Andrew Whitaker: Is the Blue Collar Tory a myth?

THE notion that the Conservative general election win presages a rise of working class support bemuses Andrew Whitaker.
David Cameron makes a speech to Birmingham factory workers during the election campaign. Picture: AFP/GettyDavid Cameron makes a speech to Birmingham factory workers during the election campaign. Picture: AFP/Getty
David Cameron makes a speech to Birmingham factory workers during the election campaign. Picture: AFP/Getty

David Cameron’s Tory government has been looking for “friends in the north” in the aftermath of the party’s first outright general election win in 23 years. There was Scottish Secretary David Mundell’s suggestion the Tories were in a “good position” to eclipse Labour as the second party in Scotland, coupled with the cabinet minister’s apparent offer of an olive branch to the SNP with his statement that “far more unites than divides us”.

George Osborne also seems to pepper every other sentence with talk of a “northern powerhouse” – a flagship programme from the Chancellor, pledging devolution and an economic revival for northern England.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Unsurprisingly with Labour reeling after a bruising and chastening defeat, the Tory high command smells blood and in the weeks after 7 May much column space in sections of the media has been devoted to discussing how Mr Cameron’s party can lock Labour out of power for a generation.

Moves towards trying to establish a Tory hegemony have included a plan to legislate for a shift from a current system whereby trade union members have to contract out from paying the political levy to Labour, to one in which they have to opt in – something that will impact hard on Labour’s chief source of funding.

Unions have pointed out that political funds are already subject to ten-year affirmative ballots and said the reform, considered by Margaret Thatcher’s employment secretary Norman Tebbit in the early 1980s, was not mentioned in the 2015 Tory election manifesto.

The talk of “Blue Collar Conservatism” could have been borrowed from the phrasebook of former US President Ronald Reagan, who during his dominance of American politics in the 1980s won a large bloc of his support from traditional Democrats, union members and working-class voters – or to take the US term, blue collar workers. Incidentally, despite his huge electoral success and folksy media performances, Reagan did occasionally overreach himself, most notably when he wrongly suggested during the 1984 US Presidential election that the left-leaning singer-songwriter Bruce Spingsteen, known for his blue collar-inspired anthems, was a supporter of Reagan’s right wing Republican party, much to the annoyance of Springsteen.

As things stand, it’s not at all obvious how the term “Blue Collar Conservatism” – coined by a leadership which Tory cabinet minister Michael Gove said had a “preposterous” number of Old Etonians in its inner circle – sits with plans to introduce some of the biggest cuts to public services in postwar Britain, as well as restrict the right of workers to vote for strike action.

Is it also at all possible, then, that the Tory leadership could live to regret its own forecasts about pushing Labour to the margins in Scotland and northern England?

On top of its loss of 40 seats to the SNP on 7 May, it’s a bitter pill for Scottish Labour to swallow that the party now has, like the Tories, just one MP north of the Border.

Scottish Labour’s vote share of just under 25 per cent last month, that gave the party a 10 per cent lead over the Scottish Tories, is not exactly a level of Labour support to celebrate. While it’s strikingly clear that Scottish Labour’s vote fell through the floor, the Tory vote north of the Border for a Westminster election also plummeted to its lowest-ever level and the party has been incapable of adding to the one seat it has held in Scotland 
since 2001.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Since the Conservatives’ total meltdown at the 1997 election, Mr Cameron’s party has failed to make progress in winning back seats in areas such as Aberdeenshire and Perthshire, where the Tories last won MPs in 1992, with a 25.8 per cent share of the vote across Scotland.

The Tory share of the vote in Scotland at this year’s general election of 14.9 per cent is now below that of the 17.5 it polled in 1997, and whatever predictions are made by Mr Mundell – who last month became the first Tory cabinet minister from a Scottish constituency in nearly two decades – there is no convincing reason to believe the party will enjoy any sort of revival north of the Border.

The Tory brand remains as toxic as ever in Scotland and it’s worth remembering that Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne were for the most part kept well away from the frontline leadership of the anti-independence campaign last year. For Scottish Labour there’s very little to hold on to, and the scale of the defeat at the hands of the SNP was, and remains, devastating.

Getting back to Mr Osborne’s beloved “northern powerhouse”, Labour politicians such as leadership contender Liz Kendall have been right to point out that the party should not have allowed the Chancellor to make so much hay as a self-styled champion of the north, to be largely unchallenged on the issue.

There could be real issue with the Chancellor’s approach, though, given that Manchester – a Labour-dominated city – has already rejected the notion of having an elected mayor, as put forward by Mr Osborne, when it was put to the vote in a recent referendum.

Yet Mr Osborne intends to create a mayoral post that will allow one politician to preside over the whole of the Greater Manchester region – a conurbation rivalling that of London in size and representing what would be the biggest individual mandate for one single politician in the UK. The creation of policing commissioners south of the Border has already led to issues such as rock-bottom voter turnout and concerns about too much power vested in the hands of one individual.

It’s possible Mr Osborne could face similar difficulties with his northern mayoral plans and struggle to show how his “northern powerhouse” actually does any more than generate wealth for the already wealthy.

Again though, the onus will be on Labour to get itself in a position, after the process to succeed Ed Miliband is complete, to be strong enough to expose some of the weaknesses of the triumphant Tories.