AS David Cameron contemplates the start of the Conservative Party conference, what’s on his mind? Iraq, Syria, interest rates, the state of the Union? And, of course, the North. He certainly has his challenges, but our region is up there with the biggest and most difficult. How can he win back the Yorkshire vote?
I’ll spare you the psephological details. It’s enough to say that the North is a very big place and we shouldn’t generalise. We have constituencies which are as naturally Tory as any safe Home Counties berth. William Hague’s seat, Richmond, for example, has been blue since 1910. However, it is clear to anyone with half an interest in politics that the Conservatives will find it hard to secure enough support across the North of England to ensure an overall majority at next year’s General Election.
There’s not much time to waste, just eight short months, so I’ll cut to the chase. I’ll tell him straight, because that’s what Northerners do.
First though, I say “win back”. Time does funny things in politics. It’s hard to believe now, but I remember when people I never thought would vote Tory in a million years were tempted by the new brand of Conservatism that Cameron offered.
Friends whose fathers had been thrown out of work in the Yorkshire coalfields in the 1980s actually thought that Margaret Thatcher’s successor was a decent bloke. What he stood for – supporting the family, hard work and decency – chimed with their own values. It was a shock to find that this Eton and Oxford-educated “toff” appeared to understand their way of life. He needs to remember what he said then, and remind us why we liked him for it.
Unfortunately though, we can’t ignore the public-school bunfight that Cameron now presides over on his front bench. This has nothing to do with policy. It’s personality. And it would be crass and counter-productive for the Tory leader and his cohorts to portray themselves as “men of the people”, so I hope they don’t try. Remember the Prime Minister’s cringe-worthy attempts to prove “we are all in together”, the Easyjet flights, pasty-gate? You know what I mean without me having to embarrass him further. Likewise, he should play down his more esoteric ideas about renewable energy and so on. Too often, these come across as privileged dinner party ramblings and have limited public appeal, as the fiasco over the Green Deal proved.
It doesn’t wash, as we say in Yorkshire. It especially doesn’t wash with women, a problem area for the Prime Minister in all respects. He can brag about his “date nights” with Sam all he likes, but few of us will forget his patronising Parliamentary put-down of Labour’s Angela Eagle with “calm down dear”.
He can talk about maternity rights, flexible working and the rest, but he might as well talk to the wall at the back of the conference hall if we don’t trust him. He’s certainly got his work cut out with us lot. As a general piece of advice, though, I’d tell him to stop attempting to appease for past mistakes. No woman likes a man who tries too hard.
Sadly, there isn’t much he can do about the personalities. So he should concentrate on the policies. He needs to put immigration at the top of his list. It is dividing communities across the region, but it unites people of all political persuasions. We haven’t got space here to ponder why Ed Miliband chose to skirt around it at his own party conference last week, but his omission was a massive strategic blunder.
If Cameron is not to lose support to Ukip, he has to take a tough stance. He has to find a way of proving that he understands the concerns of ordinary people who find their towns changing before their eyes, who witness their hospitals, schools and social services creaking under pressure.
And jobs. Here too, he has to combine both empathy and hard reality. We’re told that unemployment is falling month on month, yet walk around many of our towns and cities on a weekday afternoon and the evidence before our eyes suggests a very different picture.
There are two strands to this; encouraging regional investment to create jobs for people to take on, and tackling the culture of worklessness and benefit-dependency which still prevails in so many pockets of our region. I’d like him to talk about how he might go about devolving economic prosperity and encouraging private investment in the North. And I’d also like him to flag up the success of his government’s apprenticeship scheme. Not only does this prove that much has been achieved in the past five years, it gives both employers and young people confidence that something can be done.
Yes, something can be done. That should be the big message he puts across in Birmingham this week – both for his own party’s chances and for the country as a whole. If he can pull that one off, he might have a fighting chance of winning us back.