THE election will be won or lost in the North – David Cameron and William Hague both said so while on the campaign trail in West Yorkshire this week.
Labour needs to win back most, if not all, of the seats across Yorkshire and the North West gained by the Tories at the last election if Ed Miliband is to stand any chance of getting into Number 10, especially given the rout that they are facing in Scotland.
Similarly, if the Conservatives do not hang on to those seats and even win a few more, they will struggle to still be the largest party, let alone win an overall majority.
How are they going to do this? Here are my top 10 tips – not in any particular order:
1. Talk human: When was the last time you met a friend in the supermarket and said “so how’s the long term economic plan working out for you?” or last described yourselves as “a hard working family”. These soundbites might sound clever when being dreamt up in Whitehall, but the party should use language people relate to.
2. Optimism: It’s been a tough few years for people in the North. Now, they read about the corner being turned and consumer confidence is up, even if people are not exactly feeling flushed. The party needs a campaign based on optimism, giving people hope of better times ahead. Leave the doom and gloom to Labour and Ukip.
3. Closing the North-South divide: The Conservatives have shown more interest in reviving the Northern economy over the last year than Labour did in its whole 13 years of government. The Tories have pledged a revolution in transport links and support for the huge potential of Northern cities to close the North-South divide. They need to convince people that this is actually going to happen with firm timetables and assurances on funding.
4. More power to the North: Again, the Conservatives are doing more to give the North the power to run its own affairs than any government has done in generations. This needs to be built on with more devolution to Combined Authorities representing the urban areas, but rural areas should also be given similar powers. The party is right, though, to insist that full accountability is required through elected Mayors and should highlight that it is Labour council leaders who are resisting this purely to defend their own political self-interests.
5. Get back into the cities: There are 124 parliamentary seats in cities in the North and Midlands. Of these the Conservatives hold just 20. Given that it is in the inner cities where there are the largest social problems, the Conservatives’ achievements in taking more people off benefits and getting them into work and cutting taxes for the lowest paid should be the start of a concerted effort to win back support in inner city areas.
6. Work with minority communities: Linked to this, is the Conservatives’ improving, but still poor, record in winning votes amongst minority communities. The solution is at the local level; the party has the right messages but they will not be listened to if there is no real engagement.
7. Health: Labour’s promises of more money for public services without saying where the money is coming from are insulting the intelligence of voters. The Conservatives need to keep ramming home the message that the more money created through a growing economy, the more that can be spent on health, education and other public services. The greatest risk to the NHS is letting Labour in to mess up the economy again.
8. Immigration: The party needs to show it understands the genuine concerns of people about the impact of immigration. It has acted to cut the number of people coming from outside the EU by 25 per cent since Labour’s uncontrolled immigration. It has to be straight with people and not make unrealistic targets, but set out a firm programme for reducing the number.
9. Values matter more than figures: For many people across the North, there is a generational history of not voting Conservative. This has led Labour to take voters for granted and they have had precious little benefit from continually re-electing them – look at Rotherham. Accompanying the real attention being given to boosting the Northern economy, it is the sentiment and values demonstrated by the Tories that have to appeal as much as policies and statistics. They need to show they understand how difficult life has been, and continues to be, for many still looking for work or trying to get by on low incomes. They need to show they get it and the party is genuinely on their side.
10. All politics is local: As well as electing a Prime Minister, voters, particularly in the North, want an MP who is going to stand up for their community and make a difference – even if it means going against their party. It is where Conservative candidates can prove to people that they are fully in touch with local issues and will be effective in dealing with them that they will stand the most chance of being elected.
Geoff Lawler was Conservative MP for Bradford North from 1983 to 1987.