Teesside Tory MP under fire for claims about the North East

A CONSERVATIVE MP has come under fire following the bold claim that “the North East is a political construct.”

James Wharton, Conservative MP for Stockton South
James Wharton, Conservative MP for Stockton South

A CONSERVATIVE MP has come under fire following the bold claim that “the North East is a political construct.”

The Teesside MP has warned his Tory colleagues looking to secure electoral success that they must not limit debate to a Labour Party-backed ideal of North East with no real geographical boundary.

Mr Wharton, elected in the 2010 intake, said that people in the region view themselves as “Smoggies, Mackems or Geordies” rather than as people of the North East.

Writing for the influential Conservative Home website, part of which is reproduced here, Mr Wharton adds that to pretend the region is “one uniform place running from the North Yorkshire border to Scotland is a fallacy.”

Speaking to The Journal, Mr Wharton said he was not saying the North East did not exist, but that it was a concept created by politicians which allowed Labour to overlook the large local support for the Tories in some areas. For years under Labour, the North East was treated as a whole, with multi-million-pound spending decisions based on lengthy, and often expensive, regional strategies.

Following the 2010 General Election and the creation of the coalition government all of the Government- backed North East decision-making infrastructure was abolished as ministers such as Communities Secretary Eric Pickles set out to purge concepts of regionalism.

One of the last men to actively lead the North East voice, former regional minister Nick Brown, has said he “profoundly disagrees” with the Teesside MP.

Newcastle East MP Mr Brown said: “He states that the region has no natural boundaries, this is clearly absurd. To the south of us we have Yorkshire, with a very clear and a strong identity, to the North we have Scotland, with a confident national identity.

“What we have here is two conurbations and a beautiful rural hinterland making up 4% of the nation’s population. If you take those together we are the fourth most populated conurbation and that gives is a shared interest in the dealing with the problems which face.”

Bishop Auckland MP Helen Goodman also backed the North East line, saying aid: “His comments suggesting that the North East needs more right-wing Thatcherism only serve to emphasis just how out of touch the Tories are.”

Others have been more neutral in their support for a clearly identified North East.

Robert Oliver, leader of the Conservative group on Sunderland Council, backed Mr Wharton, saying no MPs are elected for the North East.

He added: “James has a point in that the region is not the be all and end all. We should also consider the importance of cities, especially with the Government current focus here.

“We have some interest here in Sunderland that are similar to others in the North East, but we have differences as well and we need to remember that.”

Regional think tank IPPR North was one of those coming under Mr Wharton’s gaze in his blog entry. Think tank director Ed Cox said there was no denying a North East concept.

He added: “Regional identity and political identity are powerfully intertwined in the North East and it is a bold politician who tries to disentangle the two.

“Policies designed in the corridors of Whitehall may try to be blind to their impacts on particular towns and cities, but the reality is that they do affect some places more than others.”

Businesses have also had their say on the strength of working together.

Ken McMeikan, chief executive of Greggs and former regional chairman of the CBI, insisted that the North East remained a valuable concept.

He said it was time to “move away from the politics about the North East” and to focus on what could be achieved by those in the public, private and charitable sectors working together.

“The North East has a great heritage in terms of innovation, the results of which can be seen around the world,” he said.

“It is because of our expertise, skills and experience that goes back over many generations that we have the business community we have today.

“We have to build on those strengths at a time when the UK is looking to construct an economy based around exporting and manufacturing.”

Page 2 - The Conservative voters who believe the party brand is too tarnished >>

The Conservative voters who believe the party brand is too tarnished

Stockton South MP JAMES WHARTON puts his case

SURELY the most frustrating thing about being a Conservative in the North East is the fashionable belief that our values “do not sell” in the region.

All too often we buy into the rhetoric of our opponents and allow them to set the terms of debate. Margaret Thatcher’s legacy is a powerful example; I have lost count how many times I have been told that people in the North East do not like her.

Yet in 1987 Mrs Thatcher won five seats in the North East, when in 2010, after years of decontamination and social action, David Cameron won only two: Hexham and Stockton South.

We need to think long and hard about why this is the case. 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.

The North East does need investment, it needs support to rebalance its economy and it is getting it though the Regional Growth Fund, Local Enterprise Partnerships and announcements like the new Hitachi factory at Newton Aycliffe which will deliver thousands of jobs.

We must not forget that this government has presided over the return of steelmaking to Teesside, after the closure of Corus under Labour, or that Nissan in Sunderland is a Conservative legacy.

The Conservative message is frustrated by the reality that the North East is itself a political construct, with the regional boundaries drawn pretty much arbitrarily.

Think-tanks and politicians use the region concept as justification to proclaim that some policy or other is “bad for the North East” and we immediately move to defend ourselves, not realising the terms of reference have already been framed to our disadvantage.

I represent Stockton South, which is in Teesside. I also care about and will fight for the North East, but to pretend it is one uniform place running from the North Yorkshire border to Scotland is a fallacy.

People here do not describe themselves as “North Easterners”; we are from Stockton, or Hexham, we’re Geordies, Smoggies or Mackems if we choose any label at all.

As an example, cutting certain aspects of welfare is a popular policy and fair, not just on taxpayers, but on those who find themselves caught in the benefits trap.

As there are proportionately more people on benefits in the North East than in most regions, this can be framed as cutting more money from my region than others, therefore this is a policy that some would say hits the North East hardest.

Just see the IPPR report “Well North of Fair: The implications of the Spending Review for the North of England” if you think this interpretation of the way the debate is framed an unfair one.

The reality, of course, is that taxpayers here are just as angry about abuses of welfare as those elsewhere, if not more so, because they see it, and the damage it is doing to once proud communities, on their doorsteps.

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.

When they hear the intellectually shallow “this hits the North East hardest”, we want them to dismiss it as the rubbish it is.


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