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Henry G Manson asks: Can the Conservatives win in the North?

November 23rd, 2012

What needs to change to win the key marginals?

There was a fringe meeting at Conservative Party conference this autumn (see above) on how their party can win more votes and seats in the North. Without new boundaries it will be increasingly hard for the blue team to win a parliamentary majority without gaining more seats in the North of England, so it’s a live electoral issue. A recording of the debate has been posted online and it’s a good guide to the issues that Tories needs to grapple with. It’s an hour long but worth watching in full. At least a dozen of the Conservative Party’s top 20 target seats are likely to be in the North or Midlands according to the UK Polling Report website so it’s important for the Conservative Party that they crack it.

The politicians emphasised the importance of conviction politics to Northern voters while still showing they care. They emphasised policies around apprenticeships and local banking as well as the helping with the cost of living. The speakers recognised the ‘chicken and egg’ scenario of needing political representation to further promote the party’s message. That’s why the experiences of successful Northern Conservative MPs should be precious to party strategists.

Those taking part in the discussion correctly spot that the issue is as much about identity as it is about class. Studies mentioned in the debate show that popular Conservative policies only have a limited geographical reach in translating into support at the ballot box.

    In my experience there is a hard-wired belief among many in the North that the Tories aren’t on your side. At best the Tories don’t understand you, at worst they dislike and despise you. It only takes a few examples to corroborate the charge.

It didn’t get as much national mileage as Andrew Mitchell’s alleged ‘pleb’ outbust, but Oliver Letwin’s remarks to Boris Johnson last year that “we don’t want more people from Sheffield flying away on cheap holidays” confirm everything that many Northerners believe the Tory Party thinks of them. Months before the leader of Buckinghamshire County Council said unemployed Northerners should head south to pick fruit in orchards rather than claim benefits. It’s not just crass throwaway remarks behind closed doors. Daft talk of lowering pay for public sector workers in the North will only fuel this sense of anti-Northern discrimination by Conservatives and would hand the Labour Party a ‘one nation’ sized political gift.

Although the debate focused on Margaret Thatcher for a large part, that doesn’t really explain how John Major’s Conservatives were still able to win seats in constituencies like Tynemouth, Bury South and Leeds North East in 1992 when the memory of Thatcher’s government was much fresher. None of those seats have been won by the blues since then. What happened?

Although it didn’t seem like it at the time of his premiership, in hindsight John Major was positively ‘one nation’ in comparison to many current Conservatives. I can’t imagine too many current Cabinet ministers making a speech with a straight face about their desire for a classless society. Instead we hear from David Cameron about his commitment to ‘spread privilege’, which with all the best will in the world, simply is not the same.

‘All in it together’ was a powerful phrase deployed to devastating political effect in the first 18 months of the Coalition government. Even Barack Obamaa has borrowed it. Use the phrase in Britain now and it will provoke ridicule rather than rapturous applause. There’s a growing sense that the cuts are hitting the poor more than the rich, the North more than the South and that the economic interests of leafy Surrey will always trump Stocksbridge or Solihull. Unless the Conservatives can rectify this impression in the North and Midlands, they will find it even harder to gain the seats they need for 2015.

A final thought. At some point in the future the Conservative Party might decide it needs to choose a leader who knows how to win in the North of England. David Davis and William Hague’s time has very probably passed. I’ve watched this debate twice now and I am impressed by Guy Opperman. He’s from the 2010 intake and no bookmaker has odds on him yet. Maybe they should.

Henry G Manson

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