by Peter Kellner in Commentary, Editor’s picks, Front Page and Politics
Mon October 21, 2013 9:32 a.m. BST
YouGov President Peter Kellner on why the Conservative party’s trouble with northerners may have less than to do with economic, ideological or social factors than one might expect
Karl Marx was wrong; or, at any rate, unfair. He complained that philosophers “only interpreted the world” when the point was to change it. The trouble is, change is likely to work only when we understand what is wrong. The Conservatives badly want to change the voting habits in the north of England; but to do so, they must first answer the fundamental question: why don’t northerners vote Tory?
Some do, of course. George Osborne (Tatton, Cheshire) and William Hague (Richmond, North Yorkshire) have safe seats. But these are rare. Just 31% of northern voters backed the Tories in 2010, 12 points less than in the rest of England.
It used not to be like that. When Winston Churchill led the Conservatives back into power in 1951, the gap was just three points (North 47%, rest of England 50%). Over the decades, the North has drifted away from the rest of the country.
The past 60 years have seen massive economic and social changes. Perhaps these explain the remorseless decline of northern Tories? The problem with this explanation is that the most obvious change should have had the opposite effect. The old coalmining, ship-building, steel-working areas have gone. The old Lowry landscapes of billowing factories have all but disappeared. One might have expected Labour’s hold over the industrial North to have weakened, and for the Conservatives to have benefited from the transition to newer, less unionised and more fragmented northern economy. And, indeed, Labour’s support is down, from 52% in 1951 to 38% in 2010. But it has not gone to the Tories. The net swing between 1951 and 2010 was 1% to Labour in the North – but 5% to the Tories in the rest of England.
There is one specific explanation for a part of the Conservatives’ long-term decline in the North. In some cities working-class loyalties used to divide along religious lines. Catholics voted Labour while Protestants voted Conservative. This was why Tories won five out of nine Liverpool seats in 1951. But by the Seventies, this effect had largely gone – yet the relative decline of the northern Tory vote continued. Today, there are no Conservative MPs in Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield, Leeds, Bradford or Newcastle upon Tyne.
One possible explanation is that votes correlate with income. Northerners are worse off and therefore less likely to vote Conservative. However, this explanation does not wash. For a start, standards of living for typical families are actually much the same in the North and South. Overall, spending power is substantially higher in London and the South East; but these figures are heavily influenced by the minority of very higher earners in and around the capital.
If we define the South as the South East and South West regions (that is, excluding London; it is the definition of “South” used in the data for this article), then median pay rates in the North are just 10% lower than in the South. Then, when we take account of living costs (in particular rents and house prices, which are far higher in the South), then that 10% difference almost completely disappears as far as most working families are concerned.
What, though, about non-working families? Isn’t unemployment far higher in the North? Could this explain Tory unpopularity? Again, the answer is little, if at all. True, unemployment in the North (9%) is higher than in the South (6%). But unemployment in the West Midlands is higher still, at 10% – yet the Tories still managed to win 40% of the vote there three years ago.
Even if living standards are comparable, two other factors are worth examining: social class and the division between public and private sector jobs. Northerners are more likely than southerners to have manual jobs and to work in the public sector.
To examine these, I have aggregated YouGov polls from September this year. They provide data on more than 40,000 people across Britain, including more than 9,000 northerners and almost 13,000 southerners. This enables us to look in some detail at the demographic groups within both parts of Britain.
Social class first. As with pay rates, the differences between North and South are not massive. Using the normal definition – the job held by the head of household, 46% of northerners are working class compared with 41% of southerners. This is not enough to explain more than a fraction of the difference in voting patterns. Indeed, if we look at the Conservative share of the vote within each social class, the regional differences remain vast:
As those figures show, unskilled workers in the South are as likely to vote Conservative as managers and professionals in the North. It’s a similar story with public and private sector employment, with public sector workers in the South supporting the Tories in much the same proportions as private sector workers in the north.
To explore these, I have looked at a variety of recent YouGov surveys and also put some new questions to YouGov’s panel. The results allow us to test four possible sets of reasons why northerners don’t vote Tory.However we carve the figures, objective factors – whether economic, social or employment – account for only a small part of the gulf in Tory fortunes between South and North. It follows that most of the differences, therefore, are subjective, and relate to the way northerners and southerners think.
