Magazine article Public Finance

Centres of Attention

Magazine article Public Finance

Centres of Attention

Article excerpt

It is almost 20 years since Margaret Thatcher, on the morning of her third election victory in 1987, stood on the staircase of Central Office in London and said: 'We must do something about those inner cities.'

What she meant, of course, was to stop the haemorrhage of Tory votes in the inner cities. The fact that she felt nothing had been done was an implied rebuke to her erstwhile Cabinet colleague and sworn enemy, Michael Heseltine, whom she had despatched to Liverpool some six years earlier after the Toxteth riots to find out what went wrong and advise on the improvements to be made.

Now Heseltine has been disinterred, politically at least, by another Conservative leader, David Cameron, and placed in charge of a task force to, er, do something about those inner cities. Three years ago, Oliver Letwin, now the party's chief policy wonk, also decided that the inner cities were worth a visit when he launched a campaign in Brixton, south London, aimed at showing that the Tories were no longer 'the party of the leafy suburbs and of the rural shires'.

Earlier this week, Cameron took his shadow Cabinet on an Awayday to Liverpool (what have the Scousers done to deserve these attentions; wasn't Boris Johnson enough?) with the expressed intention of, you've guessed it, dispelling the Tory image as the party of the 'middle-class suburbs and rural shires'.

The problem, as Cameron and his predecessors have found to their cost, is that the Tories are the party of the suburbs and shires. They have been gradually pushed out of the cities over the past three decades to the point where they are barely represented in any urban area outside London.

The decline has been truly spectacular. In 1977 the Tories controlled Manchester and Liverpool and ran Labour close in Newcastle. Today, they have no seats in these cities and only two in Sheffield.

On the other hand, they have 40 out of 120 councillors in Birmingham, 24 out of 90 in Leeds and 11 out of 70 in Bristol, all bases from which they can build. The reason the Tories have disappeared in the northern cities is that they have been supplanted as the main opposition to Labour by the Liberal Democrats, who have even taken control in Newcastle and Liverpool and used to run Sheffield.

So, Cameron's principal function must be to rebuild his party's power base in these northern conurbations, where dozens of seats are up for grabs. Indeed, the political geography has become so skewed against the Tories that it is essential they start winning seats again in the cities if they want to form a government. …

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