The political journalist Anne McElvoy is from Durham, it turns out, and for the BBC she has been thinking hard about the Conservative Party’s long quest to win votes and seats in the North of England, which for our purposes might be defined as anything below Scotland and above the M62 motorway (the trans-Pennine route that links Liverpool and Hull, passing Manchester, Bradford and Leeds – Yorkshire poet Simon Armitage calls this road ‘a belt drawn tightly across the waistline of Britain.’)
In a text that accompanies her short Radio 4 documentaries on this topic, McElvoy writes: ‘David Cameron's troops, in open-necked shirts rather than cloth caps, are making the first serious attempt in decades to woo the North: something that would have been impossible amid the bitterness and division of the Thatcher years, when deindustrialisation hit the region hard.’
Apparently William Hague now heads the Tories' 'Northern Board', and does a lot of stumping around the Pennines, where he’s fairly popular – a local lad and all that, born in Rotherham, having his seat in Richmond. And of course there are votes for the taking for the Tories in the common-sense market towns of James Herriot country.
But more northerly still, in the North East, like, it's a different barrel of biscuits. Even in Labour’s Euro/local poll debacle of last month, you’ll have noted the North East portion of the electoral map still managed to end up looking quite scarlet. Alan Duncan, apparently, is Cameron’s 'North East envoy'. I’d like to see Duncan on the stump in Scotswood. Just a photo would paint a thousand words.
McElvoy focuses more on the North West because that’s where she thinks Cameron’s focusing too, pragmatically. It’s a coming area for the Tories, and if the best Labour can put up is Hazel Blears, then you’d have to suppose Cameron fancies the fight. Blears has told McElvoy, ‘The danger is if we're not careful, we lose the aspirational voters on the one hand, and the poor people in our communities who are tempted to go to the far Right.’ Old news, Hazel, and that 'if we're not careful' is a desperate choice of words.
So, trouble in the heartlands of Labour, eh? One has to say that a Labour voter lost to the BNP was scarcely a voter worth keeping, if that was the sum of what they had on their minds. But if you consider that Labour has lost Scotland to the SNP, and Newcastle upon Tyne to the Lib Dems… At the next general election there will be people voting for the first time who weren’t born when Margaret Thatcher left office, and that could mark a shift of sorts; for, as justly reviled as Thatcher still is by northern people whose livelihoods and communities she destroyed, some of those new-minted voters will be on Tyneside.
Moreover, it's no accident that Northumberland could bring forth a man such as Sir John Hall, who claimed that his heroes were Thatcher and Mao. Hall was clearly one Geordie waiting for Thatcherism to happen, so deeply did it speak to his own sense of get-ahead wits-about-you resourcefulness. He’s the sort of Geordie Alan Duncan is presumably hoping to meet on Cameron’s behalf. (As a mouthy businessman tells Martin Pallister in Crusaders, ‘People care about the north-east. Top people. Get ‘em up here and they love Geordies. The Tories admire us, they do. Not as a job lot, mind you. But they’re on the side of any have got initiative.’)
And then there is a deep decades-old disillusion with Labour in the North East, something I felt very forcibly back in late 2007 when I was up in Walker by the Tyne, writing a long piece for Prospect, and met a spirited woman called Betty Cheetham who, in her sixties, had got herself actively involved in local housing issues and regeneration schemes. ‘I’ve no faith in the Labour Party now’, Betty told me, ‘for the way they’ve tret the North East.’
There’s perhaps another wrinkle to consider in terms of how votes can come and go. The northern Leftism that I feel I know fairly well contains a particular strain of social conservatism that isn’t always so far removed from the Tory view, though it certainly doesn’t sit too close to the Islington-style identity-politics Leftism that evolved in the 1980s while Labour were out of power. That social conservatism is embodied in Crusaders by the pension-age Geordie electrician/carpenter Jack Ridley: someone for whom socialism is all responsibilities rather than rights, dutiful adults working hard and expecting their neighbours to do likewise, so spreading good order in the society. For that reason, such men are as tough on ‘benefit cheats’ and ‘idle youths’ as any Tory. And however tough Labour talks on this matter, people may choose to feel that other parties exhibit greater and deeper conviction…