By Tim Montgomerie
Follow Tim on Twitter
The Economist publishes an interesting essay in its latest edition, examining the continuing decline of the north of England relative to the south. It argues that austerity has a strong anti-northern bias. Cuts for northern local authorities are deeper, it argues, and because of the northern regions' weaker private sectors they are felt more acutely. This is partly due to the unwinding of Labour's investment in the North during its time in power. "According to a study by the Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change at the University of Manchester, the state accounted, directly and indirectly, for 64% of the jobs created in the north between 1998 and 2007, against just 38% in the south."
This all represents a big political problem for the Conservatives. The party needs to advance in the North, particularly the North-West, if it is to win a majority and recent Policy Exchange polling suggested Conservative values (on crime, tax, immigration, human rights) travel well across the North, if rooted within a pro-blue collar economic message. Unfortunately, however, the need for cuts is meaning that we are reminding many northern voters of the tough Thatcher years rather than using our time in office to challenge perceptions.
The Economist piece also includes a warning that the Coalition's infrastructure plans may be biased towards the South. It quotes an IPPR report which claims that "86% of the government’s spending on big transport projects is in London" and, it adds, "the big infrastructure debate at the moment is over whether it would be better to expand London’s Heathrow airport or build an entirely new airport in the south-east." The HS2 investment is the Government's attempt to address this infrastructure gap but, of course, HS2 hasn't started yet.
Reacting to Boris Johnson's constant calls for more investment in London the Tory peer Lord Bates recently stuck up for his own part of the world. "There is life outside the M25," he wrote, "and from beyond it London seems to be having a pretty good share of the infrastructure cake in recent years." He then listed examples of this cake gobbling.
The lack of a strong regional policy is being portrayed by Labour as a sign of the Coalition's disinterest in the North but, in reality, there was little evidence that regional policy was cost effective. The Coalition is moving to a different and more targeted approach, stressing cities, industrial clusters and universities. Greg Clark MP – now at the Treasury – has kept the cities brief and continues to work with the political leaders of some of Britain's greatest cities on how they might develop. David Willetts and Vince Cable continue to think about how government policy can help support clusters of industrial excellence, whether those clusters focus on traditional manufacturing or the creative industries or the life sciences. And, again, Willetts wants the UK's greatest universities to flourish globally. The Economist notes how the doubling of the University of Manchester over the last decade has played such an important part in that city becoming England's second force.
Few Tory MPs have done more than Guy Opperman to raise consciousness within the Conservative Party about our northern challenge. Last month he completed the Pennine Way and made two sets of recommendations – one set on party organisation and another concerning five pro-Northern government policies. Notably, he is also one of party's few supporters of some kind of tax on high value properties. This is what he wrote on ConHome a few months ago:
"I have heard a lot about why a Mansion Tax is unfair on those it would hit. At what point did it become 'Conservative' to worry about those with a £2million house, before those struggling to pay a £100,000 mortgage? Think about that for a minute. Not a £200,000 house, but TWO MILLION. The average house price in the UK is £161,545. In the North East, the region I represent, it is £102,066. If we ever want to win significant numbers of seats in the North again, and we must to win a majority, we need to remember those figures every time we talk about our tax and spend priorities."
The passage of the boundary review would have meant that Tory weakness in the North was somewhat less of a problem. New, fairer-sized seats would have reflected the growth of the South and Midlands relative to the North. The boundary review is dead and the party has no excuses for not thinking deeply and urgently about the party's northern machine, northern ambassadors and pro-northern policies. Over the next month ConservativeHome will be running a series of articles on this challenge.