Monday, 9 July 2012

Change to Win - the challenge in the North

This summer I am taking on a big tour of the North. I will broadly be following the path of the Pennine Way, talking to voters, and listening to their concerns. I hope to find out what the Conservatives are doing right by the North, and also what we're getting wrong. There will be more about the walk on the blog in the next few weeks.

In a similar strand of thought the Journal's Regional Affairs reporter Adrian Pearson wrote a piece last week on my attempts to do things a bit differently as a Conservative MP up here in the North East. I hope he won't mind me reproducing it below:

Opperman’s approach can help the Tories make progress
 - The Journal 30/6/12

"North East Conservatives are a most curious creature. Bracketed with generic "Northern Conservatives", they are counted as a branch of the party which can make gains in Yorkshire and North West. But the North East is Labour in its industrial areas and Berwick is loyal to Sir Alan Beith. So over the last 15 years the party has had to talk big but accept reality.

Eric Pickles, now a secretary of state, came to Tynemouth in the run-up to the 2010 General Election and boldly admitted that "if we can’t win here the party has made no progress at all." Have a look at North Tyneside and it is clear that progress has a long way to go. Elected Conservative mayor Linda Arkley is in for quite a battle in 2013.

Council elections last month saw her long-serving group leader lose his seat. The party is paying heavily and really there will only be national issues in the minds of voters when they head to polls in this election. Worse, there is no election in Newcastle next year, which means all eyes will be on North Tyneside as one of the few newsworthy stories.

Despite this mayor Arkley isn’t backing down. She’s sought and accepted the nomination to be the candidate – a post which one imagines few would contest. If she survives, the party will be galvanised and ready for a fight two years later. If she loses, few will notice.
Guy Opperman will be watching you can imagine. Which is odd, because the Hexham MP has things fairly safe. Northumberland isn’t about to kick out it’s Tory MP any time soon. Mr Opperman however, appears not to have noticed he has a relatively safe seat. He has rocked the boat twice already- in ways that in others would indicate a fight for their political lives.

First, on calls for a mansion tax to hit high earners. Mostly those are high earners in the South East and not votes he needs to win, but enough of a rebellion to upset some. A far bigger upset came after his comments to this newspaper on regional pay. Mr Opperman did not back down after becoming the first to criticise George Osborne’s plans to hit Northern public sector wages.

Instead this week he made a speech in defiance of his critics, both those within the part and those nationally. Included were a few lines which explain Mr Opperman’s increasing role as the Tory’s main man in the region. He said; ‘We need to be a one nation coalition and our focus should not shine too brightly on London and the South East. We should represent all the people in our constituencies, from the dinner lady to the gentleman who employs 200 people. It is not an exclusive either/or matter.’

Increasingly Labour in the North will find it difficult to challenge this sort of Conservative. His campaigns on fuel poverty and his rebellion on pay are part of a modern Tory image which moves the party away from the right-wing perception yesteryear. When Lee Martin attempted to take the Sunderland Central seat in 2010 he would occasionally be met with shouts of ‘’Thatcher’s man’’ by those who think engaging in politics involves idiotic slogans being shouted loudly.

In a slightly less confrontational way, the same claims have been made against Mr Opperman. They will not stick. Mr Opperman was 10 years old when Mrs Thatcher came to power. His youth and young adult years were those of New Labour’s rise to power and he didn’t join the Conservative party until he was 30. The MP said this week his party has to think about a way of winning back the North.

Mr Opperman’s non-tribal approach is perhaps the best lesson the party could learn. His attempts to break through the left-right divide will serve his party well, but only if the Conservatives can put the resources behind that message in 2015."

You can follow Adrian on twitter at @adrianpearson