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.
One possible explanation is that votes correlate with income. Northerners are worse off and therefore more likely to vote Labour. However, this explanation does not wash. For a start, standards of living for typical families are actually much the same in the north and south. Overall, spending power is substantially higher in London and the southeast; but these figures are heavily influenced by the minority of very high earners in and around the capital.
If we define “the south” as the southeast and southwest regions (that is, excluding London; it is the definition of “south” used in the data for this article), then median pay rates in the north are just 10 per cent lower than in the south. When we take account of living costs (in particular rents and house prices, which are far higher in the south), then that 10 per cent difference almost completely disappears as far as most working families are concerned.
What, though, about non-working families? Isn’t unemployment far higher in the north? Could this explain Tory unpopularity? Again, the answer is that it explains very little, if anything at all. True, unemployment in the north (9 per cent) is higher than in the south (6 per cent). But unemployment in the West Midlands is higher still, at 10 per cent—yet the Tories managed to win 40 per cent of the vote there three years ago.
Even if living standards are comparable, two other factors are worth considering: social class and the division between public and private sector jobs. (Northerners are more likely than southerners to have manual jobs and to work in the public sector.) To examine these, I have aggregated YouGov polls from September this year. They provide data on more than 40,000 people across Britain, including more than 9,000 northerners and almost 13,000 southerners. This enables us to look in some detail at the demographic groups in both parts of the country.
Take social class first. As with pay rates, the differences between north and south are not massive. Using the normal definition—the job held by the principal earner of the household—46 per cent of northerners are working class compared with 41 per cent of southerners. This is not enough to explain more than a fraction of the difference in voting patterns. Indeed, if we look at the Conservative share of the vote within each social class, the regional differences remain vast:
Conservative support, Sept 2013 North (%) South (%)
AB (professional and managerial) 33 46
C1 (white-collar) 30 42
C2 (Skilled manual) 24 36
DE (Semi- and unskilled manual) 21 34
As those figures show, unskilled workers in the south are as likely to vote Conservative as managers and professionals in the north. It’s a similar story with public and private sector employment, with public sector workers in the south supporting the Tories in much the same proportions as private sector workers in the north.
Conservative support, Sept 2013 North (%) South (%)
Public sector workers 22 33
Private sector workers 32 45
However we carve the figures, objective factors—whether economic, social or employment—account for only a small part of the gulf in Tory fortunes between south and north. It follows that most of the differences, therefore, are subjective, and relate to the way northerners and southerners think.
To explore these, I have looked at a variety of recent YouGov surveys and also put some new questions to YouGov’s panel. The charts show the findings under five separate headings.
First, financial. Even if living standards are comparable, do northerners feel differently about their current circumstances and future prospects? The chart shows that there is no material difference on three out of four measures—how comfortable people feel today, their (low) optimism about the next 12 months and their (much higher) optimism about the long-term future.
In one respect attitudes do vary to a modest extent. Northerners in work are slightly more worried than southerners about losing their job. However, this seems to bear only a loose relationship with party loyalty. Once again, midlands voters have similar economic concerns with those in the north (42 per cent of midlands workers feel insecure, versus 44 per cent of northern workers) without sharing the same antipathy towards the Tories.
Second, ideology. From time to time YouGov asks people where they place themselves on a seven-point scale from “very left-wing” to “very right-wing”. Northerners and southerners show little difference, with only one in four describing themselves as “fairly” or “very” to one side or the other. At both ends of England, this minority divides evenly between left and right.
As for the role of government, the main, but again modest, difference is that northerners are more likely to have firm views one way or the other. More of them want the state to do less, and to tax less—and more of them (though not many) want the state to do more and to tax more. Southerners are more content with the status quo.
In other respects, northerners are more likely to hold traditional left-of-centre views: more of them would like the private sector to play a smaller role in delivering public services; fewer of them agree that the free market is the best way to distribute goods and services and more think the top rate of tax should be raised to at least 50 per cent. On the one explicitly socialist policy we tested, nationalising the railways, almost two-thirds of people at both ends of England back the idea. Overall, the small ideological gap explains a bit of the north-south party divide; but that is all.
