Winning in the North – a Liverpudlian reality check

By Steven Daniels. Steven is a PhD student at King’s College London and IMT Lucca, currently researching the role of the Government in the 1984-85 Miners’ Strike (steven.daniels@kcl.ac.uk).

First of all, let me open with an apology – this will seem something of a pessimistic article, and it’ll be easy to become downtrodden and feel hopeless reading it as 2015 edges closer. As you’ve no doubt guessed from the title, this article will discuss the problems the Conservatives face in the North of England. I offer you no solutions, merely a sobering glimpse into the severity of the problems the Conservative ‘brand’ faces.

As just about any politico or right-leaning think tank will tell you, if the Conservatives are to enjoy long term electoral success with healthy majorities in Parliament, they need to start winning seats in the North of England. Which, on paper, sounds like such a simple concept, doesn’t it? If only it were that simple. To help explore this problem, I’m going to use Liverpool as my case study.

First, some statistics to demonstrate just how bad things are, and why Liverpool is a suitable case study for showcasing the severity of the problem. Within the city limits, the majorities enjoyed by Labour MPs went up in every constituency in the 2010 election, bucking the national trend. There has not been a Conservative MP since 1983, and 0 of the 90 council seats are controlled by Conservative councillors. Such is their unpopularity that breakaway Liberals (not to be confused with Liberal Democrats) are elected ahead of Tories. In the wider Merseyside area, it is just as grim. Whilst the traditionally Tory West Kirby became Blue again at the last election; a candidate to stand in Bootle (a seat that counts a Conservative Prime Minister as a former MP) proved so elusive, that one had to be parachuted in from Croydon, 230 miles away.

Politically, Conservatives are not just an easy target, they are the target, in which mere association is akin to political suicide – as the Liberal Democrats found out, having gone from 33 council seats in 2010 to 9 in 2012. Elected Mayor Joe Anderson recently started attacking the Government, bait which Cameron appears to have risen to, undoubtedly boosting Anderson’s own profile within the city[1]. Such is the vitriol, the day Margaret Thatcher died, there were celebrations taking place in the streets, and local radio DJ Pete Price effectively lost control of his late-night talk-show for daring to suggest live on air that she was elected three times – could she have been that bad?

It is equally important to mention however, that the Conservatives have not done themselves any favours in recent years when it comes to their attitudes towards Liverpool, attitudes which will undoubtedly have to change. Declassified documents from 1981 show then-Chancellor Geoffrey Howe encouraged Thatcher to simply abandon Liverpool and leave it to a “managed decline”. In 2004, Spectator editor Boris Johnson approved (but did not write) an article which claimed Liverpudlians always see themselves as the victims. Even in her own memoirs, Thatcher shows a surprisingly lack of political tact in recounting her visit shortly after the July 1981 riots in Toxteth:

“Driving through…the scene of the disturbances, I observed that for all that was said about deprivation, the housing was by no means the worst in the city. I had been told that some of the young people involved got into trouble through boredom and not having enough to do. But you had only to look at the grounds around those houses with the grass untended, some of it almost waist high, and the letter, see that this was a false analysis…What was clearly lacking was a sense of pride and personal responsibility”

I hope through the lens of Liverpool you have a better understanding now of the Herculean task facing the Conservative Party in the North as 2015 approaches. “Winning” is not what the Party should be aiming for, as it is simply not an attainable short term goal. In other Northern cities, the hostility is not as intense, but it is still a major problem. However, long term, if the Tories can win in Liverpool, they can win the North, but changing that relationship is a two-way street. What it will take to win those hearts and minds, I leave for you to decide.

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[1] See http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2014/jan/10/david-cameron-liverpool-mayor-city-cuts-anderson

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