It is perhaps inevitable that, after two years in government, the Tories settled on a local election strategy of holding on to as much as they can. It is rare for a governing party to try to expand its political reach in mid-term elections. But this defensive approach means that Conservatives are no closer to tackling one of the biggest obstacles to a majority: their absence from England’s northern cities.
Take Newcastle. There are — at the time of writing and, almost certainly, of reading — no Tories on Newcastle City Council. The Newcastle Conservative Federation website is reduced to holding up its chairman, a parish councillor in the village of Woolsington, as ‘the first elected Conservative in New-castle for nearly 20 years’.
It hasn’t always been like this. During the Suez crisis, the Home Secretary in a Tory government sat for Newcastle North. Gwilym Lloyd George, the younger son of David Lloyd George and a National Liberal and Conservative, won the seat in 1951 with more than half of the vote. In 1955, he received 64 per cent. Today, no ambitious Tory would ever think about trying to scramble up the greasy pole from Newcastle North.
Newcastle isn’t the only major northern city without Tory councillors. There is not a single Tory councillor in Manchester, Liverpool or Sheffield. The party has long known this is a problem. In 1997, soon after he was elected leader, William Hague declared that there must be ‘no no-go areas’ for Conservatism. Iain Duncan Smith and David Cameron each made the same commitment when they took up the reins. But the party is still no closer to gaining even a toehold in these places, and doesn’t expect to make much progress.
Any party that aspires to govern the country needs to understand the whole country. As Charles Moore has written in these pages, one of the reasons that the Tories failed to grasp the dangers posed by the rise of Islamist extremism in Britain was that they had no one in the constituencies in which it was happening. Also, the more seats that the Tories concede even before an election campaign has begun, the more difficult it will be for them to win.
The northern problem is one of the major subjects of conversation in Tory circles this week. A report released this week by the Cameroon think-tank Policy Exchange demonstrated that region is fast replacing class as the major political divide in England: upper-middle-class and middle-class voters in the North are now more likely to vote Labour than even working- and benefit-class voters in the South.
One Tory MP, sounding rather like a Marxist determinist, says that it is pointless for the party to spend time chasing votes in these places as it would not be in their economic interests to turn Tory: ‘They’ll just vote to keep the subsidies coming.’ The argument goes that, since state spending in the north-east is more than 60 per cent of economic output, compared with a tax take of under 30 per cent, even those who work in the private sector indirectly benefit from ever-rising spending. This MP fears that any effort to win votes in the North could dent the party’s appeal elsewhere.
One Tory grandee complains that the problem is economic migration. People who should be the backbone of the Tory organisation in these cities are all being sucked towards London, he says. Others reckon the problem is that the party does not look, sound or feel at all northern. Francis Maude’s worry that the public thinks that ‘if you are a Conservative MP, you must be white and male, have been at a posh public school and be rich’ has not been allayed.
The difficulty is compounded by the fact that many of the most senior northerners in the party are MPs for southern constituencies. Eric Pickles, the party’s most visible northerner, represents the Essex seat of Brentwood and Ongar. It’s no wonder he was introduced as the former leader of Bradford City Council in the party’s election broadcast last month.
The cities minister, Greg Clark, who is widely tipped for promotion to the Cabinet in the coming reshuffle, is the state-educated son of a milkman from Teesside. But his back story is rather undermined by the fact that he is now MP for Tunbridge Wells. The same applies to the Transport Secretary, Justine Greening, who is regarded by George Osborne as one of the party’s best media performers. This, combined with the fact that she was educated at a Rotherham comprehensive, makes many Tories think that she’d be an ideal party chair, presenting a contrast to the posh boys at the helm. But Greening now sits for one of the more prosperous parts of west London.
The best chance for the Tories to rebuild in northern cities may well come this autumn with the police and crime commissioner elections. The party will have two advantages going into these contests. First of all, the police election areas include suburban areas, where the Tories are far stronger. They hold more than half of the suburban seats in the North and over two-thirds of rural ones. This alone, according to analysis by the Police Foundation, puts the Tories in a strong position to win in Humberside, Lancashire and North Yorkshire.
The other factor in their favour is that crime is one of the subjects on which the party’s views chime with those of northern voters. Policy Exchange’s polling shows that people in the North take an even more hard-line approach to crime than those in the South. But across the country, the public takes a far more robust attitude to the issue than the liberal establishment.
Reviving the Tory party in the urban North will take a long time. In 2015, there’ll be lots of places that offer campaign chiefs more electoral bang for their buck. But Conservatives who aspire to be a truly one-nation party can’t afford to write off huge swathes of the country indefinitely.