Northern blues

David Skelton thinks he can revive the Tories’ fortunes in the north. Hopi Sen assesses his chances

It is early morning on 8 May 2020. The re-elected Conservative MP for Halifax is recovering in bed. It was a long count last night, but already she must get back to work. Watching the politics news stream on her glasses, she notices that the local election results are now starting to come in.

The news reminds her to check that her meeting with the Conservative group leaders of the northern metropolitan councils is still on. She wants them to push ministers to offer people extra income in the difficult first year of starting their own business. Then there is the ethnic minority entrepreneurs conference next month.

Her Skype flashes up an incoming call. She blinks twice to accept the call ‘Hello? It’s Switch, I have the prime minister for you …’

Could a Tory renaissance in the north be more than just a Tory daydream? Yes, if you listen to David Skelton, whose new group intended to give the north a blue tinge will be publishing its first pamphlet on how to change Conservative fortunes this month.

Skelton is, by his own admission, a surprising sort of Tory. He is certainly the only Tory I have met who can describe the political differences between a north-east steel town and a pit village, no doubt because he himself is from Consett, County Durham, one of a family of steel, coal and public service workers. People often ask him why he is a Tory, and it seems his new mission is to make the answer as obvious to others as it is for him: he is a Tory because he cares about the community he is from, wants to see it prosper and help its people succeed, which means helping them start businesses, giving them a little extra money in their pocket and making sure they benefit from excellent public services, like the sixth form he attended.

Skelton might be pushing at an open door. His set-up, while still nascent, is not some quixotic one-man band, but deeply connected to people at the top of the Conservative party.

The group is inspired by work first done at Policy Exchange, where Skelton was deputy director. Its report, Northern Lights, highlighted the scale of the Tories’ problem, revealing that professional ‘AB’ voters in the north were less likely to vote Conservative than ‘DE’ voters in the south. The message that the Tories needed to find a new way to connect found a receptive audience in Downing Street. The report’s co-author, Neil O’Brien, himself from Huddersfield, is now working on strategy at the Treasury.

For Skelton, it is important to understand why the Tories have a big problem in the north, among minorities and among public sector workers. Margaret Thatcher’s legacy of deindustrialisation had a very different impact in northern towns and cities to that in the fast-growing south. Talk about immigration too much, and you start to sound unwelcoming, even to people in ethnic minorities who share your concerns. And post-Thatcherite Conservatism’s hostility to trade unions and its eagerness to remake public services sounds threatening, not liberating, to those who want a little more security, or who work in our schools and hospitals.

So what can the Tories do about this? Talk to Skelton, or read articles by Kris Hopkins, MP for Keighley, and a sketch emerges of a very different Conservative party. From them, you hear of a party obsessed with raising living standards, passionate about encouraging growth in northern cities, interested in ideas about improving wages and confident enough in its faith in markets to challenge oligopolies and cartels whenever they emerge. You also hear of a Conservative party that takes a markedly different approach to public service workers. As Hopkins said in 2011, ‘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.’

Skelton talks with enthusiasm about cutting tax for the low paid, of helping employers pay workers higher wages. He also talks of lower fuel costs, special economic zones, encouraging micro-businesses, and attracting investment to regenerate northern cities. For him, this last point attacks one of Labour’s failures, and is something the Tories must correct.

Alongside this sits a Conservative mistrust of concentrated power, of the rule-breakers and market manipulators who take advantage of those who do not have entrenched power. For Skelton, the state needs to be active against oligopolies and cartels, serving the interests of those for whom every pound matters.

It is his contention that a strategy built around such issues could persuade voters who currently think the Tories are not interested in improving their lives, who do not think the party is ‘on their side’, to see them differently. He has polling evidence to back him up, as the table below underlines.

Talk to centrist Tory advisers and sympathetic journalists and there is a clear enough recognition that Skelton – like Hopkins, O’Brien, and Michael Ashcroft before him – has identified the big Conservative problem: The Tories do not look like they are on the side of ordinary families, or that they understand the pressures that most people face. It is a problem across the country, one adviser told me, but it is most extreme in the north.

