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Dr Nick Randall: The challenge for Conservatives in the North

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.

It is easy to imagine that memories of past Conservative governments and particularly Thatcherite economic policies present a further obstacle. However, such memories are likely to be strongest in communities that were never natural Conservative territory. Former pit villages, for example, cast few Conservative votes even before the Miners' Strike. Secondly, the party enjoyed relative electoral success (39% of northern seats in 1987 and 33% in 1992) even when memories of deindustrialisation were much more vivid than today.

It is also easy to believe that the north is a citadel of left-wing ideology.  However, the British Social Attitudes surveys shows that the last decade has witnessed both a rightward shift in the north and a narrowing of the north-south ideological gap. Indeed, it now appears that the south is to the left of the north in its support for higher welfare benefits (click on the chart to enlarge):

Ideologicalbeliefsnorthsouth However, there remain problems for the party in the north. Margaret Thatcher’s scolding of the “moaning minnies” lamenting northern unemployment in 1985, the Spectator’s 2004 editorial noting Liverpool’s “deeply unattractive psyche” and the 2008 Policy Exchange report proposing mass migration from northern cities testify to the uncanny knack those associated with the party have for offending northern sensibilities.

The problem is evident in a February 2007 Populus poll.  Only 37% of northern respondents felt that the party “understands and speaks for people in my part of the country as much as any other part of Britain”. 64% felt regarded the party as “more the voice of people in the South of England than of the whole country” while 50% believed that “The Conservative Party seems to have a patronising attitude to people in the North of England”.

Secondly, party organisation in the north appears relatively weak. Local associations with an income or expenditure in excess of £25,000 are required to submit accounts to the Electoral Commission and analysis of returns provides a crude index of party strength. Since, the strongest parties are generally those already returning Conservative MPs, the smaller overall proportion in the north returning accounts isn’t surprising. Yet while the proportion of associations in notionally Conservative held seats at the next election generally holds up well, the return amongst northern target seats (along with those in the East of England) falls short of other English regions (click on the chart to enlarge):

Returnstotheelectoralcommission Conservatives shouldn’t despair over their position in the north of England. Socio-economics, memory and ideology are not the obstacles one might think. Moreover, that the party’s first by-election gain from Labour in thirty years came in the north and that there are now more Conservative northern councillors than since the mid-1980s is an important demonstration of the northern credibility of the party. However, the next general election will still represent a significant test. An image that remains discordant with many northern voters and relatively weak organisation in target seats will not assist the party as it seeks to demonstrate that its recent northern successes represent more than a reflexive and temporary protest against an unpopular government.


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