When Lord Howell described parts of the North East of England as ‘desolate’ (or did he mean the North West?), he was talking about shale gas exploitation, but he could have more accurately applied the term to the map of Tory support in the region. The urban north hasn’t supported the party since the late 1980s. Seats like Manchester Withington, Newcastle Central and Nottingham North (that last is not in the North, of course, but another example of the urban problem) were once Conservative, but now it’s hard to imagine them ever being safe blue seats again. The Tories can win without the urban North, but as their electoral map continues to shrink, it’s a risky strategy to let the rot continue. I look at efforts to turn northern England from a hinterland of support into a Conservative heartland in my Telegraph column today.
As I explain, the party has decided that a northern manifesto – which it did consider – would highlight divisions and that instead its overall offer in 2015 should be attractive to urban voters. Strategists also want a focus on unity strengthened by the government’s commitment to high-speed rail, and tell me that next week’s Conservative party conference will see ministers referring to the new line as the ‘north-south railway’. This is a term that came up in cross-party talks on HS2, but the Tories want to use it as their own. This will leave Labourites kicking themselves: this week in Brighton some were muttering darkly that the ‘north-south’ term might have protected the line. Now Labour’s support for the project is uncertain, the Conservatives can use ‘north-south’ as their own.
But there is only so much that the Tory party can do in the next two years to attract voters in northern constituencies. Guy Opperman, MP for Hexham, and David Skelton, founder of the Renewal group that campaigns for more Conservative policies aimed at working class, urban voters, both insist that the Tory northern mission needs to have a 15 or 20 year plan. One of the problems so far has been that there’s always a lot of chatter that something must be done, a panic and concerted effort two years before a general election, and then a return to lethargy. Where the Tories have made gains in areas where voters had turned against them, it was as a result of years of work to overturn preconceptions about the Conservatives. So while the party is right to work on ‘Northern Soul’ policies for 2015, it needs a long-term plan if it is to stand any chance of halting the long-term decline in support. Otherwise, it’ll stay grim up north for the Conservatives for a lot longer.Tags: Conservative conference 2013, Conservatives, High-speed rail, HS2, UK politics