Why it might not be so grim Up North for the Conservatives

Gareth Milner

Depending on who you question, there could be any number of reasons as to why the Conservatives are perceived to perform poorly in the north of England. Answers may range from historical issues concerning mining communities, to the belief that we are nothing more than posh toffs who don’t know how much a pint of milk costs.

If you look at information provided by the Electoral Commission, it seems that as of the 2010 general election not all is grim up north. In North West and North East England, constituency results show that significant numbers of Conservative voters exist.

In this case ‘significant’ means 1.32 million Conservative votes to Labour’s 1.8 million (not forgetting of course the Liberal Democrats at 988,000). When considering only the votes of the largest parties, the share breaks down as Lab 44%, Con 32% and Lib Dems 24%.

If a week is a long time in politics, a whole year must be an eternity. The five years between elections in 2010 and 2015 will see the political landscape change significantly. Even if things remain broadly familiar on the surface, those subtle nuances will almost certainly cause headaches amongst campaign managers from every party. The image of the Conservative Party as nasty/posh continues to endure. It is this very image of the Party that causes the biggest issues.

Polling has suggested that a larger percentage of people support the removal of the spare room subsidy than would have been suspected. It also suggests that there is reasonable support for the overall cap on benefits as well. So if the image problem was solved, would an increasing presence of small “c” conservatism (yes, even in the north of England) become an asset to the Conservative Party?

The party is in a Catch-22 situation: it will remain consistently hard to appeal in the north if high calibre individuals have nowhere to be successful. Even if the hierarchy of the Conservative Party suddenly turned entirely northern and working class, it would make little difference. The Party could be as northern and as supportive of the working class as it wanted, but the electorate want more than that. What good is a high profile northerner if they’re not amongst the north? Something the Party needs to work on.

Hope is not lost. Perhaps the most effective weapon will be one of time. The onus shouldn’t be purely on that of the Party, it needs to be the very northern folk who have to push hard. If it becomes too much of a top down exercise, people will refuse to see it as organic and will neither trust nor accept it. The key change will be when “Task Force Tory” stops operating as an insurgency against the overwhelming forces of the Labour party in the north.

Whilst widely dismissed as a bit of a waffler, Russell Brand did at least have a point in terms of people wanting a revolution. Change for the sake of change is not good, but mixing things up every now and again can’t harm things, it keeps us all on our toes. In the areas of the North where Labour are strong, it’s not just the political party that is a concern.

Wherever Labour is strong, you’re sure to find the unions not too far behind. In some cases you might even say that the unions lead the way. Some see the combination of Labour and trade unions as very dangerous, especially when both have for so long had excellent political freedom of movement in the north. Some people may even welcome challenges to this ingrained political nepotism.

Activity to increase support in the north, needs to be more about appealing to the mind and not the heart of a person. The 1.32 million Conservative voters in the north would certainly appreciate a greater focus, though certainly not as some form of pity case. No matter how big a number 1.32 million is, it isn’t anywhere near as big as it could be.

It’s not completely grim up north for the Conservatives, but the solution is not a quick fix. Rush and it will fail. Any increase in membership and success in the north, mustn’t be whisked away to help the heartlands, it would need to be reinvested back in the north. Thing’s won’t be easy, but who likes doing things because they’re easy? Many enjoy doing things because they’re worthwhile.

Lord Carr’s death marks the passing of a political age

Nik Darlington 11.03am

Lord Carr, the last surviving member of the Conservative party’s talented 1950 intake, has died aged ninety-five.

Robert Carr was one of the founders of the Tory Reform Group in 1975, along with Peter Walker, who also passed away recently in 2010.

Lord Carr was a successful industrialist, Cabinet minister, leader of the Conservative party and a long-serving Wimbledon tennis umpire. But he is perhaps best known for his time as Employment Secretary during Ted Heath’s premiership, when the controversial Industrial Relations Act prompted protests and a “Kill the Bill” campaign (sound familiar?) from the powerful trade unions. The Telegraph's obituary tells the tumultuous tale well:

The Industrial Relations Bill was Carr’s magnum opus. Labour fought it tooth-and-nail, with Barbara Castle leading the attack — her own proposals [In Place of Strife] forgotten. It was the unions rather than the Labour leadership which opposed reform, but as the unions financed the party and many of its MPs, they held the whip hand. Carr was reasonableness itself in insisting that his reforms would take confrontation out of the workplace, but the Bill both coincided with and fuelled an upsurge in union militancy.