First, financial. Even if living standards are comparable, do northerners feel differently about their current circumstances and future prospects? The chart shows that there is no material difference on three out of four measures – how comfortable people feel today, their (low) optimism about the next 12 month and their (much higher) optimism about the long-term future.
|1. Financial||South %||North %|
|Are very/fairly comfortable financially||37||35|
|Expect household finances to improve in the next 12 months||17||16|
|Workers worried that job is secure||38||44|
|Optimistic about “what life hold for you over the next 10-20 years”||59||60|
In one respect attitudes do vary to a modest extent. Northerners in work are slightly more worried than southerners about losing their job. However, this seems to bear only a loose relationship with party loyalty. Once again, Midlands voters share similar economic numbers with the North (42% of Midlands workers feel insecure, versus 44% of northern workers) without sharing the same antipathy towards the Tories.
Second, ideology. From time to time YouGov asks people where they place themselves on a seven-point scale from “very left-wing” to “very right-wing”. Northerners and southerners show little difference, with only one in four describing themselves on “fairly” or “very” to one side or the other. At both ends of England, this minority divides evenly between left and right.
As for the role of government, the main, but again modest, difference is that northerners are more likely to have firm views one way or the other. More of them want the state to do and tax less – and more (though not many) want the state to do and tax more. Southerners are more content with the status quo.
|2. Ideology||South %||North %|
Regard themselves as very / fairly left-wing
Regard themselves as very / fairly right-wing
In long term, government should do less and tax less
In long term, government should do more and tax more
Private sector should play bigger role in delivering public services
Public sector should play smaller role in delivering public services
|Think free market is best way to distribute goods and services||29||24|
|Would bring railways back into public ownership||61||64|
|Think Top tax rate should be 50% or more||49||55|
In other respects, northerners are more likely to hold traditional left-of-centre views: more of them would like the private sector to play a smaller role in delivering public services; fewer of them agree that the free market is the best way to distribute goods and services and more think the top rate of tax should be raised to at least 50%. On the one explicitly socialist policy we tested, nationalising the railways, almost two-thirds of people at both ends of Britain back the idea. Overall, the small ideological gap explains a bit of the north-south party divide; but that is all.
Third, social attitudes. Here, the only difference to excite a statistician concerns welfare. Big majorities in all parts of Britain share the Conservative view that welfare benefits generally should be reduced; but southerners (79% of whom think this) outpace northerners (71%). On other issues – immigration, gay marriage, prison sentences, the EU and Syria – the differences are negligible. Whatever is driving northerners away from the Conservatives, it is not social attitudes. Like southerners, they want Parliament to get tough with immigrants, criminals and welfare recipients; and like southerners, they broadly support gay marriage and are divided on Europe.
|3. Social attitudes||South %||North %|
|Want to stop all migration||48||50|
|Think welfare benefits generally should be reduced||79||71|
|Support gay marriage||53||56|
More convicted criminals should be sent to prison
Fewer convicted criminals should be sent to prison
Would vote to stay in EU
Would vote to leave EU
Supported military action against Syria ahead of Commons vote
Opposed military action against Syria ahead of Commons vote
Ed Miliband is keen to present himself as a “One Nation” leader, stealing from the Tories the clothes designed by Benjamin Disraeli, who famously described England as “two nations between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy”. Even if Disraeli’s two nations – the rich and the poor – persist in England today, they have little geographical expression. Whether judged by circumstance, experience or attitude, the striking thing about northerners and southerners is not how different they are, but how alike.
Which simply sharpens the question – if the obvious reasons for Conservative unpopularity in the North do not really hold up, what does explain why they are so disliked? The time has come to test the issue directly – attitudes towards the two main parties.
4. The parties. The data need to be viewed with care. It is only to be expected that Conservative supporters will give “pro-Tory” and “anti-Labour” answers to attitudinal questions about the two parties – and vice versa for Labour supporters. Moreover, it’s hard to tell whether a pro-Tory response is a cause for, or a consequence of, supporting the party.
What we can do is look at how the differences between North and South vary. Where views are pretty similar, it is reasonable to suppose that these do NOT explain the gulf in party loyalties; rather, we are looking for the big differences in view.
