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Will the Right Hold the North?

Author: Alain Catzeflis

Chris Clarkson is one of the Tories MPs who upended generations of voting tradition in northern Labour strongholds last December. The new intake, the class of 2019, made remarkable gains in the ‘red wall’ seats across northern England inflicting a shocking defeat on the party.

The reasons for this defeat, the worse since 1935, vary depending on who you talk to: A wishy washy position on Brexit, manifesto overload and Jeremy Corbyn’s stubborn radicalism being among the most common. Whether the demonising of Corbyn was fair or not, the 2019 election saw a sea-change in attitudes among traditional Labour voters in both Leave and Remain areas.

The question now is whether that change is permanent, whether Boris Johnson’s can hold onto his gains in the Midlands and the north and whether Labour under Keir Starmer can reconnect with its lost heartlands. Many, including Labour party activists, speak of a long haul back to power. Some foresee a decade or more in the wilderness. Maybe, and then, maybe not.

MPs like Clarkson profoundly changed the composition and to some extent the ethos of the Tory party. The ruthless purge of Remainers, widely respected figures like Ken Clarke and Dominic Grieve as well as Tories cast in the more traditional mould like Justine Greening and Philip Hammond consolidated the position of the brash new intake.

Clarkson identifies as a one-nation Tory. But like many of his colleagues his apparent contempt for welfare suggests he is more of a reconstituted, pull yourself up by your bootstraps Thatcherite. His political instincts suggest a belief in self-reliance red in tooth and claw, and that does not sit so well with communities where shared hardship, interdependence and solidarity are binding threads. He offers, in an odd sort of way, a ray of hope for the future.

Like a number of his fellow 2019 intake, Clarkson argued passionately in the Commons against the state feeding needy children in the holidays, pandemic or not: it would increase dependency; parents should assume responsibility for their children; children didn’t need free meals during the holidays because they were fed in term time; many children were delinquent and so on. One MP told the Commons: “I do not believe in nationalising children”.

The subsequent defeat of the Labour amendment to extend free meals for children in the holidays during the lockdown sparked a storm of protest across the country. Local councils, both Tory and Labour, cafés, charities, people driven by that good old British sense of fair play, the beating heart of the nation, rose up as one in solidarity with Marcus Rashford, the Manchester United footballer whose feed the children campaign seems unstoppable.

People see this as a moment of crisis when the nation should put party politics and ideology aside and pull together. The self-reliance argument, ignorant as it is of the realities of life in constituencies like Clarkson’s, just didn’t wash with the country at large. It didn’t as they say cut through. As one senior Tory put it” It seems we have misjudged the mood of the country.” Indeed

This episode is no more than a small straw in the wind. We should not make too much of it. And it is far too early to be reading the political runes. We are years away from the next election. Keir Starmer is settling in nicely as leader of the opposition, despite the continuing Left insurgency, pulverising Boris Johnson regularly at Prime Minister’s Questions and exposing his ineptitude. But as we tumble from one crisis to another, the free meals uproar suggests that the Tories will need more than a Brexit boost to win again in Labour heartlands.

After his momentous win last December, Johnson declared on the steps of Downing Street that he was conscious his party had merely been ‘lent’ the votes of people who had never in their lives voted anything other than Labour. This is true. But it also poses a challenge to him and his party, and the new intake in particular.

That challenge, put simply, is to find enough common ground with the abiding preoccupations of traditional Labour voters to persuade them that the Tory party really has its interests at heart. This is not Brexit, which is transitory, or Covid, which hopefully will have been defeated by then, but poverty. Otherwise once Brexit is done, however it is done, and the pandemic is defeated, MPs like Clarkson will have served their purpose.

Chris Clarkson’s constituency is a good example and worth closer inspection. Haywood and Middleton straddles two of the most deprived towns in England: Rochdale and Oldham. Rochdale has one of the highest numbers of children living in both relative and absolute poverty in the UK according to the latest figures published by the Department of Work and Pensions. 

Former mill towns and manufacturing centres blighted by unemployment they suffer poorer than average health, lower incomes, higher levels of poverty and, recently, one of the highest rates of Covid-19 infections in England. Some 25% of children in Rochdale live in absolute poverty. Neighbouring Oldham tops the UK poverty table with 33%. 

Nine out of the top 20 local authorities in England with the highest proportions of children under 16 in relative and absolute poverty are in North West. By contrast 10 out of the top 20 local authorities with the lowest proportions of children under 16 in low income families are in the south east. 

The pandemic has cruelly exposed the fault lines and deep divisions in the country. Inequality, after years of abating, is now soaring ahead again. The gap in GDP between the richest and poorest parts of Britain is larger than in any other wealthy country. As the Economist pointed out recently Camden and the City of London are 30 times richer than places like North Down in Northern Ireland and Salford in Manchester. North of a line from the Severn estuary to the Wash, and south of Hadrian’s wall, said the Economist, lies an area which contains a staggering 47% of Britain’s population and that (measured by purchasing-power parity) is as poor as the American state of Alabama or the former East Germany.

