Earlier this week I spoke at a Policy Exchange event at the Conservative conference on the problems facing the party in the North (Neil O’Brien’s thought on the same are here). It goes without saying that the Conservative party do less well in the North, and have done for a long time. At the election last year the Conservatives led by 22 points in the South, while Labour led by 7 points in the North. Back in 1979 when Thatcher came to power the Conservatives led by 21 points in the South, Labour led by 4 points in the North.

Hence, while this isn’t a new problem, it is getting worse – in 1979 the Conservative share was 10 points higher in the South than the North, now it is 13 points higher. The north/south divide for the Tories isn’t new but is growing.

Looking at polling differences between North and South there are obvious differences – people in the North are less positive about the Conservative party, about Cameron and about things the government are doing. But in most underlying ways voters in the North have views that are much the same as voters in the South, with the same concerns about economy, immigration, health, pensions, etc.

It is tempting too think that the difference is all down to demographics – that the North is simply poorer and more working class, and these factors mean it will always be more Labour and less Tory, it’s just one of those things. However, this does not seem to be the case – aggregating up YouGov data, even people in the same social class seem to be significantly more Conservative in the South and significantly more Labour in the North (i.e. professionals in the North are more Labour than in the South, C2s in the North are more Labour than in the South, etc). The difference is not just down to comparative class or affluence – based on raw demographics the Conservatives are doing worse in the North than they could be.

My own suspicion is that a lot of it is down to the simple perception of the Conservative party as not understanding, caring or being close to the North. YouGov polling here asks how well people think Labour and the Conservatives represent Scotland, Wales, the North, the Midlands and the South. Only 12% of people think the Conservative party understands and represents people in the North well, 52% badly. Amongst respondents who actually live in the North it is even worse – 11% think the Conservatives understand and represent them well, 65% badly. (Not, I should add a particularly Northern problem – more a “anywhere that isn’t the South” problem – the figures are much the same in Scotland, Wales and only slightly better in the Midlands).

We then asked those who said they thought the Conservatives represented the North badly why they said that. Responses fell into a couple of categories – first the perception that the party was Londoncentric, caring only about London and the City. Secondly, in terms of issues, the only things that emerged were unemployment and investment in industry, which people felt Conservatives didn’t understand or care about. Third was Conservative MPs being unrepresentative, while some said they were too Southern, far more expressed this in terms of them being too rich, public school educated or upper class. Ultimately though, the thread that ran through most responses was a perceived lack of empathy with what it’s like to struggle, with people facing unemployment or deindustrialisation. That’s my guess at why the Conservatives do worse in the North than the demographics suggest they should – people don’t see them as understanding or caring about their problems.

Of course, this is also largely the problem that the Conservatives faced across the country at the last election – while the Conservative party under Cameron did manage to improve their party image in terms of being seen as more tolerant and modern, they didn’t really manage to make any change to the perception that the Conservative party was closer to and cared more about the rich than anyone else and in the North, caring more about rich affluent people seems to tie more into an image of caring more about rich affluent Southerners. For the Conservatives to do better in the North they need to address what is really a problem for them everywhere – to convince voters that they don’t care more about the rich than “ordinary” people.

272 Responses to “The Conservatives’ Northern problem”

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  1. @ Colin,

    The Democratic Party convention of 2004 was a bit of a car crash and Kerry got a 10 point bounce. It’ll lead to a boost simply because of exposure and a good (rewritten) speech by Cameron, but from s simple politico/PR point it’s been terrible. Having the morning of the speech overshadowed by headlines about “rewrites” which will also be used in the evening bulletins.

    But you (and I) have to realise that the most the public see of the conferences will be the short snippets of the leaders speech. And that, once a couple of weeks have past, the polls rarely have shifted very much.

    @ Chouenlai,

    I also hated those “with it” phrases – “fight through the storm”, “can-do Britain”, “we’re all in it together”. Agreed, terrible.

  2. Ambivalent Supporter

    It all depends when you take the numbers from

    12 month growth approx 1.0%
    9 month growth approx. 0.1%
    6 month growth approx. 0.6%

    The 12 month growth includes a 0.9% for Q3 2010 and the 6 month is distorted by the 0.5% in Q1 whilst ignoring the contraction in Q4.

    The statistics therefore can tell you any message you want from no growth to pretty good comparative growth,

    The Tories will spin the 2011 growth as 1.1% in the scenario you suggest – ignoring the fact that Q1 was a reaction to the -0.5% in Q4 2010


    Agreed about Ed. His job is safe though.

    The only party leader Labour has EVER got rid of is

    And the PM did well by drawing attention to the fact that the previous tory leaders are not booed by the conference delegates.

    Another point.
    As a matter of fact, the USA economy picked up properly under FDR when re arming started, 1937/38.

