Rebecca Coulson is a freelance classical musician and writer, and the Conservative Prospective Parliamentary candidate for the City of Durham.
Our wardrobes aren’t crammed with flat caps and emperor’s-new-clothes-size clubbing skirts. We don’t live on pies from Greggs. And, no matter what Ed Miliband thinks, we’re not thick. 2015 is the year in which the politician is going to have to venture properly up North. Whether this mystical place is geographical, sociocultural, historic, or just conceptual, any party wanting electoral success needs its seats. Without the Scottish heartlands, Labour needs them more than ever, and we Conservatives, well – for the sake of the country – we just need as many wins as we can get.
So, what is The North? An informal but emotive vox pop (me interrogating everyone I’ve seen up here over the past week) exhibits some contradictions. The boring, ‘Anything above the Watford Gap!’ – offered with the smugness of wannabe originality – is clearly inadequate. As is the typical myopic focus on Manchester – and occasionally Leeds, if it’s lucky. Rather, we enter a fierce world of perception, loyalty, and division. Is the North just the North West, or is the North West not part of the North? Is there such a thing as the Midlands any more? Does each town in the North need an industrial heritage? Is Northumberland a separate Border-Reivery wilderness, or is its hunt-meet-to-pit-village ratio too Southern to count? Can we search out answers by checking dated county boundaries, the Radio Times’ listings of regional TV news variations, or the flatness of indigenous vowels? Cheshire seems a sticking point. As does Lincoln. And, please, don’t mention Birmingham.
I was born in Durham City, and, apart from about five years in Cambridge and London, have lived here all my life. But I don’t have a Northern accent (my dad didn’t, my mum’s is slight, and Radio 4 is a constant in their house). And I don’t really get that Northern pride thing. Not that I don’t love it up here: its variety provides the most beautiful places I know. The triumphal crenellated chain of Alnwick to Dunstanburgh to Bamburgh; the fluorescence of Newcastle’s reborn quayside, facing the acoustically-excellent Sage concert hall, and the old Baltic mill, where the Turner Prize is sometimes housed; the Lawrencian desolation of my nearest beach at Black Hall Rocks (found down an amusingly signposted 39 steps); and, of course, Durham’s winning duumvirate of Norman Cathedral and Castle.
But, to me, all this belongs to something much bigger. The East Coast mainline means I can be in central London in under three hours. With the eventual ‘dualling’ of the A1, I’ll be able drive to Edinburgh in two. The North – whatever it is – is an integral part of a greater whole. There’s nothing wrong with celebrating regional heritage, but the geographical zealot’s desire for definition based on birthplace or current home is surely as unnecessary and divisive as those demographic identities owing solely to gender or age. It can lead both to societal fracture in the form of ghettoisation and social apartheid, and that stereotyped zero-sum faux-egalitarianism we Conservatives are supposed to oppose. People are just as individuated in the North as they are anywhere.
Anyway, times are changing – our globalised world benefits us all. We don’t mourn the restriction of living and working on the same street as our parents. And we don’t blindly inherit their allegiances either; the tribal vote is waning. A 2013 YouGov poll showed the North-South divide over ideology and attitude to be much less significant than usually assumed. Northerners are – incredibly! – like everyone else. In times of economic hardship especially, we care most about those policies which best help our families. Policies to do with finance, jobs, and day-to-day life: simple things like freezing fuel duty, and increasing the personal tax allowance.
With the loss of their old titans – the Roy Hattersleys, Ted Shorts, Harold Wilsons, and even the Tony Blairs – the complacent Labour Party no longer owns the North. Indeed, recent research revealed that ‘Labour has significantly more MPs representing seats in the North than it has MPs born in the North…[and that the] reverse is true for the Conservatives.’
And, in reality, Labour never did reign uncontested up here: we mustn’t be immured by red revisionism. Whilst Thatcher’s spectre still shades the polling booth, the school-leavers blaming their lack of ambition on a dead prime minister are citing those who calculatedly forget the way in which she salvaged the hardest era of modern times. Much of this hatred is new; in 1987, in the North East alone, she won Darlington, Langbaurgh, Tynemouth, Hexham, and Stockton South.
Speaking of Stockton South, the James Wharton Effect confirms Conservative regrowth. ‘Oh, yes – James!’ (as so many of his constituents reply cheerfully when canvassed) is an immensely popular local MP, as well as a well-respected parliamentarian, who more than deserves to hold his highly-marginal seat this year. Guy Opperman continues Peter Atkinson’s loyal work in Hexham. And the formidably impressive Anne-Marie Trevelyan should gain its neighbour, Berwick, now we’re at the end of the Beith years.
By continuing what they’re doing – responsive, localised, considerate social action – we can gain further support here. Being geographically far from metonymic Westminster will always be difficult, but insistent Northern voices are winning a regenerative fix of infrastructure commitment and private investment. Localisation is key, but this really doesn’t demand – as Lord Prescott hilariously suggested in October – a rerun of 2004’s North East Assembly referendum. There’s neither more need nor appetite for this than the 78 per cent strong ‘no’ vote demonstrated a decade ago. Instead, we need to focus on EVEL. The most northerly parts of the North face real losses if England isn’t afforded equal rights when Scotland cashes in its indyref reparations.
But things are looking up, up North – even in the North East, much to the disgust of the vultures depending on despondency for electoral sustenance. Unemployment fell again last quarter, with over 10,000 fewer North-Easterners out of work; we now have an employment rate of 69.4 per cent here (only just under London’s 71.8 per cent). And whilst industry is no longer the British lion of the past, its teeth in the North remain. Nissan (the Sunderland success story, for which Thatcher personally lobbied in the same year as the miners’ strike) will produce its eight millionth car in 2015. The new Hitachi plant should spread this profit to Newton Aycliffe. And our great Northern universities attain world-wide excellence in renewable-energy research, addressing the crucial questions of global warming and energy security.
In times of economic recovery, regional development is a long game, however, and many Northerners are waiting to harvest its hatchling dividends. But George Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse plan shows real long-term commitment, as do HS2 and 3. And the recent reprivatisation of East Coast Rail has proved controversial only to those who forget that public funding comes from their taxes, who don’t want the level of improvements which only private investment can bring, and who ignore that it was the Labour government which set this (and its ridiculously expensive bidding process) in motion in 2008.
But to make genuine inroads for the future here – and gain a substantial vote in May – money and promises aren’t sufficient. Tribalism may be fading, yet there remain so many sensible people in the North to whom the idea of voting Conservative is anathema. My friends who still say, ‘We love you Rebecca, but we couldn’t ever vote Conservative.’ And the only way to win over these people is to continue talking with them. To refuse to laugh when they make anti-Tory jokes. To counter the left-wing rubbish which suggests that conservatism is a rich man’s sinecure. To convince them that we’re the ones offering real kindness by helping people to help themselves, rather than paying them off with dependency culture. By resisting risking the loss of vital centre ground through infighting over Europe, or trying to out-kip UKIP on immigration. And by explaining our policies and achievements clearly and honestly. Instead of playing around with statistics, we need to admit that we haven’t defeated the deficit yet – whilst reminding people that our strategy is working, and that only we can ensure its necessary continuation.
This is how we can win in the North. And – because our differences are the same up here as everywhere – in other places, too.