|4a. Conservatives||South %||North %|
|Conservatives care more about the rich and affluent than ordinary people||62||73|
|Cameron out of touch||32||42|
|Cameron doing well as PM||45||36|
|Think coalition is bad ‘for people like you’||51||59|
|Cameron has no clear principles||39||47|
|Think state schools would improve if Conservatives win next election||28||21|
|Think economy would grow stronger if Conservatives win next election||40||34|
|Think Conservatives have taken tough but necessary decisions||52||48|
|Think coalition is good ‘for people like you’||24||22|
|Conservatives have changed for better since their time in opposition||35||34|
|Think immigration would fall if Conservatives win next election||28||28|
|4b. Labour||South %||North %|
|Think economy would grow stronger if Labour wins next election||19||30|
|Miliband doing well as Labour leader||26||35|
|Miliband out of his depth||48||46|
|Miliband too willing to give in to unions and left-wing||49||47|
|Labour has seriously lost touch with ordinary people||59||59|
This process helps us to rule out a number of explanations. It’s not that northerners are significantly less likely to think that the coalition is “good for people like you”, that the Conservatives “have changed for the better since their time in opposition” or that they “have taken tough but necessary decisions” to turn round Britain’s economy. Nor do they have less faith in the Tories’ ability to control immigration – few people in any part of England think this.
On the other side of the political ledger, northerners and southerners share similar views on whether Ed Miliband is too left-wing or out of his depth. A clear majority of southerners, 59%, think Labour “has seriously lost touch with ordinary people”; the proportion of northerners who think this is exactly the same.
There are modest differences when voters consider the practical consequences of Conservative rule. Southerners are slightly, but only slightly, more hopeful that a future Tory government would improve the economy or run state schools better.
Which brings us, finally, to the big differences. Northerners dislike David Cameron. They are significantly more likely to say he is out of touch and lacks clear principles, and much less likely to say he is doing well as Prime Minister. And despite the comparable living standards and levels of optimism, northerners are much more likely to think the coalition “is bad for people like you”. The widest gap of all, eleven points, concerns the proposition that the “Conservatives care more about the rich and affluent than ordinary people”. Big majorities in all parts of Britain think this, but the sentiment is especially intense in the North.
Not that the Tories have all the problems. Labour has parallel troubles in the South, where few voters think that Miliband is doing well or that the economy would grow stronger under Labour. The party has lost much of the respect, both for its leader and its competence, that it enjoyed under Tony Blair. Labour’s “southern discomfort” is alive and ill and living in towns and cities from Kent to Cornwall.
But the focus of this analysis concerns the North. The Tories’ problems did not start with Cameron, but neither have they lessened under his leadership. Rather, he reminds many northerners just why they dislike the Tory Party. It’s not because they are poorer, or more pessimistic, or further Left or more reliant on the state for their job: they aren’t – or, at any rate, not enough to explain their reluctance to vote Conservative. Nor is it because of what the coalition has actually done in the past three years – at most, this explains a fraction of the difference.
In the end, the Tories’ problem is not what they do; it’s what they are. Their trouble is their brand. They lost Scotland because they lost their reputation as a unionist party and came to be seen as an English party. They are losing the North because they are seen increasingly as a Southern party. This need not stop them winning a future election: there are enough constituencies in the Midlands and the South which, when added to the Tories’ isolated seats in the North, can give them a parliamentary majority. But few, even on the Conservative benches, would regard that as a wholly healthy prospect.
Leading Conservatives often admit they need more women and non-white faces on their benches. This analysis suggests that they also need many more people with regional accents. On its own, this won’t suddenly make the Tories popular on Merseyside or Tyneside; but as part of a long-term strategy to revive the Tory brand north of the Wash, it would be a start.
Sunday 8 September 2013
Britain is now suffering the longest fall in living standards since Queen Victoria sat on the throne. If this Great Squeeze isn’t the key issue of the day, the entire political system might as well dissolve itself on grounds of irrelevance and moral bankruptcy. It would be easy – but wrong – to lay all the blame at the feet of the wicked Tories, however wicked they may be. The truth is the Great Squeeze began six years before David Cameron and Nick Clegg hooked up in the Rose Garden, and four years before Lehman Brothers toppled. From 2004 onwards, the incomes of the bottom half began to flatline; for the bottom third, they actually started to drop.
But the Great Squeeze has been given renewed intensity and prolonged duration by the Tories’ hijacking of the financial crisis. As the Resolution Foundation has uncovered, one in five workers now toils for below the living wage: since 2009, the numbers have rocketed from 3.4 million to 4.8 million. On the eve of Cameron’s assumption of power, 18 per cent of women worked for less than the living wage; it’s now a quarter. Nearly four out of five jobs created under this government pay less than £7.95 an hour. These jobs are often precarious, too: there is now a million-strong army of zero-hour contract workers, a return to a supposedly bygone era when dockers would trek to the yard, sticking their hands in the air in the hope they might get some work that day. Real wages are, on average, £1,500 a year lower than when the Tory-Lib Dem cabal bedded into power, and inflation is higher for essential items, punishing the poorest most. More than a million children are set to be plunged into poverty by government policies, according to the Child Poverty Action Group. And for the first time since Berlin fell to the Allies, the next generation faces being poorer than their parents.
