Change or die: David Skelton and the Conservative mission to win over the north

A new organisation, Renewal, intends to find the Tories new voters in the north. But it will have to change the party, as well as the political landscape, in order to do it.

David Cameron has a cuppa.
Skelton's proposals would be attractive to northern voters, but the party's direction of travel is quite the reverse. Photograph: Getty Images.

In the same week as David Cameron portrayed trade unions as the source of all evil, David Skelton, a former Conservative candidate, attended the Durham Miners’ Gala, where the speakers included Unite’s general secretary, Len McCluskey, the RMT’s Bob Crow and the campaigner-commentator Owen Jones. That this should seem surprising is a sign of what he believes has gone wrong with the Tory party.

While he has little sympathy with the leftist politics of McCluskey, Skelton, who grew up in nearby Consett, attended the gala to “pay homage to the men and women of these tightknit villages and to the values of hard work, community and solidarity that kept mining communities together during hard times”. It is these values to which, he argues, the Conservatives have too often appeared indifferent, with the result that the north has become an electoral wasteland for the party. If the Conservatives are ever to win an overall majority again (a feat they have not achieved in 21 years), they will need to improve markedly.

It is with this in mind that Skelton, a former deputy director of Policy Exchange, has founded the organisation Renewal and published a collection of essays, Access All Areas. At the group’s launch at the Old Star pub in Westminster, he noted with amusement that the printers had mistakenly produced the pamphlet in “Soviet red”, rather than the intended sky blue. But had they glanced at its contents, they could have been forgiven for mistaking it for a Labour tract.

In his chapter, “Beyond the Party of the Rich”, Skelton advocates a series of policies rarely associated with the Tory tribe, including a higher minimum wage, stronger antimonopoly laws and free party membership for trade union members. At a time when some Conservative MPs have straightfacedly proposed renaming the August bank holiday “Margaret Thatcher Day” (could anything be better designed to repel northern voters?), it is evidence of an outbreak of sanity in the party.

Renewal enjoys significant support from senior ministers, including the Transport Secretary, Patrick McLoughlin (a former miner), who wrote the foreword to the collection, and the Communities Secretary, Eric Pickles, who addressed the launch. Its work is also being studied by George Osborne, who appointed Skelton’s former Policy Exchange colleague Neil O’Brien as his special adviser and whose former chief of staff, the puckish Matthew Hancock, has contributed a chapter on “conservatism for the low-paid”.

Addressing the guests at the Old Star, Pickles predicted that this would be remembered as “where the Tory revival started”. If the party is smart enough to embrace Skelton’s ideas Pickles may be right, but for now the ideological tide is still flowing in the wrong direction. Osborne’s pledge to reduce the remainder of the Budget deficit through spending cuts alone, rather than tax rises, will inflict further harm on the north, which has an above-average share of government employment.

Skelton’s plea to avoid “overzealous rhetoric” against public-sector workers is likely to go unheeded by those who continue to measure progress by the speed at which the state is shrinking. Though he would never give voice to the thought, it might take another defeat and a new generation of Conservative politicians, untainted by austerity, before the party accepts that it must change or die.