Professor Tim Bale is Chair of Politics at Queen Mary University of London and is the author and editor of three books on the Conservative Party.
Quite what Lord Howell meant when he called the North – or at least the eastern half of it – “desolate”, we can’t be altogether sure. But if he’d been referring to a land largely denuded of Tory representation many would have agreed with him.
Yet there are, lest we forget, Conservative MPs who win seats there – some of them very big beasts indeed, William Hague and George Osborne being the stand-out examples. Their presence, and the characteristics of their constituencies, highlight the fact that the primary problem for the Tories in the north isn’t so much one of longitude and latitude as a failure to persuade people who live in its urban conurbations to even consider voting Conservative.
The party suffers from an even more severe “neighbourhood effect” in the north than Labour does in the south. In other words, even those people whose lifestyle, education and income would, if they lived south of London (or even Birmingham), very likely see them voting Conservative are much less likely to do so if they live instead in, say, Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield or Liverpool.
The problem is just as bad in local as it is in parliamentary elections. It also affects not only people’s propensity to vote Tory but their enthusiasm (or, more accurately, their lack of enthusiasm) for joining the party at the grassroots – one reason why the Conservative Party on the ground is, in large parts of the urban north, utterly moribund.
So what’s the solution? Some would say there isn’t one. Just as some businesses have to admit they’ve been beaten out of a particular market or are simply unable, despite their best efforts, to enter it, perhaps the Conservatives should just cut their losses, forget all about what looks like a fool’s errand, and concentrate instead on sweating their considerable electoral assets in the South?
That may be tempting but it would be a bad idea, and not just because it would undermine the party’s claim to represent the whole of the country. For one thing, what happened to the party in Scotland should serve as a dire warning to those who think that, even if things are unlikely to get better for the Tories in the north, they probably can’t get any worse. Well, they can and they will – unless something is done and done soon.
Although Labour’s difficulties in the South are serious, it can nevertheless win elections – as it showed in 2005 – without picking up many seats in the home and coastal counties of the South-East, primarily because there are plenty of Midlands marginals and because it has a lock on large parts of London. The Conservatives, on the other hand, are going to find it very difficult to win a convincing (or at least comfortable) overall majority unless they up their game (and their gains) in the north.
The problem is that doing something about all this requires a long-term perspective from a bunch of people with short attention spans and even shorter time-horizons. Unless the party realises it will take as long to unwind what’s happened as it did to create the mess in the first place, then all the initiatives it tries – and there have been many over the years – will come to naught.
Of the recent suggestions on how to improve matters, there are at least a couple which may actually make a difference. One is George Osborne’s attempt to show he cares by talking about improving transport links: easy to sneer at but I suspect it stands at least a chance of beginning to thaw attitudes – as long, that is, as he eventually puts his money where his mouth is.
The other is more daring but is, I think, a nettle that simply has to be grasped. The party should embrace electoral reform – at least for local elections. People aren’t stupid. They understand that right now a vote for the Tories in many areas is a complete waste of time, so they simply don’t bother. Give them at least a slither of hope by introducing, say, the Single Transferable Vote, and they may gradually begin to feel they can make a difference.
Once Tories can get elected in northern cities at a local level, then it raises the possibility that they can get elected to parliament too – even if only in the more affluent, suburban constituencies they used to represent.
All this will be a long, thankless, but hopefully not fruitless, task. Better start sooner rather than later – because later may be too late.
This is an article from the latest edition of Bright Blue’s magazine, entitled “From Global Empire to the Global Race: modern Britishness”, out now.