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David Skelton: The midlands and northern challenge - where we hold only 16 of 124 urban seats

Skelton DaveDavid Skelton is a former Deputy Director of Policy Exchange. He is now establishing a campaign group aimed at broadening Conservative appeal, which will launch in July. Follow David on Twitter.

Take a look at the electoral map for the big Tory landslides since 1945 – whether it be Eden’s in 1955, Macmillan’s in 1959 or Thatcher’s in 1983. One thing becomes abundantly clear – a major contribution to big-post war election victories was winning seats in Scotland, the North and the Midlands. These leaders were winning seats in cities that have now become an electoral  wasteland for the Conservatives.

If the Conservatives cannot make significant headway in the urban centres in the North and Midlands, as well as making some kind of recovery in Scotland and picking up seats in the South West, it will be much more difficult for them to govern with an overall majority again. Being shut out from great swathes of the nation means that the party is starting each election campaign at a disadvantage. That’s why it’s so crucial that the Conservatives make a focused and determined effort to regain lost ground outside of its South Eastern heartland.

The scale of the problem is illustrated by the fact that the Tories hold less than a third of the seats in the North of England and only a single seat in Scotland. They hold only 20 of the 124 urban seats in the North and Midlands (that’s a mere 16 per cent). In cities where there was once a strong Tory presence, such as Newcastle, Sheffield, Manchester and Liverpool, conservatism has become very much a minority interest – there isn’t a single Tory Councillor in any of these cities and in most Council wards the party isn’t even in a challenging position.

In Liverpool, once a bastion of working class Toryism, the Party came a miserable seventh in last year’s election to be Mayor of the city – with just over four per cent of the vote, compared to the winning candidate’s 59 per cent. There isn’t much evidence that the situation has improved since then either. This morning’s YouGov poll, which gives Labour a nine point lead nationally, gives them an 11 per cent lead in the Midlands and Wales and a whopping 36 per cent lead in the North.

There is no easy solution for the Conservatives to win back ground in the North. Those who argue for a basic re-run of the 2001 and 2005 campaigns in pursuit of Northern votes ignore the fact that those campaigns produced catastrophic results in the North and Midlands. Instead, Conservatives have to work hard to show that they understand the needs and concerns of Northern and Midlands voters and are doing something about them.

It’s pretty clear that what matters most to voters nationwide is the cost of living. That was shown by Policy Exchange’s extensive ‘Northern Lights’ polling last year. And the same research showed that the cost of living mattered even more to voters in the North and Midlands than it does to voters elsewhere in the country. Research by the IFS showed that the five years since the financial crash has seen the biggest fall in real incomes of any comparable five year period.  

Other issues are far less important when voters are having trouble paying their bills and are worried about their job security. The cost of fuel, the cost of energy, the cost of housing and the cost of transport all matter to hard pressed voters.

The Government has taken welcome action of fuel duty over the past few months, but it needs to keep up the good work.  There’s still more that can be done to show voters that the Conservatives deeply empathise with voters who are feeling under pressure because of the cost of living. Continuing the measures to keep the price of fuel down would be widely welcomed. The Government can also do more to help households struggling with mounting energy bills, as well as making sure that it’s taking action to prevent vested interests using their dominant market position to rip off the consumer.

In many towns and cities in the North and Midlands, which have seen Tory representation nosedive in the past few decades, the Tory brand remains linked to high unemployment and the after effects of deindustrialisation. That is why particular effort needs to be made to link the modern Tory brand to job creation and tackling unemployment.  And, despite good news about private sector job creation outside of London and the South East, regional disparities remain stark. The economy in the North and Midlands has also not seen anything like the recovery that the South East has seen. Although the South Eastern economy is now larger than it was when the financial crisis hit, the economy in the North Eaast, for example, is 8 per cent below its 2008 level.

Government needs to ensure that the right infrastructure is in place to help growth and job creation flourish, as well as making sure that the planning regime promotes, rather than stifles, job creation. A modern industrial policy can play a big role in reviving parts of the North and Midlands, with a proud industrial and engineering heritage.

Of course, winning seats in the North and Midlands is about more than policy. If the Conservatives are to win over sceptical voters outside of their South Eastern heartland, they have to convince voters that the party isn’t a predominantly South Eastern, gilded party and they have to work hard to reverse the perception that the Conservatives are “the party of the rich.”  Making sure that MPs like Kris Hopkins, Esther McVey and Paul Uppal have prominent roles is a crucial part of this. Conservatives also need to remember that messages that go down well in the Home Counties aren’t necessarily going to resonate on the doorsteps of the North West or the Midlands. That’s why having distinctive local messages in target and non-target seats is so important.

It would also be wrong to ignore the growing UKIP presence in the North and Midlands. It would be wrong, however, to think that the way to combat UKIP is by aping them. Lord Ashcroft’s polling about UKIP showed that most UKIP voters are likely to agree that UKIP, rather than the mainstream parties, are “on the side of people like me.” The vote for UKIP is, to an extent, a protest against a political class seen as ‘out of touch’ and showing insufficient understanding towards people who are struggling to make ends meet. The best way to tackle UKIP is to set out a compelling message about the cost of living and job creation, as well as constantly remind people that only a Conservative Government will give the people a long overdue say on EU membership.

If the Conservatives are to  get over the line and win an overall majority at the next election, they have to win the key marginal seats in the North and Midlands, which form a good proportion of the top 40 target seats. But their ambitions outside of the South East have to go beyond that. At a time when the Liberal vote looks like haemorrhaging, there’s a chance for Conservatives to become the main challengers to Labour in seats where they’re presently marooned in third place. At the same time, Labour have become increasingly disengaged from its traditional support base (only 29 per cent of the skilled working class voted for Gordon Brown). With the right policies, the right message and the right presentation, now could be a time for the Conservatives to make a long overdue breakthrough outside of the South.


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