So what is stopping the party from changing? Why is it falling to advisers, backbench MPs and Times columnists to push it in this direction? One problem is ideology. One friendly journalist argues that the Tories have not learned to ‘take yes for an answer’. The British public has broadly assented to a post-Thatcher vision of the state – fiscally responsible, business minded, low in tax  by global standards, and flexible in labour markets. But the Tories, ideologically committed to markets in a way new to Conservatism, are zealously trying to push this agenda even further. By doing this, they miss the chance to make the post-Thatcher settlement work for most people.

Another issue is the party itself, one frustrated Conservative tells me. David Cameron, George Osborne and the other modernisers look more Made in Chelsea than Geordie Shore. How can they possibly be in touch?

Skelton himself disagrees, pointing to Harold Macmillan as an example of a privileged Tory who understood popular concerns. But this takes him to another insight. Macmillan’s politics were rooted in a deep change in Conservative attitudes. Defeat in 1945 meant a generation of Tories, with attitudes forged in the war, knew they had to fundamentally change their party. Despite defeats in 1997 and 2001, Skelton argues today’s  Tories have not had this sort of   ‘never again’ moment.

Many, then, still do not accept that they really had to change. Many in the party can and do believe that an anti-Europe and immigration position will work electorally, pointing to polls showing Tories ahead on these issues, and, more recently, to the rise of the United Kingdom Independence party.

Against such an entrenched mindset, Tory leaders have quailed. William Hague started as a ‘caring Conservative’ concerned about kitchen table issues, but retreated to Europe when the going got tough. Similarly, one former aide tells me to read Cameron’s leadership acceptance speech telling me ‘it’s all there’, but adds that too much of the agenda has been surrendered since Cameron introduced himself to the nation with an agenda of well-paid jobs and social justice.

Andy Coulson, austerity, Europe and coalition – all have acted to pull the Conservative leadership away from the agenda set out on in 2005. Perhaps they themselves never quite believed in the need for change, wonders one journalist, pointing to the deals done inside the party to secure Cameron, first the leadership, then peace from the Tory right flank.

So perhaps the question is not so much whether a ‘living standards and strong communities’ Conservatism is right politically, but whether Skelton and the next generation of Tory moderates can ever put this agenda at the heart of party strategy in the face of such pathologies.

In the short term much rests on Cameron and Osborne. At the core of the new moderates’ argument is an emphasis on bread and butter issues, from fuel to pay to taxing the poor.

There is little ideological dissent from this in the wider party, so the doubt is whether the chancellor can deliver, given the massively tight fiscal restraint he is in, and if the prime minister can paint them convincingly as distinctive Tory policies.

In the longer term, though, Skelton and his group also need to change the Conservative attitude to how you help those who are struggling to get by. Instead of instinctive hostility to government, the Tories may well need to rediscover a belief that only by keeping the rules firmly on the side of those in the middle can you make markets work, which means a strong, if smaller and less centralised, state.

Can Skelton and his group do this? He certainly has the passion and the analysis, but he may not have the leverage. It may take a leader utterly committed to changing the Tories to bring a northern renaissance about. Fortunately for Labour, despite obvious attempts at positioning by Theresa May and Boris Johnson, it is hard to see who that leader might be. Until then, the Tory MP for Halifax will likely remain just a daydream.

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Hopi Sen is a contributing editor to Progress

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Things the Conservative party could do to address concerns that it is the party of the rich
Which of the following things would most likely convince you that the Conservative party was for everyone, not just the rich? Please tick up to three

Of total polled

Conservative swing voters

Likely but not definitely vote Conservative

Definite Conservative

Cutting tax for low earners

29

36

34

33

Reducing the cost of living for ordinary people

31

35

52

42

Reducing unemployment

27

32

13

5

Clamping down on business and privatised utilities that rip off their customers

28

31

21

10

Tackling the root causes of poverty like drug dependency and bad parents

20

28

14

8

Raising tax on the rich

27

23

20

15

Improving public services like the NHS and schools

21

23

21

16

Bringing the pay of top bankers under control

23

22

22

29

Introducing a tax on expensive houses
(a ’mansion’ tax)

12

13

15

24

Reducing crime in poor neighbourhoods

9

11

7

3

Enabling people in social housing to buy their own homes

5

7

3

1

Increasing spending on benefits

4

2

1

1

None of these

9

3

7

30

Don’t know

9

4

12

5

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Photo: Smallbrainfield

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