“We’re going where!?”, my mum exclaimed.
“You must be joking!”, my friend said, looking nervous.
It was November, and we were a couple of weeks into the General Election campaign. I’d just been appointed as the Conservative candidate for Wentworth and Dearne (part of the Rotherham council area) and was explaining my canvassing plans to the people supporting me.
Rawmarsh. Wath-upon-Dearne. Brampton Bierlow. Thurnscoe.
My mum was worried. See, she’s Rotherham born and bred and she grew up witnessing the deep and seemingly enduring hatred of Conservatives in these areas. The Wentworth and Dearne constituency is formed of the beautiful, rolling South Yorkshire countryside, and dotted by ex-coal mining villages that are still scarred by the loss of industry and jobs.
It was strangely unnerving to knock doors in Rawmarsh – right in the shadow of the steelworks, voices raised over the noise – and have person after person say they were voting Conservative. In Goldthorpe, it was surreal to knock on pit houses knowing that just a few years ago people here celebrated the death of Margaret Thatcher with a party and a bonfire, and were now wavering between voting Conservative or Brexit Party.
In the end, I didn’t win. A 14,803 Labour majority was pulled down to 2,165, and of the three formerly rock-solid Labour Rotherham seats one is now Conservative-held while the other two are marginal.
Coming from a northern, working-class background myself I never got into the habit of making assumptions about people’s political priorities based on where they live or the job they do, but the sea-change at this election surprised even me.
Yes, a lot of it was Brexit. But Brexit is not only about the technicality of the UK leaving the EU to a lot of people – it’s about the principle of democracy, it’s also about being ignored and derided for so long, it’s about wanting a voice, and it’s about hope for the future. Brexit is so important to people because it taps into so many other things they care about and are angry about.
And that’s the undercurrent of last year’s election that despite the dramatic result and all the media coverage has not really been recognised.
People are fed up being told what to do, think and feel. They’re fed up of the nanny state and PC culture. They’re fed up of being told they’re stupid, didn’t know what they were voting for and that some metropolitan elite knows better. They’re fed up being told they’re not important and being failed by public services – something that was particularly raw in this area, which was affected by the Rotherham abuse scandal.
Campaigning in Wentworth and Dearne, Rother Valley, Bassetlaw and Dewsbury at the General Election left a single, simple message ringing in my ears: enough is enough.
And here at Conservatives for Liberty, we are determined to take that message and amplify it, both because it is the right thing to do, and because the truth is that if the Conservatives take these voters for granted in the way the Labour Party did, we will lose them.
To tell you the truth, I am worried. I’m worried that the Conservative Party doesn’t get it, and thinks that giving these newly blue northerners Brexit, more coppers, and more money for the NHS will keep them happy. That would be a mistake. Any simplistic strategy that involves treating people as though they’re daft would be a mistake.