Chris Grayling is MP for Epsom and Ewell, and Secretary of State for Transport.
Labour heartlands are seldom what you might expect them to be. Time and again over the years, I have found myself knocking on doors in northern cities to find people who come across as more right wing than I am declaring unswerving loyalty to the Labour Party. People who wanted tough action on immigration, who bemoan the welfare culture, who think we should be tough on crime – and then tell me they are committed Labour supporters.
There’s a mood change in our politics. For a century, Labour has survived as a coalition of the Miliband Islington left and the unions and working men’s clubs of the North and the valleys. But that coalition is coming apart at the seams. The warmest receptions I received during the referendum campaign as a Brexit campaigner were in the Welsh valleys and Stoke on Trent. Places that have always voted Labour, but which last week watched their party struggling to work out what on earth it stands for on Brexit.
A government with a clear plan now faces an Opposition which can’t make up its mind. Voters in those Labour heartlands are now represented by a Party they barely recognise. Today’s Labour Party no longer speaks for working Britain.
Never has that been more apparent than on the eve of two by-elections which should be a cake walk for Labour. Labour have had to sweat all the way in Copeland and Stoke on Trent Central, even if they expect to just hang on. It’s obvious that the bond between Labour and its heartlands is fraying at the edges to say the least.
It’s a huge opportunity for us. In the way that Ruth Davidson has led us to Opposition in Scotland, relegating Labour to third place, so the opportunity is clear for us to put them on the back foot in the North of England and their other heartlands.
Two weeks ago, I spoke to a packed dinner organised by the local Chambers of Commerce in Leeds. I found a room of people talking positively about the future and of businesses going from strength to strength. Growth in the North has been happening alongside growth in the South – and has even been stronger than in the south.
Our job is to make sure that growth continues, and to make sure that everyone shares in what is happening. A commitment to the Northern Powerhouse, with investment in transport, in skills and in technologies is one part of what needs to happen. But it’s also about demonstrating to the people of those traditional Labour areas that we care about what happens to them, about their jobs and the rights they enjoy in the workplace and about the environment in which they live.
In my area, transport, the North of England, there are massive investments planned for the coming years. The new Northern rail franchise will bring more jobs, more and longer trains and much better services, along with big infrastructure improvements. There will be better trans-Pennine road links, and a big improvement programme to the motorway and dual carriageway network. And then HS2 and the expansion of regional flights as Heathrow expands will bring a step-change in the connections between the North, the rest of the country and international markets. It means more and better jobs on the roads, at the airports and on rail, and more business success and better jobs elsewhere.
All Labour can offer is a return to the kind of socialism that did so much damage to cities like Liverpool in the 1980s. And finally people in those cities are realising that Labour has nothing to offer them now.
Jack Brereton, the excellent Conservative candidate in this week’s by-election, is a member of a Conservative led council team for Stoke on Trent. It just shows what happens when you focus on delivering positive change for working people.