The Conservatives were not always so unpopular in the north of England—can they win it back?by Peter Kellner / October 17, 2013 / Leave a comment
Published in November 2013 issue of Prospect Magazine
Karl Marx was wrong; or, at any rate, unfair. He complained that philosophers “only interpreted the world,” when the point was to change it. The trouble is, change is likely to work only when we understand what is wrong. The Conservatives badly want to change voting habits in the north of England, but to do so, they must first answer a fundamental question: why don’t northerners vote Tory?
Some do, of course. George Osborne (Tatton, Cheshire) and William Hague (Richmond, North Yorkshire) have safe seats. But these are rare. Just 31 per cent of northern voters backed the Tories in 2010, 12 points less than in the rest of England. It used not to be like that. When Winston Churchill led the Conservatives back into power in 1951, the gap was just three points (47 per cent in the north, 50 per cent in the rest of England). Over the decades, the north has drifted away from the rest of the country.
The past 60 years have seen massive economic and social changes. Perhaps these explain the remorseless decline of northern Tories? The problem with this explanation is that the most obvious change should have had the opposite effect. The old coal-mining, ship-building, steel-working areas have gone. The Lowry landscapes of billowing factories have all but disappeared. One might have expected Labour’s hold over the industrial north to have weakened, and for the Conservatives to have benefited from the transition to a newer, less unionised and more fragmented northern economy. And, indeed, Labour’s support is down, from 52 per cent in 1951 to 38 per cent in 2010. But it has not gone to the Tories. The net swing between 1951 and 2010 was 1 per cent to Labour in the north—but 5 per cent to the Tories in the rest of England.
There is one specific explanation for a part of the Conservatives’ long-term decline in the north. In some cities working-class loyalties used to divide along religious lines. Catholics voted Labour while Protestants voted Conservative. This was why Tories won five out of nine Liverpool seats in 1951. But by the 1970s this effect had largely disappeared—yet the relative decline of the northern Tory vote continued. Today, there are no Conservative MPs in Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield, Leeds, Bradford or Newcastle upon Tyne.