Despite a few high-profile victories in the north of England in the 2015 general election, the Conservative Party continues to lag behind in the region.
As members meet in Birmingham, there is much talk of the mayoral elections coming up in 2017 – particularly the high-profile contests in Manchester and Liverpool. Reversing the historic lack of support for the Conservatives in that part of England will be important if the party’s candidates are to make an impression.
Theresa May, the new prime minister, might also see winning the north of England as a key part of her version of “One Nation” Conservativism. The streets of Birmingham are currently covered in signs about building a country that “works for everyone” and that must surely include people beyond the south east of England.
If we take “the north” to be the north-east, the north-west, and Yorkshire and the Humber, the scale of the Conservatives’ problem is clear. Nationally, the party won 50.8% of seats in 2015. In northern England they managed to win just 27.8%.
David Cameron’s modernisation programme was designed to rehabilitate the Conservative image across the country. There was much talk of the Conservatives attempting to appeal to northern voters directly, such as with the Northern Powerhouse investment programme.
But if policies such as the Northern Powerhouse had appealed to northern voters, we would have expected a boost in the northern Conservative vote share between the 2010 and 2015 general elections. Yet the increase was just 0.3 of a percentage point compared to a national lift of 0.6 of a percentage point (hardly worth Osborne donning his hi-vis jacket so many times).
Similarly, if Conservative fortunes in the north were lacking due to negative feelings towards “posh boys” George Osborne and David Cameron, we might have expected to see things changing under Theresa May – and they haven’t as yet.
Conservative vote share in the north lingers between seven and ten points behind the UK as a whole.
Appealing to the heart
Unfortunately for May, the Conservative Party’s problem runs deeper than policy or perceptions of individuals. Living standards and ideology are not to blame either – northern England is not so different from the rest of the country to explain such large differences.
It is the party brand itself which is the biggest drag on northern Tory voting. Research from 2013 showed the largest gap between northern and southern voters, and the highest absolute numbers, was on the view that “Conservatives care more about the rich and affluent than ordinary people” – 62% of southern voters felt this, compared to 73% of northern voters.
This brand problem can be traced back to the premiership of Margaret Thatcher, when northern economies and councils were hit hardest by the decline in manufacturing and council budgets. In many areas of the north, being anti-Conservative/anti-Thatcher is seen as a badge of honour, and even tied up in local identities – a prime example being Liverpool.
While the Northern Powerhouse appeals to voters’ heads and wallets, the Conservatives are failing to appeal to their hearts. This is the vital missing link which May must address in order to close the polling gap between the north of England and the rest of the UK. As it stands, next year’s mayoral races are about the only thing Labour feels even remotely confident about at the moment.