The Conservative’s northern problem

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Boris Johnson in Liverpool to apologise for a Spectator article describing the city as “mawkishly sentimental”

Conservative Week continues with YouGov president Peter Kellner’s analysis of why the Conservative Party struggles in the North of England.

The Tories’ problems did not start with Cameron, but neither have they lessened under his leadership. Rather, he reminds many northerners just why they dislike the Tory Party. It’s not because they are poorer, or more pessimistic, or further Left or more reliant on the state for their job: they aren’t – or, at any rate, not enough to explain their reluctance to vote Conservative. Nor is it because of what the coalition has actually done in the past three years – at most, this explains a fraction of the difference.

In the end, the Tories’ problem is not what they do; it’s what they are. Their trouble is their brand. They lost Scotland because they lost their reputation as a unionist party and came to be seen as an English party. They are losing the North because they are seen increasingly as a Southern party. This need not stop them winning a future election: there are enough constituencies in the Midlands and the South which, when added to the Tories’ isolated seats in the North, can give them a parliamentary majority. But few, even on the Conservative benches, would regard that as a wholly healthy prospect.

Leading Conservatives often admit they need more women and non-white faces on their benches. This analysis suggests that they also need many more people with regional accents. On its own, this won’t suddenly make the Tories popular on Merseyside or Tyneside; but as part of a long-term strategy to revive the Tory brand north of the Wash, it would be a start.

The Economist also has an interesting take on the North-South divide

The Conservative Party is not about free markets

We kick off Conservative week with a post exploring what it divergences free market doctrines tell us about the party.

“If a Tory does not believe that private property is one of the main bulwarks of individual freedom, then he had better become a socialist and have done with it.” Margaret Thatcher

The Conservative Party is about free markets right? Actually I’d argue not.

I’m not trying to make a purist case you’ll sometimes hear from the right that the Tories are not truly free marketeers because they don’t pursue the agenda with sufficient gusto. Rather I’d suggest that under certain circumstances you can predict that it is the  Conservatives rather than people on the left who will take on the statist position.

Here are some examples:

The easiest allegation to construct here would be one of inconsistency but I for one don’t really care about that. “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds” and it is unlikely that something as complicated as our society could be explained by a single idea. Rather, my complaint is what these apparent inconsistencies reveal about the underlying ideology of the Tories.

They all benefit what Margaret Thatcher called “Our People.” Planning pits the young, poor and urban against their elder, wealthier and more rural and suburban compatriots. Road pricing benefits those who use public transport rather than (presumably more Tory) drivers. And immigration is perceived to be about the competing interests of Britons and foreigners.

Thus while the Tories are prepared to be free marketeers when it means say cutting housing benefit because – in their minds at least – that’s something paid for by their “people.” By contrast, they’ll come out in favour of state spending or regulation for if they think their “people” will benefit. This may well explain why the party is so reluctant to cut benefits for pensioners: they are not perceived as scroungers like others who claim benefits.

I don’t know to what extent this bias is shaped by psychology, how far by electoral self interest and how far by the kind of areas Tories represent. However, where it leads is not pretty. It is not possible for governments to split people into hardworking, decent, older, British ‘sheep’ and feckless, metropolitan, disrespectful, foreign ‘goats.’ So the effort to look after “our people” winds up hurting people acting in a ‘respectable’ way.For example, they try to cut the benefits for ‘scroungers’ but those cuts also bite those recieving in work benefits or who are simply unable to find work.

I would therefore suggest the Conservative party should be categorised not as an ideological outfit but a sectarian one, albeit one fighting on behalf of an imagined tribe.