The symptoms of the Great Squeeze are everywhere. We can only speculate as to how Wonga executives chose to celebrate their 36 per cent surge in profit. Vultures have rich pickings in Cameron’s Britain: a million families a month now depend on legal loan sharks – allowed to charge extortionate rates – often to pay for food, heating, mortgages and rents. Half a million people depend on food banks, while the Energy Bill Revolution campaign earlier this year found nearly a quarter of families having to choose between buying food and heating their homes. Here’s to the seventh richest country in the world, whose poorest people struggle to feed themselves. Politicians of all stripes constantly preach work as the route out of hardship, but most of Britain’s poor have to work for their poverty. And although the Great Squeeze hits those at the bottom hardest, the pandemic of sleepless nights over bills, rents and mortgages is consuming the lives of millions of Britons.
If Labour had a set of courageous policies to tackle this Great Squeeze, it wouldn’t have left a whopping big vacuum filled with personality-driven tittle-tattle. Indeed, the absence of answers has had even more disastrous consequences: the devious, reprehensible redirecting of anger at immigrants, public sector workers, unemployed people – anyone except those responsible. But such is the scale of the crisis that it needs radical solutions, breaking with the free market consensus established by Margaret Thatcher: a new wave of bread-and-butter socialism.
To begin with, the case has to be made for trade unions, including changing a law that automatically presumes against them. They may be Britain’s biggest democratic movement – representing, as they do, more than six million call-centre workers, supermarket shelf-stackers, nurses and other workers – but they are routinely demonised by the media, portrayed as all but illegitimate pariahs. The past few months have seen yet another attempt to drive them from political life, on the now demonstrably false pretext of alleged vote-rigging in Falkirk. But trade unions are the most effective means for workers to collectively organise for better wages and conditions: it is their weakness that allowed wages to drop even in boom time. In another economic crisis, President Franklin D Roosevelt – no socialist – trumpeted trade unions for these reasons. If a party established by the labour movement fails to do so, it might as well book an appointment at Dignitas.
The need for a living wage is painfully obvious. There has to be a reckoning, at some point, when it is seen as unacceptable to pay wages that do not allow individuals to live a decent life. The establishment of a living wage would reduce the billions currently spent subsidising low pay through tax credits and other in-work benefits. It is an economic stimulus, too: the rich celebrate tax cuts by topping up bank accounts in the Cayman Islands; the poor are likely to spend whatever extra money ends up in their pockets.
Then there’s the housing crisis. Five million are trapped on social housing waiting lists; millions are left at the mercy of unregulated private landlords, many of whom are hiking rents as wages fall. According to the Yes to Homes campaign, rents will soar by 46 per cent by the end of the decade without radical action. Allowing councils to build homes – creating jobs and reducing housing benefit in the process – would prevent living in an affordable home being a far-fetched ambition.
British parents spend a third of their income on childcare: no wonder, then, that the average child now costs £148,000 to raise. Compare this with Sweden where costs are capped at 3 per cent of income, and all can enjoy an excellent standard of state-funded childcare. A similar system would pay for itself by raising the number of women in work and increasing the tax revenues flowing to the Exchequer.
The disastrously privatised railways are an unaffordable luxury for large swathes of the population, and rail fares are set to soar 9.1 per cent on some routes. That’s why Labour should bow to popular opinion and take each franchise back into public ownership as it expires, allowing revenues to be used to reduce ticket prices rather than topping up executives’ bank accounts. Similarly, energy bills have gone up £100 a year since 2010, and a quarter of the population put up with “unacceptably cold” homes in the winter because of financial woes. No wonder 69 per cent want energy renationalised: time for Labour to champion a new, democratic form of social ownership with consumers in charge.
More radicalism is needed, too. Why not learn from Germany with an interventionist industrial policy, creating hundreds of thousands of renewable-energy jobs to fill in the “missing middle” of properly paid, secure jobs? Why not cap the interest rates of legal loan sharks? Why not turn bailed-out banks into a public investment bank to rebuild the economy?
Labour will not win the next election by simply pointing out that the Tories have emptied the pockets of the electorate. Mourning its plight will convince no one. Voters must believe that Labour can finally end this Great Squeeze. And without bread-and-butter socialism, the remorseless turning of neighbour against neighbour will only escalate – and, against the odds, it will be Cameron who emerges victorious.
