It's lonely up North, admits Conservative MP Guy Opperman

Tory Guy Opperman urges party to campaign on local issues and stop attacking trade unions if it hopes to win in the North East

Conservative MP Guy Opperman
Conservative MP Guy Opperman

It’s lonely being a Conservative in the North East, one of the party’s only MPs in the region has admitted.

Guy Opperman, MP for Hexham in Northumberland, is one of two Tory MPs in the North East, along with James Wharton, MP for Stockton South.

Now he has spoken frankly about the challenge the party faced to win more seats in the region, as he spoke to party activists.

Mr Opperman said Conservatives needed to concentrate on local issues - and said voters were more interested in what was being done to fill in potholes than Britain’s relationship with the European Union.

And he urged his party to stop attacking trade unions.

Mr Opperman was speaking at the annual conference of a Conservative think tank called Bright Blue, which backs “liberal conservatism”.

Many of his comments echoed statements he has made in the past about the way that the party needs to change in order to win back support in the North East.

Tories have been largely wiped out in urban parts of the North, but it wasn’t always like this.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Conservatives vied with Labour for control of Newcastle City Council.

But the last time the authority had a Tory leader was in 1973. And the last time a Conservatives even managed to get a councillor elected was 1995.

Conservatives continue to have a presence in Northumberland, where as well as holding a Parliamentary seat they won 21 council seats in the last local elections.

The Bright Blue conference was held in public and Mr Opperman’s blunt assessment of the party’s fortunes was reported by an online news website.

He told activists that it was no use targeting constituencies in places such as Newcastle, Manchester and Liverpool if they could not get local councillors elected.

But he insisted the party was beginning to take the problem seriously.

“It’s a very lonely, very interesting, business. But we are changing things.”

The key was to focus on local issues, he said. “Good achievements locally are the most important thing.”

He added: “The further north you go, the more local you have to be. The number one issue on the doorstep is not Europe or HS2. The number one issue is potholes.”

Mr Opperman also warned that constant attacks on trade unions damaged the party in communities where unions played an important role.

He said: “I despair when people say unions are terrible. They are not terrible, they are the ultimate Big Society.”

Mr Opperman was almost as outspoken in public last year, when he warned: “The voters will not come to us. We must go to them. We need to get out there and sell our message, both local and national, to the electorate. In so many parts of the North, and especially the urban North, as a party, we have simply stopped doing that.”

Mr Opperman told The Journal: “I am proud to be a One Nation Conservative MP and I passionately believe we can win across the North East.

“I look at the local elections results last year in my part of Northumberland where not only did we hold our seats, but we actually gained seats from both the Liberal Democrats and even from Labour. I fundamentally believe it is only by working hard all year round at a local level that we are able to win.”

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