The day after our General Election triumph, while like other activists across the country exhausted and completely sleep-deprived, I was once invited to join BBC Radio Sheffield as a spokesman for the Party. The interviewer Toby Foster went through the normal pleasantries given that the blues had won nationally, before asking “well Spencer, can the Conservatives ever win in Sheffield or South Yorkshire again?” I said we could of course win again Parliamentary representation - not only here in South Yorkshire - but in many other difficult City regions in the North for the Party.
Thinking back to the interview now I am not sure Toby or indeed any of his listeners really believed me. But how can we start to turn-back the electoral tide across our Northern Cities?
Firstly, and to start on a positive note, we have already made some really strong progress. The mere fact that the Chancellor is pushing so very hard to develop a Northern Powerhouse, with the intention where possible to drive-forward directly elected Mayors similar to the greater London success, is hugely positive. Our City Associations and regional officers should also be highly commended for taking very difficult decisions to rationalise their resources into sub-regional campaign centres. In so doing we are now better able to target our campaigning and not get bogged-down in local ‘complexities’.
But what more could be done? Here below, and in no particular order, are the areas which in my humble opinion need addressing.-Sufficed to say there will be no quick-fixes but I do passionately believe if we adopt the below over time success will come back to the blue team in our Northern Cities and urban regions:
Re-engage with our Northern Cities by making sure regular Ministerial visits come to all northern centres.
Consider election reform at a local level - without a Councillor base, however small, the Conservative voice and perspective cannot and will not be heard in our Northern Cities. Across Sheffield (5 parliamentary constituencies) at a local level the Party regularly polls between 15-20%. Under Single transferable Vote (STV) this could equate to 7 councillors – a start. We currently have none!
Find new mechanisms to provide senior elected figure-heads for the Party across our Northern Cities and regions – Sheffield and South Yorkshire does not have a single Conservative Member of Parliament. As such in the short-term different ways should be employed to quickly offer high level elected Party representation in key areas where currently a ‘limited’ voice is heard from.
Target campaigning resource into those areas where we can start to reclaim a Northern City parliamentary foothold – A seat like Sheffield Hallam was Conservative until 1997 and could be won back if expert resource and focused effort was placed into the seat over a sustained period of time.
Develop and support candidates in our Northern cities – It remains a constant issue to secure high level candidates locally. This is not helped of course by the feeling of separation candidates experience here in the North from the Party as they cannot easily access London-centric events. Perhaps across the North bursaries should be considered to support outstanding Northern candidates by way of training and travel to and from London.
Re-constitute a Northern Board – Giving the Board the resource and financial teeth to tackle locally improved campaigning and targeting of resource.
Create a specific research unit aimed at driving forward public sector policy initiatives – Here in Sheffield over 30,000 people work at our 6 hospitals and 2 Universities alone. To win again in our urban Northern centres we need to promote policies which resonate strongly with our urban public sector workers and their families.
Reduce the national spending gap per head of population between London and the Northern cities – Research shows that London’s Crossrail project alone will account for nine times more funding than all the rail projects from the North’s three regions combined. Until this infrastructure inequality is addressed residents in our major northern cities will always feel unfairly treated by Government. In this context the recently announced delay in the electrification of the TransPennine network has done disproportionate damage to the Party by exacerbating still further the feeling of infrastructure inequality with the South.
I have no doubt that the Party is already working towards much of the above. They realise we cannot truly be a Party of the whole country without once again reclaiming a strong voice in our Northern Cities. I would also argue that General Elections are won and lost in our Cities first, therefore policy and principles must resonate in our urban centres.
Politics never stands still and as such with a clear and sustained strategy we can and will win again in our great Northern Cities!
Dr Spencer Pitfield is a CWF Board Member and National Director of the Conservative Policy Forum
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