Over recent decades, the Conservatives have failed to make any real breakthrough in the North. Party strategists will be increasingly concerned given the electoral battleground is moving North at the same time as hostility to the Conservatives in large parts of the North remains as strong as ever.
It is remarkable to consider that only a few decades ago, the Conservatives still had a major presence in many major Northern cities. Liverpool was, at times, a Conservative stronghold. Leeds and Manchester both had considerable Conservative representation. Up until 1987, Newcastle had several Conservative MPs.
Now, in all of those cities, voting Conservative has effectively become counter cultural. Great cities in the North, such as Liverpool (once a bastion of working class Toryism), Manchester and Liverpool don’t have a single Conservative on their Councils. The Conservatives have been pushed back to third place in a number of parliamentary seats that they actually held a couple of decades ago. Despite making some inroads at the last election, the North remains a largely Tory free zone.
Becoming a marginal actor in many parts of the North (with an even starker collapse in Scotland) has made it considerably more difficult for the Conservatives to win an overall majority. A decline in the Tory voted in the North and Scotland has had an inevitable knock-on effect on their national vote share. Harold Macmillan polled 49.4% of the vote in 1959, compared to John Major’s 41.9% and David Cameron’s 36%. If the Party cannot turn around their Northern decline, the Conservatives will face an uphill fight as they look to govern alone after 2015.
There is little evidence that any corner is being turned by the Conservatives in the North as a result of the coalition. A You Gov poll on 25th October, which gives Ed Miliband’s party a lead of 4% nationally, gives Labour a commanding 29% lead in the North. Some 69% of people polled in the North disapprove of the Government’s record to date – that is considerably higher than in any other part of the UK.
Is it possible for the Conservatives to turn the situation around in the North? What do they have to do to move from being a party dominated by the South of England and part of the Midlands to being a truly national party again? It is clear that efforts in recent years have made little headway and that steps must be taken beyond merely beefing up campaigning operations and seeing the North as an appendage to a national campaign.
One of the main elements of Conservative modernisation was that the party should put themselves in a position where the party gained position, from the voters, to be listened to. Whilst that permission has been granted from voters outside of the North, it seems that many in the North are still refusing to countenance listening to Conservatives. And the Tories must take steps to change that.
A start would be for Conservatives to acknowledge the historical reasons that have created a cultural anti Toryism in many Northern cities, towns and villages. Many in the North still associate Conservatives with deindustrialisation, unemployment and the social problems that followed in their wake. Memories of the Miner’s Strike and subsequent pit closures still provoke anti Toryism in certain parts of the North, with some regarding the Conservatives as uncaring and enabling Labour to label the Tories as the “party of unemployment.”
A realisation from Conservative politicians that, whilst economic changes were necessary, social consequences of those changes damaged communities and social cohesion. Whilst Conservatives have issued a mea culpa around policies towards gay people and some other groups, gaining them greater credibility within those communities, they have still to address discontent in the North with the social consequences of policies in the 80s and 90s.
Conservative strategists also need to consider addressing the fact that, despite a series of changes, the Conservative Party still looks and sounds like a Southern party. Despite the presence of Yorkshiremen, William Hague and Eric Pickles, in the Cabinet, the Government still has a gilded, mainly Southern feel. This Southern feel could partly be ascribed to the Conservatives retreating to their South Eastern base during much of the past two decades.
Polls show that the Conservatives are still viewed as a “party of the rich” – this perception is particularly damaging in many parts of the North. To address this perception, which continues to hold the Party back electorally, the Conservatives must look to broaden their social base, so that people in the North can relate to people representing the Party. It is crucial that the Government is able to put up spokesmen and women who people in the North can identify with and who can relate to their personal experience.
The Government can also take proactive policy steps to turn around their decline in the North. It needs to make clear that it understands that the North has unique problems (parts of the North suffer using most economic, public health and education metrics), which require unique solutions. An added headache for Conservatives is that the North is more dependent than other parts of the country on public sector jobs and, as such, is likely to be impacted most by public spending cuts.
This means that the Government’s efforts on delivering growth and creating private sector jobs must be redoubled in the North and the Conservatives must go out of their way to emphasise particular steps being taken to build infrastructure and create jobs in the North. They must make clear that they aren’t prepared to accept high unemployment and are taking real measures to encourage the private sector and job creation. Measures to reform welfare, enhance state education, cut energy bills and rebalance the economy will also play well with lower and middle income earners in the North.
For some in the Conservative Party, the North still represents an electoral no go area. However, such a view leaves the party hamstrung and facing an uphill electoral climb at each election. They have struggled for a variety of reasons, historical, social and economic, but they should not accept that continuing to struggle in the North is inevitable. The Conservatives must do more to properly address reasons for past poor performance in the North and set out positive reasons for Northern voters to back the party.