Coal fields

The image above was among the most-shared on Twitter after last week’s election. Yes, it’s crude (and Mike Bird and Duncan Weldon have taken issue with it), but it is definitely the case that the old coalfields are one of the key remaining bastions of Labour support outside London.

That’s an indictment of successive Conservative leaderships, to an extent. The Thatcher Government had no choice other than to fight and win the struggles of the 1980s, but it did have a choice about how to address the problems of the former coalfields once those struggles were won. Too often, perhaps as a result of the sheer intensity and bitterness of the strikes, the decision seems to have been to not to do all that much.

There were some exceptions, where attempts were made to replace the old industries which had been lost. The Nissan factory in Sunderland was built because Thatcher offered tax breaks and favourable land prices to the company to come to the UK. Thirty years on, it makes more cars than Italy and employs 6,000 people.

But elsewhere, the people living in the former pit villages (and shipyard towns and cities) continue to pay the price of the failure to heal the wounds of the 1980s. The Conservatives continue to lose out at the ballot box, too.

Now is the time to begin to set that right. We should establish Enterprise Zones targeted at each of the old coalfields, with sizeable tax exemptions for employers establishing themselves there and for employees entering work there.

It would be the right thing to do – a magnanimous step to publicly begin to set right the damage left by the battles of the ’80s. Communities and lives would be improved in exactly the way Conservatives believe – through enterprise and work – instead of being put on indefinite hold as Labour prefer, through the welfare trap. People in these communities need and deserve the chance to improve their own lives, just like anyone else. How better to act on both the aims of the Northern Economic Powerhouse and the principles of One Nation Toryism?

But there are good political reasons to do it, too.

Consider the words of Lord Ashcroft in his presentation to our conference on Monday:

“…voters for whom choosing the best Prime Minister was the single most important factor chose the Conservatives by a landslide. The same is true among those for whom the biggest priority was choosing the most competent government. But among voters for whom the single biggest driver was the parties’ motives and values, Labour pipped it. In other words, “competence voters” went with the Tories and “values voters”, albeit by a smaller margin, went with Labour. For me, this prompts the thought: why can’t we have both?”

It is undeniable that despite our recent victory many people doubt or actively fear Conservative motives. There has been detailed analysis of some of these groups – younger voters, ethnic minority voters, urban voters, public sector voters – but little attention has been paid to the old mining communities, one of the most pronounced strongholds of anti-Conservative feeling.

Radical action targeted at such groups of voters will never be an instant political fix, and it would be foolish to expect any policy to dispel deep-seated suspicion and dislike overnight. The only route is to do something so radical, so unexpected and so surprising that it begins – just begins – to win you the right to be reconsidered. That wouldn’t be done with the expectation of new votes tomorrow, next year or even in a decade, but it would offer at least a chance to reset our relationship with large numbers of voters over the long term.

It would be a direct challenge to Labour’s dominance in some of its heartlands. Would its MPs welcome such action, conceding that Tories aren’t all evil after all, or would they try to fight it, placing party colours above the best interests of their constituents? Either way, it would be revealing.

The election results in the lands once ruled by King Coal mask a structural weakness on Labour’s part. Old loyalties are breaking down (eroded by disinterested and distant “representatives”, agendas that seem irrelevant to local voters and a tendency to take people for granted, as in the 2004 Regional Assembly Referendum in the North East), but no-one else has stepped into the gap, leaving Labour still winning but on lower turnouts. The beneficiaries so far have largely been “Did not vote” and, in some places, UKIP.

Last week’s result provides a triple opportunity – to hasten the recovery for some of the poorest people in the country, to devastate the Labour Party on its own turf and to recast the reputation of Conservatism in Britain. Let’s do all three by acting in a way our opponents least expect.