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How Conservatives might reach the North and address its "party of the rich" challenge

By Tim Montgomerie
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On ConHome yesterday Paul Goodman dug deeply into Lord Ashcroft's new research and its insights into the Tory challenge among ethnic minority Britons. Today I offer a summary of research undertaken by Policy Exchange (PX) on the North/South divide (one of Majority Conservatism's big themes). Throughout this blog the page numbers referred to relate to this PDF of the Policy Exchange report.

Winning the North2

I pay tribute to Neil O'Brien, Policy Excxhange's Director, for putting this important piece of work together. As I've blogged before, in its second decade PX is adopting a very welcome focus on the striving classes. Neil has written about 'Modernisation 2.0' for today's Guardian.


The public sector dimension to the North / South divide

Working class (DE) voters in the South are more likely to vote Conservative than middle class (AB) voters in the North (page 5) but there is an important public/ private sector split to this. In households, for example, where both adults work in the public sector the Conservatives lag by 32%. Where there's one public sector worker the deficit is 18%. Where all workers are private sector the Conservative lead is 9% (page 26).

The problem of being in third place

Three-way marginals have become rare and in their place have emerged a series of different two horse races (largely between Con and Lab, Con and Lib Dem or Lab and Lib Dem - Scotland is obviously different). This has meant when a party falls into third place it falls into a poor third place (page 7). If the Tories are third-placed in a lot of northern cities this can mean the party's overall vote share falls quite steeply:

  • In the 286 seats where Con and Lab battle it out the average Lib Dem percentage is just 17.1%;
  • In the 203 Lib/ Con races Labour wins just 12.7%;
  • In the 95 Lab / Lib contests the Conservatives win an average of just 16.9% (page 8).

The Conservatives have no councillors at all in Newcastle, Liverpool, Manchester or Sheffield (since the 1990s) while Labour has no council presence on 66 different shire and unitary councils (page 12 and map on page 15). The Tories haven't retreated from all cities, however. They remain competitive in Birmingham, Bradford, Leeds and Salford, for example.

The Tories don't have a Northern problem so much but a Northern cities problem

The Conservatives hold 71% of the largely rural seats in the North and Midlands. The Tory problem is predominantly in the Northern cities (page 11). The total Tory advantage over Labour is +42% in the rural South but is a deficit of an almost equal amount (-43%) in Northern cities (page 25).

The North West is particularly worrying for the Conservatives

The North/South divide narrative hides important colour. We know the Tories have collapsed in Scotland, the North-East and increasingly the North West. The party has, however, made significant advances in the Midlands, South and Yorkshire. The party, for example, held 30% of seats in Yorks and Humberside in 1951 but 35% now. But in the North West it has slumped from 51% to 29%. In the East Midlands, however, it's gone from 37% of all seats to 67% (page 10).

Class is not as important as it once was...

Most academic research suggests that class is a less important factor than in the past in determining voting behaviour (chart, page 18). Most important is a sense of a party and leader's competence. More important, too, are a party's positions on questions of health, for example, education and welfare. Factors such as "falling trade union membership, declining numbers of people in social housing [and] shrinking numbers of workers in traditional blue collar jobs" drove the Blairite revolution and the formation of New Labour (page 19).

...but hasn't gone away...

Lord Ashcroft recently concluding that (page 21): “The biggest barrier, which was not overcome by election day and remains in place for most of them, is the perception (which Tories are sick of hearing about but is real nonetheless) that the Conservative Party is for the rich, not for people like them.”

There is confusion about what it means to be in the political centre

Lord Ashcroft has argued (page 21) that "a firm approach to law and order is the very essence of the centre ground". He has also said that, in these economically-difficult times, the cost of living has moved centre stage. Liam Byrne largely agrees, identifying fiscal responsibility, value for money government and a tougher, more demanding welfare system as "the new centre ground" (page 22).

The five things that voters most want politicians to do are cost of living issues (page 30):

  • 50% want lower energy bills;
  • 43% want a reduction in fuel duty;
  • 26% want lower income tax;
  • 26% want lower VAT;
  • 22% want lower council tax.

A Maggie problem?

The Policy Exchange report didn't find much evidence of a 'Thatcher problem' in the North (page 31): "While Mrs Thatcher was relatively less favourably rated in the North than the South, even there she was more favourably rated than any other leader except Tony Blair."

Regionalisation of public sector pay may be a real problem for the party if it is to make short-term progress in the North

While, by 52% to 33%, people in the South agreed that “public sector workers in areas where the cost of living is high should be paid more than public sector workers in less expensive places”. People in the North were opposed by 47% to 38% (page 34).

Winning policies in the North

The idea that “Criminals should be given longer sentences, even if that means we have to build more prisons” enjoyed more support in the North, than the South (page 34). People in the North were also most opposed to immigration, less satisfied with their local councils, more opposed to green policies as a waste of money and, overall, more pessimistic about Britain's future (page 35). Thedy also most strongly feel that they don't get their fair share of central government funds (chart, page 36). This may be both an anti-Scotland and anti-London thing. Despite the idea that HS2 was a Tory ticket to Northern hearts, voters in the North reject is as poor value for money (by 53% to 32%, page 36).

Addressing the Party of the Rich problem

In shedding the "party of the rich label", "cutting tax for low earners, reducing the cost of living and reducing unemployment" are the most potent ways forward. "Clamping down on rip-off business, tackling poverty and raising tax on the rich come next." Voters don't want increasing benefit spending. That came bottom of the table (page 41, reproduced below):

Screen Shot 2012-04-29 at 19.48.41

Looking more like the country we seek to serve

Away from policies there was a hunger for candidates with more real world experience, from working class, Northern backgrounds and also with a background in business. As the table below shows, these factors were much more important than the gender and ethnicity of the candidate (page 43):

Screen Shot 2012-04-29 at 19.53.55

One interesting postscript

According to the Policy Exchange research, the Conservatives tend to do best amongst the mid-educated. People who left school at 16 and those with higer degrees are least Conservatives but those who left at 18 with A-levels are most Conservative (page 26).


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