The lack of social mobility and life-chances remains stubbornly high. Those who move between areas tend to those who do so between rich ones. Social mobility in and between poorer ones remains pretty much stagnant.

The mass defection of white working-class voters to the Conservative Party, in 2019 was a momentous event leading many to speak of a permanent change in the political landscape. But is also creates a conundrum for the Tories. If the Tories cannot improve the lives of their new supporters, the left-behind, in a way that is felt they are unlikely to hold their gains.

It’s worth noting that many (but by no means all) of the 60-odd seats the Tories gained from Labour are held by razor-thin majorities: Bury North ( 105); Bury South (402); Bolton North East (378); Heywoood and Middleton (663) and Blythe Valley, the first result on the night foreshadowing an earthquake.

Some however, like Bolsover where veteran Dennis Skinner was defeated after a half a century in the Commons, and Don Valley, where Caroline Flint’s 22-year tenure was overturned, the Tories made surprisingly bigger inroads.

To hold onto any or all of these the Tories will have to drill down into those areas and identifying what needs doing and how to do it. Vanity projects like HS2 will do little to address the day to day needs of the poor and turn round the lives of the majority. It will require targeted, incremental policies that will improve people’s lives at a local level: more job opportunities, better local transport links, investment in health services and education. All this will take time. And Johnson doesn’t have time. He has until 2024 at the latest.

When Clarkson and the rest of the Tory party voted against extending school meals what we saw, in cameo, was the Tory calculus coming up against the Tory heart. The compassion and ingenuity required to address the myriad of small challenges that make up the one big challenge called social justice is still limited by ideology.

The Tories understand, in theory, the political need for doing more for the north and for Britain’s other left-behind areas. But the corresponding emotional commitment is not there. Where the head leads the heart does not necessarily follow. This may sound like scant reason for optimism. But once Brexit is out of the way voters who have been at the sharp end of austerity will want to see evidence of genuine empathy.

Then there’s the perpetual urge to control. Devolution is a state of mind, an acknowledgement that the way others see themselves - as opposed to how you choose to characterise them - matters. Genuine no-strings-attached devolution captures people’s desires and aspirations. It is more than a board game. It is the essence of democracy right down to street level. It means greater devolved fund-raising powers. Judging from the spat with the northern metro-mayors this doesn’t come easily to this government.

Moving Whitehall offices out of London (welcome as that may be) is not enough. It’s a gesture. I exaggerate (slightly) to make my point but it can be seen as a form of colonialism where the capital creates outposts in the provinces. It’s Rome.

What may ultimately determine the fate of constituencies like Clarkson’s ( who sits on a threadbare majority) is the inner conflict in the Tory heart. The same conflict that led to Brexit ushering in a new, flintier cohort of MPs. Relegating Labour to permanent runner-up is not going to be as easy as Johnson and Cummings make it sounds. (Equally for Labour to win an outright majority without regaining seats in Scotland will be hard. But that’s another story)

The Tory ethos, more so than ever in this parliament, is shot through with notions that divide society into the deserving and undeserving poor or strivers and scroungers. There comes a point where a belief in self-reliance (or helping people to help themselves) abuts against the reality that the world we live, the neo-liberal world, contains immensely complicated problems that require solutions that cannot be found in the free-market playbook.

Folk who end up on Universal Credit through no fault of their own. The disabled who are penalised by a system that sees them as a cost, a burden, not as citizens with an equal right to opportunity, their kind of opportunity. Children for whom the digital revolution is meaningless unless they possess a laptop.

The future must include a redefinition of value and work in a post-Covid world. It needs, as Clem Attlee, rightly foresaw, to be a partner in creating that value for the common good not just for shareholders and corporations. This involves more than just handouts. It presupposes that people are capable of lifting themselves up whoever they are. Johnson is relentlessly upbeat. But his optimism is selective.

The shocking and corrupt handing out of contracts without competition or transparency often to Tory donors or chums suggests this is a concept that remains beyond the Tory ken. I have deliberately not posed the question of what red wall voters might feel if Brexit turns out to be an economic failure.

As I say there’s a long way to go. Johnson may be gone next year replaced by someone more grounded in reality like Rishi Sunak or Jeremy Hunt. Dominic Cummings is manifestly no genius. He may know how to skew campaigns in his favour but as sure eggs is eggs, he doesn’t know how to govern. He, like his master, looks like a one-trick pony.

A change may also change the tone of the debate. Sunak’s unprecedented largesse during the pandemic has been striking. It has felt like a one-nation government. And yet he already speaks of the party’s ‘sacred duty to balance the books. One has to ask who, when the time comes, will pay the price of the government’s largesse as well as its profligacy and waste.

The Tories, Achilles heel (these Tories especially) is its yearning for purity. But the ground they seek to cultivate is not even or pure. It requires the kind of compassion and approach to their fellow human beings that they do not, as yet, possess. That is the ground that Keir Starmer needs to keep working on.


The publisher is the Centre for Welfare Reform.

Will the Right Hold the North? © Alain Catzeflis 2020.

All Rights Reserved. No part of this paper may be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher except for the quotation of brief passages in reviews.