Paul Howell is MP for Sedgefield.
In December last year, “things can only get better” boomed out at CCHQ on election night as Sedgefield, the former Commons seat of Tony Blair, fell and the Conservative Party clinched its first sizable majority since the years of Margaret Thatcher.
As the MP for this totemic seat, I believe I know more than most how we demolished the “Red Wall”, and how we can cement its blue replacement. We are now the party of the North, and we must stay the party of the North. What we do next will be critical in that objective.
Covid-19 has had a devastating impact – on the North and on the whole country. We are rightly spending a considerable amount of our time and resources on the fight against the virus, on saving the economy and on the search for a vaccine.
With strong leadership and by working together, we will beat this virus. Then our efforts will turn to the recovery, and how we create a fair and balanced country that works for everyone, wherever they live. The levelling up agenda was a major factor in our election win last year: the vision for addressing the longstanding, structural inequalities that exist between North and South and creating a more balanced, prosperous UK.
Levelling up is a long-term ambition, a demonstration to the party’s commitment to the North. But it is also part of the immediate recovery from the pandemic.
Alongside around 30 of my Northern Conservative MP colleagues, I have joined the Northern Research Group (NRG) – a powerful collection of MPs across the North who will ensure that we deliver a Northern Powerhouse and achieve levelling up.
Together, we can be greater than the sum of our parts, and make the compelling, evidence-based case for investment in the North. Whether the matter to hand is delivering high speed rail, making sure the most disadvantaged children don’t fall behind in their schooling, or creating jobs for the next generation in sustainable industries such as hydrogen and advanced manufacturing, the NRG is integral to the future of the communities we serve,
We are already seeing the impact on the ground. Our members have been working closely with local business leaders to ensure they get what they need from government, and that their businesses and communities are protected. And we will make sure government have a clear and fair plan for how we exit the Covid restrictions, and that businesses get the support they need.
The NRG is a further sign of our commitment to the North. When it was first suggested that CCHQ should open a new headquarters in a part of it, some commentators derided the idea. “It will never happen.” “The story has just been briefed as a distraction.” “Don’t fall for it.” Funnily enough, I haven’t seen the string of apologies from these commentators when this was confirmed at our virtual Conservative Party conference.
What particularly pleased me when the plans for a CCHQ North were first mooted was that it was clear that it wasn’t simply envisaged as a basic call centre and print shop – essential though these functions are. Instead, there was talk of it being located close to the Norths’s brightest and best graduates and data scientists. As important is devolving real responsibility and control to party members in the North to enable them to properly defend and represent the constituencies that make up the new ‘Blue Wall’ and beyond.
As Conservatives, we know that power is best exercised at the lowest practical level – hence the importance of ‘Taking Back Control’, matching our commitment to devolution in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, with plans being drawn up to create more mayors across the North.
This applies to political parties, too. CCHQ North will only work if party members feel real ownership of their headquarters, and the responsibility for making it a success. We need a dedicated campaign team to direct local professional campaign managers in every target seat. We need Treasurers to build a fighting fund to support the revival of Conservative Associations in the seats we won in December. We need a mechanism for Northern MPs to be able to feed in their ideas and local knowledge, and to direct campaigning activity to ensure we are effective election winning machine. And we need a Northern Party Board.
Ben Elliot and Amanda Milling should be hugely congratulated for proving the sceptics wrong, and I look forward to hearing more about their plans for CCHQ Nort hnext week. But if we are going to build an organisation that is sustainable and potent, it’s essential for Northern Members of Parliament and councillors to be put in charge of what comes next.
To defend Sedgefield at the next general election, and to grow our representation in local government in the North of England, it is essential for the Conservative Party to have a strong Northern presence. And we should all play our part to ensure that CCHQ North is a real fighting force, and a worthy campaign HQ for the world’s most successful political party.