When I arrived at the prefab polling booth of my Liverpool council ward at 8.30am, the returning officer’s staff pounced on me like over-keen waiters in an empty restaurant. An hour and a half after the polls had opened, I was the first voter to show up.
Theoretically, this should have been good for the Tories, who are better at mobilising their voters in low turnouts. But on the Friday there were still no Tory councillors in the whole of Liverpool, a pattern repeated in Manchester, Newcastle and other northern cities. So why has David Cameron not broken through in these areas? By reaching out to some mythical “centre”, he has succeeded only in shoring up his core vote in the south.
This is not because us northerners think that Cameron is a bit of southern posh, an ex-public-school boy in poncey trainers telling us to get on our bikes and put wind turbines on our roofs. In Liverpool, at least, people vote locally in their local elections, getting excited about chewing-gum taxes and wheelie bins. As in many northern cities, the Tories have virtually no party organisation left on the ground to campaign on these local issues. National, Cameron-led campaigns such as “going green” do not appeal so much in northern urban seats, where new houses and new Tescos would probably be welcomed.
Cameron came to Liverpool in March, touring Ringo Starr’s old street in the Dingle, which is earmarked for the bulldozer. As a vote-winning strategy, this should have worked: John Prescott’s Pathfinder scheme for demolishing terraced houses is unpopular here and was a major issue in the elections. But the idea of a task force to help with inner-city regeneration, led by the former “minister for Merseyside” Michael Heseltine, felt about as cutting-edge as an Adam and the Ants comeback tour. Twenty-five years after the riots, Liverpool doesn’t like being treated like a sociological case study. Cameron’s Manchester photo op – he was snapped boarding a Metrolink tram – was at least a bit more contemporary (not that it did him much good there, either).
The Tories ruled Liverpool unchallenged for more than 200 years. In the 1959 election, there were still 190,418 Conservative voters here. By 2001, there were 10,380. The decline may have been precipitous, but there is no iron law that says Liverpool’s Tories cannot rise again. However, Cameron won’t get far here by simply replicating a national strategy – particularly one which, for all its cuddly inclusiveness, is shaped by south-eastern, middle-class concerns.