1. Governance
June 8, 2017

The UK rust belt: Could the north of England really vote Tory?

By Anna Round

If the north is another country, one of the things they do differently there is vote. Historically the region has been seen as Labour’s true heartland, with the party taking half of all northern votes in 1997 – and over 60 per cent in the north east.

Yet in 2017, political, social and economic change mean that things are far more marginal. The north has delivered two major electoral shocks in the past year; a decisive vote to leave the EU, and a Conservative mayor in the Tees Valley. Could a third be in store today?

Regional polling by YouGov, conducted in late April and early May, suggests so. This put the Conservatives ahead of Labour in Yorkshire and the Humber, at level pegging in the north west, and only two per cent behind Labour’s dismal showing of 42 per cent in the north east, where in 1997 the latter led by 38 per cent. YouGov’s latest figures (from early June) are more encouraging for Labour – but Labour Uncut’s research with campaigners found predictions of a “nuclear winter” for the party even in the north east.

Britain Elect’s ‘Nowcast’ suggests that at least three north east seats and several in the north west could turn blue. A substantial transfer of votes from UKIP to the Tories could see even greater upheaval. And constituency by constituency local issues may play out very differently across the region, from the future of the CAP in rural Northumberland and Cumbria to the fate of the steelworks in the Tees Valley.

Theresa May launched her campaign in the north west. To do well there, she will need to make an impression in the north’s non-metropolitan areas, where industrial decline and social trends (ageing, deprivation) point temptingly to comparisons with America’s ‘rustbelt’ states. Just as the latter turned to the Republicans last November, so the former delivered a resounding yell in favour of leaving the EU.

Many of the issues on which the residents of Teesside, County Durham and Barrow must decide are similar to those which faced people in Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania – the future of healthcare, promises of investment and jobs, and of course international trade. And like their counterparts in the USA, the candidates wooing them have offered very different styles of leadership. Eyebrows rose when the map of the USA changed colour from the Great Lakes to the Jersey state line, and it will be worth watching seats which have been considered as safe Labour only since 1997 or thereabouts.

Labour also needs to hang onto its vote in the big cities. A very large Conservative gain would be needed to make an impression in Leeds, Manchester and Liverpool (where Labour’s Andy Burnham and Steve Rotherham were decisively elected as mayors just a month ago), Newcastle or even Sunderland. But in smaller cities and towns things are far less certain.

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Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland is a Tory target, and Bury North is a classic bellwether. Traditional Labour voters in places like Barrow-in-Furness and Hartlepool will need to opt for Corbyn if his party are to preserve these slim but crucial majorities. And it would be foolish to rule out some local gains for the Liberal Democrats in seats which they have held comparatively recently, if Remainers vote for the party in large numbers in Burnley, Redcar or Berwick.

In the end, though, the most important elections for the north may be those whose boundaries and campaigns are still to come – those which offer the region real powers and funding to decide its own future. The party which forms a government after Friday morning’s result must make progress on this – or risk even greater disengagement and missed economic opportunities.

Anna Round is a senior research fellow at IPPR North.

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