Can the Tories become an electoral force in the North again?
The Conservatives’ drive to create a Northern Powerhouse is remaking economic and social policy in the North of England – and it has the potential to remake the electoral map too.
If the Tories can help inject momentum into parts of the country that have been struggling, there is every reason to suppose that local people will start to look at them in a new light at election time. Economic progress could mark the start of a Conservative revival in the urban North.
The Conservatives’ liberalisation of the British economy in the 1980s and 90s was much-needed and long overdue but there is no question that these reforms changed parts of the North beyond recognition in a very short period of time. Places that had relied on industries such as coal-mining went from relative affluence and high employment into serious decline very quickly.
These reforming Governments exposed British industry to the realities of the market – but the Conservatives were the ones that forced these reforms through, and they have been paying the price electorally ever since. Anyone that has spent any time in places like South Yorkshire, the urban North West and much of the North East knows that the vitriol levelled at the Tories in the last two or three decades has been staggering. “Thatcher” and “Tory” have long been dirty words.
But times are changing. The economic realities of the North of England are nuanced and many voters believe that it no longer makes sense to blame the Conservatives for everything bad, while placing blind faith in Labour.
Since 2008, private sector jobs have taken an increasing share of total employment in the North East, North West and Yorkshire and the Humber, with public sector headcount reductions being more than offset by a growth in private sector work. On the other hand, there are a number of towns in these areas where, despite three Labour Governments being in power from 1997 (as well as a Conservative-led one), little has fundamentally changed since the early 1990s. ]
This is the background in which the Tories have launched their Northern Powerhouse offensive. There is no shortage of ambition here and the aim is to raise the performance of inner-city areas, as well as more prosperous suburbs and commuter towns.
There are plans to encourage greater rail connectivity between major towns and cities across the North and between North and South - through HS2 and the TransNorth system – as well as plans to introduce London-style smart ticketing. A new “Transport for the North” body will be responsible for developing plans in the long-term.
Responsibility for a range of economic development budgets are being devolved to the Greater Manchester Combined Authority. This includes business support budgets, the Manufacturing Advice Service and UK Trade and Investment (UKTI) Export Advice. Control of the Apprenticeship Grant for Employers in Greater Manchester and power to reshape and re-structure the Further Education provision within Greater Manchester is being awarded. Significant powers over health and social care and housing and policing are also being given to Manchester.
While Manchester is leading the way, the Government is keen in principle to expand this model to other cities across the country. As it does so, we should expect to see further powers – particularly in areas like tax and welfare – to be further devolved as policymakers and indeed the electorate become more comfortable with the concept of decentralisation. Competitive policy innovation between major cities should start to see them create bold new ideas to deal with seemingly intractable social and economic problems.
How much difference will all this make? The existing Conservative plans to devolve power to the North are substantial and should be felt in the coming decade. Further devolution will take time. Such a process will undoubtedly appear to be chaotic and messy at times – implementing fundamental change always is, which is why so many politicians duck it.
However, the Conservatives are already sending a clear message that they care about the urban North and that they are prepared to put their money where their mouth is.
And if the Conservatives’ reforms produce at least some case studies of success in the short term – case studies that can be emulated across other parts of the North of England – then they will at least have something serious to campaign on in areas which had previously just ignored them.
James Frayne is Director of Policy & Strategy at Policy Exchange and author of Meet the People, a guide to public opinion.