The strange death of the Conservative working vote

Conservative club members in Seaham playing and watching snooker Conservative club members in Seaham are keen on snooker but not so impressed by the current party leadership

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On the face of it, Seaham is not a town where you'd expect to find many Tories.

This former mining community in County Durham has had Labour MPs for almost a century now. It's in one of the party's safest seats.

Yet it does have a thriving Conservative club, with around 250 active members.

Pit town

I should though make it clear though that if you join the club, you don't have to join the Conservative party.

You're just asked whether you vote Conservative.

Start Quote

Derek Dixon

If they don't listen to us they are going to lose the next election”

End Quote Derek Dixon Seaham Conservative Club chair

But even that takes some guts in a former pit town.

The clientele are largely older, male and working class. So is this a haven for that relatively rare commodity - the northern working class Tory voter?

When I visited, I certainly did find some supporters, but many members seemed distinctly unimpressed by Cameron's Conservatives.

"Out of touch" was a common phrase - a feeling that Conservative millionaires might struggle to understand the concerns of working class northern voters.

One suggested the PM talked "out of the back of his head", another that the leadership were more interested in being celebrities than leading the country.

And even the club chairman Derek Dixon - who is a Conservative party member - feels his party is not in touch with ordinary voters.

He said: "We send a lot of money to the Conservative Party from the club and we expect them to listen to us. And if they don't listen to us they are going to lose the next election."

With friends like that…

Working class

But the Conservatives haven't always struggled to attract the working vote.

It's true to say Labour has been the dominant force in the North East for decades, but for many years there was a strong working class Conservative vote too.

It regularly helped deliver parliamentary seats in Darlington, in Teesside and in Tyneside that look likely to remain Labour in 2015.

It also gave them strong presences on councils in Durham, Newcastle and Sunderland. Even in Seaham the Conservative vote was healthier than it is now.

Pictures of Conservative party leaders on a wall Hague, Cameron and Major all win places on Seaham Conservative Club walls but not Margaret Thatcher

So what went wrong?

Margaret Thatcher is often the easy answer.

And you'll find some evidence for that at New Seaham Conservative Club. While you'll find pictures of Churchill, Hague, Major and Cameron on its walls, you won't find one of the Baroness.

Derek Dixon admits it wouldn't go down well - and "wouldn't last".

Some members tell me the community hasn't forgiven Mrs Thatcher and her party for the closure of mines and shipyards.

Others do defend her government and point out Labour also closed local mines in the 60s and 70s, and there is an irony in the antipathy to Mrs T.

The Tory decline in the North East didn't really hit until the Major years. Margaret Thatcher attracted far more northern, working class supporters than David Cameron does - she did after all deliver two landslides.

Conservative fortunes

The Conservatives though did try to win back some of those voters in the run-up to 2010. A northern board was set up to try and revive Conservative fortunes, and target seats.

But the net result in the North East was the gain of just one - Stockton South - and even that with a wafer-thin majority.

Much of that push now seems to have been forgotten with the distractions and pressures of government.

People sitting next to an old pit wheel in Seaham town centre Seaham is an old pit town, but even here the Conservatives used to be more successful than they are now

And Seaham club members certainly think some of their current concerns are not being tackled.

Immigration comes up a lot in my conversations with them. One talks about a nearby factory, where "90% of workers were East European". He claims local labour couldn't get a look-in.

The decision to protect overseas aid from cuts comes up too, as does the NHS, and inaction on the north-south divide.

But again and again it's the disconnection between the political elite and ordinary people that seems to dominate.

Should the Conservatives worry about this? Michael Howard once said the party could win a parliamentary majority without the North East's votes.

He might be correct, although the party has yet to prove him right.

Urban areas

Some Tories are worried though.

David Skelton was born and bred in the region and stood for the party in North Durham in 2010.

Start Quote

Ted Strike

Now we have a lot of multi-millionaires who haven't got a clue about what's happening to Joe Public”

End Quote Ted Strike UKIP candidate, Stockton South

He's recently founded Renewal - a group dedicated to finding ways of broadening the Conservative appeal, targeting urban areas, the north and working class voters.

He sees an opportunity for the Tories to target voters that may also be disillusioned with Labour and the Liberal Democrats.

Amongst his ideas are rises in the minimum wage and styling the Conservatives as the "new workers' party".

But there is another complicating factor - UKIP believes it is now picking up those working class votes.

One who has switched is Ted Strike. A former trade unionist, he did vote Conservative for 40 years.

But in 2010, he joined UKIP, and next year he'll fight the Conservative seat of Stockton South for his party.

He said: "Over the years the Conservatives have changed a lot, and they're certainly not in touch with the people at all.

"Going back to Margaret Thatcher, a lot of people might not have liked her, but she was from a working class background. Now we have a lot of multi-millionaires who haven't got a clue about what's happening to Joe Public."