Just after its publication in December 1970, a bomb damaged the basement of Carr’s department in St James’s Square. Then two more exploded at his Georgian home at Hadley Green, Barnet. The first of these — which Carr spotted as it “flared” — blew in the front door; the second wrecked the kitchen. (A third device failed to detonate.) Carr, his wife and their younger daughter were shaken but unhurt. The bombings were the work of the anarchist and largely middle-class Angry Brigade, five of whom were eventually imprisoned for 10 to 15 years.

By the time the Bill became law in August 1971, a poisonous atmosphere ensured that it would largely be a dead letter. Few dared apply it, and when it was invoked the results were catastrophic.

A commonplace ignorance is that Ted Heath was soft on industrial relations and only the ferrous fortitude of Mrs Thatcher could break the unions. In reality, Heath was if anything too radical and tried to do too much at once (sometimes this seems a good lesson for the coalition); Thatcher learned from Heath’s mistake and held back from hitting the unions with a sledgehammer, preferring instead to chip away with a chisel. Sometimes, ennui trumps enthusiasm.

In 1972, Carr became Home Secretary, where he became convinced that prison was “the most expensive and least effective way of deterring or reforming”, a way of thinking that even today, with the prison population at record levels, Britain is still struggling to come round to.

And in 1975, he loyally stuck with Heath during the party leadership contest. When Heath lost the first ballot, he appointed Carr as the acting party leader until the second vote, which was won by Mrs Thatcher. At only one week, Robert Carr’s was perhaps the shortest tenure as leader of the Conservative party, but it was by no means the least deserving.

Tim Crockford, the TRG chairman, said this morning:

"We are all saddened to hear of the passing of Lord Carr. Robert Carr was a founding member of the modern TRG in 1975 and a long standing supporter of the group. Lord Carr had many great achievements in business and politics and remained throughout his life a true ‘one nation’ conservative. He believed passionately that politics was about service. He will be much missed."

He is survived by his wife and two daughters, to whom we give our thoughts and prayers. Lord Carr’s death means not just the passing of fond memories, but the passing of a political age.

Northern Exposure: One Nation Conservatism is key to gaining the North

Kris Hopkins MP 12.14pm

My abiding memories of the 2001 and 2005 General Election campaigns, in which I stood in Leeds West and Halifax respectively, were our party’s strong messages on Europe, immigration and crime.

But while we were talking about these important areas of policy, the public were talking about health, education and elderly care. We were out of step and we paid for it when the votes were counted.

The centre ground of British politics is undoubtedly where elections are won and lost. And while we must certainly have well-defined and properly articulated positions on policy areas traditionally associated with the centre-right, it is equally vital that we talk with equal passion about subjects the left have sought to dominate.

I am one of the first generation of Conservatives to serve under a Tory Prime Minister who has repeatedly articulated his unbending personal commitment to the National Health Service. People like me, who have only ever received health provision through the NHS, remain wedded to the principle that services should remain free at the point of delivery. But that does not mean we should not challenge the actual methods of delivery and demand higher productivity and higher quality than we experienced through thirteen years of failed and wasteful Labour government.

We must stress the value of education and, through the Academies policy and the free schools initiative, give parents and schools the chance to address educational failures of the state and support them in assisting their children to reach their maximum potential. The left has long-attempted to lead this conversation but their over-emphasis on increasing university places at the expense of other opportunities, and their steadfast belief that the nanny state knows best have significantly diminished schools’ respect for their misguided doctrines.

Historically, there has been something of a conflict between the Conservative party and public sector workers. And we must do what we can to move beyond this and better demonstrate the value we place on the jobs done on behalf of us all.

This must involve better engagement with public sector workers. We are operating in an era of huge financial constraints, and trade union leaders will continue to seek opportunities to attack us.

But we should not divorce ourselves from recognising the commitment of public sector workers and the vital roles they play in our community. It is right to be concerned for their welfare and to seek to ensure they receive the best possible pay and conditions. But these discussions must also reflect the requirement to manage the public finances responsibly and for the longer term.

