A case of buyer’s remorse? The “useless” Tories are alienating new voters in the North and locking down the areas least likely to cope
Boris Johnson’s pitch to would-be first-time Tory voters in the North of England was threefold: getting Brexit done; “levelling up” the economy; and taking their side on culture war issues against the spectre of the metropolitan, liberal elite.
While the success of the Prime Minister’s Brexit strategy hangs in the balance, those last two aims are in tatters. As constituencies across the North of England suffer soaring infection rates, new restrictions on their civil liberties, and impending economic Armageddon, the bright and optimistic vision of last December lies smouldering in ruins, like the last fags in the gutter outside a shuttered Liverpool pub.
Liverpool itself bucked the trend at the election—despite having demographic profiles very similar to the “Red Wall” seats that fell to the Tories, Merseyside provided five of the ten safest Labour seats in the country—but small towns and former mining villages across the Midlands and the North put Johnson into Number 10.
His pitch to disaffected Labour voters in these constituencies, while helped enormously by Brexit and Jeremy Corbyn, focused heavily on investment, infrastructure, and inequality. The Conservative manifesto promised to “listen to people who have felt left behind by the last few decades of economic growth and want to have more control of their future”, and proposed to deliver affluence through ambitious schemes such as the UK Shared Prosperity Fund, the Towns Fund, an extra £100bn in infrastructure spending, and greater investment in trains and bus networks.
These pledges were important in persuading former Labour voters to back the Tories: one in ten of Labour’s 2017 voters switched to the Conservatives in 2019, and these Labour-Tory switchers are usually more economically left-wing than traditional Tories.
At the same time, Johnson and his team were sensitive to the hostility of potential Lab-Tory switchers (who are typically more culturally conservative than people who backed Labour at both elections) to “nanny state-ism” and an overbearing central government. The policies on infrastructure spending came alongside promises to improve the take-home wages of low-paid workers by increasing the National Living Wage and lifting the National Insurance threshold, with a sharp focus on traditional Tory bromides of hard work and self-reliance.
The idea was that the state would release individuals and families in the Midlands and the North to improve their lives and their communities through innovation and hard graft. The manifesto—co-authored by Munira Mirza—contained lots of libertarian language, such as pledges to “champion freedom of expression” and “unleash the country’s potential”. In this context, the latest set of lockdown regulations will be doubly
disappointing to many first time Tory voters in these regions: both for the restrictions of civil liberties they entail and the economic doom they portend.
For the cruel irony is that the areas and regions which have the strictest Tier 2 and Tier 3 regulations are the exact places where the local economy is most susceptible to their effects.
Already, many of the industries and locations with the highest levels of furloughed workers were those with the highest proportions of workers on low incomes. The nature of the new Covid restrictions—closing pubs and bars and preventing household mixing—is particularly devastating as so much of the North is dependent on hospitality and tourism. In the Liverpool city region alone it is estimated that bars and restaurants support 50,000 jobs across 4,000 business, contributing £5bn a year to the local economy. The Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, has vowed to pay two-thirds of the wages of employees of businesses forced to close, but this will not help those employed by outfits which can technically remain open but will nonetheless be ruined by the new rules. In many cases, workers in such industries were barely making ends meet, and having their wages reduced by a third may make it impossible to pay rent and bills.
Twenty-seven Conservative MPs fearful of losing their seats as a result of the new measures have formed the “Northern Research Group”. Their leader, Rossendale and Darwen MP Jake Berry, told BBC Radio 4’s The Week in Westminster that they were determined to hold the government to its promises to boost the economy of the region, despite the imposition of the new restrictions.
There is also the psychological impact: in a joint letter to Health Secretary Matt Hancock, five Conservative MPs recently elected in former Labour strongholds in the North East—Jacob Young, Matt Vickers, Simon Clarke, Peter Gibson and Paul Howell—warned that the ban on household mixing would “condemn thousands of local people to loneliness and isolation”.
While this will not have many political ramifications in Liverpool—it will merely deepen the contempt in which the Tories are held—it could spell bad news for the Conservatives in many of their newly-won seats.