    And Tory Governments normally win recession elections.

    1945 1964 and 1997 were periods of optimism

  4. @Bazsc,

    Yes, you are quite right. I have also since noted that the 0.5% first quarter growth was downgraded to 0.4% today. Therefore, 1.1% now looks extremely unlikely IMO.

  5. @ Crossbat,

    Brilliant analysis.

    However I think Ed M has made an error by seeming to shift to the left on the economic orthodoxy thus allowing the Torys to position themselves as the centre-ground, even though they are tacking right (as with their “deregulated economy” rhetoric).

    The problem is doing this so soon after being voted out of office and being perceived to be to blame (in some quarters) for at least some of the problems.

    That means the next election will be on a “don’t let Labour ruin it again” mantra, even if things are not much better under the Cons. It’s hard to build up trust on the economy as a “safe pair of hands” if you are suggesting a seemingly revolutionary approach to the economic consensus. It may be a correct analysis (and your right, EM did make a courageous, thoughtful and terribly delivered speech) – not sure – but it’s not sensible politics.

    But parties voted into opposition always do seem to pick leaders who tack further off from centre, for some reason.

  6. Here’s a speech that sticks in my mind…summing up for the Jury in the Verdict:

    Well…You know, so much of the time we’re just lost. We say, “Please, God, tell us what is right. Tell us what is true.”

    I mean there is no justice. The rich win; the poor are powerless. We become tired of hearing people lie. And after a time we become dead, a little dead. We think of ourselves as victims — and we become victims. We become weak; we doubt ourselves; we doubt our beliefs; we doubt our institutions; and we doubt the law.

    But today you are the law. You are the law, not some book, not the lawyers, not a marble statue, or the trappings of the court. See, those are just symbols of our desire to be just. They are, in fact, a prayer, I mean a fervent and a frightened prayer.

    In my religion, they say, “Act as if you had faith; faith will be given to you.”

    If we are to have faith in justice we need only to believe in ourselves and act with justice. See, I believe there is justice in our hearts.

  7. My take of the Tory party conference is that they are making up government policy as it goes. I just caught Andrew Neil interviewing Andrew Lansley today on I player and I cannot believe how silly it was. Why can’t cabinet ministers understand and explain the information that the OBR comes out with, when they are asked about it connection with government policies contained in speeches. If the Tory party are putting up people for interview, they should make sure that they are capable of answering questions. The question was that the growth predictions were based on consumer debt increasing by £600bn in the next three years. So if you are suggesting people to pay off debts, you should expect growth to be affected, because there will be less spending taking place.

    Not sure I would put up Lansley to answer questions, as he has shown that he is not the best when it comes to explaining government policy, given the mess with the NHS reforms.

    I am expecting a cabinet reshuffle in the next few weeks. Lansley might hang on until the reforms have progressed, but I think Spelman will definately be out.

  8. Chrislane1945
    ‘The only party leader Labour has EVER got rid of is
    Not so. Labour got rid of George Lansbury just before the 1935 election. Also JR Clynes was ousted in favour of Ramsay Macdonald after the 1922 election.

  9. NICK P.

    Very well said.

    Thank you.

    The Chief Rabbi spoke on this theme very powerfully on Radio 4 this morning.

    Micah 6:
    Act Justly, Love tenderly. Walk humbly with your God

  10. Walk humbly with your dog.

    YouGov/Sun results 5th Oct CON 37%, LAB 41%, LD 9%; APPROVAL -24

  11. GRAHAM.
    Thanks for this.

    I meant in modern times, since 1945.

    Lansbury, of course, was destroyed by Bevin- who told him he was hawking his conscience around, to be told what to do with it.

    Macdonald (my grandad was his agent in Aberavon in 1922, and used to sing a song to the tune Men of harlech, about Ramsay, Ramsay, shout it)
    was always going to become leader after returning to the House.

    Attlee for Lansbury prior to 1935, was not I think, so much an ousting, as the saintly, genuinely, Lansbury, deciding the man he mentored at Toynbee Hall, was more suitable as a party leader.

    Major Attlee was more suitable. And he endured the unforgiveable insults from Churchill in a very dignified way. Clemmie wrote to her husband about his rudeness to Clement Attlee

    Blair is the only man forced, against his will, out of the leadership of ‘This Great Party of Ours’ (TIGPOO).

    I am aged 56, and do not expect another Labour Government in my lifetime, if I live to the biblical span!

  12. Will be interesting to see if there is any change tomorrow/Friday, after the news coverage/newspapers have reported on the Tory conference.

  13. Chris

    Labour will win next time. What they do with it will be what matters.

    A lot less Murdoch and spin and a lot more honesty and redistribution.