On other attitudes, the only difference to excite a statistician concerns welfare. Big majorities in all parts of the country share the Conservative view that welfare benefits generally should be reduced; but southerners (79 per cent of whom think this) outpace northerners (71 per cent). On other issues—immigration, gay marriage, prison sentences, the EU and Syria—the differences are negligible. Whatever is driving northerners away from the Conservatives, it is not social attitudes. Like southerners, they want parliament to get tough with immigrants, criminals and welfare recipients; and like southerners, they broadly support gay marriage and are divided on Europe.
Ed Miliband is keen to present himself as a “One Nation” leader, stealing from the Tories the clothes designed by Benjamin Disraeli. Even if Disraeli’s two nations—the rich and the poor—persist in England today, they have little geographical expression. Whether judged by circumstance, experience or attitude, the striking thing about northerners and southerners is not how different they are, but how alike.
This simply sharpens the question—if the obvious reasons for Conservative unpopularity in the north do not really hold up, what does explain why they are so disliked? The time has come to test the issue directly and look at attitudes towards the two main parties. The key findings are shown in sections four and five of the chart. Now, a word of warning. It is only to be expected that Conservative supporters will give “pro-Tory” and “anti-Labour” answers to questions about the two parties—and vice versa for Labour supporters. Moreover, it’s hard to tell whether a pro-Tory response is a cause for, or a consequence of, supporting the party.
What we can do is look at how the differences between north and south vary. Where views are pretty similar, it is reasonable to suppose that these do not explain the gulf in party loyalties; rather, we are looking for the big differences in view.
This process helps us to rule out a number of explanations. It’s not that northerners are significantly less likely to think that the coalition is “good for people like you,” that the Conservatives “have changed for the better since their time in opposition,” or that they “have taken tough but necessary decisions” to turn round Britain’s economy. Nor do they have less faith in the Tories’ ability to control immigration—few people in any part of England think this.
On the other side of the political ledger, northerners and southerners share similar views on whether Ed Miliband is too left wing or out of his depth. A clear majority of southerners (59 per cent) think Labour “has seriously lost touch with ordinary people”; the proportion of northerners who think this is exactly the same.
There are modest differences when voters consider the practical consequences of Conservative rule. Southerners are slightly, but only slightly, more hopeful that a future Tory government would improve the economy or run state schools better.
Which brings us, finally, to the big differences. Northerners dislike David Cameron. They are significantly more likely to say he is out of touch and lacks clear principles, and much less likely to say he is doing well as Prime Minister. And despite the comparable living standards and levels of optimism, northerners are much more likely to think the coalition “is bad for people like you.” The widest gap of all, 11 points, concerns the proposition that the “Conservatives care more about the rich and affluent than ordinary people.” Big majorities in all parts of Britain think this, but the sentiment is especially intense in the north.
Not that the Tories have all the problems. Labour has parallel troubles in the south, where few voters think that Miliband is doing well or that the economy would grow stronger under Labour. The party has lost much of the respect, both for its leader and its competence, that it enjoyed under Tony Blair. Labour’s “southern discomfort” is alive and ill in towns and cities from Kent to Cornwall.
But the focus of this analysis concerns the north. The Tories’ problems did not start with Cameron, but neither have they lessened under his leadership. Rather, he reminds many northerners just why they dislike the Tory Party. It’s not because they are poorer, or more pessimistic, or further to the left or more reliant on the state for their job: they aren’t—or, at any rate, not enough to explain their reluctance to vote Conservative. Nor is it because of what the coalition has actually done in the past three years—at most, this explains a fraction of the difference.
In the end, the Tories’ problem is not what they do; it’s what they are. Their trouble is their brand. They lost Scotland because they lost their reputation as a unionist party and came to be seen as an English party. They are losing the north because they are seen increasingly as a southern party. This need not stop them winning a future election: there are enough constituencies in the midlands and the south which, when added to the Tories’ isolated seats in the north, can give them a parliamentary majority. But few, even on the Conservative benches, would regard that as a wholly healthy prospect.
Leading Conservatives often admit they need more women and non-white faces on their benches. This analysis suggests that they also need many more people with regional accents. On its own, this won’t suddenly make the Tories popular on Merseyside or Tyneside; but as part of a long-term strategy to revive the Tory brand north of the Wash, it would be a start.