We must be confident that being an advocate of the principles of One Nation Conservatism does not place us on the periphery. Quite the opposite, in fact.

And we must work to engage our party membership and, in particular, our councillors to make clear to all who will listen that we do care about the NHS, we want our children to have the best possible education, we value our excellent public services and, yes, that a robust immigration policy remains a component part of a far-reaching, attractive Conservative agenda.

Kris Hopkins was elected MP for Keighley & Ilkley in May 2010.

This article first appeared in longer form as an essay in the Autumn 2011 edition of the TRG’s Reformer journal.

The ghosts of Keynes and Brown are alive and well in Her Majesty’s Treasury

David Cowan 6.00am

The dust has settled on the Autumn Statement.
George Osborne has stuck to his original spending plans but abandoned his 2014-15 target for eliminating the structural budget deficit.
Instead there will be further 0.9 per cent cuts in real terms to current expenditure during 2015-16 and 2016-17. Over the seven year period public expenditure will fall by 16.2 per cent in real terms.
This means that during the Conservatives will be going to the country in 2015 with the pledge to cut an extra £116 billion over two years.

These are dangerous and unpredictable times. It is especially worrying when the OBR’s gloomy forecasts are based on the optimistic assumption that the Eurozone will survive its sovereign debt crisis.
The two year extension of the deficit reduction plan is also based on the complacent assumption that the Conservatives will still be in power in 2015. George Osborne should have refuted this complacent attitude and repositioned his fiscal policy in a credible manner, as by the 2012 Budget we could be living in a very different world without the Euro and the onset of another global recession, if not a depression.
A more credible fiscal policy would have been a reaffirmation of the commitment to eliminate structural budget deficit by 2014-15 by announcing some preliminary spending reductions which would go towards paying back the debt, such as scrapping the £34 billion ‘white elephant’ High Speed Rail 2 project (something Nik has blogged repeatedly about on these pages) and stop the £113 million going to trade unions every year (see Craig here), but then also say that further detailed spending reductions would be announced in the 2012 Budget with explicit aim of implementing the £216 billion cuts before 2015-16.
This course of action would allow new spending plans to be formulated in response to developments in the Eurozone. There is a need for further spending reductions if the coalition is going to put Britain back on track, keep borrowing costs and long term interest rates low, and maintain our perceived safe haven status.
However, George Osborne’s plan can only work if the economy starts growing again. The Autumn Statement was an opportunity for radical action but instead we got a ‘Brownite’ flurry of statistics and a plethora of small initiatives for ‘credit easing’, the Regional Growth Fund, and a ‘youth contract’.  All of which amounts to well over £10 billion at a time when we are adding another £145 billion to the national debt.
These schemes will waste taxpayers’ money on new bureaucracies and inefficiently re-allocate resources towards unproductive sectors of the economy. George Osborne has weighted his growth strategy too heavily towards a Keynesian style stimulus based on state intervention and cheap credit. He needs to bring the focus back towards supply side reform.
There are seeds of hope with the delay of the 3p increase in fuel duty, the aim to integrate the operation of income tax and national insurance contributions, the consultation on abolishing national pay bargaining, public sector pension reform, the liberalisation of employment legislation, and a more flexible planning system.
However, George Osborne could have been more radical. Indeed it would not be going so far as to say that it is essential for the future of the British economy that the Chancellor pursues this route instead of issuing headline grabbing micro-initiatives.
The ghosts of Keynes and Brown are well and truly alive in Her Majesty’s Treasury.
Follow David on Twitter @david_cowan

The strikes are wrong, but Conservatives mustn’t ignore the fears of the public sector

Giles Marshall 7.50am

For the first time in over twenty years, the school I teach in will be hit by industrial action today.

About half of its teachers, my colleagues, will be sacrificing a day’s pay to make their protest against the whittling away of their promised pension.

None of them are natural activists. All of them are dedicated professionals who will not have taken the decision to lose a day’s teaching lightly.

And, of course, as we all know, they are not alone. Across the full panoply of public services, strike action is taking place, often at considerable inconvenience to others. The strike is wrong and misconceived, but it is important to understand why now, of all times, it has generated such extraordinary support.

