Centres of attention

10 Mar 06
PHILIP JOHNSTON | 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.’

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.

Labour MPs are elected with far fewer votes than Tories because they win city seats that are smaller than suburban and rural constituencies and can do so on a lower turnout. As became apparent last May, Labour can win a sizeable majority in the Commons with just 36% of the vote whereas the Tories need 43% or thereabouts just to crawl into office.

So the inner cities are a key battleground, as all the parties recognise. On Tuesday, David Miliband, minister for communities and local government, published the final version of Professor Michael Parkinson’s independent report on the state of the English cities, which was commissioned by the government some five years ago. What this showed is how vibrant many are now compared with the wastelands they were in the 1960s and 1970s.

Many of the largest have attracted new investment, exploited new technology, improved their infrastructure and moved into economic sectors such as finance and tourism to replace manufacturing.

After the jobs contraction of the 1980s, the 1990s saw a boom. Even though many cities still have their unemployment, crime and poverty black spots and their socially excluded underbelly, many of the centres have changed dramatically. Much of the policy framework for this transformation was laid down before Labour came to power.

Billions of pounds were spent on regeneration through projects such as City Challenge and Housing Action Trusts, initiatives that have been built on by Labour’s urban policies.

So, something was done about those inner cities in the ten years between Thatcher’s observation and Labour’s 1997 triumph, and the Tories can justifiably claim some of the credit for their renaissance. But they have been unable to translate that into political support.

The one city where the Tories do well is London, which has many young inhabitants eager to get on in the world. Boroughs such as Wandsworth and Westminster are Conservative-run and emphasise the sort of low-tax policies that city dwellers find attractive but which Cameron is reluctant to embrace with any enthusiasm.

If he continues to hide this policy under a bushel, what are the Conservatives offering voters in the inner cities that is different from Labour and the LibDems?

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