It’s grim up North for Tories
It is perhaps inevitable that, after two years in government, the Tories settled on a local election strategy of holding on to as much as they can. It is rare for a governing party to try to expand its political reach in mid-term elections. But this defensive approach means that Conservatives are no closer to tackling one of the biggest obstacles to a majority: their absence from England’s northern cities.
Take Newcastle. There are — at the time of writing and, almost certainly, of reading — no Tories on Newcastle City Council. The Newcastle Conservative Federation website is reduced to holding up its chairman, a parish councillor in the village of Woolsington, as ‘the first elected Conservative in Newcastle for nearly 20 years’.
It hasn’t always been like this. During the Suez crisis, the Home Secretary in a Tory government sat for Newcastle North. Gwilym Lloyd George, the younger son of David Lloyd George and a National Liberal and Conservative, won the seat in 1951 with more than half of the vote. In 1955, he received 64 per cent. Today, no ambitious Tory would ever think about trying to scramble up the greasy pole from Newcastle North.
Newcastle isn’t the only major northern city without Tory councillors. There is not a single Tory councillor in Manchester, Liverpool or Sheffield. The party has long known this is a problem. In 1997, soon after he was elected leader, William Hague declared that there must be ‘no no-go areas’ for Conservatism. Iain Duncan Smith and David Cameron each made the same commitment when they took up the reins. But the party is still no closer to gaining even a toehold in these places, and doesn’t expect to make much progress.
Any party that aspires to govern the country needs to understand the whole country. As Charles Moore has written in these pages, one of the reasons that the Tories failed to grasp the dangers posed by the rise of Islamist extremism in Britain was that they had no one in the constituencies in which it was happening.Also, the more seats that the Tories concede even before an election campaign has begun, the more difficult it will be for them to win.
The northern problem is one of the major subjects of conversation in Tory circles this week. A report released this week by the Cameroon think-tank Policy Exchange
demonstrated that region is fast replacing class as the major political divide in England: upper-middle-class and middle-class voters in the North are now more likely to vote Labour than even working- and benefit-class voters in the South.
One Tory MP, sounding rather like a Marxist determinist, says that it is pointless for the party to spend time chasing votes in these places as it would not be in their economic interests to turn Tory: ‘They’ll just vote to keep the subsidies coming.’ The argument goes that, since state spending in the north-east is more than 60 per cent of economic output, compared with a tax take of under 30 per cent, even those who work
Middle-class voters in the North are now more likely to vote Labour than even working- and benefit-class voters in the South in the private sector indirectly benefit from ever-rising spending. This MP fears that any effort to win votes in the North could dent the party’s appeal elsewhere.
One Tory grandee complains that the problem is economic migration. People who should be the backbone of the Tory organisation in these cities are all being sucked towards London, he says. Others reckon the problem is that the party does not look, sound or feel at all northern. Francis Maude’s worry that the public thinks that ‘if you are a Conservative MP, you must be white and male, have been at a posh public school and be rich’ has not been allayed.
‘I haven’t done anything wrong but I fear my special adviser may have overstepped the mark.’
The difficulty is compounded by the fact that many of the most senior northerners in the party are MPs for southern constituencies. Eric Pickles, the party’s most visible northerner, represents the Essex seat of Brentwood and Ongar. It’s no wonder he was introduced as the former leader of Bradford City Council in the party’s election broadcast last month.
The cities minister, Greg Clark, who is widely tipped for promotion to the Cabinet in the coming reshuffle, is the state-educated son of a milkman from Teesside. But his back story is rather undermined by the fact that he is now MP for Tunbridge Wells. The same applies to the Transport Secretary, Justine Greening, who is regarded by George Osborne as one of the party’s best media performers. This, combined with the fact that she was educated at a Rotherham comprehensive, makes many Tories think that she’d be an ideal party chair, presenting a contrast to the posh boys at the helm. But Greening now sits for one of the more prosperous parts of west London.
The best chance for the Tories to rebuild in northern cities may well come this autumn with the police and crime commissioner elections. The party will have two advantages going into these contests. First of all, the police election areas include suburban areas, where the Tories are far stronger. They hold more than half of the suburban seats in the North and over two-thirds of rural ones.This alone, according to analysis by the Police Foundation, puts the Tories in a strong position to win in Humberside, Lancashire and North Yorkshire.
The other factor in their favour is that crime is one of the subjects on which the party’s views chime with those of northern voters. Policy Exchange’s polling shows that people in the North take an even more hard-line approach to crime than those in the South. But across the country, the public takes a far more robust attitude to the issue than the liberal establishment.
Reviving the Tory party in the urban North will take a long time. In 2015, there’ll be lots of places that offer campaign chiefs more electoral bang for their buck. But Conservatives who aspire to be a truly onenation party can’t afford to write off huge swathes of the country indefinitely.
