It’s Grim Up North (especially for Lib Dems)

It’s Grim Up North (especially for Lib Dems)

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A guest piece from Harry Hayfield

Back in the early 1990’s, a band calling themselves the KLF (or the Justified Ancients of Mu Mu or the JAMMS), launched a series of records that they hoped would define the 1990’s in terms of music – they had several number 1’s including a duet with Tammy Wynette and even a version of the Doctor Who theme. They then took a slight tangent and started producing works reflecting their political mood, one of which was “It’s Grim Up North (Jerusalem)” which was basically the lead “singer” reading out a list of towns and cities from the North East, North West and Yorkshire while next to a motorway sign that said “Welcome to the North”. This chimed with John Mann MP (Lab, Bassetlaw) who tabled an Early Day Motion stating that “It is grim up north!” and asking the Conservative government to do something about it.

Since then of course, the North has changed quite considerably. We’ve had the Angel of the North installed, Gateshead become home to an annual City Games, and now two party leaders sit for northern seats, but since the general election last year, the North has turned distinctly sour for the Lib Dems as demonstrated in the deferred elections in Westerhope and Byker wards on Newcastle which saw them being hammered in a council they controlled from 1994 to 2011.

The North of England (as defined by the European Commission) covers 11 million electors and 158 seats and to try and answer the question of what has caused the Liberal Democrats to collapse in that area I had a look at the general and European vote shares since 1983.

Year Con Lab Lib UKIP Green BNP Oth
1983 38% 37% 24%   0% 0% 1%
1984 36% 46% 18%       0%
1987 37% 42% 21%   0%   0%
1989 30% 52% 5%   12%   1%
1992 37% 46% 16%   0% 0% 1%
1994 25% 57% 13%   3%   2%
1997 26% 55% 15% 0% 0% 0% 4%
1999 34% 35% 13% 7% 5% 1% 5%
2001 28% 52% 17% 1% 1% 0% 1%
2004 23% 28% 16% 13% 5% 7% 8%
2005 27% 46% 21% 2% 1% 2% 1%
2009 24% 21% 14% 16% 8% 9% 8%
2010 31% 38% 22% 3% 1% 3% 2%
2011* -29 175 -136 1 0 0 -12

* Change in councillors in Northern Councils on Local Elections 2010

As you can see between 1997 and 2010 the Liberal Democrats saw their vote increase by 7% in Westminster elections (most of which came from Labour whose vote fell 17% over the same timescale), however at the 2009 European Elections it was clear that something had gone wrong as although Labour’s vote fell again (by 7%) the Liberal Democrat vote also fell by 2% suggesting that Labour voters were wary of the newly elected Liberal Democrat leader. This wariness was again evident in the general election (where Lab fell 8%, but the Lib Dems only rose 1% compared to the Conservatives up 4%) and following the coalition agreement, the Liberal Democrat support has collapsed (and gone almost straight back where it came to Labour).

So what has caused this swing back to Labour? My personal feelings are that back in the 1980’s, the Conservative government was seen in the North of England as “undemocratic”. In the 1983 election, the Conservatives had a grand total of 397 seats of which only 68 came from the North (compared to the 224 in the South). As the Conservatives popularity waned (but still produced Conservative majorities), this gap became bigger and bigger. In 1987, 376 Conservative MP’s were elected (63 from the North, 228 from the South) and despite only have a majority of 21 in 1992, the gap became a chasm (336 MP’s elected, 53 from the North, 209 from the South). Even now when you allow for the Coalition, the North does not feel truly part of the British government (364 Coalition MP’s, 54 from the North, 221 from the South) and as a result of this the North feels that it should not support what it believes to be a government that does not reflect the political culture of it’s region.

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