Saturday, October 11, 2014

Whatever happened to the aspirant northern Tories?

The rise of UKIP and the dent they have made in the Labour vote in Heywood and Middleton seems to have shocked a lot of Labour people. Not me.

I grew up in the north, but it was in a Tory area and not even a posh one. For me Tory was normal and “common sense”. This wasn’t the North of Ken Loach and David Peace, where you wore your yellow Cole Not Dole sticker with pride. Where the Labour votes were weighed rather than counted. This was the City of Lancaster, where our MPs were Elaine Kellett-Bowman and Mark Lennox-Boyd.

I wasn’t born into Labourism or a Trade Union tradition. My Dad was a self-employed milkman and my Mum a nurse. Political debate around our dinner table was about what an idiot Arthur Scargill was and why surrendering nuclear weapons would be akin to inviting the Red Army to invade our shores.

It was where standing for socialism in 1983 made you out to be a bit of a nutter, frankly. I used to work with my Dad on his milk round, knocking on doors every Friday night to collect the money. The reaction to my political badges then told me everything I needed to know about how out of touch Labour had become.

I remember stumbling upon a disco in the church hall in the city centre one Friday evening. In there were all the sporty lads from our school, the rugby team and the quiet lads who did well in their exams. Their equivalents from the Girls Grammar School were there too. Attractive girls with a bit about them, who you’d never see at the punk gigs we went to, or the CND meetings at the Trades and Labour club. No, this was the Lancaster Young Conservatives. One of my mates did some childish graffiti in the toilets, we insulted a few people and left. But what bothered me more than anything was that this lot weren’t meant to be having a good time, Tories were anti-fun.

Even when I took to knocking around with the lads I knew through football few of them had much positive to say about the divisive issues that faced the working class. They were for patriotism, working hard, getting off your backside and wishing they could get a £20,000 pay off from a job down a pit like Scargill and his mob.

I mention all of this because there seems to have been a selective memory loss about what the North was like during the 80s. It wasn’t a sea of rebellion and insurrection against Thatcher. Many people quite liked her. Many people started their own businesses – often in the teeth of a workplace culture of sloth, petty theft and entitlement. I remember one lad I knew describing one of his mates thus – “a typical Labourite – you know, going off sick and always bloody complaining.”

When I went to University it was the aspirant working class kids from the Home Counties that were politically apathetic around University but were sufficiently attracted to the surge in Thatcherite capitalism that they ended up working for Goldman Sachs, Deutsche Bank and Merrill Lynch, or became feisty entrepreneurs.

They may have also been imbued with a loathing of racism, a sense of fairness, but they were the people who quietly voted Tory in 1992. But where has that layer in society gone now?

I keep a close eye on what Ged Mirfin has to say on this and many other matters. A northern Tory and a councillor in Lancashire who has some keen observations to make on all of this: “Political affiliation has become less about aspirant lifestyles, and more about the maintenance of living standards.”

It's why I don't quite buy the line that Mondeo Man is voting UKIP, as Rod Liddle has, it's more nuanced than that. 

As John McTernan says here, in Heywood and Middleton. Labour seem to have fought the campaign on the single issue of the NHS. This is at a time when people all over the North want to hear something new and someone addressing their concerns over living standards and immigration in the way that Simon Danzcuk seems to do in Rochdale. 

The demography of Britain is changing. The last couple of years has seen record levels of new company formations and new businesses. According to Start-Up Britain 500,000 new businesses were started in 2013. That enormous figure may mask a multitude of different stories – it includes one-man bands, sole traders, kitchen table eBay traders, white van men, shell companies as well as a fully fledged companies with dreams of world domination. Lumping them all together as “entrepreneurs” is dangerous, but they do have that shared hope that screams to be supported, not held back.

George Osborne is hoping these people will also become Tories. But Labour have as much a claim to this as the Conservative Party. Small Business Saturday,  imported from the US, was modestly successful and was well championed by Chuka Umunna.

Aspiration is one of those words that gets too easily reduced to a slogan. But it used to be what people associated with Conservatism. I see much to be optimistic about in the North, I meet energetic and creative people everyday. Politics doesn’t often come into it, but what we have seen in less than a generation is the collapse of the Conservative Party as any kind of organising force in the urban North and the complete disconnect from any claim to be the party of Northern aspiration.

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