James Heywood (Secretary, Magdalen) is an undergraduate reading History)
In next year’s local elections, I will be standing as the Conservative candidate for Stretford in Trafford, Greater Manchester. As recently as 1996 the ward had a Conservative councillor, and they had won the seat with 53 per cent of the vote. Today, the Tory vote has hemorrhaged so dramatically that I can nominate safe in the knowledge that I will not need to worry about explaining to the Magdalen porters why my mail is now addressed with ‘Cllr’ before my name. The most recent elections saw our vote in Stretford slump to 17 per cent, with a Labour majority of 45 per cent. These numbers are in fact relatively representative of the North of England as a whole; a YouGov poll in June this year had us nine points behind Labour in the UK overall but thirty-six points behind in the North (54%:18%). There is not a single Tory councillor in Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield or Newcastle.
The North is crucial if we are to have any hope of remaining in government in 2015. Large numbers of the Party’s target seats in the 40:40 strategy are northern constituencies. National polling figures mask the reality of the mammoth task facing us in 2015. Though Labour’s lead looks easily assailable on the face of it, in reality many of our votes are wasted in huge Southern majorities, and the recent survey done by Lord Ashcroft in key marginal constituencies suggests that in the places that matter the Tories trail by 14 points. It’s not enough even to beat Labour in the national popular vote. The nature of our electoral system, coupled with the shameful refusal of the other parties to pass more democratic constituency boundaries, means it is imperative that we take the war to the northern marginals.
The problem is one of both presentation and of policy. Firstly, there is more that can be done in government to help and appeal to working and lower middle class voters in northern England. The cost of living, though important to voters across the country, is far more important to voters in the North according to polling. The government has to keep up the good work on tackling rising energy prices, and should pledge to continue putting the brakes on the fuel duty escalator. Some effort should also be made to tackle above-inflation rail fare rises.
On housing, the Conservatives have to regain the ambitions of the past. Harold Macmillan famously built 300,000 homes in a year when he was housing minister, and Keith Joseph set himself a target of 400,000. Housing issues are prominent in northern constituencies. The National Housing Federation’s list of the constituencies most affected by the so called ‘bedroom tax’ is topped by Manchester Central followed by Salford and Eccles, then Blackley and Broughton. Some ambitious new housing policies, coupled with reform of the planning system to encourage building, would bring much needed stimulus to the construction industry as well as easing pressure on the social housing system.
The Party also needs to shout louder about the things we are doing in government which matter to working class voters in areas like mine. Alex, a friend from my local association who is campaign manager for two 2015 targets, Cheadle and Hazel Grove, thinks the way to victory is to “Appeal to working class values.” For him, the emphasis for the general election has to be on “fairness, hard work, incentivising work, the cost of living and providing strong public services.” The benefits cap is one of the most popular policies any party has had in a long time, and needs to be sold to the electorate properly. It has to be made clear that a Labour Party that opposes the cap is a party that thinks it is acceptable for people not working to be given more money than the average working taxpayer. This government has halved the income tax bill of someone working full time on the minimum wage - a Lib Dem policy which we should have nicked ages ago. Immigration is one of the most important issues to voters and resonates well in the suburbs of the North, so let’s tell people what Theresa May is doing to protect our borders.
Our rhetoric should be more explicit when appealing to areas outside the South. We need to talk specifically about the infrastructure investments we’ve made in the North, like electrification of the rail network and the (eventual) extension of HS2, and about the growth and employment benefits which are the reasons behind them. The Party does not just struggle in the North because it is less prosperous. The Conservative Party is perceived as southern. Policy Exchange’s ‘Northern Lights’ study has shown that middle class northern voters are less likely to vote Tory than working class southerners. The image of the Party here is of a party of the South, and a party of the rich. We need to boost the representation of northern and ethnic minority candidates. Currently, more than half the parliamentary party went to schools paid for by their parents. The way we select candidates, and the media prominence of Tory politicians from different backgrounds, has to change.
All this is part of the many excellent proposals made by the Renewal Group, which has been set up to assess how the Party can better appeal to voters outside the South-East (a link to their recent paper is below). Let’s take the fight to the North in 2015. Let’s not have any ‘no-go areas’. It is hardly surprising that our core demographic is white, well-off southerners when most Tory politicians are white, well-off southerners. Our core demographic should be every single voter in Britain.