A key element of Conservative modernisation was that the party should put themselves in a position where the party gained permission, from the voters, to be listened to. Many in the North are still not listening to the Conservatives. And the Tories must take steps to change that.
A start would be for Conservatives to acknowledge the historical reasons that have created a cultural anti-Toryism in parts of the North, where many still associate Conservatives with deindustrialisation, unemployment and the social problems that followed in their wake.
Dealing with this might include a vocal realisation from Conservative politicians that, whilst economic changes were necessary, social consequences of those changes damaged communities and social cohesion. Whilst Conservatives have issued a mea culpa around policies towards gay people and other groups, gaining them greater credibility within those communities, they have still to address discontent in the North.
Such a move can only go so far. Addressing past issues is important, but far less important than proposing solutions for social and economic problems facing the North.
Empathising with Northern voters
Conservative strategists also need to consider addressing the fact that, despite a series of changes, the Party still looks and sounds like a Southern party. Despite the presence of William Hague and Eric Pickles in the Cabinet, the Government still has a gilded, mainly Southern feel.
Polls show that the Conservatives are still viewed as a “party of the rich” – this perception is particularly damaging in many parts of the North. The Conservatives must look to broaden their social base, so that people in the North can identify and relate with those representing the Party.
Policies focused on the North
The Government can also take proactive policy steps for the North. It needs to make clear that it understands that the North has unique challenges, which require unique solutions. An added headache for Conservatives is that the North is more dependent than other parts of the country on public sector jobs and, as such, is likely to be impacted most by public spending cuts.
Efforts to deliver growth and create private sector jobs must be redoubled in the North and the Conservatives must go out of their way to emphasise particular steps being taken to create jobs in the North. They must make clear that they aren’t prepared to accept high unemployment and are taking real measures to encourage private sector job creation. Measures to reform welfare, enhance state education and cut energy bills could also play well with lower and middle income earners in the North.
For some in the Conservative Party, the North still represents an electoral no-go area. Such a view leaves the party hamstrung and facing an uphill electoral climb at each election. They should not accept that continuing to struggle in the North is inevitable. The Conservatives must do more to properly address reasons for past poor performance in the North and set out positive reasons for Northern voters to back the party.