There will be no shortage of Conservatives happy to accept that the strike action is wrong. Their opinions will range from the slightly head-banging approach that tars all public servants as time wasters and scheisters in overly secure jobs for limited working hours who wouldn’t know a day’s real work if it came and blatted them across the face, to those who believe public servants have a genuine grievance but have chosen completely the wrong method at completely the wrong time. As a state school teacher who is working today, I fall – not surprisingly – into the latter group.

I do not waver in my belief that the strike action is not only altogether mistaken, but that it also severely harms the reputation and image of public servants. At a time when those in the private sector are suffering job insecurity, frozen or reduced incomes and all the hardships that come with a lengthy economic recession, the image of the state’s workers downing tools and parading through cities to demand that more of the private sector’s cash should be invested in our pensions is jarring indeed.

That we have jobs with a hefty level of security, and that we have pension pots which, no matter how reduced, still exist and to which we pay only a proportion of the actual contributions, are all factors which striking public sector workers have put too readily to the back of their minds.

At best, my colleagues are guilty of naivety. At worst, they are reminiscent of the most blinkered of the Greek protestors who felt that it was possible to maintain a hugely generous state payment system without regard to the state’s actual wealth.

A feature of the pension that teachers and others have ignored is that they contribute barely 10 per cent towards it. The contrast with the private sector – or parts of it at any rate – will be seen tomorrow at my school. While some of my colleagues are striking to improve their state funded pension arrangements, the builders constructing a new classroom block will be in at their usual early hour to carry on with the work of construction. In the construction industry today, you don’t lightly surrender the work that you have.

However, having established why the strike is erroneous, it is also important to know that the reasons behind it are not without serious foundation. Not for nothing has this action encouraged thousands of hitherto mild public sector workers out on strike.

The comparisons with the private sector – unhealthily mythologised in some parts of the Tory party – wear thin. It is the private sector, and notably its banking arm, that has got us into this mess in the first place.

While the hitherto contractually agreed pension arrangements of public sector workers have been ransacked by the government to help shore up its faltering economics, the rate of vast private sector bonuses and rewards continues unabated, even in those banks which might be seen as the cause of all the trouble. It isn’t easy for a public sector worker on a comparatively low income watching all of this to understand why their pension pot should be reduced but the inflated salaries and bonuses of bankers and corporate chiefs should continue unabated.

If the strike is wrong, but the concerns of public sector workers are not without foundation, what then has gone so awry in the body politic as to bring back a level of state disruption which we thought had disappeared in the 80s?

The issue seems to be, at least in part, one of serious lack of communication from the government, coupled with a lack of empathy for the public sector (most leading Conservative figures have made their way in the various manifestations of the private sector, whether it is party bureaucracies, family companies or self-built businesses).

The failure to communicate the real value of the public sector pension is a first base error; I suspect few of today’s strikers really appreciate this. The failure to hold out some sort of reform of the private sector financial industry is another. Public sector workers could more readily accept the mantra that “we’re all in it together” if there was a more serious effort on the part of government to show that that in fact is the case.

David Cameron and George Osborne will not be seriously hurt by today’s action – at least not politically, whatever alternative arrangements they may have had to make for their children’s schooling today. But if they want to head off a long, simmering dispute with their huge public sector, they need to avoid the temptation to succumb to the public sector bashing that exists in our party, and try and engage constructively with the large number of public employees who genuinely do undertake their jobs as a commitment to service and are looking for some sign that they are not simply deficit fodder.

The strike is wrong-headed certainly; but that doesn’t mean the fears of the public sector should be ignored.

Giles Marshall is head of politics at a London grammar school. Follow Giles on Twitter @gilesmarshall

Why the Left should love Margaret Thatcher

Paul Abbott 11.36am

With a new film out, some brickbats will be thrown. But forget the myths. Margaret Thatcher was actually one of the most sensible Prime Ministers we have ever been lucky enough to have.

Imagine a drafty auditorium hall in London. It is 1975. A female trade union member is speaking. She has just been elected as the first female leader of a mainstream political party - against the odds, in the face of opposition from the right-wing press. Now she is addressing a movement called the Conservative Trade Unionists (CTU).

