THE symbolism and significance of Theresa May’s decision to launch the Conservative Party manifesto in the working class mill town of Halifax should not be under-estimated as the general election finally looms.
This is the first time that the party has ventured so far North for such a setpiece occasion. Until 2015 when the Tories headed to Swindon, London was the de facto venue, including 2005 when the then leader Michael Howard assumed – arrogantly – that he could triumph without making electoral gains in these parts. How times change.
The location, a derelict mill that has reinvented itself, is also symptomatic of Mrs May’s ruthless decision to exploit Labour’s turmoil under Jeremy Corbyn – it signifies the extent to which the Tories believe they are plausible in areas which have been no go areas since Margaret Thatcher, the original ‘iron lady’, was in her pomp.
Yet this location also speaks volumes about the choice that will confront voters on June 8 in many of the Tory-Labour marginals along the M62 corridor which will determine whether the Prime Minister enjoys a comfortable majority or a landslide victory that leaves the main Opposition party fighting for its future.
Halifax has only elected two Tory MPs since the war – Harold Macmillan’s son Maurice served from 1955-64 while Roy Galley served one term from 1983-87 after becoming a beneficiary of Labour’s capitulation under Michael Foot.
Since then the town has been ably represented by three Labour female MPs – Alice Mahon who was a principled and conscientious objector to the Iraq war; Linda Riordan who campaigned on behalf of those facing blindness and local policeman’s daughter Holly Lynch who has become a powerful advocate for the emergency services since her unexpected win two years ago when the town refused to turn blue.
Though Ms Lynch is just 30 years of age, her youthfulness has not been a disadvantage. Quite the opposite. She has become a respected advocate in the best traditions of those MPs, from all parties, who work tirelessly – and selflessly – on behalf of their constituents.
Even though I disagree with many aspects of her political outlook, I would certainly consider voting for Holly Lynch on June 8 if I lived in Halifax because her track record merits respectful consideration at the very least.
However this election is not about local loyalties. It’s about leadership as Britain prepares to leave the European Union and many able Labour MPs are likely to pay the price because Mr Corbyn is no match for a Prime Minister who has united the political centre right for the first time since the mid-1980s as Ukip disintegrates.
On this basis, the omens do not bode well for the likes of Ms Lynch whose campaign is one of many where moderately-minded Labour backbenchers are offering mutual support to each other – the so-called Friends initiative – while keeping their distance from their party’s official campaign because they realise that Mr Corbyn is a liability. The success, or otherwise, of this approach remains to be seen.
Yet Mrs May still has to earn the blank cheque which she seeks – and expects. Unlike David Cameron who made a number of unrealistic promises in 2015 that he only intended to be bargaining chips in coalition talks, the current Tory leader has to be more realistic after being lauded by her cricketing hero Geoffrey Boycott as “strong, determined, no nonsense, common sense”.
Having called an election to exploit Labour’s weakness – MPs and peers were doing their job in challenging, scrutinising and questioning the Government’s Brexit strategy – she knows it will fall to her, and her team, to address the great challenges facing the country from leaving the EU to paying for adult social care.
It explains, for example, why wealthier pensioners can no longer be guaranteed the winter fuel allowance. Even though a succession of party leaders have not wanted to risk the wrath of the so-called ‘grey vote’, the public finances are so tight that the next Government has very limited room for manoeuvre.
Some say this is the responsible side of Mrs May’s metropolitan Conservatism – a party for workers and ‘just about managing’. Others will say it is irresponsible and that the poor will be targeted as plans are unveiled to abolish free school meals.
However, while the competing visions could not be more radically different, Tory state intervention versus undiluted Labour socialism, Mrs May does still need to demonstrate that her commitment to the North is genuine. After all, the very reason that the Conservatives lost their national appeal is because towns like Halifax were taken for granted after 1983 and her blueprint includes no mention of Yorkshire – or tourism, a key driver of growth here.
The fact that the Tories launched their campaign in Halifax, 48 hours after Labour did likewise in Bradford, underlines the significance of this region’s electoral battleground – and why so much time and effort is being invested in the M62 marginals. There are more undecided voters in the swing seats here than anywhere else.
While this attention is welcome, it’s also regrettable that the two main parties do not always show similar commitment between elections when the North is invariably forgotten – Tony Blair’s lack of infrastructure investment and David Cameron’s feeble response to the 2015-16 winter floods here offers prima facie evidence.
Furthermore, Theresa May did not visit Yorkshire during the first nine months of her premiership. Now, having called an unexpected election, she’s can’t stay away. She’s now made three visits in as many weeks.
And while the success of this manifesto will clearly be judged on whether towns like Halifax turn blue on June 8, the greater test is whether Conservative values become ingrained here for a generation to come. If they do, Theresa May will go down in history as a transformative Prime Minister who did, unlike her predecessors, put Yorkshire and the North in the driving seat.