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The Red Wall may never forgive the Tories

I grew up in Sheffield in the 1980s during the height of Thatcher’s industrial reforms. South Yorkshire was in the grip of deep social and economic shock as the pits and factories closed and entire communities lost their purpose and livelihoods. The Tories were despondent with a passion even in the school yard, where playground rhymes about how we were going to dispose of Margaret Thatcher were sung.

Although the Conservative Party itself was the subject of such ire, many of the ex-mining and ex-steel communities in the so-called “Red Wall” were and remain culturally conservative. Yet after the collective trauma of deindustrialisation, it took nearly 40 years for the North and Midlands to begin to trust the Conservatives again. But trust us they did, and in 2017 many in the Red Wall shifted their votes to the Brexit-honouring Tories, despite some fearing their grandfathers would turn in their graves. The cemeteries remained mercifully undisturbed and in 2019, many more turned to Boris Johnson to get Brexit done, and to level up our economy by restoring hope and productivity to communities that had been left behind for so long.

Sadly over the last five years that trust has been eroded once more, in part because the Conservatives – in a complete betrayal of our manifesto promise – exceeded record levels of both legal and illegal immigration. To Red Wall voters, this was a mistake that demonstrated the establishment still does not understand or respect their concerns.

It is evident from the election results and doorstep conversations that these voters do not trust Labour either, a Party now seen by many as representing the urban, the woke and the wealthy. But the massive vote for Reform was an indication of the depths of anti-establishment sentiment here in post-industrial areas. And who can blame voters for feeling betrayed? Not only has mass migration appeared to depress wages and productivity, it has put extraordinary strain on public services, social cohesion, cultural security and national identity, things that are of immense value to people in communities that have so much less in terms of wealth and opportunity than in other areas of the country.

It will be very difficult for even a humble and repentant Conservative Party in opposition to win back these voters in time for the next election. Even if a new party leader commits to strict immigration controls and leaving the ECHR – now the only viable solution to small boat crossings – it may take considerably more than five years to rebuild trust. I suspect only the Reform Party will be able to challenge Labour in the Red Wall in 2029.

But if the Conservatives are serious about being a party for the whole nation once more, we must address the root causes of this anti-establishment feeling.

It’s not just immigration; our economic model has failed the entire country. The UK’s reliance on debt and imports rather than manufacturing and exports has driven huge financial inequalities. We have the most imbalanced economy in the West. Nine out of the ten poorest regions in Northern Europe are situated in the UK, yet inner London is the region’s richest area. The North-South divide is a chasm, and that’s why Boris Johnson’s promise to level up struck a chord.

If the Conservatives are going to win back these “left behind” areas then slogans will not be enough. The Party must put forward a serious programme of reforms to increase productivity and prosperity in the regions. Sprucing up high streets and buying a few more buses is not enough. We need a revival of industry and high value manufacturing, still one of the most productive sources of employment in the North and Midlands, and one that can contribute positively to our otherwise woeful trade deficit.

Such a programme may make Thatcherites uncomfortable. But here’s the thing – radical free market liberalism is not really a conservative idea at all. 100 years ago, it was the Conservative Party that sought to protect British industry and our national economy, while Liberals and Socialists advocated for unbridled free trade.

The Conservative Party must put the economic interests of our entire nation above nostalgia for the ideas of the 1980s. If the Tories are to win again in the North and Midlands, the Party must pay more than lip service to the urgent task of levelling up.

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