New report highlights north-south divide among voters

Tyne Bridge and Newcastle skyline The Conservatives have been wiped out as an electoral force in cities like Newcastle

We're used to hearing about the economic divide but this week's local elections are likely to expose a continuing and perhaps growing north-south political divide.

We know from the 2010 General Election that Labour support is at a low ebb in the south, but equally we know that the Conservatives are still struggling to break through in large expanses of the north.

Research released this week tries to shed some light on the reasons behind the divide.

Think tank Policy Exchange used number crunching, polling and focus groups to examine whether where we live influences how we vote.

It found a north-south divide but a slightly more nuanced one.

Start Quote

The Conservatives have got a mountain to climb if they want to win seats in the north again”

End Quote Ed Cox Director, IPPR North
'Chicken and egg'

Conservative support is alive in the north but mostly it's confined to rural areas. It's in the northern cities where they are struggling to mount any comeback.

The party was wiped out as an electoral force in Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield, and Newcastle in the 90s, and there's little sign of recovery.

The Lib Dems have moved in to the vacuum, as the main opposition to Labour.

Policy Exchange then describes a "chicken and egg" situation for the Conservatives in those cities.

People won't vote Conservative because they don't believe they can win, and the Conservatives can't show they can win because people won't vote for them.

The party has fared better in cities such as Sunderland, Salford, Bradford and Leeds where their council representation wasn't completely wiped out.

Indeed, some of those saw a mini-revival in support during Labour's time in government.

The danger is that they could soon be on the retreat there if national polling is replicated in Thursday's local elections.

Margaret Thatcher Some have blamed the Conservatives' problems in the north on Margaret Thatcher and her policies

So what's behind this continuing malaise?

It would be easy to pin it all on Margaret Thatcher and the ongoing folk memory of what happened to the north's traditional industries in the 1980s.

But a Policy Exchange poll suggested that people in the north hold Margaret Thatcher in higher esteem as a PM than Gordon Brown. Only Tony Blair was narrowly rated more highly.

The polling did come up with some interesting perceptions on class, with northerners much more likely to describe themselves as working class than southerners.

It also suggested that many do still see the Conservatives as the party of the rich.

But it also found that Labour was ahead of the Conservatives in every social grouping in the north.

There also seemed to be a desire amongst northern voters for more MPs to come from working class roots.

Conservative supporters also felt their party did not have enough MPs from the north.

Investment plan

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the research also found that people were more likely to vote Labour in areas of high unemployment.

And some do feel that's the killer fact.

Fellow think tank IPPR North believes Conservative support won't revive until the government produces a credible plan to create jobs and prosperity in the north.

The government would argue they do have one, but IPPR North director Ed Cox disagrees.

He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "A recent You Gov poll put the Labour lead at 31 points in the north, so the Conservatives have got a mountain to climb if they want to win seats in the north again.

"They really need to bring forward a proper plan for jobs and investment in the north."

Polarised country

So why does this matter?

David Cameron and Nick Clegg A polarised electorate could well end up producing more inconclusive election results and more coalitions

For a start, a polarised country isn't necessarily a good thing.

But there is also the self-interest of the two largest parties. If both end up ghettoised, we might end up with more inconclusive general elections.

It's hard to see how the Conservatives can get much stronger in the south, so the party needs to win over the north to get a parliamentary majority.

But of course Labour faces similar electoral problems in the south.

Outside London it's still struggling there, and it won't get into government by stacking up more votes in the north.

So when the parties start crunching the numbers from this year's local elections they will be poring over not only how many votes they won, but also where they won them.

Richard Moss Article written by Richard Moss Richard Moss Political editor, North East & Cumbria

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  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    I think you too easily dismiss the north/south economic divide as a driver of voting intentions.

    The Conservatives are strong in the south - which is the nation's economic powerhouse. People who have higher average income in lower unemployment areas have life chances and experiences that provide for steady stable careers and working lives. The north is exactly the opposite.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    Until all politicians, of all persuasions, command the respect of
    the voting public, and until such time the "North South divide"
    which clearly exists is rectified, voters will either refrain from
    voting by way of protest or target those who are perceived to
    have caused their "misery". The perception of many Northerners
    is that we are 2 countries and have been sadly failed by all.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    With regard to whether a leader is held in high esteem by the public is more to do with the cult of personality and looking at the past through rose tinted specs as economic and political fact. I was recently in Russia and was amazed at the respect Stalin has there when compared to Gorbachov.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    Thatcher screwed the North of England and Scotland, closed down industries and replaced it with nothing, centering all in S East. Labour did nothing to redress that, apart from screw the whole country. Culturally and politically I feel the North of England is more aligned with the Scots than the South of England, will W'minster do anything to help the North to the detriment of the South?

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    Its probably natural that, the further the communication links, the slower the rate of change. I suspect that there will be temporary upticks in Labour support but, that over 10-15 years, the "Labour till I die" stuff will fade away. Labour is the North's grim past. Sooner or later, folk start looking for a bright future.



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