  14. @ Ambivalent

    I might be wrong but I don’t think annual GDP figures are seasonally adjusted and adjusted for inflation. That”s my (very) limited understanding anyway. I’m probably wrong.
    Yes, you are wrong. Quarterly & annual GDP are adjusted for inflation.

    Seasonal fluctuations wouldn’t affect annual GDP because there are 4 in every year. ;-) Sorry, that was the [nobody loves a] smart @ss answer.

    Headline Quarterly GDP isn’t systematically adjusted for seasonal fluctuations but there are seasonally adjusted figures available & the narrative which the ONS provide with their figures will refer to them, if they are relevant.

  15. Just watched the coverage of DC’s speech. It was very interesting viewing.

    1st Half of the report (by Nick R) came across terribly for DC. Hardly anyone clapping, the cabinet looking like they were terrified the world economy was actually going to crash on their heads, “our policy is working you just can’t see it” line (I can not believe that was left in). Second half of the report DC came across better but this was mainly Labour bashing, “we love our leaders” stuff. The finish and crescendo looked impressive.

    What was most interesting was the next two news stories were about the economy slowing further than was thought (linked in with DC telling people to stop spending), and the crisis in the Eurozone.

    If anyone watched the full 10 mins I’m not sure they’d be sleeping well tonight …

    and on that note … Good Night all.

  16. @Amberstar,

    Thanks. I told you I was no economist. 8-)

  17. @ Chrislane1945,

    I think “The only leader Labour ever got rid of” stuff is all a little silly. TB is the only leader who won three elections – no other Labour leader had time to get booted out. Any leader as PM that long is going to be vulnerable. However, he stepped down at (almost) the time he would have chosen anyway. He certainly wasn’t booted out like Thatcher.

    And Ramsay MacDonald was basically disowned by his party.

  18. @chrislane1945 – “MacDonald… was always going to become leader after returning to the House.”

    MacDonald won the election for chair and leader by 61 votes to 56 (22 members of the PLP were absent because they assumed Clynes would win).

    He was accused of making hypocritical appeals to the left of the party to secure a majority, also presenting himself as untainted by the actions of those Labour MPs who had entered into a wartime coalition.

    Arthur Henderson is quoted as saying to members of the IPL “You Clyde men are determined to put MacDonald in. Well: if you do, it will only be a few years before you are trying to put him out.”

  19. crossbat11 on DC

    “…. presentation and communication are his two key strengths and I would have been very surprised if he hadn’t outshone his two leadership rivals in these areas.”

    PR man. He told you himself. “Heir to Blair”

  20. Not sure about AW’s policy on cross-linking sites, but I thought these slides show some interesting trends – http://www.electoralcalculus.co.uk/mapr1983.html. While 2010 looks similar to 1992, in the early 80s there was solid Tory support north of the Wash to Severn line, something that seems to have dissipated considerably. While the conventional wisdom on this site is that the economy will continue to tank until 2015, note that a prompt uptick – as in 1983 – may yet act to the Tories benefit, while allowing the Tories to remind voters it was Labour who laid the foundation for the long slump.

  21. Nick P

    A lot less Murdoch and spin and a lot more honesty and redistribution

    I think you are right about Murdoch. However the question of redistribution is from whom. Will the rich give a penny more or will middle income pick up the bill as usual.

  22. Why don’t people write about Labour’s southern problem? Or why don’t they write about a divided county where in the South, Labour have been pretty much wiped out and replaced by the Libdems (or were in 2010)? Why don’t they write about the fact that the greater the PESA expenditure per capita per region, the more likely it is to vote Labour?

    Outside London (i.e. South East, South West & Eastern) Labour has fewer seats than the Conservatives have in the North by a ratio of over 4:1.

    In the South excluding London, Labour have just 10 seats. In the North of England the Conservatives have 43 seats.

    It is the case that the highest PESA spend.(other than Northern Ireland) occurs in the North East, Scotland, Wales and London. If the narrative is of austerity and public sector cuts it is of no surprise that those regions most dependent on Government spend react against a party of Government cutting that spend. The problem of course is in fact the sense of entitlement in the north to that they should be subsidised by the south and with those who irresponsibility promotes such attitudes (primarily the Labour party).

    Basically the Labour Party have created a culture of statist dependency in the north (over successive decades) and that is defining the poltical agenda. That is the Conservatives northern problem and the Labour’s southern problem because in the South we don’t need the mediocrity of the public sector to quite the same extent.

    The way for the Conservatives to solve the problem is to somehow break the North’s addiction to public spending and find a way to get the North to stand on its own two feet again. Not easy I grant you. Basically they need to rehabilitate the North. If they do there is likely no good news for Labour because if the North is no longer dependent on public spending then there is likely money to be returned to all and most particularly the South.

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