Northern exposure

There is a distinct sense that the Westminster village needs to catch up with life beyond the sushi

A 1990s TV show about life in Alaska won a cult audience when it explored the vast gulf between the lives of urbanites from the influential cities of mainstream America and those perched in the far-flung reaches of the country, in the far, icy north.

The UK is not so vast – but sometimes the gap between the north and the deep south can feel just as wide.

Rumblings made apparent, but largely ignored, in the May local elections, show that there is an increasing split between those within hailing distance of Parliament Square and Labour voters the other side of the M62.

Northern Exposure's doctor Joel Fleischman had left the centre of the known US universe, New York, to mix it up with the northerners in America's remotest state. As might be imagined it took him a while to work out that things worked differently up there. There is a distinct sense that the Westminster village needs to follow his lead and catch up with life beyond the sushi belt.

Otherwise it could be exposed on its northern flank as never before.

There are increasing signs that the Conservative Party has got its beady eye on those northern seats, and is seeing the fall of council seats as a sign that the mood is swinging their way. Eric Pickles, a man who revels in his embedded northernness, is already out of his box and swinging his scimitar.

Traditionally Labour has had little to worry about in northern English cities, Scotland and Wales, but now these fortresses of long-held Labour suppert are showing signs of deep-down heartfelt fatigue.

When Labour came to power in 1997 there was a feeling abroad that these were captive voters, who could, to some extent, be ignored. It was just the New Labour middle class that needed wooing.

Eleven years later how much has that don't-care attitude resulted in the swing that Labour is seeing today? No one likes being taken for granted, and the idea that “they” had nowhere else to go has now been proved wrong. In Scotland, for instance, the SNP has filled the space where only a weak impression of an opposition used to be, and have been impressing some with their future vision. They have the added benefit of being something new, and being both in opposition and in power at one and the same time.

Hidden among the big stories of the local election results were signs that the north, Labour's taken-for-granted heartland with its large majorities, is no longer inevitably prepared to vote the way tradition might have suggested.

In Newcastle-Under-Lyme, Labour lost eight local authority seats, and in another traditional area, the other Newcastle, Labour lost two councillors.

While in Oldham Labour lost eight councillors and the Conservatives picked up three.

The signs are there. And northern MPs are increasingly worried these rumblings have not been noted at the beating centre of the UK's political world. Are hard-core Labour seats in Sunderland, Liverpool and Newcastle now up for grabs? Not surprisingly Conservatives think they are.

What was even more surprising in local election results was that in some areas of the south, in areas which might be considered more likely to swing towards the blues, an anti-Labour wave was less obvious than it was up north.

In Norwich, a small city hemed in on all sides by Conservative MPs, Labour didn't lose a single councillor, and the Conservatives made no gains. In Worcester, where the shire has two Conservative MPs, Labour stayed steady at 13 councillors, and again the Conservatives made no gains.

Is this a sign that voters down south are not as out of sorts with the current Labour government than old Labour strongholds?

The first test of whether Labour is ready to counter its exposure on its northern flank will be the by-election for David Marshall's deeply urban, and deeply old Labour seat in Glasgow East. Pointing to the achievements of the past will not be enough, even if they benefited poor inner city residents most, it will be about proving, and making people believe, that you are the party that promises them a better future, and one in which they are not the outsiders.