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A Blue Base on the Red Wall will help Tories retain their friends in the North

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It wasn’t enough for the Tories to breach Labour’s ‘Red Wall’ in the election by seizing Labour seats in its Northern and Midlands heartlands. Now they really want to rub Socialist noses in the dirt by relocating Conservative headquarters from London to one of the newly captured constituencies. The Guido Fawkes website has produced a list of the locations it thinks are being considered. 

The intention is to look serious about wanting to represent the whole country, including ex-Labour, new Tory voters. People the Conservatives mustn’t ignore if they are to win the next election and the one after.

Although claims of prescience to political developments should be treated with suspicion, I’m going to make one anyway. I wasn’t surprised to see this block of the electorate shift to the Tories. It’s something I’ve been half-expecting for years, and not just because of Brexit. I don’t think I’ve been particularly clever; I am married to someone who typifies these new Tories.

My wife (forgive me, I won’t use her name), was born on a Coal Board estate in Stoke-on-Trent. She calls me ‘duck’ as Stoke folk do and has their typical pride in her home city. Solidly Labour herself for most of her life, her mum was a Labour councillor and her dad a miner.

Her core values are family, work, community, good manners and justice. Her patriotism is deep. She believes in toughness on crime, lower taxes, respect for our institutions, personal responsibility and Brexit. In short, despite her voting record, she’s a natural conservative.

Her support for Labour just about lasted through the Miliband years. Speaking from experience, I know that voting Labour can be a very sticky bad habit. But Corbyn’s ascendancy stretched things too far. Something snapped. Slowly she accepted the unthinkable. Come the next election, her cross would go next to a Conservative candidate. Many from similar backgrounds made that same jump.

The Conservatives need to ask how these votes can be retained. Of course there is a great deal to be done in practical terms; tackling the concrete issues in people’s lives. But tone and image are important in politics and mustn’t be forgotten. The idea of moving party headquarters northwards is very much a gesture in the right direction.

The Tories have to tackle the sense some still hold that they’re the party of privilege and nothing else. However unfair, it still costs them votes. The Left has worked long and hard to keep people thinking the Tories are the toffs’ party. Perhaps toffs do vote Conservative, and it’s doubtless true that old-fashioned class snobbery was once something you would find quite easily in sections of the party. That doesn’t mean, though, that the way Labour try to characterise the Tories now is right or fair.

But it’s an idea that still has resonance. As a 60s-born council estate boy, I grew up among people who assumed that all Tories were vicious snobs and that only Labour understood ‘us’ and our lives. That world is more or less gone. Society moves on, parties, ideologies, class structures change but prejudices die hard. The Conservative Party has changed but to many working-class voters it is still on probation, perhaps justifiably so. A government can’t rely on alienation from a Labour Party that has collapsed into moral imbecility. The concerns of lower-income voters must be front and centre in Boris’s government priorities or they will pay for it come the next election.

I might now disagree with their views, but it would be horribly arrogant to argue that working-class Labour supporters can’t have reasons that are rational by their own lights, for how they vote.  Nevertheless, many are swayed by outdated caricatures promoted by the Left, which blind people to important historical and economic facts. Mea culpa, I include my younger self.

As someone who once believed that only Labour cared about ordinary people’s living standards, until my late thirties I ignored a lot of the economics and history I knew if they didn’t fit my beliefs. 

In 32 of the last 50 years we have had Conservative governments. In that time, our population has increased by 20 per cent but our economy has nearly trebled.

In 1970, telephones had rotary dials and Angel Delight was a treat. Now we have a society where benefit claimants carry smartphones with more computing power than the Apollo moon landing. Our poorest citizens often die from conditions caused by a surfeit of calories. I don’t mean to make light of anyone’s health issues, but this is a stunning fact when set against human history.

A factory worker needed more than a month to earn the price of a colour television. Now he can do it in a day or two. Perhaps the best indicator of progress is life expectancy. In 1970, it was a fraction under 72 years. Now it’s 79.2 for men and 82.9 for women.

But you will never find a socialist who thinks that Conservative governments might actually sometimes help ordinary people.

We should also remember that the changes from 1970 onwards  come on top of  significant improvements under Tory governments in the 50s and 60s. Macmillan’s line ‘you’ve never had it so good’ about Conservative economic stewardship contained much truth.

But there is still a perceptions battle to be won. The Tories must show they can represent all classes. It’s not about adopting cod proletarianism. Long years of Tony Blair, a posh public school and Oxford-educated barrister, probably killed any value in phoney ‘ordinary bloke’ shtick. To cite my wife again (what better authority?) she doesn’t object to Boris’s Etonian sheen, his wealth or privileges. I suspect most other Stoke voters, from a city now solidly blue despite its red traditions are equally unbothered. They have enough common sense to know you don’t choose your parents or upbringing. We don’t need a reverse My Fair Lady. Boris can throw around Latin tags and holiday in Mustique if he likes. Stokies wouldn’t care. What they wouldn’t forgive is being taken for granted.

Of course it’s the tangible things that matter most. Housing, jobs, health, crime and investment. But the more ways the Tories can demonstrate a commitment to the whole country, not just their traditional bases, the better. And symbolism counts. Sometimes an awful lot. So moving party headquarters north is a good start. But let’s have a lot more.

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Ollie Wright
Ollie Wright is an ex-Labour Party man with a life long interest in politics and history.

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