Dr Nick Randall is a Senior Lecturer in British Politics at the University of Newcastle. This Platform piece is a version of a paper that Dr Randall presented at The Centre for British Politics' recent conference on Cameron's Conservatives. It is the first of a number of papers we hope to publish from the conference.
Northern England hasn’t always been hostile territory for the Conservatives. Over 45% of northern constituencies returned Conservative MPs in 1955 and 1959. Under Margaret Thatcher the party secured 42% of northern seats in 1983. Even in 1992 the party won a third of the north’s seats. Yet just 17 northern Conservative MPs withstood the party’s rout in 1997 and by 2005 the 19 northern seats won suggested an improvement that was barely perceptible.
That the party’s northern decline has been shallower than in Scotland or Wales - nor on the scale encountered by Labour in the south of England prior to 1997 - is of limited consolation. A quarter of the seats the party needs to secure a workable majority are in the north. At worst, a stalled northern revival could deprive the party of a majority at the next election. At best, underperformance in the north will require compensating gains elsewhere but in so doing would cast doubt upon David Cameron’s ambition “to govern for the whole country, not just a part of it” and question the extent of the party’s modernisation and ‘detoxification’. Powerful incentives therefore exist to engineer a northern revival.
Some might see the socio-economics of the north as an obstacle to that objective. A north-south socio-economic divide persists. The north has more public sector jobs, higher trade union membership and lower levels of entrepreneurship than the south. However, such a divide is fuzzy - unemployment is higher in the West Midlands and London and public expenditure per head is considerably higher in London than the north. Furthermore, the north has its archipelagos of wealth. That Sheffield, for example, contains one of the richest constituencies outside London (Hallam) as well as one of the most deprived (Brightside) demonstrates the socio-economic heterogeneity of the north.
This mirrors the Conservative task. The Conservatives must win a socio-economically diverse range of northern constituencies. Not only will the party need to win affluent seats like Cheadle and Leeds North West they will also need victories in less affluent seats as Bradford West. Recent electoral history reminds us that, in the context of an increasingly de-aligned electorate, that they can do so. If Margaret Thatcher could win over affluent working class voters in the south, in principle David Cameron can do the same in the north.