Michael Dugher: Tories still don’t understand the needs of the North

A NEW campaign has been launched this month by a group of Conservative MPs, which, according to the co-ordinator David Skelton, will try to “overcome the widespread perception that the party stand for the rich and big business, not ordinary people”.

The apparent aim of this new campaign is transform the Tories’ image, and to reach out in particular to areas of the country, including the North of England, where David Cameron knows he is struggling for support. But given this Government’s recent record, it’s not their image which needs to change, it’s their policies.

The truth is David Cameron, and many inside his Government, just don’t get the North – and when you look at their policies since 2010, and what is happening in northern regions, it shows. George Osborne once famously said “we’re all in this together”, but the reality is how much you are really “in it” depends greatly on where you happen to live.

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Long-term youth unemployment, for example, is a major problem across the whole of the country, but it is now at crisis levels in the North. The number of young people who have been claiming jobseekers’ allowance for more than 12 months in the south east has increased by a worrying 111 per cent in the last three years. But this figure is 216 per cent in Yorkshire and a massive 513 per cent in the North East.

At the same time, while it is true that all local authorities are facing cuts, councils in poorer areas – mostly in the North – are being disproportionally hit. This is because their revenue from council tax and business rates is less, which means they are inevitably more reliant on central government funding. The result is that poorer councils – who, of course, have higher needs – are finding it increasingly difficult to deliver vital public services.

But this is not the worst of it. Communities facing the biggest hits due to local government funding are also losing most from cuts to the tax credits and other benefits which were helping make work pay. The North East is the worst hit area overall, with cuts amounting to £566 per head. Yorkshire and the Humber is the fourth most hit region, with cuts adding up to £421 per head.

In the South East, the least affected region, the combined impact of local government and welfare changes is just £292 per head.

In 2010, David Cameron said he would not make cuts that would divide the country or hurt those we need to help the most. But in his local authority of West Oxfordshire – one of the least deprived areas is the country – the combined impact of local government and welfare changes is just £240. In contrast, this is more than double – £570 – in Barnsley.

All of this exacerbates the broader inequalities that exist in our country.

The latest NHS local health profiles, for example, show that 25 per cent of children under 16 in Barnsley are living in poverty, whereas this figure is 11 per cent in Surrey.

The TUC has also said that life expectancy in deprived areas of the UK is increasing at half the pace of the wealthiest parts of London and the south of England.

This means that people living in many poorer parts of Yorkshire can expect their retirement to be a lot shorter than those from more affluent parts of the UK.

As the North continues to pay a disproportionately higher price for the Government’s economic failure and unfairness, the Government is pitching one part of the country against another – the divide and rule politics of the old Conservative Party that David Cameron promised he would change. As Ed Miliband has said, what we need instead is a One Nation approach to build an economy that works for the whole country – the north and south, the squeezed middle and those in poverty, the public and private sectors, and industry and small businesses.

Many parts of Yorkshire desperately need this One Nation approach. What they don’t need is a Tory party in denial, relying on just another make-over. Ultimately, the Government will be judged on their policies and on their record.

• Michael Dugher is MP for Barnsley East, Vice-Chair of the Labour Party and Shadow Minister without Portfolio.