By Paul Goodman
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The two big inter-Govenment debates of the moment are set against a southern backdrop. Any big airport expansion will take place in the greater south-east. So would any dash for housing, were it made easier to build on the green belt (and the building actually to take place, but that's another story). Grant Shapps's piece today in our Comment section contributes to the discussion, since it contains a sublimal message: we don't need to build on the green belt, because there are other sites on which to place houses.
The next election could turn on a small group of West London seats were the Government to U-turn on Heathrow. But this concentration on the south, exercised by a media class who by and large are based in the capital, is in danger of missing a simple point: namely that, as I argue in today's Daily Telegraph, the electoral problem for the Tories is not in the south (though there's certainly one in London). In 1951, we won 87% of its seats. In 2010, another close election some 60 years later, we gained 88%.
No, the main challenge is elsewhere. Look at the table above from Policy Exchange's Northern Lights report (see Tim Montgomerie's take on it here), and compare the 1951 and 2010 results. In 1951, our support was more evenly spread: we had 41% of the seats in Scotland, for example. In 2010, we did significantly better in the midlands – particularly in the East Midlands, where we took over two-thirds of the seats - and slightly better in Yorkshire. But look at the figure for the north-west: we have gone from holding half the seats to under a third.
In other words, David Cameron's fate at the next election is likely to turn on results outside the greater south-east: so given the collapse of the party's position in Scotland, he needs to at least hold his position in the midlands and to improve it in the north-west, which is in danger of going the way of the north-east. "Northern Lights" argues that at a Parliamentary level there are now three main electoral contests in Britain: Conservative v LibDem in the south, Conservative v Labour in the midlands…and Labour v LibDem in the urban north.
It would be a mistake to claim that northern voters are utterly different from their southern cousins. But Policy Exchange's research did find some differences. In crude terms, it suggested that the former's instincts on economic matters sit uneasily with some Conservative views – doubtless because of the greater size of the public sector outside the south-east – but that on social ones they marry up more comfortably. A Northern Conservative electoral strategy wouldn't yield instant success (and I am suspicious of too much electoral segmentation).
None the less, a northern strategy would stress the following:
- Getting immigration down. Policy Exchange's polling found even stronger support for controlling immigration among northern voters than among those elsewhere.
- Tough law and order policies. Again, the polling found even firmer backing for longer sentences among northern voters.
- Reviving the private sector in the north. Have a look at Garvan Walshe's list of proposals here. As he said, Treasury civils servants
will hate them.
- Caution on regional pay. Guy Opperman MP stressed the point recently on this site. Matthew Oakley has suggested a less-regional-pay-for-more-regional-infrastructure deal.
- More northern candidates… See Tim Montgomerie's piece on this site, which in turn links to others by David Skelton and Nick Pickles.
- …And northern voices. The party needs to make more use of the MPs it's got – such as Stephen O'Brien, Eric Ollerenshaw, Esther McVey and Fiona Bruce from the north-west.