decent analysis of British elections should include reference to the
geographical variations in the fates of the parties – particularly familiar
tropes are Labour problems in the South and Tory troubles in the North. The
latter of these has been given a fair amount of attention this week in response
to the Rob Halfon MP-inspired unofficial rebrand of the Conservatives to become
“The Workers Party” and ensuing discussion about the issues they are facing in
many working class communities.
it is difficult to argue against the notion that the Party has a problem in the
Northern regions, a more detailed understanding than this is perhaps necessary
to evaluate fully what effect it will have in the future. To
do so we need to look at trends over time. The graph below shows the
Conservative vote share at each General Election going back to 1983 in both
Great Britain and Northern England (defined here as the three government
regions of the North East, the North West and Yorkshire & Humberside). The final
data point then shows the party’s average figure from our polling over the past
1983-1987: General Election result in regions: Northern, North West and
Yorkshire & Humberside. 1992-2010: General Election result in GORs: North
East, North West and Yorkshire & Humberside. 2014: Three month average all
ComRes voting intention polls since 26/11/2013.
things stand out from this. Firstly, over the past thirty years the
Conservatives have always polled less well in the North than across Britain
generally. Second, although their vote share in the North fell dramatically in
the 1987 General Election, possible due to the Miners’ Strike, it recovered in
1992 under John Major to fractionally below where it had been in 1983. Thirdly,
since 1992, the Conservatives’ electoral fortunes in the North have then
broadly followed the national trend.
would suggest that in recent political history, the Conservatives have not had
a worsening Northern problem per se, but instead seen their fortunes in
the region improve when they do so nationally and fall back when their national
vote share decreases. Their ongoing lower polling results in the North simply
reflect a lower base point.
courses of action could be drawn from this: the first would be for the
Conservatives to shrug their shoulders and focus on their easier, national
messages that they hope might push the party up in the polls generally, in turn
doing so for the Northern region as well.
it can also be concluded, that because their voter deficit in the North has
been so stubborn over so many years, that they need instead to make very
deliberate efforts to overcome it. Not to do so would see the Conservatives
continually be forced to fight on their own back lawn, while allowing Labour to
focus their often-scant resources efficiently at the Southern and Midlands
marginals required for them to win a majority. The term “Northern marginal”, on
the other hand, is distinctly missing from British political vocabulary and while
it is, is likely to haunt the Conservatives.
is often complained that the electoral system is “biased”, denying the
Conservatives a majority on a higher vote share than one which gave Labour
outright victory. But while the party is storing up a huge bank of “excess”
votes in Southern safe seats while making little attempt to temper its message
in a way that might appeal to Northern voters, the complaint tends to fall on
the Conservatives focus their efforts on Northern voters very deliberately,
they risk retreating further and further south, whatever the success of the
occasional electoral skirmish.
ideal time to do this would perhaps have been in Opposition as the party looked
to build from the ground up. However, although the deviation in the lines on
the graph above do not appear drastic, losing vote share in the North at the
2005 General Election, while increasing it nationally, can only be seen as a
failure. This is all the more so as Labour’s vote in the region fell quite
drastically in the wake of the Iraq War, suggesting that a genuine opportunity
key question then comes about what to do now: recent ComRes polling has the
Conservatives on 26% in the North – roughly equivalent to 1997 levels. But this
is not necessarily due to unbridgeable disagreements between the party and
voters (42%) are just as likely as the average (41%) to say the most important
priority for the next Government is ensuring that the British economy continues
to grow – an argument central to the Conservatives’ election message. On the
other hand, Northern voters are no more partial than Britons generally to
Labour messaging: 26% of Northern voters say the most important priority for
the next Government is ensuring wages rise faster than prices, compared to 25%
for the average.
the problem the Party faces is over its image. Taking the average rating from
the first two waves of ComRes’s new Favourability Index, conducted in
partnership with The Sunday Mirror and The Independent on Sunday, more
than half of people living in Northern England view the party unfavourably.
Fewer than half as many (24%) view it favourably.
All respondents from North West, North East and Yorkshire & Humberside
polled in the Favourability Index in 2014 (n=960).
change of name, even unofficially, is perhaps a start. But when the Party faces
such a hostile audience, it is difficult to see how anything other than a
comprehensive change in personalities and policies will shift things. Whatever the answer, it is
likely to be a very long, drawn out process. Turning around such long-term
trends will not happen easily.
The problematic question for the Conservatives is: can they afford not
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