The North of England could have a more decisive effect than Brexit on the future of the Conservative Party. At the start of this year, victory in the Copeland by-election seemed to portend sweeping gains for the party across the North, for Jeremy Corbyn was unpopular with many traditional Labour voters, and UKIP’s support was up for grabs.
In this summer’s general election, those gains did not quite materialise. There was no Scottish-style collapse in Labour support. The Conservatives held on to Copeland, and gained Middlesbrough South & East Cleveland. But Labour gained Stockton South, and also Keighley.
Theresa May was quite right to visit Teesside yesterday. There is everything to play for in the North. In Bishop Auckland, for example, the Labour majority fell from 3,508 in 2015 to only 502 in 2017.
George Osborne saw the political opportunity in this part of England, and developed the Northern Powerhouse in response. For Labour stands convicted of taking its voters here for granted, as in Scotland. That is the obvious reply to Andy Burnham, now the Mayor of Greater Manchester, who complained in yesterday’s Guardian that “the north is always at the back of the queue” for infrastructure investment.
The question now is which party can show that it is putting this discrepancy right. London’s public transport system has in the early part of the 21st century been transformed for the better, so that by the time of the 2012 Olympics it was already performing remarkably well. The North requires comparable improvement.
The Conservative Party has to demonstrate that it offers more than Labour to the great cities of the North. But as Daniel Finkelstein, a close ally of Osborne, observed in yesterday’s Times, “If you win in Hartlepool but lose in Bristol you become a different sort of party.”
Throughout their history, the Conservatives have always been becoming “a different sort of party”. This was pre-eminently the case after the Labour landslide of 1945, when the party accepted that if it was not going to consign itself to long-term opposition, it would have to accept many of the reforms brought in by the Attlee government.
In 2017, there was no Labour landslide, but there was a much stronger Labour performance than had been predicted. The need now is to avert the danger of a Labour landslide next time, by demonstrating that the Conservatives are far better able to provide everything from a proper supply of housing to modern roads and railways.
These are urgent tasks. Even if the next election does not take place until 2022, that does not leave much time to make an appreciable start. But this very urgency can help lend a sense of direction to the Government’s endeavours.
For Brexit to succeed, we will need much more than a set of good trade deals. We will also need the energy and creativity to make the most of cities and towns which since the collapse of the great traditional industries have too often been fobbed off with second-rate roads, second-rate railways, second-rate schools and colleges, second-rate houses and second-rate make-work schemes.
Brexit offers a once-in-a-lifetime chance for national liberation and renewal. If the present Government does not seize that opportunity, Corbyn and his followers can be counted on to treat it as a once-in-a-lifetime chance to introduce socialism in one country.