Does the Conservative Party have a northern problem?
The Conservative Party face a number of problems that they will have to overcome if they are to win in 2015, but perhaps their greatest challenge is how to win over voters in the north of England. It should be said straight away that ‘the north’ is not one homogenous entity devoid of voters sympathetic to the Conservative cause, but recent electoral history does suggest that in the north Conservative MPs and councillors are becoming an increasingly rare breed. Between 1992 and 2010, the Conservative Party’s share of votes in the North East fell from 30.8% to 23.7%, and in the North West from 38.4% to 31.7%. In 2010, despite its worse election result in 90 years, Labour still managed to win 25 of the 29 constituencies in the North East and 47 of the 75 constituencies in the North West. Looking to Yorkshire and Humberside, Labour retained 35 of the 54 constituencies.
Results in the most recent northern constituency by-elections suggest the Party has not managed to increase its northern appeal. In the 2013 South Shields by-election it received 11% of the vote, less than half that of second place UKIP. In Bradford West in 2011, George Galloway steamrollered everyone, and the Conservatives came third with 8.4% of the vote. You might say that this is not surprising given that by-elections are often occasions when voters give the government of the day a kick in the polls, but these are the kind of seats that the party should be targeting to win, or at least seriously contesting in 2015, if they are to gain any sort of foothold in the north. Even when contesting by-elections in opposition, the Conservative Party has not truly managed to break through. They overturned a 7,000 majority to win Crewe and Nantwich in 2008 from Labour but even at the height of Gordon Brown’s unpopularity, it proved to be a false dawn. Prior to Crewe and Nantwich the last by-election the Conservatives won in the north was the Cumbrian constituency of Workington in 1976.
Beyond representation in Westminster, the outlook for the Conservatives is little better. In previous years the party could boast MPs in large northern cities like Newcastle, Manchester, Sheffield and Liverpool. Now they do not have a single MP to their name in these cities. And with no Conservative Councillors in these cities either, there is a limited political base from which to build. Their flagship policy of Police and Crime Commissioners has not yielded the regional political influence that it was surely created to achieve. Across northern regions in 2012, 8 PCC elections were contested, yielding the election of only 2 Conservative candidates. And in the 2012, in the Liverpool Mayoral election the Conservative candidate came 7th, although they did manage second place in Salford. Clearly the Conservatives have a problem reaching out to people outside of their heartland, and it’s rather ambitious to claim to be the ‘One Nation’ Party when the majority of your voter base is concentrated in only one half of the country.
Their problem is both presentation and policy. Presentation-wise, many voters in the north of England see them as the party of the rich and even more damaging, the party of the southern rich. They are still seen as the ‘Nasty Party’, the Party of high unemployment, of Thatcher and of mine closures. All these may have been consigned to history, but this perception will never go away as long as individuals associated with the Party describe the north as a “desolate wasteland”. If they are to regain the ‘One Nation’ Party crown, Conservatives will need to remove these elements and find new ways to broaden their appeal.
How can they achieve this? Not through superficial rhetoric but through demonstrable policies that people in the north can identify with. Implementing policies that deal with long-term problems facing people in the north, and not short-term gimmicks or headline grabbers will go some way to show they are on the side of people. An easy win would be to raise the minimum wage, something which they have baulked at in the past, and some in the Party continue to do so. In 2012 for instance, gross weekly earnings in the North East were the lowest in the UK. With some of the lowest rates of new-build housing, another way to attract more northern votes would be to undertake a swifter house-building programme. They need to be the champion of the consumer as much as a champion for businesses that supply consumers. This means tackling the rising costs of living. But when senior Conservatives are unable to empathise with people who have resorted to regular use of food banks, it is a strong indicator that some elements of the party still do not understand the current hardships of many people.
The Conservatives’ 2010 election manifesto pledged to “work to reduce the very high marginal tax rates faced by many people on low incomes who want to return to work or increase their earnings”. They should be commended, along with their coalition partners for following through on this by having lifted some quarter of a million people out of paying tax altogether. But how many people read party manifestos? The perception is still that Liberal Democrats have been the driving force behind this, and if in office alone the Conservatives would not have bothered.
Conservatives gathered in Manchester this week for their annual party conference, with the theme being ‘for hard working people’. Under pressure from Miliband’s surprise announcement the week before the Conservatives really need to spell out clearly how they would help people and families in the north and elsewhere. This certainly won’t be fully realised within the next two years. It will take much longer, and a culture shift from within the Party will be needed to achieve this.