How can the Tories win over northern voters once again?

David Cameron and Conservative conference delegates
Image caption As David Cameron gathers with Conservatives for their party conference, they will be focusing on how they can win a majority in 2015

We may only be half way through the electoral term, but the Conservatives will be thinking about 2015 when they gather at their conference in Birmingham.

And one thing that might be on some of their minds is how to win over the North.

I am sure the Tories never planned to ignore the North, but the likely collapse of proposed parliamentary boundary changes has made their performance in the region more important.

Those boundary changes would have made the Commons smaller but also cut more Labour than Conservative seats.

Without them the party will need to consider how to win seats that they might previously have been able to live with losing.

Some advice

So even in the North East - the region where they've been least successful - they will need to look to retain existing seats and win more.

And if they're looking for advice, their existing North East MPs have some for them.

The problem is that advice looks a little contradictory.

Whereas one suggests significant changes, the other believes the Conservative brand can be sold to the north as it stands.

Hexham's Guy Opperman is the MP who is looking for changes or at least adjustments in policy.

After walking the Pennine Way in the summer, he came up with five policies he thinks can win over northern voters.

He wants the party to freeze fuel duty until 2015, reject plans for regional public sector pay, adopt a clear and more interventionist industrial policy, invest in northern transport infrastructure like the A1 and deliver broadband to all parts of the North.

He says the ideas came from talking to the people he met during the walk.

He said: "We have had some good private sector news in my region, but that good news needs to be a sum of more than its parts. It has to add up to a bigger picture.

"But until we set out our economic vision, the Labour mantra of 'it's all about cuts' will be all that a new generation of people in the North associates with the Conservative Party.

"Cutting the cost of petrol, spelling out an economic vision for the North, rejecting regional pay, investing in northern transport links and delivering rural broadband may not be enough to win over the North alone. But it would be a real start."

Throwing money

Stockton South Conservative MP James Wharton though seems to take a different line.

In a recent online column for the Conservative Home website, he said throwing more money at the North wouldn't work.

He wrote: "I could use this platform to argue for more cash with which to buy votes, whether through new roads or enterprise zones or whatever else takes my fancy.

"Of course I do often make the case for spending in my region, but not as a way of buying popularity. I make the case when I believe it is the right thing to do. We cannot buy our way out of this particular political challenge."

Instead James Wharton believes the North can be won over with the existing policies and Conservative, even Thatcherite, values.

He said: "We need to talk about our successes more, and to stand up for what Conservatives really believe.

"If we really want to win in the North, we need to set out a vision of where the government is taking us that cuts through lazy regionalisation, and grabs the attention of our natural supporters.

"Many people in the North are as Conservative in their outlook as the most ardent party members in the South, but the Conservative brand is so tarnished they cannot bring themselves to vote for us."

Apologise less

The MP believes the party needs to explain how cutting government spending actually puts the party on the side of ordinary people. And he thinks northern voters are just as likely as those in the South to support welfare cuts because they see the system abused in their own communities.

He believes the Tories need to apologise less and explain more.

He wrote: "If we articulate that we really believe in something and we know where we are going, we can cut through the chaff of day to day political debate and win in the North again.

"Mrs Thatcher did it. The message from northern constituencies is that we need to be unrepentantly Conservative - apologising for what we are will get us nowhere."

There's no doubt the Conservatives need to make more progress in northern constituencies. Their future hopes of a majority rest on that.

The question is which of its northern MPs should David Cameron listen to, when deciding how to achieve that.

To give you some idea of his thinking, you can see what the PM had to say about some of Guy Opperman's ideas on BBC1's Sunday Politics at 11:00 BST on 7 October.

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