I’ve been working in the music industry for the best part of a decade and the animosity that remains towards our party is not dissimilar to the reaction I faced when I was our candidate in Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford. I’d spent my whole life there and yet overnight some people I’d played football with as a teenager or worked with in local pubs simply stopped talking to me.
We assume at our peril this is a superficial problem, a relic of a bygone political age. Noel Gallagher’s interview in the Mail on Sunday has been lauded by some as ‘proof’ that Lady Thatcher’s detractors in the North are misguided. Yet it poses a far more complicated question that should remind us why we are a long way from being a viable electoral force in the North, in Scotland and in many urban areas across the country. When those who agree with us would still rather vote for a pirate than vote Conservative, what are we doing to change this?
I grew up in an environment where the main argument about money was that the state took too much. Yes, most Yorkshire folk will generally complain about the price of everything, but the price of Government was an unavoidable part of the political debate.
How could people provide for their families when the state took more and more of your wage? The impetus of low taxes was that if you put the effort in, you would be rewarded. The state wouldn’t get in the way, and you could get on. We won’t force you to work, but don’t complain that those who graft are rewarded more than you.
Work was a noble endeavour, to be respected irrespective of the reward. When the reward for work becomes disconnected from the effort required, you get riots and you get Fred Goodwin.
Then in 1997 the terms of debate changed. Rather than people complaining that they were taxed too much, the Labour party made the debate about people not receiving enough back in benefits. The middle classes came to rely on – and arguably expect – benefits in a way that Thatcher never allowed. It is this cultural shift that now means someone like Noel Gallagher feels the Labour party no longer represents him.That single change did more to keep Labour in power and created the payroll vote that was a very real political consequence of the gargantuan welfare state. No longer a safety net, but a fact of life for three out of every four families.
We as a party have still not challenged this notion. Universal benefits remain a concept that defy logic, but are still a part of the ‘too risky’ policy pile.
The Universal credit will do much to address the administration of benefits, reducing administrative cost, but the terms of debate remain as they were in 1997. We have argued that the welfare bill was too high, but when was the last time we made the argument that lower taxes were the way to encourage work?
More than that, when it comes to Europe, immigration, crime, school discipline and countless other policy areas, people with ‘working class’ backgrounds are absolutely more Conservative than some of the more liberal areas we regard as ‘safe.’ And still they do not vote for us.
In failing to recognise that this barrier to electoral success is more than simply about being seen as a ‘nice’ party and everything to do with how we are not trusted to both reward work and protect the interests of those who work, we do not offer a viable alternative to the thousands of Labour voters who turned out in 2010 and voted for Gordon Brown, but did so reluctantly.
If we accept that the terms of debate are about how much the state should distribute, and that it is easier – and involves fewer policy risks - to win three seats in the south east than ten in the North, then we will never break out of the thirty-something percent bracket. Relying on the unpopularity of our opponents is not a strategy for victory, but a tactic to mitigate the risk of defeat.
Nothing we have done has planted the flag in the North and represented a rallying cry for disillusioned Labour voters. Taking people out of the tax system altogether does not foster responsibility, it perpetuates the same ‘something for nothing’ culture that Labour voters are passionately rejecting. Contribution, however small, shares the burden of social ownership in a way that builds communities.
We have the opportunity to redefine the political landscape that not only offers people like Noel Gallagher a viable alternative, but a social imperative to vote Conservative. To do that requires bold policies and speaking to the values that working people hold true, not just those who voted Conservative in 2010. It absolutely means taking risks.
This cannot – and must not be allowed to – take three years and the selection of candidates. We are in Government, so let us lead the debate.
Morley and Outwood was undoubtedly one of the highest profile battlegrounds of the 2010 general election. Antony Calvert put up a sterling fight to turn a nominally safe Labour seat into a tight marginal with a majority of little more than 1,000. Not bad to say he barely had a fourteen months as candidate, compared to the four years many people enjoyed in some target seats.
One thing that did raise eyebrows was Ed Balls’ speech upon being declared the winner. Rather than recognise his narrow escape and pay tribute to his opponents, Balls went off on one, telling the assembled media and public that he wanted to send a message to the Tory campaign: “You can come along with all your posters, and all your leaflets, and all your advertising, but you cannot buy this constituency”
Figures now released tell another story - Ed Balls was the highest spending candidate in the seat.
He spent £26,659 to Calvert’s £24,911. And that doesn’t include the office funded by his union friends or the Parliamentary communications allowance he received as a sitting MP. (While his old constituency of Normanton was abolished, 2 of the wards in it remained in the new Morley & Outwood seat.)
Also, if anyone’s interested, my opponent Yvette Cooper spent £10,831 on her election campaign - roughly £5,000 more than me. (I came in at £5,761)
She nearly doubled my campaign spend, I nearly halved her majority. Who said the public don’t read election literature?!
Yesterday some of the team and I spent the day handing out copies of David Cameron’s contract between the Conservative Party and voters.
The contract sets out certain specific things in exchange for people’s vote.
