“Southern Discomfort” Looms for Both Parties in England

Britain’s Conservatives could lose in their own territory but so much to Labour’s gain.

Rain in Swanage, southeast Dorset, England, February 28, 2010
Rain in Swanage, southeast Dorset, England, February 28, 2010 (Kelvin Pulker)

Britain’s Conservatives, anticipating heavy losses in Thursday’s local elections, appear to console themselves that whatever gains the Labour opposition makes, it will not be in their strongholds in the south of England. “If you are a one nation party, as Ed Miliband,” the Labour leader, “claims, you have got to show you can win anywhere,” argues Conservative Party chairman Grant Shapps.

But that logic applies to the Conservatives as well who are unlikely to expand their presence in northern counties while fending off a right-wing challenge from Euroskeptics in their base constituencies.

By some estimates, Prime Minister David Cameron’s ruling party could lose up to a third of its seats in this week’s elections. “We know we will get a kicking,” one ruling party minister admitted to The Telegraph. “We just don’t know how hard it will be.”

The conservative newspaper argues that such losses were to expected, if only because the party did so well in the last election when Gordon Brown’s Labour government, battling a global financial crisis, was deeply unpopular. But David Cameron hasn’t especially enthused those who voted for his party either by legalizing gay marriage and failing to pursue a bolder economic policy in coalition with the Liberal Democrats.

Moreover, the Conservatives now face a credible right-wing opposition in the United Kingdom Independence Party. It is unlikely to take control of many local governments but could split the conservative vote, allowing Labour to emerge with pluralities in districts where it would otherwise not have won.

A ComRes poll conducted in late April and limited to the areas where elections are held showed the Conservatives at 31 percent support and UKIP at 22.

Labour’s 24 percent support in the survey is well below its national average because Scotland doesn’t vote in Thursday’s election. The party usually performs well in the former industrial heartland of northern England, near the Scottish border, except for North Yorkshire and the Lake District. Geographically large but sparsely populated rural areas, especially in the south, tend to vote either Conservative or Liberal Democrat.

Class identification linked with economic changes through the postwar twentieth century largely explains the political divide. Industrial decline in the north, accelerated by Conservative prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s privatizations in the 1980s — which doomed previously state-owned enterprises in coal mining and steel production; something many working-class voters there never forgave her for — consolidated Labour rule whereas southern England’s services economy prospered under deregulation and drove its voters to the right.

Party affiliation isn’t determined by income alone. Many public-sector workers vote Labour even if Conservatives would let them keep more of their income and they constitute a larger proportion of the workforce in the north.

By contrast, in the south, Conservative voters tend to consider themselves middle class regardless of their income and vote their values.

Labour’s inability to persuade middle income English to switch their votes even if they are dissatisfied with the coalition has much to do with its leader, Ed Miliband, who has shrunk from charting a clear direction in which Labour would take the country. Moreover, they are mistrustful of his occasionally anticapitalist rhetoric.

The Conservatives’ lasting unpopularity in the north doesn’t bode well for the national prospects of their party either.

Even if Gordon Brown was beaten decisively in 2010, winning less than one in three votes, many Britons in the middle opted for the Liberal Democrats instead. David Cameron won two million more votes than his party did five years earlier but it was not enough to give him a parliamentary majority.

When it loses ground to UKIP in the south and fails to appeal to more voters in the north, a Conservative majority may prove elusive once again in the 2015 election.