UKIP challenge

And Newcastle University politics lecturer Dr Nick Randall sees little prospect of a Conservative revival in the north.

He said: "If anything the signs are the decline has restarted, and 2010 was actually a blip of life before slipping back into a coma.

"And we now have got the challenge from UKIP for the right-of-centre constituency the Conservatives would hope to appeal to."

So whether it's UKIP, the Thatcher legacy, or the southern domination of the current Conservative party, the challenges do appear tough.

But if we are now entering an era of four-party politics, finding the key to the northern working class vote - and making Seaham Conservative Club true blue again - could yet be crucial.

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

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  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    #19. Nick Emery

    "For the majority of people around where I live in East Cleveland feel totally disconnected from national government."

    But I bet the house prices are low.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    For the majority of people around where I live in East Cleveland feel totally disconnected from national government.

    To most people in the area, the concerns of multinationals, business and major Tory backers take precedence over their needs and wants. They certainly do not feel that they are "in it together" with government!

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    HMRC should note the reg of cars that folk drive to these clubs. They should then determine who the drivers are. Check the tax and NI that they are liable for. And whilst we are at it they should be breathalysed.

    Pretty soon the message will get around.

    Havens of chancers and spivs.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    The front benches are stuffed with millionaires and political insiders. The Lords gets the retreads
    50 years ago we had people in politics that had worked and fought for their country. Today we have suited clones stuffed to the gills with on message sound bites and political correctness. It's not that they're frightened of expressing an independent thought or opinion; they don't have any.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    What's this? Labour party PR on the BBC website? No way!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    It's is not just in the North that they are failing. The Portsmouth Conservative Club has closed and sold up.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    So same as everywhere else. The MPs don't represent or understand "Normal"

    Until they do and start answering the questions posed without the spin then we will remain indifferent at best.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    It's not just the North.
    In my once solid tory area, I've met my MP, he's good, and I know my local County & District councillors, who are variable, but are volunteers, of course.
    They won't get my vote.
    Because all they can do is implement the policies of the lefty liberal metro elites in Westminster.
    Elites that don't remotely represent us.
    So why support them anywhere?

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    Presumably Conservatives will try to hold seats in the south than waste effort in the north.

    But they have most to lose from UKIP as both target older pre-Internet left behind voters. UKIP is trying to be clever and target unskilled white people as well, also left behind, although they are the group least likely to vote.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    9: "I think you should get in touch with Conservative Central Office and advise them this HYS is active. Then they can get their Trolls in to vote down any criticism of this Government "

    Judging by the fact that my first post here was deleted - over a day after it was posted - for doing no more than that, I suspect that not only does Central Office know, it's got people on the BBC payroll...

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    It's very clear that London politics is killing the rest of the country and the north will not vote for any London centric party. The north has the same issues with Westminster as the Scots. The Tories created London centric politics when they decimated northern industry and backed the city banks. They've ignored the north since. Imagine how London centric they will become under Boris Johnson?

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    Bernaboyo #8

    I think you should get in touch with Conservative Central Office and advise them this HYS is active. Then they can get their Trolls in to vote down any criticism of this Government and its "Long term economic plan" to socially cleanse the country of anyone who is not a millionaire.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    Conservatives are far frm perfect but still a better option than smelly Labour.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    6: "UKIP now advising it has nearly 40,000 card carrying members yet still LIBLABCON will not yield to the public's desire."

    Because 40,000 members DOES NOT equal "the voice of the majority" - the vast majority of which detest everything that UKIP is about.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    In some of the northern council elections you can see where the Tories had usually come second to Labour it is now UKIP who are winning and coming second. UKIP have supplanted all three parties in some northern areas (e.g. 10 seats in Rotherham). I think this trend will continue. UKIP now advising it has nearly 40,000 card carrying members yet still LIBLABCON will not yield to the public's desire.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    The current Conservative party are more Free-market liberals than conservatives. And Labour aren't much better, just more PC. All the 'old' Labour types I know now vote UKIP, and for that are reviled by all main parties as a bunch of racist, small-minded dinosaurs. These guys were supporting the Grunwick workers and the miners during the strike. Both parties deserve to lose their support.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    I have been told the population of the UK is a little under 62 million.. well out of that 60 odd million just how many support the tory party and the government of today ????? my best guess is around 200 thousand.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    The members of our parliament are completely ignorant to the actual views of normal people. They have never had proper jobs in their lifes, career politicians. Whether you upper, middle or lower class you want the same things. Maybe a conservative party with conservative values would be a decent start. All we hear is political commentating on nonsense that always ends in the word racist.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    No real surprise there then.

    The links between the coalition Conservatives in Westminster and working-class voters in north east England are very tenuous now. The current Conservative party has little interest in the region, it matters little to them in either political or economic terms.

  • Comment number 1.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.



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