Any 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.
While 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 three months.
Base: 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.
Three 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.
This 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.
Two 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.
However, 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.
It 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 deaf ears.
Unless 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.
The 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 was lost.
The 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 Northern voters.
Northern 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.
Instead, 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.
Base: All respondents from North West, North East and Yorkshire & Humberside polled in the Favourability Index in 2014 (n=960).
A 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 to?