This woman is a progressive, a firebrand Member of Parliament: one of only a handful of MPs to support Leo Abse’s bid to legalise homosexuality, or to vote in favour of David Steel’s Bill to legalise abortion.

Considered left-wing by many, this is what Margaret Thatcher had to say to her trade union comrades:

“As you well know, for over 100 years, ever since Disraeli’s day, since before the Labour Party existed, it has been the belief of the Conservative Party that the law should not only permit, but that it should assist, the trades unions to carry out their legitimate function of protecting their members…

It is not just for the benefit of this Party—it is for the benefit of the trades union movement, and of the whole country, that those of reason and moderation should be as active and determined in union affairs as are the extremists.”

Margaret Thatcher is often remembered in crude and simplistic terms. But consider the facts. The truth is more subtle:

1. Thatcher believed in the state school system. As Education Secretary, in the early 1970s, she hugely increased the number of pupils at comprehensive schools from 32 per cent to 62 per cent. In 1971, at the very first opportunity, she increased funding for state schools, saying: “The substantial replacement and improvement of primary school buildings will be continued. Grants to direct grant schools will be increased. Provision for higher and further education will be improved and expanded.”

2. Thatcher believed in public spending. Her first act as Prime Minister, on her very first day in office, was to increase the wages of rank-and-file police officers. Over ten years, she raised NHS spending in real terms - up 32 per cent. Social security spending - up 32 per cent. Employment and training spending - up 33 per cent. And she paid for it all with a ‘Robin Hood Tax’, by taxing North Sea Oil at 90 per cent - something that is too left-wing these days even for the Labour party frontbench these days.

3. Thatcher campaigned for women’s rights. As Prime Minister, she toughened guideline sentencing for rape; put extra money into the NHS for tackling breast cancer and cervical cancer; and hugely expanded the numbers of women both in work, and at university.

Margaret Thatcher is a divisive figure. She had an ear for the rabble-rousing phrase. But the truth is, she did more to advance the NHS, state education, and women’s rights than almost anyone else in the 1970s and 1980s. That is why the Left - indeed, anyone with a progressive bone in their body - should love Margaret Thatcher.

Paul Abbott works for a Conservative MP in Parliament, and tweets at @Paul_T_Abbott

Back Boris Again for a Better London

David Cowan 6.00am

In six months Boris Johnson and Ken Livingstone face the defining political contest of 2012. Mr Livingstone has tried to make the Mayoral election about the coalition’s spending cuts, while Boris has put forward an optimistic vision for London’s future.
It is essential that Boris Johnson and the Conservatives hold onto London. Ken Livingstone represents everything that is wrong about the Labour party, with his cronyism, support for oppressive dictators, racist slander, patronage of hate preachers and backing the corrupt administration in Tower Hamlets.
A torrid series of shameful offences, of which more can be read about here. His record as London Mayor was appalling. This video clearly demonstrates how he put increasing pressure on the living standards of ordinary Londoners by increasing Council Tax by 153 per cent and introducing the western congestion zone charge.
Ken Livingstone has no strong idea of how he is going to change London and actually said earlier this year that he would reveal his policies the day after the election! Ken Livingstone has been more concerned about scoring points against the Government and than actually coming up with solutions to London’s problems, as shown by his preposterous claim that the coalition’s spending cuts caused the riots last August.
Another term of Ken Livingstone as Mayor will only be a repetition of the broken promises, public waste, rising living costs, corruption and division of his eight years as Mayor.
By contrast, Boris Johnson has been able to deliver on the five pledges he made in 2008. His most significant achievement has been to make London safer than it ever was under Ken Livingstone. The crime rate has fallen by 9.4% per cent, robberies have fallen by 21 per cent, youth violence has fallen by 15 per cent, the murder rate is at its lowest since 1978 and there will be 1 million police patrols on the streets of London in 2012.
However, this strong record on crime has been tarnished by the August riots and will sound hollow to those whose property was destroyed. Boris Johnson must continue to show that he is on the side of hard working majority of Londoners against the criminal minority who chose out of greed to tear apart of the fabric of their communities.
Another key achievement has been the start of the largest investment programme to upgrade the London Underground, which will increase capacity by 30 per cent, and is being sustainably funded by £7.6 billion worth of efficiency savings. He has also managed to secure a £600 million bond issue from Lloyds TSB to fund the new Crossrail project, which will increase capacity by 10 per cent.
And let’s not forget the now famous ‘Boris Bikes’ scheme funded by Barclays, the reversal of Mr Livingstone’s Western Extension of the Congestion Charge Zone and the revival of the iconic Routemaster buses.
However, Boris’ toughest opponents in the struggle for a high quality and low cost infrastructure will be the RMT and other unions, which is why he must hold his nerve against the ‘fat cat’ union barons, like Bob Crow, and stick up for the ordinary Londoners who use public transport every day.
As Mayor of London, Boris Johnson has shown his commitment to a better and brighter future for the greatest city in the world. Londoners understand this, as a recent YouGov poll has shown: Boris Johnson is enjoying a 15 point lead over Ken Livingstone despite the August riots, but Labour still has a 22 point lead over the Conservatives.
While it is essential that Boris Johnson stays in City Hall it is also important that a strong Conservative presence remains in the London Assembly. It will be a tough fight to get out the vote for the Conservatives but this battle will be a watershed moment in British politics. We need to show that the Conservatives can do well in inner city communities and not just the leafy suburbs and Home Counties if we are to ensure that the irresistible rise of Boris Johnson and the Conservatives will continue.
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Why the Conservatives could lose in 2015 unless we value the public sector