It’s a contract that sets out what we will do as our side of the bargain. How we’ll make sure we’ll have good schools. What we’ll do to improve our health service. How we’ll make people feel safer on our streets. What our role is in getting the economy moving and making sure there are jobs.
Changing our political system to make it more accountable, open and local - including commitments to give people the right to sack their MP; cut the number of MPs by 10%; cut ministers’ pay by 5%; give local communities more power, and publish details of government spending and contracts.
Changing the economy to get it moving - including commitments to cut wasteful spending to stop Labour’s jobs tax; act now on debt; get Britain working by reforming welfare; reduce emissions and build a green economy; control immigration.
Changing society to help build a Big Society where everyone plays a part in helping to mend our broken society. This includes commitments to: increase spending on health each year; support families; raise standards in schools; increase the basic state pension; fight back against crime, and create National Citizen Service for every 16 year old.
In his speech launching the contract, David Cameron said: “We haven’t had enough accountability in our government these recent years, they say things and say things but nothing changes.”
“This contract will set out our side of the bargain, what we’re going to do. And I urge people to read it, to hold us to it, to make sure we deliver it as we all work together to build the stronger society, the faster growing economy, the cleaner political system that we all need to see in this country”.
It’s one of the biggest issues facing Britain, and something I know people across the constituency are concerned about. How will a Conservative government tackle the benefits culture Labour have burdened us with?
We will create a new welfare contract, one that promises people: if you do the right thing then we will back you all the way; but if you fail to take responsibility then the free ride is over.
We will introduce a single, comprehensive Work Programme to get Britain working again, which will be up and running by the end of 2010. As part of our Work Programme, we will offer unprecedented support to all those who are looking for work. If you can’t work and need to be paid Incapacity Benefit then we will give you the financial support to which you are entitled. And if you can work, and you actively look for work, we will give you unprecedented help to find a good job.
But you must keep to your side of the bargain. We will make sure that you are claiming the right benefits and, within six months of taking office, we will introduce new sanctions for anyone who refuses to look for work.
It couldn’t be more clear - we’re on the side of hard working people, and we can’t go on with the broken system we have.
There are now two public hustings events confirmed for the constituency, where members of the public are able to quiz the people who would like to be the next MP for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford.
Friday, 23 April: 8pm, Normanton Conservative Club
Tueday, 27 April, 7pm, The parish church, Snydale Rd, WF6 1NT
There’s also an event at Pontefract New College at 1pm on Friday 30th, open to students.
Normanton might not be the sort of place you’d expect to turn blue. Then again, you could say that about lots of places in West Yorkshire.
Whether it’s in the council estates of Wakefield or the terraced streets of Outwood, people are turning to the Conservatives to mend their communities, get the local economy moving and change not just the district council (Labour’s last in West Yorkshire) but the country.
Across Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford, I’ve been struck by just how badly the current government has served those who most need real help. The seat is home in every sense for me – it’s where I was born, where I grew up and where I live – and my campaign has been inundated by people who have always voted Labour, but are now desperate to avoid five more years of Gordon Brown.
In taking on Yvette Cooper in her existing constituency and parts of the seat currently occupied by her husband, Ed Balls, I have been shocked by the apathy towards politics that they have fostered. Life-long Labour voters, not to mention people like me, have seen letters, e-mails and phone calls go unanswered and pleas for help ignored. Their photographs may regularly appear on the pages of the local newspaper, but their detachment from the communities they were elected to serve is all too clear.
Westminster is an alien land to too many people here, while the policies pursued from Whitehall hit the vulnerable hardest. From uncontrolled immigration to the collapse of discipline in schools, the target culture driving nurses to despair to the early release of criminals, thousands of once stalwart Labour voters have had enough and are ready for change.
I seem to come across a harrowing tale of Government failure every day. In Castleford, children have nicknamed one play area the ‘Glass Park’, such is the level of debris, yet just a few miles away more than £4m was spent on a bridge that doesn’t lead anywhere.
On the doorstep, you hear tales of how people working forty-hours plus weeks live alongside people just as well off on benefits, while others are desperate to work but are penalised by a complex and regressive tax credits regime.
These aren’t just statistics – they are the very real examples of how desperately Britain needs change.
Labour have betrayed the trust of working class people and it is the Conservatives offering a vision of a Britain built on work, responsibility and community.
These are the values communities across West Yorkshire are built on and why I believe on election night you’ll see a large swathe of Labour’s heartland turning blue.
(This post was first published on the Blue Blog - you can read it here)
A country is at its best when the bonds between people are strong and when the sense of national purpose is clear. Today the challenges facing Britain are immense. Our economy is overwhelmed by debt, our social fabric is frayed and our political system has betrayed the people. But these problems can be overcome if we pull together and work together. If we remember that we are all in this together.
Some politicians say: ‘give us your vote and we will sort out all your problems’. We say: real change comes not from government alone. Real change comes when the people are inspired and mobilised, when millions of us are fired up to play a part in the nation’s future.
Yes this is ambitious. Yes it is optimistic. But in the end all the Acts of Parliament, all the new measures, all the new policy initiatives, are just politicians’ words without you and your involvement.