowly re-opening or broader regulations on the lockdown, the Government will naturally be following the best scientific advice in order to manage the situation as well as possible and save as many lives as it can by preventing our NHS being overwhelmed.
But back to my meetings and surgeries as a local North East MP. To the outside observer sitting back, one point would strike them about these interactions, and how they start and end, and this is the sense of constantly being sized up by those with whom you are sitting. This is especially true with people in the local ‘establishment’ – the people who both consider themselves and are usually considered by others to be prominent within the local community.
All new Members of Parliament will get it to some degree – you learn to live under constant appraisal and become both fully accepting and immune to it.
What I’ve noticed in my constituency is that, to parts of the community, I am a disruption to the local natural order. For some, a disruption to their sense of themselves and their place in it. For while the people made their decision in December 2019, the local power and social structures are still adjusting to accommodate the seismic change.
In terms of that change, the constituents I talk to that aren’t ensconced in local politics seem to find it much more obvious – indeed, inevitable. Labour had become increasingly irrelevant to the needs, concerns and aspirations of the people it had been elected to represent – just as it had in the red core of the Scottish central belt.
But there is still surprise, and even clear hostility, in parts of the local establishment. Those people understand the rituals and rivalries within Labour politics, but the new Conservative force is something quite different and new.
By looking and listening a lot I’ve understood it a little. and it’s started to answer a question for me and others. That question was why, when large parts of the rest of the North and the Midlands had moved away from Labour decades ago, did Labour still hang on in the North East more strongly – practically across the board – until 2019?
The answer lies on the other side of the coin. Labour’s representatives and local MPs had become increasingly poor, expecting to be elected, yet unwilling to put in the hard yards to fight for people. For years, Conservatives hadn’t been present on the other side. Poor organisation and a lack of effort by the Tories had left the North East to Labour – even when on the ground people were increasingly ready for change.
We’d not fought for it hard enough. Our engagement had been sporadic and inconsistent. We pulled our best people out of the region: Lord Callanan, Lord Bates, Lord Parkinson – you can see the theme – sent them to Westminster and to the Lords, rather than backing them on the ground in the North East.
With a Labour Party still riven with divisions between the far-left, the hard-left, the moderate left, Blairites, Brownites, Corbynites and every other iteration of the people’s front of Judea, the Conservative Party more broadly has an opportunity not just to hold its position but to advance. The strongest opportunity will be in next year’s local Government elections.
We got the benefit of the doubt and Conservative MPs, like myself, are fighting fight tooth and nail for the communities who have elected us and will continue to do so. But the Conservative Party also needs to show that it is taking the region ever more seriously. Yes, that means the levelling up agenda from Government, investment in infrastructure and in the people so that they’re able to achieve their potential, but it also means political investment and long-term planning.
Ben Houchen has shown what you can do from (just) getting over the line in 2017. He won by looking at the community he served, listening to their concerns and then speaking to ram those issues and solutions home at a regional and national level. The way he has raised the profile of Teesside in the national conversation would not have happened with another identikit local Labour lackey. In doing the role well he has shown the power and pull that first-class local government representatives can have.
We need someone of Ben’s energy and enthusiasm fighting for every council seat (and we will be standing for every council seat) in Durham – and I hope across the North East. Ben achieved this by looking and listening to local people. It’s not purely a question of resources and spending, but of understanding what local people want and ensuring that their priorities are your priotities.
By doing so we will deliver further shocks to the complacent and out of touch Labour establishment and its hangers-on locally. People don’t want local politics which constantly is dominated by the ever-widening divide within the Labour Party. They don’t want councils spending time and money building new totems to themselves while ignoring the people they serve.
We Conservatives will have an opportunity at the local elections next year that we’ve not had for literally generations. My call to CCHQ is to support us with the resources we need to win on the ground and we will find the candidates who will deliver in spades. We will be the ones arguing for us to do better, go further, create more. Labour can’t help continuing the years of arguing about who gets what slice while the cake gets ever more stale. It’s like some horrendous never-ending re-run of Our Friends in the North.
With a bit of nous and by listening to our local communities, we Conservatives can show what can be done. We’ve got some of the pieces in place. Now let’s work to re-enforce the Blue Wall.