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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In focusing on the famous few, we risk doing a disservice to all victims of child sexual abuse

There is a danger that we make it harder, not easier, for victims to come forward in future. 

Back in the 1970s when relations between journalists and police were somewhat different to today a simple ritual would be carried out around the country at various times throughout the week.

Reporters, eager for information for their regional newspaper, would take a trip to the local station and there would be met by a desk sergeant who would helpfully skim through details in the crime Incident Book.

Among the entries about petty thefts, burglaries and road accidents there would occasionally be a reference to an allegation of incest. And at this point the sergeant and journalist might well screw-up their faces, shake their heads and swiftly move on to the next log. The subject was basically taboo, seen as something ‘a bit mucky,’ not what was wanted in a family newspaper.

And that’s really the way things stayed until 1986 when ChildLine was set up by Dame Esther Rantzen in the wake of a BBC programme about child abuse. For the first time children felt able to speak out about being sexually assaulted by the very adults whose role in life was to protect them.

And for the first time the picture became clear about what incest really meant in many cases. It wasn’t simply a low level crime to be swept under the carpet in case it scratched people’s sensitivities. It frequently involved children being abused by members of their close family, repeatedly, over many years.

Slowly but surely as the years rolled on the NSPCC continued to press the message about the prevalence of child sexual abuse, while encouraging victims to come forward. During this time the corrosive effects of this most insidious crime have been painfully detailed by many of those whose lives have been derailed by it. And of course the details of the hundreds of opportunistic sexual assaults committed by Jimmy Savile have been indelibly branded onto the nation’s consciousness.

It’s been a long road - particularly for those who were raped or otherwise abused as children and are now well into their later years - to bring society around to accepting that this is not to be treated as a dark secret that we really don’t want to expose to daylight. Many of those who called our helpline during the early days of the Savile investigation had never told anyone about the traumatic events of their childhoods despite the fact they had reached retirement age.

So, having buried the taboo, we seem to be in danger of giving it the kiss of life with the way some cases of alleged abuse are now being perceived.

It’s quite right that all claims of sexual assault should be investigated, tested and, where there is a case, pursued through the judicial system. No one is above the law, whether a ‘celebrity’ or a lord.

But we seem to have lost a sense of perspective when it comes to these crimes with vast resources being allocated to a handful of cases while many thousands of reported incidents are virtually on hold.

The police should never have to apologise for investigating crimes and following leads. However, if allegations are false or cannot be substantiated they should say so. This would be a strength not a weakness.

It is, of course, difficult that in many of the high-profile cases of recent times the identities of those under investigation have not been officially released by the police but have come to light through other means. Yet we have to deal with the world as it is not as we wish it would be and once names are common knowledge the results of the investigations centring on them should be made public.

When it emerges that someone in the public eye is being investigated for non-recent child abuse it obviously stirs the interest of the media whose appetite can be insatiable. This puts pressure on the police who don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past by allowing offenders to slip through their hands.  And so there is a danger, as has been seen in recent cases, that officers lack confidence in declaring there is a lack of evidence or the allegations are not true. 

The disproportionate weight of media attention given to say, Sir Edward Heath, as opposed to the Bradford grooming gang sentenced this week, shows there is a danger the pendulum is swinging too far the other way. This threatens the painstaking work invested in ensuring the public and our institutions recognise child abuse as a very real danger. 

Whilst high profile cases have helped the cause there is now a real risk that the all-encompassing focus on them does both victims of abuse and those advocating on their behalf a fundamental disservice.

As the public watches high -profile cases collapsing amidst a media fanfare genuine convictions made across the country week in week out go virtually unannounced. If this trend continues they may start to believe that child sexual abuse isn’t the prolific problem we know it to be.

So, while detectives peer into the mists of time, searching for long lost clues, we have to face the unpalatable possibility that offences being committed today will in turn only be investigated fully in years or decades' time because there is not the manpower to deal with them right now.

So, now the Goddard Inquiry is in full swing, taking evidence about allegations of child sex crimes involving ‘well known people’ as well as institutional abuse, how do we ensure we don’t fail today’s victims?

If they start to think their stories are going to be diminished by the continuing furore over how some senior public figures have been treated by the police they will stay silent. Therefore we have to continue to encourage them to come forward, to give them the confidence of knowing they will be listened to.

If we don’t we will find ourselves back in those incestuous days where people conspired to say and do nothing to prevent child abuse.

Peter Wanless is Chief Executive of the NSPCC.