Winning the north is about being more Conservative, not less

ConservativeHome’s Deep End has picked up on an interesting column by the New York Times’ David Brooks on what he sees as the need for ‘a second GOP’ in the US which would be able to reach out to presently untouched coastal and Midwestern voters.

The comparison to the Conservatives’ near-death in northern England is glaringly obvious and, citing Brooks’ accurate observation that ‘majority parties are usually coalitions of the incompatible’, advocates a ‘second Conservative party’ here in the UK.

I have several problems with this. Firstly, the most immediate example given in the article is that of the Liberal Democrats fielding ‘moderate’ (classical liberal) candidates in Tory areas in the south of England and ‘radicals’ (social democrats) to tackle the Labour heartlands of the north.

The trouble with this approach, as Nick Clegg has discovered, is it becomes difficult to establish a coherent and focused set of policies meaning, once in a position of power, the whole charade comes unstuck – one cannot appeal to two constituencies with two distinct sets of policies and not expect to alienate at least one of them once in government.

And, in a somewhat alarmist tone, the article goes on to say that, without this second party, Labour would soon ‘get a lock on the electoral map’. But, historically, working-class Toryism in places like Yorkshire was not the oxymoron it now seems and the fact is, even now, Conservatives do not actually do all that badly in urban, marginal seats in counties like West Yorkshire.

The party currently has MPs in Keighley, Dewsbury, Pudsey and Shipley, for example – the first three being Labour seats until 2010 and Shipley being won by Philip Davies in 2005. The reason this was possible in a county like West Yorkshire and not its neighbour, the ‘People’s Republic’ of South Yorkshire, is the former was relatively untouched by the miners’ strike and Thatcher’s privatisations while the latter was crushed by them.

West Yorkshire industries such as textiles were allowed to wither and die naturally in the 1960s, as mining ought have been allowed to, so much of the county has moved on economically and diversified. State-owned industries in South Yorkshire such as steel and coal, however, employed a frighteningly large proportion of people in the county, meaning the change was sudden, catastrophic and a direct result of Margaret Thatcher’s policies.

The stubborn fact is, those memories are never going to go away, certainly not in our lifetimes. Although many voters in areas like South Yorkshire will only have been children in the 1980s – or not even born yet – it is hardly hyperbole to describe their parents’ lives being utterly shattered by the closure of mines and steelworks – and this prejudice, this hatred of Tories, has been, often deliberately, passed onto their children.

These constituencies are unwinnable and, if Ukip can make a greater dent in places like Barnsley and Rotherham where candidates have come second in recent by-elections, then good luck to them. But, in more open-minded working-class constituencies like Shipley, we must follow the lead of MPs like Philip Davies. He won with a thumping 9.6% swing from Labour in 2010 because, in the words of a delighted delegate at the recent Yorkshire CPF Europe debate, ‘he’s a proper Conservative’.

Davies is a no-nonsense, working class northerner who used to work for Asda and made it very clear from the outset he had no interest in joining the front bench. But he is also a true ‘Righty’ in his views on the EU, immigration, political correctness, the smoking ban and government surveillance. If you speak to people on the doorsteps in northern, working class constituencies like Shipley – and even no-go areas for Tories like Barnsley – these are the things people are concerned about after the economy. Historically they may have leaned towards socialism in economic terms but they remain very socially conservative communities.

The Deep End article is on the right track, therefore, in summing up our continued failure in the north to being ‘more an issue of identity than policies’, but I would say it is more specifically one of presentation. Working-class constituencies outside of the steel and coal areas of the north voted for the same Conservative policies in the 1980s, and the preceding decades, as those in Surrey.

The article’s call for a second party which is more ‘the working men’s club, not the golf club’, fails to explain the specifics of how this might be achieved or even what exactly is meant by a second party at all. But it sounds needlessly complicated and formal. All that is really needed is for local associations to be a little more conscientious in selecting a truly local candidate who reflects local concerns and for CCHQ to recognise their one-size-fits-all ‘A-list’/’women-to-win/minority approach does not, and will not, work everywhere.