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.

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.

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

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How to make a saint

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Theresa May’s stage-managed election campaign keeps the public at bay

Jeremy Corbyn’s approach may be chaotic, but at least it’s more authentic.

The worst part about running an election campaign for a politician? Having to meet the general public. Those ordinary folk can be a tricky lot, with their lack of regard for being on-message, and their pesky real-life concerns.

But it looks like Theresa May has decided to avoid this inconvenience altogether during this snap general election campaign, as it turns out her visit to Leeds last night was so stage-managed that she barely had to face the public.

Accusations have been whizzing around online that at a campaign event at the Shine building in Leeds, the Prime Minister spoke to a room full of guests invited by the party, rather than local people or people who work in the building’s office space.

The Telegraph’s Chris Hope tweeted a picture of the room in which May was addressing her audience yesterday evening a little before 7pm. He pointed out that, being in Leeds, she was in “Labour territory”:

But a few locals who spied this picture online claimed that the audience did not look like who you’d expect to see congregated at Shine – a grade II-listed Victorian school that has been renovated into a community project housing office space and meeting rooms.

“Ask why she didn’t meet any of the people at the business who work in that beautiful building. Everyone there was an invite-only Tory,” tweeted Rik Kendell, a Leeds-based developer and designer who says he works in the Shine building. “She didn’t arrive until we’d all left for the day. Everyone in the building past 6pm was invite-only . . . They seemed to seek out the most clinical corner for their PR photos. Such a beautiful building to work in.”

Other tweeters also found the snapshot jarring:

Shine’s founders have pointed out that they didn’t host or invite Theresa May – rather the party hired out the space for a private event: “All visitors pay for meeting space in Shine and we do not seek out, bid for, or otherwise host any political parties,” wrote managing director Dawn O'Keefe. The guestlist was not down to Shine, but to the Tory party.

The audience consisted of journalists and around 150 Tory activists, according to the Guardian. This was instead of employees from the 16 offices housed in the building. I have asked the Conservative Party for clarification of who was in the audience and whether it was invite-only and am awaiting its response.

Jeremy Corbyn accused May of “hiding from the public”, and local Labour MP Richard Burgon commented that, “like a medieval monarch, she simply briefly relocated her travelling court of admirers to town and then moved on without so much as a nod to the people she considers to be her lowly subjects”.

But it doesn’t look like the Tories’ painstaking stage-management is a fool-proof plan. Having uniform audiences of the party faithful on the campaign trail seems to be confusing the Prime Minister somewhat. During a visit to a (rather sparsely populated) factory in Clay Cross, Derbyshire, yesterday, she appeared to forget where exactly on the campaign trail she was:

The management of Corbyn’s campaign has also resulted in gaffes – but for opposite reasons. A slightly more chaotic approach has led to him facing the wrong way, with his back to the cameras.

Corbyn’s blunder is born out of his instinct to address the crowd rather than the cameras – May’s problem is the other way round. Both, however, seem far more comfortable talking to the party faithful, even if they are venturing out of safe seat territory.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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