His friends in the north
13 April, 2007

Chris Leslie, Director
Progress Magazine

David Cameron has Labour’s northern voters in his sights

As David Cameron tries his hardest to prove that the Tories have turned over a new leaf, Labour should anticipate his next foray into new territory: the north of England. I’m not predicting that the Conservatives’ faux ‘estuary English’ drawl will mutate into a broad Yorkshire accent overnight. But keep an eye on the number of Tory frontbenchers popping up in the northern media over the coming months.

It has begun to dawn on senior Conservatives that their hopes of winning a future general election depend on reaching beyond the M25 beltway and into the rest of England. Their strategy is telling them that while Scotland and Wales may not offer much hope for fresh seats, there could be some games in the suburban hinterlands in the conurbations of the Midlands, Yorkshire and the north-west.

My former constituency of Shipley, as a part middle-class commuter belt for Leeds and Bradford, was always going to be ripe territory for the Tories to target. Their ruthless direction of Lord Ashcroft’s millions into such corners of England in 2005 will be multiplied many times over come the next election. They have the fighting funds in place, the organisation is getting there, and now they need to hone their policy appeal to match. William Hague has already been tasked with leading a north-of-England strategy designed to make the Tories respectable and popular again, attempting to shuffle off the embarrassment which often accompanied what seemed an oxymoronic concept of being a ‘northern Tory’.

It is no coincidence that this year’s Tory spring conference took place in Nottingham, or that Cameron’s visits to Bradford with Lord Heseltine have been part of a stepped-up visits schedule. The parliamentary arithmetic requires major inroads by the Tories into the north, above and beyond chipping away at ultra-marginal seats.

So first, I would anticipate tactics that establish more prominence for regional figures from the Tories’ frontbench. Second, some deliberate announcements made in a regional context – perhaps on the back of the forthcoming local elections in England. Third, the Tories will look to divest themselves of their historic baggage which has caused animosity for them in the north. They might apologise for their approach to industrial ‘restructuring’ in heavy and manufacturing industries. They will also start emphasising the need for new approaches to tackling health inequalities, or investment in infrastructure that has typically favoured the south-east of England.

The Tories have even given some hints (wisely in my view) that they would retain some of the regional economic development apparatus established by Labour, if the business community in the north feels they add value. The presentational shift will probably be accompanied by broader and unspecific policy suggestions to underline their message that the north should reconsider Conservatism.

For Labour, the counter-strategy should be simple. It can certainly play on the overt home-counties Etonianisms of the Tory frontbench, and expose their distance from the experiences of real lives across the
rest of England. More effective, though, would be a reassertion that the rate of economic growth in the north needs help to catch up with that of the south. Furthermore, action on transport, housing and industrial policy is needed to ensure that the potential of the north is realised, especially when there is such an acute concentration of economic activity focused in the capital.

If Labour acts as though the whole of England must share in growing prosperity, rather than merely addressing the demands of London-based media interests, then it is likely the north will continue in its loyalty to the party. England’s other large conurbations – around Birmingham, Greater Manchester, west and south Yorkshire, and the north-east – have significant investment needs, which combined cost a mere fraction of the Transport for London capital budget.

Spreading access to wealth-creating opportunities across England will win new political allegiances. Whether Labour will realise this before the Tories try to grab this territory could be the next battleground.