Paul Abbott 6.03am

A defining moment of the 2010 general election was when George Osborne, at a private meeting of candidates and volunteers, said: "We didn’t lose in 1997, 2001 and 2005 because a few thousand people went to fringe parties. No. We lost because millions of people went to Labour."

This is the most basic and fundamental political insight for the Conservative party. It should be writ large on the wall of every Minister, Member, think-tanker and researcher. It should scroll across our PC screensavers, and be inscribed on our mobile phones.

Why? Because as soon as we forget it, we will all be back in Opposition again for another thirteen years.

There is a strain of language out there today that confuses a desire to cut the deficit with a dislike of the pubic sector. Thus we hear constant attacks on Civil Service salaries, or libertarian fantasies about a no-holds-barred economy. We hear endless calls for tax cuts for millionaires, but not enough about tax cuts for the millions of people on ordinary wages.

This has to stop. Many low-paid workers voted Conservative in 2010. 
In fact, in June 2009, of the public sector workers questioned who were “certain to vote”, Ipsos MORI reported that 32 per cent would vote Conservative, 29 per cent for Labour and 19 per cent for the Lib Dems.

Everyone wants the public sector to be good value for money. Of course this means thinning out the quangos and endless back office administration. But surely we are happy to pay for positive outcomes? What is wrong with higher salaries for nurses, teachers, university lecturers, immigration personnel and police officers, if they are doing a good job? If we do not pay good wages, how else can we persuade bright young graduates to become public servants, rather than City solicitors?

There will inevitably be some hardliners who say that this argument is soft, liberal sogginess. To them, I say this: remember 1997. And 2001. And 2005.

There is nothing socialist about standing up for the admirable parts of the public sector. One of Tony Blair’s great domestic triumphs was to rebuild the public realm, which had been neglected in the 1990s. This was a large part of his electoral appeal.

The first political office that Margaret Thatcher held was in the Conservative Trade Unionists. One of her first acts as Prime Minister was to increase the wages of rank-and-file police officers.

Too many dodgy PFI deals were struck and billions of pounds were wasted, but there was a genuine public appetite for things like better motorways and more police officers. Such public policies should not solely be championed by the Left.

This is so often merely a matter of emphasis. Many Conservative Ministers are already quietly finding ways to reward deserving public sector workers. Academies and Free Schools can pay good teachers more than the national union rate. Nurses can set up co-operatives and have a stake in the success of their clinic. George Osborne has protected the pensions of the lowest paid civil servants, and boosted their income by £250, despite a general pay-freeze. There are lots of other examples. But we need to make more of them. Champion them.

I accept that Britain is still too dominated by the public sector, and that we need to rebalance our economy. I accept that Labour wasted our money, and hopelessly ran up debts. I accept that Ed Balls in particular seems to have an almost criminal disregard for our financial stability.

But we are in Government now. It is our public sector. We should look after it.

Follow Paul on Twitter @Paul_t_abbott