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Last Updated: Friday, 14 March 2008, 19:37 GMT
Can the Tories win over the North East?
By Brian Wheeler
Political reporter, BBC News

At least one family will have cause to be grateful to the Conservative Party this weekend.

Cheryl Gillan
Shadow minister Cheryl Gillan pitched in at a community farm

Without the efforts of shadow Cabinet members, a herd of rare Bagot goats might have remained homeless or, at the very least, in temporary accommodation.

Now - thanks to the latest Tory "social action project" - they will not only have a splendid new pen, they will also have the satisfaction of knowing they played a small part in David Cameron's Great Northern Crusade.

The Tory leader is on a mission to win back support in Northern cities.

That is why the party has pitched its tent in Gateshead for its annual spring conference - and why the shadow cabinet have been ordered out into the community to do good works.

Thatcher era

Shadow Housing Minister Grant Shapps - who was busy pounding a fencepost into the ground when I arrived at Bill Quay Community Farm - said it reminded him of being in the Scouts.

Shadow Welsh Secretary Cheryl Gillan was equally keen to get stuck in - joking that she was "better with animals than people anyway". Volunteers even named one of the goats after her.

Such social action projects are part of Mr Cameron's attempt to rebrand the Conservatives as a more caring, socially concerned party.

Mr Cameron's latest recruits in their temporary pen

But they face an uphill struggle in this part of the world, where the memory of Thatcher era job losses is still raw. The party has not had a councillor in Newcastle or Gateshead since the mid-1990s.

"My father would be spinning in his grave if he knew I was talking to a Tory," joked Mr Shapps' taxi driver.

(The Tories had made bicycles available for MPs - or anyone else - to make the 20 minute journey along the banks of the Tyne from the Sage centre where the conference is being held but everyone - including, it must to be said, BBC News - seems to have opted for a taxi instead).

Tax cuts

But talking to shoppers in Gateshead city centre, there were a few signs of hope for Mr Cameron.

The memory of the 1980s is clearly fading - even if people were not ready to switch to the Tory leader's cause just yet.

Ray Young
Ray Young thinks Cameron is 'another Blair'

"I think he talks a good game. He comes across to me as another Tony Blair. Which in my view is a bad thing. I had great faith in New Labour when it was elected but not any more," said Ray Young, who works for a local firm of solicitors.

The only answer, according to Mr Young, is for the Tories to pledge big tax cuts, but even then the Labour habit is deeply ingrained.

"A lot of people round here are on benefits. They are going to be very difficult to prise away from their Labour roots."

Margaret Davidson, who described herself as a housewife, said: "People remember Mrs Thatcher for the Poll Tax but she did a lot of good things as well."

'Tory misfit'

A former Labour voter, she said she was disenchanted with all politicians - "they have stopped listening" - and believes more must be done to tackle crime and make people feel safer on the streets.

Bob Errington
Bob Errington: A rare Tory voter in Gateshead

Bob Errington, a retired teacher, described himself as a "misfit" because he voted Tory.

"Gateshead is socialist. When was the last time they had a Conservative MP? People just follow the routine. They just don't think. They just vote as per their parents.

"The area suffered under Margaret Thatcher, with the closure of heavy engineering and mining but people have to understand that it was an economy that was failing."

The problem for the Tories, added Mr Errington, is that they were virtually invisible - with former Labour voters turning to the Lib Dems instead.

"People are not aware of the Conservative Party in Gateshead. Their parents voted Labour so that's what they do. It's in their roots. They think of the Jarrow March even though that is history now and the region has changed."

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