It is not merely the prospect of the North-South divide increasing over the term of the Parliament—rather than the levelling up promised last December—but also the apparent incompetence demonstrated by the government, and by a party for whom competence has traditionally formed a key part of their appeal.
Be it the lack of testing capability, with possible Covid suffers in Newcastle told they must drive 70 miles to Galashiels in Scotland to be tested, the failure of the test and trace system, the lack of preparedness for the second wave, or the apparent
unfairness of locking down areas least able to cope, there is a widespread sense that the government has performed poorly and there are plenty of examples of “buyer’s remorse”.
According to Lord Ashcroft Polls, of the 2019 Lab-Con switchers, 43 per cent think the government slightly under-reacted to Covid; 24 per cent believe it seriously under-reacted; and only 17 per cent think that they reacted appropriately. Furthermore, 49 per cent of these people think not enough is being done, while 24 per cent think too much is being done.
These statistics are supported by anecdotal evidence. Gregg Watson, a 30-year-old former retail worker in Wansbeck—a seat Labour’s Ian Lavery held onto by the skin of his teeth in December, and one which would have been high on the target list for the Tories next time—told the Independent that he “can’t see any sense in these new rules whatsoever”. Watson lost his job due to the pandemic, and criticises the restrictions for their lack of common sense: “It’s effectively been made illegal to socialise with anyone from another household. Yet people can still go to nonessential shops and pubs, with the high chance they will see someone they know. At the beginning of the outbreak people were sticking to the rules. But since MPs and other government officials broke the rules themselves, people have stopped listening. I think the handling of Covid-19 will mark the end to the Conservative government.”
Small business owner Zafer Saygilier, who owns seven pubs in Newcastle and Berwick-upon-Tweed, told the same paper that he “voted for the Conservatives, but I’m disappointed in them—and I know other business owners who are disappointed as well. The sector is on its knees and it feels like they’re giving up on us. The government seem to be suggesting we just retrain for different jobs—that’s hard to take at the moment.”
Before the new measures were announced, one Twitter user, Colin Thomas, announced that he “was a Brexiteer and proud that my town voted for a Tory MP first time ever” but said that it was “one of the biggest mistakes of my life, Corbyn was the alternative so what a choice we had, but what a complete insular useless inexperienced cabinet we have”.
Another, Lyndsay Hopkins of Yarm, said she “was a Conservative member until July when I cancelled my membership. [I] voted for Boris as leader and for my local Conservative candidate in December who is now my MP. I am just utterly disgusted with this government.”
These comments make grim reading for the Conservatives because different “Red Wall” voters are angry for different reasons: some for the failure to deal with the public health aspect of the pandemic, some for financial reasons and others for the curbs on civil liberties. While the “libertarian” school which thinks the government is overreacting and should do less to combat the virus is fairly small—no more than a third of Tory voters and a fifth of the population as a whole, according to Lord Ashcroft Polls—it is reasonable to suppose it has disproportionate influence among Labour-Tory switchers in “Red Wall” seats. This is because the demographics most likely to be sceptical of coronavirus restrictions—older, white men who supported Brexit—are Johnson’s biggest supporters in these areas.
Party allegiances can easily fluctuate—around one quarter of all voters switched parties between 2017 and 2019—and the past two elections have seen the Tories lose better-off voters to Labour and the Lib Dems, leading them to become more dependent on lower-income voters than ever before.
Notwithstanding the promises about “levelling up” and the culture war rhetoric, Brexit and Jeremy Corbyn were hugely important ingredients to Tory success in the “Red Wall” seats last December; ingredients that won’t be on the menu next time.
The last two elections have led to a discrepancy between large metropolitan areas such as Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham on the one hand, and the surrounding towns and rural areas on the other. Perhaps Covid—and particularly the Johnson government’s handling of Covid—could be the issue which reunites these areas.
As it stands, Tory chances in the “Red Wall” have suffered from a three-tiered setback: the failure to level up (in fact they look set to preside over an exacerbation of pre-existing inequalities); the failure to deal with the coronavirus; and anger from all sides around the new restrictions. As the threat of “no deal” looms and European leaders remain intransigent, there is also the possibility of failing to deal with Brexit. It has not yet been 10 months since the general election. By the anniversary, many “Blue Wall” voters will be very remorseful indeed.