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the spectator | 5 may 2012 | www.spectator.co.uk Charles Moore
Is the hour of socialism upon us? Thanks to the exhausted financial orthodoxies of those who rule the eurozone, austerity is producing slump. No electorate, it seems, is yet ready to elect leaders who go to the root of the problem and reject the European currency, but almost all have lost faith in the Frankfurt solutions. So if François Hollande becomes the next President of France on Sunday, the cry will be that ‘growth’ (which, in this context, means more government spending and borrowing) is the answer, and the centreright will be cast in the role history has allotted to Herbert Hoover. If Hollande can pull this one, how long before the two Eds proclaim their New deal here? What will David Cameron’s answer be?
In the latest Sunday Times Rich List, only one of the ten richest people mentioned seems to be British-born (the Duke of Westminster). The question which I find myself asking, but cannot answer, is ‘Is this a good thing?’ On the one hand, it is a sign of a vigorous and open society that people should be able to come here, do business and do well. On the other hand, it is not an unequivocal blessing if rich people, for complicated tax reasons rather than Anglophilia, domicile themselves here. Are we a proud powerhouse of prosperity, or a convenient offshore postal address?
One could ask comparable questions about immigration lower down the economic scale. There is huge resentment, which I share, about mass immigration. But this week I was sitting in a modest barber’s shop near Victoria having my hair cut by a Moroccan. I noticed a photograph of a rowing eight pinned to his mirror and asked him about it. One of the oarsmen was his son, Moe. Moe, who is 6 ft 7, was spotted as a talent by an inspiring Australian PE teacher at his comprehensive in Surbiton. He got the boy into the sport, and now Moe is a member of the British Olympic Eight, which has a good chance of a medal. You would have to be very hard-hearted not to see every aspect of this story as positive, not just for the proud Moroccan and his family, but for this country.
Johann Zoffany was also an immigrant (born in Frankfurt in 1733). I finally got to the Zoffany exhibition at the Royal Academy last week. It is as fascinating historically as it is artistically. Zoffany first won the patronage of David Garrick, then of the Court. He painted English noblemen on the Grand Tour and impoverished opticians, and beggars. He went to India, and painted its princelings and Colonel Mordaunt’s Cock Match. The collective impression conveyed is of a culture which, though hierarchical, was also free. The last room was, to me, quite unexpected. It contains two horrible, almost Goya-esque paintings, one of the mob murdering Swiss soldiers in the Tuileries after the execution of Louis XVI in August 1792, the other of them plundering the King’s wine cellars. The contrast with the rest of the artist’s work illustrates the difference between liberty under the law and liberté, egalité, fraternité. With the way the eurozone is going, we are in for more of the latter (see above).
As I write, reports flow in of country- dwellers coming to London specially to vote for Boris. Labour needs to ban votes for second-home owners.
If a judge with experience in the field spoke out about, say, government threats to human rights, the need to protect jury trial, the pointlessness of sentences for drug possession and so on, he would get a sympathetic audience. But when Sir Paul Coleridge, who sits in the Family Division, wishes to discuss the fruits of his professional experience of marriage breakdown on behalf of the new Marriage Foundation, critics in the posh media suggest that it is none of his business. This must be because such people believe that marriage is a private matter. You can talk about it in public, therefore, only in terms of extending rights and choice — think how well received Sir Paul would be if he had pronounced that gay marriage would be a good innovation. Yet rights are only one aspect of the subject. Marriage is public, as well as private, for the obvious reason that it is has a legal framework, with witnesses, property rights and so on, and because it, and its collapse, affect everyone else. Sir Paul estimates that 3.8 million children are caught up in the family justice system every year. One way of illustrating it is to compare it with the national experience in the first world war. In the British Empire, nine million men were mobilised, of whom just over two million were wounded and just over 900,000 were killed. That amount of dead was ‘only’ 10 per cent of those directly involved, but the effect rippled outward, so that one could fairly say that every single citizen was affected, and millions suffered. To this day, there are still people alive who never met their father because he was killed in battle between 1914 and 1918. The casualties of the marriage war are even more numerous, and the fighting seems to be getting worse. Of course it should be a matter of public policy to try to seek peace.
At the Stratford Literary Festival at the weekend, I chaired a panel which discussed the effect of the parsonage and its inhabitants on English literature. P.D. James spoke beautifully about Jane Austen and the precariousness of her female, unmarried, vicarage status. At supper afterwards, I talked to Phyllis James about writing, and she told me her method. She writes out the first draft of her novels by hand and then dictates them to her able and meticulous secretary. It matters, Phyllis believes, how the words sound, and unless you stop and listen, you barely notice their dissonances. The reader, however, does, perhaps without quite knowing what is wrong. Words read without a sense of their sound are like food eaten without a sense of smell.
Now that the John Lewis model is being applied to the civil service pension scheme, it needs a slogan. How about ‘Never knowingly mis-sold’?
the spectator | 5 may 2012 | www.spectator.co.uk