Gavin Rice is Head of the Work and Welfare Policy Unit at the Centre for Social Justice.
All eyes are now on Hartlepool, with the first by-election poll showing Labour’s lead down to just three per cent. The Conservative campaign opens today: whether the party can flip the seat, which hasn’t voted for a Tory candidate in six decades, is being viewed widely as a litmus test for the strength and permanence of the party’s 2019 incursion into the North East and West.
There is a lot to live up to. After thousands of voters overcame multi-generational hatred for the Tories to “lend” Boris Johnson their vote, the Prime Minister made a solemn commitment to govern in their interests, saying: “I will repay your trust”.
It’s now imperative that the Conservatives do repay it, and are seen to do so. This will involve giving priority to concrete remedies to the poverty that for many Red Wall voters has become a fact of life.
The Centre for Social Justice has compiled a list of 205 deprived towns, using the Index of Multiple Deprivation, as an indicator of Britain’s communities most in need of “levelling up”. We have also mapped them electorally by parliamentary constituency.
The results are revealing. No fewer than 38 of the constituencies containing deprived towns are 2019 Conservative gains – all in the Midlands, North East and North West. All of them are marginal, meaning the government’s stake in making a real difference in these places is electoral as well as moral.
Many more are narrow Labour holds such as Hartlepool, again in the Red Wall. It’s generally accepted the Conservatives have long-term problems in London, the cities, spa towns and middle-class suburbia. They will need more working-class seats in former Labour territory to offset these losses. There are positive signs, with the party taking a 25-point lead among working-class voters, but also policy choices that are much more concerning.
The recent decision by the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) to “call in” the planning application to open a coalmine at Whitehaven in Copeland constituency is astonishing if it indicates where the Tories’ hearts lie.
Such decisions are normally made by the local authority, and the Secretary of State, Robert Jenrick, initially pledged not to intervene. He later U-turned, however, taking the decision out of Copeland County Council’s hands and returning it to central government. After an outcry from the likes of Greenpeace, the project has been earmarked for a public inquiry and kicked into the long grass.
The decision – taken in reality, no doubt, by Number Ten – looks shamelessly political, prioritising green optics over Northern livelihoods – the very opposite of what Johnson should be doing. But clearly 500 or more well-paid jobs in Whitehaven cannot compete with the fact that Britain is hosting COP26 in November, when a brand new coalmine (the first in 30 years) could present plenty of opportunities for media embarrassment. The decision also came – rather suspiciously – three days after the visit to the UK of John Kerry, the US’s replacement for Al Gore as chief climate guru.
Refusing to open a commercially viable new mine seems extremely ham-fisted, given the lost opportunity and disappointment this will cause to exactly the constituents the Conservatives need to be defending – and, yes, Whitehaven is one of CSJ’s “205”. Not so long ago the party was pursuing an explicit Cumbria strategy; the Whitehaven decision seems a long way from there.
Given what could be at stake, there has been no regard for trade-offs. Mark Jenkinson, the MP for Workington (another former mining constituency), has argued that producing coking coal domestically could even cut emissions by eliminating the need to ship to Britain from around the world, meaning the carbon footprint – if any – would be minimal. In contrast, the local and symbolic impact of saying “No” to Whitehaven is enormous.
The Conservatives do not enjoy a good legacy in the North when it comes to closing mines. The way the closure of the pits was handled, and the tragic social aftermath in which two generations were consigned to unemployment, has left a lasting scar. Even John Major has admitted that the party “got it wrong”. But at least Thatcher’s closures were motivated by economic reality. This time it’s about displaying green credentials for perceived political gain.
Whether this is in fact a political gain should be reconsidered, fast. The Red Wall absolutely cannot be taken for granted: a 2020 Channel 4 poll of voters in 45 Red Wall seats found that 16 per cent of 2019 Conservative voters didn’t know which way they would vote now, with seven per cent saying they will definitely go back to Labour. Indeed, Labour took a Red Wall poll lead in December. Given how marginal these seats are, these are numbers that should cause unease in CCHQ.
Painting a picture of local stagnation George Bell, a veteran of the National Union of Mineworkers, said that in Worksop, which switched to the Tories for the first time since 1929: “a lot of [the work] is low-paid, non-unionised work…the electricians, brick works, timber yards and other industries that used to service the mines are all long gone”.
These are the communities the Conservatives need to win and hold. Their top 20 targets for 2024 are almost all in the Red Wall. These include Wansbeck, Hemsworth, Normanton Pontefract and Castleford, Chesterfield (Tony Benn’s former constituency), and Oldham East and Saddleworth. In each of these the Conservatives only need a small swing. Every one is in or near former mining country.
The Government must accept that chasing a green-only economic agenda at breakneck speed is a policy that sits in clear tension with the solemn commitment to regenerate Britain’s post-industrial regions. Net zero and levelling up are competing objectives. This is a contradiction within the party’s thinking, and the sooner there is honesty about it, the better.
Unfortunately, this policy clash speaks to a deeper cultural divide within the party between Cameroons and the new Boris consensus. David Cameron did incredible things for the party, making it electable again after 13 wilderness years. But his electoral strategy – chasing middle-class votes, parading environmentalist credentials (“Vote Blue, Go Green”), and taking the fight to the Liberal Democrats in England’s leafy suburbs, ultimately resulted in Coalition. In 2015 he pulled off a majority, but one much smaller than Johnson did when the Red Wall fell.
Cameron’s autobiography, “For the Record”, makes plain that the former leader remains convinced of the merits of what he calls the “centre ground”, with social liberalism and climate change its core priorities. This Westminster centre – as research shows – is in fact not the centre ground of British voters at all.
Whitehaven may seem like a local issue, and indeed it should have been. Whitehall’s intervention has made this a national question, revealing a deeper existential conflict within the Conservative Party. Is it the party of bourgeois ideological preoccupations, or of British workers? Were our former mining communities right to place their trust in the party? A good signal of the true answer to this lies in whether they open this mine. Let’s hope Johnson doesn’t let his new voters down.