Today’s Telegraph (which sees the very welcome return of Janet Daley to its editorial pages) has a frontpage story on the ways in which the Conservative Party is "piling up votes in London and the Home Counties while failing to make any significant inroads north of the Trent".
The same YouGov survey that gave the Tories a 6% nationwide lead (see last week’s report here) finds that the party has a 47% to 22% lead in London (that should encourage some mayoral candidates to step forward!) but a 30% to 40% deficit in ‘the North’ (that is the North East, North West and Yorkshire and Humberside).
Philip Johnston, analysing the survey for the Telegraph, notes that its results are in line with May 4th’s local election results:
"Although the Conservatives did well in this month’s elections in England, half of all the seats they gained were in London, whereas in the rest of England they averaged scarcely one seat gain per council."
Although the Conservatives do not need to win a majority of seats in the English north it does need to improve on its current 10% share of the regions’ seats. Without winning more seats in the north – and in Wales and Scotland – a Conservative government will lack legitimacy in the eyes of many UK citizens. Furthermore, without a northern breakthrough, a parliamentary majority will be difficult to achieve. With LibDems holding seats from Torquay and Taunton in the west to Romsey and Richmond Park in the south, the Tories can no longer rely on as many southern constituencies (hence the growing talk of a Libservative pact).
What can be done about achieving that northern breakthrough?
- One of the most important things might be selecting more genuinely local candidates for northern seats. The quotas underpinning the Conservative Party’s A-list focus on gender and ethnicity. The party may have been better advised to have sought and trained high quality people from the northern cities and counties so that the party began to have more of a northern feel. Andrew Woodman’s proposal for a candidates academy and Robert Halfon’s suggestion of candidate bursaries both deserve serious consideration.
- A big barrier to cross will be that of the ‘supplicant state‘. As The Telegraph points out: "Public spending in parts of the North accounts for almost 60 per cent of the economy – a level of intervention as high as in some old communist states – compared to just 30 per cent in the South. Labour’s vote is managing to hold up in areas where the economy depends on high public spending, whereas the Tories are doing better in areas that pay more in taxes but feel they get less back from central government." The Tories will never be able to outbid Labour in terms of public spending and a Conservative strategy to supercharge economic growth may be the best way of avoiding a zero-sum game in north-south relations. John Redwood’s Competitiveness Policy Group has a crucial role to play here.
- There are other concerns of northern battlers that should preoccupy Conservative strategists. David Cameron’s greener and gentler Conservatism has made the party more socially acceptable to the values voters of the English south but tough policies on crime, higher school standards and patriotic policies may do more to rebuild Tory support amongst the northern striving classes.
- Better campaigning may also help. Conservatives need to be brave in taking resources away from ‘safe seats’ and pouring them into target seats. Labour votes are currently much more ‘efficient’ – it takes just under 27,000 super-sized voters to elect a Labour MP but over 44,000 voters to elect a Tory MP. Boundary commission changes and the effect that David Cameron is having on reducing anti-Tory tactical voting will reduce that ‘vote inefficiency’ but an overhaul of campaigning tactics will also be essential.