On election night in 1983, it wasn’t just Conservatives in the party’s traditional heartland who were celebrating. Champagne corks were also being popped by Tories celebrating their victory in Manchester Withington, a seat they’d held since 1931, and the fact that they still had a sizeable presence on the city council. In Manchester Wythenshawe, at the same election, the party gained almost a third of the vote – polling nearly 13,000. The city where Disraeli had set out his vision of Conservatism still had a strong and identifiable Conservative presence. As with all of the big Tory election victories since the war, the large majority in 1983 included seats in the Northern cities and Scotland.
Today, the idea of a Tory MP representing a Manchester constituency is a pretty fanciful one. Like Sheffield, Newcastle and Liverpool, Manchester doesn’t have a single Conservative MP or councillor. Last Thursday, the party came a miserable third in the Wythenshawe by-election, with its vote collapsing by more than 11 per cent, after a campaign described by Conservative Home’s Mark Wallace as having a “pedestrian and unambitious message”. In 2012’s Manchester Central by-election, the Conservatives lost their deposit. In Manchester Withington, the constituency that the Tories held for 56 years, the Party could only manage to poll 11 per cent in 2010.
Manchester is symbolic of a major Conservative problem: a failure over recent decades to broaden its appeal in order to win over working class voters, ethnic minorities and an urban electorate. For people in many cities outside the South East, voting Tory has become counter-cultural.
But regaining a foothold in such places is essential if the Conservatives are to win sustainable overall majorities in the years to come. And Labour’s collapse in its traditional heartland provides a real opportunity. Labour lost over a quarter of its vote in the North West between 1997 and 2010 and its polling among skilled working-class voters nationwide almost halved.
The Conservative challenge, therefore, is to show that it really understands towns and cities outside of its heartland and to demonstrate that it has a bold vision to put these places at the core of future prosperity, job creation and growth. This should, obviously, involve a radical devolution of power to the great northern conurbations. As academics, including Ed Glaeser, have made clear, the most successful cities will be those with the greatest autonomy and the strongest civic leadership.
Manchester has thrived over the past few years, but restrictive planning laws are still constraining its full potential. Office space in the city is more expensive than it is in Manhattan – partly because the planning system and greenbelt management are preventing the city from expanding to meet demand. If power over planning was passed from Whitehall to the cities, then the Conservatives would be able to associate themselves explicitly with the beginning of a new era of economic renewal that would flow from such a decision.
Becoming the party of job creation and housebuilding would do much to help the Tories overcome their negative association with unemployment and de-industrialisation, which persists from the Eighties – and which started the exodus of northern voters from the party. But allied to this, the Conservatives must overcome the lingering perception that theirs is the party of the rich and big business. Instead, it needs to position itself as the party of working people who have been deserted by Labour – it needs to become a new “workers’ party”.
Much of this involves the selection of candidates from working class backgrounds and the appointment of more spokesmen who look and sound like the voters the party needs to appeal to. But the Tories also need to articulate policies that demonstrate they’re as much the party of the shift worker, the shop assistant and the cleaner, as the party of the small businessman. Nor should they forget that these voters are members of trade unions – the party needs to appeal to members over the heads of out-of-touch union leaders to win them over.
Since 2007, real incomes in the North West have fallen by more than any other region. The Tories must not let their opponents take the mantle of helping the low paid; they need to show they’re acting to help people who are struggling because their wages haven’t kept up with the cost of living since 2004. That’s why the Chancellor’s announcement that he was recommending an increase in the minimum wage to £7 an hour was so welcome. This would make a real difference to people’s lives. As would an indication that the Conservative Party would stand up for the consumer against unnecessary public sector bureaucracy and that it will step in to address market failure and monopolies ripping off consumers. The appointment of a powerful, cross-departmental secretary of state for consumer protection, based in the Cabinet Office, would give such an impression.
After decades of decline, Conservatives aren’t going to become a force again overnight in cities such as Manchester. But if the Party is to govern alone for a sustainable period, then it has to build up a councillor base from nil and develop a fighting force on the ground that doesn’t really exist at the moment. If Tories are to be competitive in Manchester by 2025, then the hard work has to begin now. But with the right vision, policies and presentation, Tory Manchester could be more than just a phrase in the history books.
This article was first published in The Guardian on 16th February 2014.