If competition over living standards for low and middle earners does become the next battleground, that’s cause for celebration.
Exceptionally unpleasant propaganda seeps out of the Department of Work of Pensions. In the past, the DWP press operation was always reasonably straight under both Tory and Labour governments, following normal civil service practice. Whitehall press officers promoted their ministers’ policies. But I have never known this degree of politicisation.
This week the DWP put out a press release on benefit fraud, not attached to new figures or anything in particular. It offered a string of juicy anecdotes of disgraceful excuses used by cheats: “A benefit fraudster claiming his wife was really his sister and one saying she needed the cash for satellite TV are both examples of some of the oddest excuses DWP benefit fraud investigators have heard over the last year. One claimant – using a fake ID – said her skin colour had changed after a road accident, one man blamed his evil twin, while another claimed she wasn’t in a relationship but just had a three-night stand resulting in three children over five years.” Every magistrate hears idiotic excuses from stupid criminals, but this is the DWP’s unsubtle nudge that all claimants are fraudsters beneath the skin.
I spotted the story in other papers, but never saw the press release and it’s not on the DWP website, which is odd. I asked a senior press officer who said airily, “Oh it was just lighthearted, one of those end of recess stories.” Who was it sent to? I didn’t get one, did anyone at the Guardian? “No, I don’t think anyone did.” That’s how Iain Duncan Smith and Lord Freud set about poisoning public opinion, their one success.
“Hardworking taxpayers lost an outrageous £1.2bn in benefit fraud last year,” it says, without adding that DWP figures show a fraud rate of 0.7% – less than average for private companies and retailers. Vigilance against fraud is essential for public trust in social security – but these ministers deliberately undermine that trust: one good anecdote is worth shed-loads of statistics.
Why this now? The clue is in a quote from Lord Freud: “Universal credit will close the gaps in the welfare state that cynical benefit cheats try to take advantage of. The new benefit will reduce fraud by £200m a year when rolled out fully.” This was put out just ahead of the National Audit Office’s excoriating report on universal credit, which specifically warns that the new IT system cannot identify potentially fraudulent claims, so manual checks have to be done instead, but “such checks will not be feasible or adequate once the system is running nationally”. There must be some degree of misrepresentation that a permanent secretary should refuse to sanction.
I have lost count of the statements and speeches where Duncan Smith and Freud have sworn blind everything was on track and on budget. I have never known so much whistleblowing from within a department about the failing system, the chaos, the people sitting around doing nothing. The NAO complains about a “fortress culture”, and indeed serial denial continues to cover the chaos with bluster, diverting attention with smears against claimants. If universal credit collapses or is delayed to beyond the blue yonder, it will be a shame that a project every government considers, but shies away from in its enormity, is wrecked by incompetence, arrogance and a political imperative to rush. Combining the records of HMRC and DWP so everyone is assessed on what to pay or receive in tax and benefits according to real-time changes in income or family circumstances is the gold standard, especially for those in and out of temporary jobs.
But this delivery system doesn’t define the generosity of benefits within it. UC’s reputation may be damaged when Duncan Smith’s deep benefit cuts mean it won’t, as promised, ensure working extra hours always pays more: people will in fact still lose an average 65p in every extra pound they earn. Duncan Smith may now find he is even starting to lose public support for benefit bashing, as the next British Social Attitudes survey may suggest softening public sympathies.
The elephant-sized problem of the benefit budget lies far outside the narrow remit of the DWP and its petty spite. The ineluctable rise in the need for state support is driven by the plunge in pay. The Resolution Foundation’s report this week, Low Pay Britain 2013, described the growing gap in a two-tier workforce, as managerial and professional pay surges ahead while a million more fall into low pay, below the £7.45 an hour living wage. Britain has suffered the biggest fall in working incomes in the G7 countries, with half the working population losing an average £1,500. There has been nothing like this in living memory.
Here’s what’s happened: if since its 1999 introduction, the minimum wage had kept pace with FTSE 100 directors, it would now be £19 an hour. Instead, it keeps falling further behind. The share of GDP that goes into pay continues to fall, as more is taken out as profit. In the Commons debate this week on living standards, Tory speakers one after another boasted of 1.3m new jobs – but a third are part-time and a third are temporary, with a million people on zero-hour contracts. They boasted of raising the income tax threshold – but low-paid families are still £890 worse off from cuts than they gain in tax.