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David Skelton: How to win in the North. Action on fuel duty, planning, job creation - and an industrial strategy

Skelton DaveDavid Skelton is the Deputy Director of Policy Exchange. Follow him on Twitter.

Last Thursday, the Conservatives lost their deposit in Manchester Central – they came in a distant third and only five votes ahead of UKIP. It illustrates the depth of the ‘Northern crisis’ that has bedevilled the Conservatives since the 1980s. The Tories have a Northern problem, and if they don’t fix their Northern problem it’s unlikely that they will be able to govern with a sustainable overall majority.

The latest YouGov poll gives Labour a 34 per cent lead in the North, compared to 11 per cent nationally.  A massive 64 per cent of people in the North say that they disapprove of the Government’s record to date, with only 18 per cent in the North saying that the Government is “good for people like you.”. 

Northern, working class Toryism - once a real and thriving political force - has now become an endangered species. Disraeli’s ‘angels in marble’ have been replaced with a culture of anti-Toryism in many cities in the North. If Conservatives don’t address that fact, their long term political ambitions will be thwarted.

Many of the great Northern cities have no Northern representation at all – voting Tory in parts of the North has become counter cultural.  Manchester, with no Conservative councillors and by-election where the Tories gained a mere 4.5 per cent of the vote is a stark example of the Tory urban decline. But no Northern city illustrates the size of the decline of the Northern, working class vote more than Liverpool.

When Harold Macmillan won the general election of 1959, Liverpool remained a bastion of working class Toryism. Of the ten Liverpool MPs elected in 1959, six of them were Tories.  In 2012, the Conservative Party doesn’t have a single MP or Councillor in the whole of Liverpool.

And the extent of Tory decline in the city was summed up in the Mayoral election in Liverpool this May.  In the city that was once as close to a Conservative heartland as the urban North ever got, the national governing party came a miserable seventh.  In coming seventh they could only muster 4,425 votes – compared to Labour’s 58,000.  Seventh place meant that, in a major population centre, the Tories came behind the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, an Independent candidate, a ‘Trade Unionist and Socialist’ and a ‘Liberal’.

It’s a remarkable testament to a dramatic Conservative Northern decline in recent decades.    There’s not a single Tory councillor or MP in Newcastle, Manchester or Sheffield. In seats where the Conservatives were once in first place, they are now in a distant third – languishing far behind Labour and the Liberal Democrats.

The Tories cannot be seen as a national party of government when great swathes of the country not only don’t vote for them but would never consider voting for them.  If Conservatives do not take steps to change this, their ambitions may be limited to participating in more coalition, rather than Tory majority, governments.

Of course, Tories aren’t going to win back seats in places like Manchester or Liverpool overnight – the effects of deindustrialisation and the toxicity of the Conservative brand in some Northern urban centres makes that too steep a hill to climb. But developing policies that appeal to blue collar voters in the North can make the Tories competitive in the cities again, as well as giving them a much better chance in the marginal seats in the North and Midlands, which hold the key to the next election.

I’ve argued in the past that the Conservatives need more candidates from northern, working class backgrounds.  And that was supported by polling for our ‘Northern Lights’ research, which showed that more working class representatives would help the Tories look more representative of the country.  Undoubtedly, if Northern voices like Kris Hopkins or Esther McVey were used more regularly in high profile media appearances, that would give the Conservatives a better chance of appearing ‘in touch’ with Northern voters. But there’s no point in Tory MPs seeming more representative if Northern voters don’t like the policies they’re standing for or aren’t prepared to listen to what the Conservatives have to say.

There’s no ‘quick policy fix’ for Tories in the North, but there are at least three areas Conservatives should be exploring as they look to restore their standing in the North. Our research showed that ‘cost of living’ issues – the cost of fuel and the cost of energy bills – are the priority for most voters and overwhelmingly so for voters in the North. Action on cost of living issues would at least illustrate to Northern voters that the Conservative shared and understood their day-to-day concerns.

Reconsidering a scheduled fuel duty increase would certainly be a good start. In the longer term, abandoning the EU's hugely expensive and unnecessary Renewable Energy Directive could save billions which could in turn be used to put pressure on the energy companies to reduce electricity bills. 

Housing could also be a fruitful area for Tories in the North. A survey for Shelter showed that one in five 31-44 year olds who don’t have children are delaying doing so because of the cost of housing. The average age of a first time buyer is now 37. By loosening planning laws, so that houses are built where people actually want to live, the Government could help Northern cities expand, regenerate and discover a new vibrancy. And planning reforms should be explicitly marketed as a way to generate growth in Northern cities and help young people get on the housing ladder.

The collapse in the Conservative northern vote is also connected with the party being connected with unemployment and de-industrialisation. Any strategy to recapture Tory votes will need to be connected to a focus on job creation in the North and Midlands and an acceptance that, through an industrial strategy, government can help to create the right conditions for job creation.

There is no silver bullet for the Conservative in the North – for more than a generation the Tory vote in the North has been going through phases of collapse and decay and that can’t be turned around instantly. The Tories need to start developing a strategy that will allow them to be competitive with blue collar, Northern voters.  If they fail to do this, their chances of winning a majority in 2015 will look increasingly slim.


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