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

Photo: Getty
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How the row over Jackie Walker triggered a full-blown war in Momentum

Jon Lansman, the organisation's founder, is coming under attack. 

The battle for control within Momentum, which has been brewing for some time, has begun in earnest.

In a sign of the growing unrest within the organisation – established as the continuation of Jeremy Corbyn’s first successful leadership bid, and instrumental in delivering in his re-election -  a critical pamphlet by the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (AWL), a Trotskyite grouping, has made its way into the pages of the Times, with the “unelected” chiefs of Momentum slated for turning the organisation into a “bland blur”.

The issue of contention: between those who see Momentum as an organisation to engage new members of the Labour party, who have been motivated by Jeremy Corbyn but are not yet Corbynites.

One trade unionist from that tendency described what they see the problem as like this: “you have people who have joined to vote for Jeremy, they’re going to meetings, but they’re voting for the Progress candidates in selections, they’re voting for Eddie Izzard [who stood as an independent but Corbynsceptic candidate] in the NEC”.  

On the other are those who see a fightback by Labour’s right and centre as inevitable, and who are trying to actively create a party within a party for what they see as an inevitable purge. One activist of that opinion wryly described Momentum as “Noah’s Ark”.

For both sides, Momentum, now financially stable thanks to its membership, which now stands at over 20,000, is a great prize. And in the firing line for those who want to turn Momentum into a parallel line is Jon Lansman, the organisation’s founder.

Lansman, who came into politics as an aide to Tony Benn, is a figure of suspicion on parts of the broad left due to his decades-long commitment to the Labour party. His major opposition within Momentum and on its ruling executive comes from the AWL.

The removal of Jackie Walker as a vice-chair of Momentum after she said that Holocaust Memorial Day belittled victims of other genocides has boosted the AWL, although the AWL's Jill Mountford, who sits on Momentum's ruling executive, voted to remove Walker as vice-chair. (Walker remains on the NEC, as she has been elected by members). But despite that, the AWL, who have been critical of the process whereby Walker lost her post, have felt the benefit across the country.

Why? Because that battle has triggered a series of serious splits, not only in Momentum’s executive but its grassroots. A raft of local groups have thrown out the local leadership, mostly veterans of Corbyn’s campaign for the leadership, for what the friend of one defeated representative described as “people who believe the Canary [a pro-Corbyn politics website that is regularly accused of indulging and promoting conspiracy theories]”.

In a further series of reverses for the Lansmanite caucus, the North West, a Momentum stronghold since the organisation was founded just under a year ago, is slipping away from old allies of Lansman and towards the “new” left. As one insider put it, the transition is from longstanding members towards people who had been kicked out in the late 1980s and early 1990s by Neil Kinnock. The constituency party of Wallasey in particular is giving senior figures in Momentum headaches just as it is their opponents on the right of the party, with one lamenting that they have “lost control” of the group.

It now means that planned changes to Momentum’s structure, which the leadership had hoped to be rubberstamped by members, now face a fraught path to passage.

Adding to the organisation’s difficulties is the expected capture of James Schneider by the leader’s office. Schneider, who appears widely on television and radio as the public face of Momentum and is well-liked by journalists, has an offer on the table to join Jeremy Corbyn’s team at Westminster as a junior to Seumas Milne.

The move, while a coup for Corbyn, is one that Momentum – and some of Corbyn’s allies in the trade union movement – are keen to resist. Taking a job in the leader’s office would reduce still further the numbers of TV-friendly loyalists who can go on the airwaves and defend the leadership. There is frustration among the leader’s office that as well as Diane Abbott and John McDonnell, who are both considered to be both polished media performers and loyalists, TV bookers turn to Ken Livingstone, who is retired and unreliable, and Paul Mason, about whom opinions are divided within Momentum. Some regard Mason as a box office performer who needs a bigger role, others as a liability.

But all are agreed that Schneider’s expected departure will weaken the media presence of Corbyn loyalists and also damage Momentum. Schneider has spent much of his time not wrangling journalists but mediating in local branches and is regarded as instrumental in the places “where Momentum is working well” in the words of one trade unionist. (Cornwall is regarded as a particular example of what the organisation should be aiming towards)

It comes at a time when Momentum’s leadership is keen to focus both on its external campaigns but the struggle for control in the Labour party. Although Corbyn has never been stronger within the party, no Corbynite candidate has yet prevailed in a by-election, with the lack of available candidates at a council level regarded as part of the problem. Councilors face mandatory reselection as a matter of course, and the hope is that a bumper crop of pro-Corbyn local politicians will go on to form the bulk of the talent pool for vacant seats in future by-elections and in marginal seats at the general election.

But at present, a draining internal battle is sapping Momentum of much of its vitality. But Lansman retains two trump cards. The first is that as well as being the founder of the organisation, he is its de facto owner: the data from Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaigns, without which much of the organisation could not properly run, is owned by a limited company of which he is sole director. But “rolling it up and starting again” is very much the nuclear option, that would further delay the left’s hopes of consolidating its power base in the party.

The second trump card, however, is the tribalism of many of the key players at a local level, who will resist infiltration by groups to Labour’s left just as fiercely as many on the right. As one veteran of both Corbyn’s campaigns reflected: “If those who have spent 20 years attacking our party think they have waiting allies in the left of Labour, they are woefully mistaken”. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.