Damian Flanagan is an author and critic. He is Chair of Didsbury Conservatives in Manchester.
Picture this scene. There’s a semi-secret political group in Manchester whose meetings can not be made public for fear of reprisal. You are unlikely to find a poster in support of them in any window across the city and they struggle to find candidates who campaign or distribute any leaflets. They have pitiful means to fund their activities in a city of over 550,000 people.
So why am I even writing about this secretive group of no-hopers? Because they happen to be called “The Conservative Party” – and it currently runs the country. Also, I happen to be one of them, having recently taken over the running of the newly reformed Manchester, Withington Constituency Conservative Association.
The position of the Conservative Party not just in Manchester, but in cities across the North of England is so dire that it is probably beyond the imaginings of people in the rest of the country and certainly seems to be a blind spot for Conservative Campaign Headquarters. There hasn’t been a single Conservative councillor elected in Manchester for over 25 years, and until two years ago, the council was a hundred per cent Labour, with no opposition whatsoever – leading to zero scrutiny of any Council policies.
In the recent local elections,t he Conservatives sunk to a new low in Manchester, attracting just 6.5 per cent of the vote, half that achieved by both the Greens and Liberal Democrats, and barely 1/9th of the 58.8 per cent achieved by Labour.
The opposition to Labour in Manchester now consists of three Liberal Democrat councillors (who recently complained that the council was too “right wing”). There is also not a single Conservative councillor on the councils in Liverpool, Sheffield, Leicester, South Tyneside, Gateshead, Newcastle…
So why should people elsewhere care about this? If Northerners like Labour so much, shouldn’t they just be allowed to get on with it?
You could argue that the local elections were an aberration and that people were venting their frustration with the Brexit stalemate in Westminster, that two unrelated issues – local government and national government – were being conflated.
Yet the crisis over Brexit and the full-scale retreat of the Conservative Party from many cities in the north of England are profoundly connected.
Think back to the last time that the Conservative Party enjoyed thumping majorities of over 100 in the House of Commons and was able to act decisively. You have to go back to Margaret Thatcher and the 1980s, a time when the Conservatives still had MPs in urban constituencies in places like Manchester, had a considerable group of representatives on the council there and could appeal to voters in northern cities.
Since being rooted out of those northern cities in the 1990s, the best the Conservatives have been able to hope for are slim majorities in general elections, leaving them highly vulnerable to party divisions over Europe.
Having the vision and doggedness to produce policies that re-engage with the inhabitants of places like Manchester, Liverpool, Sheffield, Leicester, Tyneside and Newcastle has seemingly not been in the mindset of anyone in the Conservative Party. That needs to change urgently.
The fact is that the Conservatives have for over 22 years been incapable of ruling without the support first of the Liberal Democrats and now of the Democratic Unionists. Parliament has been paralysed, Brexit frustrated and finally the Conservatives went begging to Labour for agreement with their policies. All these things are intimately connected to the fact that there has not been a Conservative councillor elected in Manchester for 25 years.
Imagine, though, that the Conservatives were to declare their determination to win back these “lost” Northern cities, starting by setting up a permament office in Manchester and sending some of their best people to find out what exactly is going on and to find a solution to the ingrained antipathy to Conservatives. Supposing we were to make it a marquee policy that we will not, as Conservatives, accept the age-old, north-south wealth divide – why should we? There is no reason whatsover why the north should be poor.
Let’s commit ourselves as Conservatives to those neglected northern cities by taking radical measures: offering tax incentives for companies to set up there and moving government departments north – the relocation of sections of the BBC to Salford and the creation of Media City there has been transformational in the economy of that area.
Let’s commit ourselves to the end of failing, inner city northern state schools which trap many children in a cycle of ignorance and poverty for life, and demand that minimal standards are met instead, and that we will closely monitor and put in targetted resources to these areas until that happens.
Imagine if people in the North began to think of the Conservatives not as the “Nasty Party” only concerned with their own interests and support base in the south, but rather as the visionaries who lifted them, once and for all, out of relative poverty and offered unprecedented opportunities, rediscovering the entrepeneurial drive and world-beating heritage of these post-industrial cities.
In Manchester, the populace are constantly told, over and over, that the source of all problems are “Tory cuts”. It is a matter of almost existential, religious belief.
The local governments of such cities as Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield and Newcastle – cities which once led the world as centres of invention and industry – tend to focus on a culture of welfare. There is little sense that a spirit of enterprise, self-reliance and sense of public good is required to guarantee a prosperous future: it’s this compassionate and engaged Conservative vision that the North needs to rediscover.
As Conservatives, we need to support and nurture such a vision. But we are not going to manage it as a London-centric organisation that just views the cities of the north as largely unwinnable provincial backwaters.
The Conservative revolution that needs to begin in cities across the North should also transform the Conservatives nationally. The Conservatives cannot be merely a party of the South and the countryside: it must strongly engage with the interests and concerns of England’s northern cities.
Many people think the great irresolvable fault line in British politics lies between Britain and the EU or else on the border of the Irish Republic. But delve further into what exactly is causing the underlying weakness and reliance on coalitions in Conservative governments, and you will see that it is the long Conservative exile from the cities of the North which is a chief cause of what is stopping the UK advancing forward with decisiveness and unity as a nation.