As Lewis Baston has demonstrated, some parts of the country have turned more blue during the last 50 years and some less. Nowhere in England is the latter trend demonstrated more starkly than in Liverpool, where the Conservative presence has not so much declined as disappeared. In 1960, the Party held six Commons seats in the city. Now it has none, and not a single councillor. Indeed, the Party’s Liverpool problem is a wider Merseyside one. The area has 15 constituences. In 2010, the Tories won only a single seat there, Wirral West. Last May, as David Cameron won seats elsewhere, he lost it, and Esther McVey, its incumbent.
The conventional explanation of the Conservative leaving of Liverpool is that it was caused by Margaret Thatcher. But, as David Jeffrey has proved on this site, the decline and fall of the Party in the city began well before her premiership, and gathered pace fastest during the Heath Government. He cites as reasons the decline of Protestantism as a political force (as in Scotland) and the rise of third party politics (the progress of the Liberals in Liverpool during the 1970s was spectacular).
The decline of the city’s traditional industries from the middle of that decade, as elsewhere, was also a powerful factor as the Party’s economic thinking gradually shifted to the right – or, more accurately, away from interventionism to markets. The tension between these two ways of thinking was embodied in two men. In the wake of the Toxteth riots, Geoffrey Howe suggested that the best approach to the city would be one of “managed decline”. At roughly the same, Michael Heseltine was writing his famous paper “It took a riot”, which championed Government-driven regeneration – a cause he was to spearhead himself as “Minister for Merseyside”.
Those riots were a sign of the city’s changing psychology. In the 1960s, Liverpool seemed to be on the rise, boasting the Beatles, the beat poets, and two League title wins for both the city’s main football teams. By the 1980s, mass unemployment had set in. The Heysel Stadium disaster in 1985 saw 39 people die, mostly Italians, and 14 Liverpool fans sentenced for manslaughter in its aftermath. The incident which sparked the calamity off – a group of those supporters breaching a fence – was part of a wider story of football violence during the decade. This helped to shape a harsh view of football fans in general.
Such was the background to the penning-in of fans which, combined with large numbers, the ground’s inadequacy and police mismanagement, led to the Hillsborough disaster – and the aftermath of police deceit exposed by this week’s inquest findings. More broadly, there is a local sense in some quarters that while Manchester is at the centre of the Government’s thinking about political and economic revival, Liverpool is on the margins. Joe Anderson, the Mayor, is running a campaign for HS2 to extend to the city. Anderson is Labour but has worked closely with Greg Clark in drumming up funds for investment in the city: indeed, the very first City deal was Liverpool’s.
Clark’s work is a reminder of the Party’s commitment to the City – just as the Spectator’s notorious 2004 editorial about Hillsborough was a sign of lingering hostility on parts of the Right, at least then. The two trends met in the dispatch of Boris Johnson, then both the magazine’s editor and a front-bench Conservative MP, by Michael Howard to the city to apologise in person. (The then Conservative leader has been a Liverpool football fan since childhood, and contested a Parliamentary seat in the city twice.)
Derek Hatton is long gone, Anderson is in place, his political relationship with Clark continues – and, all this while, Heseltine has maintained his interest in the city. The former Deputy Prime Minister currently sits outside the Communites Secretary’s office as a political adviser to him. In 2012, he was given the freedom of the city and spoke, during the ceremony at which it was awarded, of the regeneration of the Albert Dock and the creation of the Garden Festival site. He will follow events in Liverpool closely. Perhaps David Cameron should quietly put him in charge of a push to revive the Conservative political presence in Merseyside.