Mischa Balen: It's the North, stupid
Mischa Balen’s website is www.mischabalen.co.uk
For all the hype surrounding the Tories, they still have an awful lot to do. They can win local elections, they can lead in the polls, but if they can’t win Northern, Scottish or Welsh seats then they won’t be forming a government anytime soon. A recent poll carried out by Populus has found that Labour is loved in the North and loathed in the South with the Conservatives in exactly the opposite predicament. What is therefore needed is a concerted approach to win over Northern constituencies.
In a first past the post system, the Tories can’t simply rely on boosting their votes in the South of England, something they’ve been getting quite good at over the last two or three years: they need to win seats in other regions if they are to form a government. Yet the North of England, Scotland, and Wales all risk becoming one party regions. One reason for this is that the Labour government has been pumping money into the North. As the Times notes,
"[P]ublic spending per head in some northern regions of Britain is 27 per cent higher than it is in the South. In the North East in 2004-05, the Government shelled out £7,167 per person for public services; in the South East it was £5,624."
What’s more, one in five people across England are employed in the public sector, but in the North East it’s one in four. This isn’t quite a case of Labour buying, and the South bankrolling, voters in the North, but it comes pretty close, and it is something which will require a strategy from CCHQ to win votes.
So, what are the problems and how can they be fixed? The first problem that the Conservatives suffer from is their image. Whenever Conservatives appear on Television, they sound patronising and, well, Southern. If voters in Northern and Scottish wards are to recognise that the Tories care about their day to day lives, then we need to have more Tory MPs and spokespeople who voters can identify with. Ultimately, this means that local constituencies should select local Tories for seats in the North, Scotland and Wales.
This problem is the same one that the Democrats have suffered in America. They are viewed as elitist, out of touch North East coast liberal intellectuals, who have no understanding of nor a wish to engage with rural folk in Mid West states. Exit polls in 2004 demonstrated that voters considered Democrats to be socially aloof while they felt that Republicans articulated their moral values. In other words, Republicans didn’t talk down to them. The Conservatives could learn a thing or two from their American counterparts.
The second area the Conservatives need to focus on is policy. It’s always very tricky for the opposition party to formulate policies in advance of a general election, because good ones will inevitably be stolen and bad ones laughed at. What they can do, however, is change their language and the general emphasis of their ideas: David Cameron should talk about small business, the housing ladder and job opportunities, and he needs to guarantee that public services will be well handled by a Tory administration: the NHS is consistently at the top of voters’ priorities. This will mean supporting current levels of public investment in the North; depriving people of money won’t help them win votes.
The three policy areas of business, jobs and housing are key. Cameron needs to focus on red tape, as well as incentives for small business, because of the opportunities such enterprise has for regenerating cities. The message should be that everyone deserves access to a good job and that cities work best when social enterprise is allowed to flourish. Tying in Gordon Brown’s mistakes as Chancellor to this policy would hit the Scottish politician doubly hard.
Housing is a problem for many cities up North and the Tories must pledge to ensure decent, affordable housing for all by expanding supply and by ensuring that vacant homes are properly redeveloped. Cameron should ensure people get fair access to decent homes.
This needs to be tied in to a package of regeneration, which will promise more and better paid jobs, more and better homes, and more social enterprise. The Tories don’t even have a councillor in many great Northern cities, let alone control any of them. Without an example of an efficient and low-tax council to trumpet it will be a long hard slog until 2009.
Thirdly, it would be sensible for the Conservatives to involve people in the discussion of what they believe needs doing. Tory MPs and senior staff members should be out there, week in week out, listening to people in Northern cities. They need to listen, rather than preach.
One area in which the Tories hold a rare and decisive advantage with the voters is over crime. Cameron ought to pledge to tackle people who cheat society and to be tough on petty criminals. Every city centre suffers from crime so this will always be a winning policy.
But is this all really necessary? The Electoral Reform Society took the results of the local elections, in which the Conservatives beat Labour by 40% to 26%, and using the results, extrapolated them to 121 of Labour’s most vulnerable 200 MPs. Matching local results from within a constituency to general election projections is always risky, but if the survey is accurate the Tories would win over 100 seats from Labour. This would almost be enough for an overall Parliamentary majority.
It is more than necessary to shift the focus from North to South. The Tories are unlikely to beat Labour at the next election by as large a percentage as they did in the local elections. They therefore need to take back Northern seats if they are to return to Number 10.
The Conservatives face a daunting task, but not an insurmountable one. By changing the face of the party through selecting more regionally diverse candidates, and by changing their language and policy focus, they will begin to win back the trust and support of voters in the North, Scotland and Wales: support that is vital to electoral success. The Tories should offer three pledges: tough on criminals who cheat society, fair access to decent homes and to decent jobs, and regeneration and opportunity for Northern cities. They’ll also have to bite the bullet and recommend public investment.