Monday, 30 April 2012

Tricolour Britain

Fraser Nelson writes:

With unionists getting grubbed in Scotland and Labour being driven to near-extinction in vast swathes of the south, a new map of political Britain is emerging. In my latest Telegraph column, I called it ‘Tricolour Britain’ — the SNP at the top, Tories at the bottom and Labour stuck in the middle (with Wales). Policy Exchange has today released research which throws more light on this slow-mo political segregation. I thought CoffeeHousers may be interested in what strike me as the top points.

1. Scottish Tory Syndrome is when a once-dominant party loses and doesn’t recover. The party has failed to capture the imagination of voters, so when its apparatus is knocked down there’s no political force to bring it back. Rather than become hated, it is ridiculed. When I left Scotland in 1995, voting Tory was still seen as a great evil. Now, it’s seen as a curiosity — a harmless but odd English habit like Morris Dancing or cricket. It has become just culturally alien in large parts of Scotland: something that’s just not done. I have friends who are Tory in London but SNP in Scotland.

2. Labour is facing extinction in vast chunks of the South West. Labour holds just 140 of the 1,873 of the council seats in the South West, or 7 per cent. In Dorset, it’s 3 per cent of councillors. In Cornwall, it’s 0.8 per cent. And if you think that’s bad, in 17 South West councils, Labour has zero representation. This is what political extinction looks like.

3. Save Ben Bradshaw! And even where the (urban) pockets of the south west where Labour is reasonably healthy — like Plymouth and Exeter — there are concerns right at the top of the Labour Party that it is losing apparatus and reputation. Ben Bradshaw, the Exeter MP, wrote a letter to the Daily Telegraph protesting against this analysis. He’s one of my favourite Labour MPs, a walking reminder of the era when Labour won landslides nationwide. So I don’t wish him gone. All I can say is that a lot of people, atop his party, are very worried that Labour is becoming as alien to voters in the South West as the Conservatives are in Scotland.

4. The Labour-Tory North-South gap is big, and widening. The following graph shows the difference between the Conservative and Labour poll numbers in the North and the South:

5. The Lib Dems are losing friends in the north, deemed guilty by association. Polls in Scotland suggest that, at the next election, the Lib Dems will lose all but one of their Scottish seats — left only with Orkney & Shetland. That’s punishment for supping with the blue devil. In England, a gap is emerging for Lib Dems support in the North and South. They are fielding 1,100 fewer council candidates, and focusing on the South West — to defend what they have chosen as their heartland. Tory ministers have noticed how Lib Dem ministers think of any excuse to visit the South West.

6. The Tom Watson-isation of Labour. Orwell wrote about a ‘northern snobbishness’ which regards the South as inhabited ‘merely by rentiers and their parasites’. This is, increasingly, Labour’s attack line: Cameron and Osborne are posh rentiers, with parasitical banker chums. Brown-era hit men Tom Watson and Ian Austin are both northerners keen to play the class card against the Tories (the one they were itching to play against Blair and the likes of Bradshaw). Slowly, you can hear this coming through the Miliband/Balls attack line (‘out of touch’).

7. Labour deserts are emerging in the South and several councils have zero Labour members, including: Cheltenham, Eastleigh, Dorset, Poole, Wokingham, Maidstone, Cotswold, Tewkewsbury, South Somerset and Purbeck.

8. Tories: no friends in the north. Cameron’s message is like Heart FM: it sounds great to southerners, but they don’t get it up north. In 1951, the Tories held 51 per cent of the parliamentary seats in the North West; now they are down to 29 per cent. The following cities have zero Tories on the council: Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Sheffield. Neil O’Brien, director of Policy Exchange, has previously observed that Tories do so badly in cities that only two Tory MPs have premiership football teams in their constituency.

9. All parties have thinning troops, so they will be defending their base. The disenchantment with Westminster parties has seen all of them lose members, volunteers, leaflet deliverers etc. Parties with scarce resources will simply give up on places where there’s no seats to be had. Look at the top 100 Labour target seats — just seven of them are in the South West. Why bother there? If you’re a Tory strategist with £1m, you’ll spend it in the Midlands where there’s more low-hanging fruit — not in Scotland. Thus parties simply give up on parts of the UK, and the voters give up on them.

10. It’s not all Geography. Labour and Tory voters have pretty much the same concerns, north and south. The Policy Exchange polling shows that swing voters in the North and the South have near-identical responses to a whole bunch of questions. The following opinions are closest to party choice: believing benefits are too high, being inclined to use private healthcare, regarding the human rights agenda as a problem and being annoyed that public sector pay is higher than that in the real economy. There may be proportionally more C2D voters in the North than in the South, but finding a message for those C2Ds is something that would help either Labour or the Tories nationwide. The solution is not to have a ‘Minister for Merseyside’ but a message for those voters. People won’t come running back to a party if there is no inspiring message. The way to break out of the geographical barricades is to find a cause that people think is worth supporting. Sometimes, politics really is that simple.

In point of fact, Labour is now winning council by-elections with 60 per cent of the vote in Southern villages where it had not previously stood candidates for 30 years or more, if ever.

Like the Marxists of old, today’s Conservatives are driven by a determination to conform reality to theory. Crippling provincial economies by slashing the spending power of public employees far from London. Redefining legal marriage in order to include same-sex couples, which has never been Labour Party policy, and on which Labour MPs are probably going to have a free vote. Deregulating Sunday trading. Devastating rural communities by flogging off our Post Office and our roads to private companies and even to foreign states. Breaking the Royal Mail’s direct link between the monarchy and every address in this Kingdom. Abolishing Gift Aid while drastically reducing the activities entitled to charitable status. Bankrupting the Church of England by imposing VAT on listed building repairs. How many parishioners of the Vicar of Dibley want any of that?

We are in the situation that obtained between September 1992 and May 1997, when everyone knew that there was going to be a Labour Government just as soon as there was a General Election. But we also need a body of MPs, enough to hold the balance of power or at least to be useful in the way that the Ulster Unionists sometimes were, for a price, to John Major, in order to keep the Miliband Government faithful to the mainstream, moderate British politics of those who will have put it in. Economically social democratic, sanely conservative socially and culturally, and non-jingoistically patriotic in all directions: the EU, the US, Israel, the Gulf monarchs, whoever, including separatists in any part of the United Kingdom, and including those who may have imported communalism at local level.

Obvious, though by no means exclusive, places to start are the West Country and the North of Scotland, where the age-old rural Radicalism has been disenfranchised by the Coalition. Labour should identify strong local candidates and stand aside in support of their Independent candidacies, complete with union funding if necessary, thereby creating a healthy mutual obligation. This sort of thing has been done successfully before. For example, Labour’s lead list MSP in the Highlands and Islands has always been Peter Peacock, who had previously made it all the way up to Convener of Highland Council in 17 years as an Independent. I am told that at one time, and for some years, even the mighty Secretary of the Labour Group on Durham County Council was officially an Independent from agricultural Weardale.

1 comment:

  1. This is an interesting article, and the regional polarization could be a symptom of the lack of popularity of all three parties. I don't think Labour has recovered from the damage done by Blair, and the current government is obviously making the Conservatives and even more so the Liberals unpopular.

    So if a voter becomes disillusioned with his "natural" party, the unpopularity of the alternatives means he is actually less likely to switch. Instead, people will drift into whatever party is tied to their tribal identity and region. Something similar seems to be happening in the U.S. with the blue state/ red state divide.