Policy Exchange’s Northern Lights: Politicians have to show they understand the concerns of ordinary voters

There’s a strong anti politics mood in England at the moment, with a real feeling that politicians of all parties are out of touch and don’t understand the real concerns of ordinary people.  Talk about politicians being out of touch isn’t new of course, but the extent of the perceived gulf between politicians and people is exposed in polling conducted by You Gov for Policy Exchange.

Over 80% of voters think that “politicians don’t understand the real world at all” and only 12 per cent of voters think that that politicians do understand.  That rises to a massive 83% in the North.

Our poll also shows that the Tories continue to face an uphill struggle to win seats in Northern cities.  In seats such as Newcastle, Manchester and Liverpool, which a few decades ago had both Tory MPs and Tory Councillors, there’s not even a Tory Councillor and there hasn’t been for years.  While the Tories made a revival of sorts in the rural North at the last election, it remains counter cultural to vote Tory in many Northern cities.

Our poll makes the challenge for the Tories in the North pretty clear.  Labour are actually leading amongst ‘AB’ social group voters in the North by more than they are leading amongst ‘DE’ voters in the South. The difference is illustrated below:

Conservative lead:  Voters saying they would vote Conservative, minus those saying they would vote Labour

Voters saying they would vote Conservative, minus those saying they would vote Labour

An added problem for the Tories in many Northern cities is that they have slumped to third place behind the Liberal Democrats.  In an electoral system that actively promotes two party fights, recovering from third place in many Northern seats is going to be difficult for the Tories – particularly when their activist base has been decimated because of the loss of Councillors starting in the late 1980s.

The major Tory problem nationally – that they are seen as being on the side of the rich rather than ordinary people is also magnified in the North.  64% of people nationwide think that the Conservatives look after the interests of the rich, not ordinary people.  In the North, that figure is 68%.  The Conservatives also have a lower base of potential voters in the North.  39% of Northern voters say they would never vote Tory, compared to 34% who say that nationwide.  The same numbers for Labour are 20% and 25% respectively.

If the Conservatives can’t make a breakthrough in the North, they face a perpetual glass ceiling of support – making it difficult for them to win an overall majority, especially when Tory support in Scotland has haemorrhaged completely.

Our poll does suggest that the Conservatives can do things to enhance their appeal in the North.  Cost of living concerns are massive nationally, but are even more important in the North.  Take energy bills as an example. 50% of people nationally say that the thing that politicians could do that would most help them and their family would be to cut energy bills.  In the North that stands at 54%.

There’s also a strong message from the poll that the Tories need to do more to change their look and feel.  I first argued on Platform 10 three years ago that the Tory Party wasn’t doing enough to get more blue collar representation and pointed out the decline of working class MPs in the Guardian over Christmas.  Some 42% of ‘Tory swing voters’ say that the Tories should recruit more MPs from working class backgrounds and 49% say that the Tories should recruit more MPs from outside of politics.

The lessons from our poll are pretty clear for all parties, but particularly clear for the Tories if they want to win seats in Northern cities. Politicians have to show that they understand the concerns of hard pressed voters.  The potential decline in Lib Dem votes in the North gives the Conservatives a glimmer of hope that they can make some kind of Northern breakthrough, but to do so they will have to show that they are in touch with blue collar Britain.

David Skelton is Deputy Director of Policy Exchange.  You can follow him on Twitter @djskelton

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