Darlington, a market town in County Durham in England’s northeast, is the kind of constituency that the Conservative party needs to win if it wants to form a government after the British general election this Thursday, May 7.
Since 1945, in fact, Darlington has been a bellwether — Tory when the Conservatives were strong in the 1950s and 1980s, but otherwise inclined to support Labour. It’s not safely prosperous, but it’s anxious, not impoverished. Yet this week, for reasons that are not unique to Darlington, it seems unlikely to turn Tory.
That’s not for lack of trying on the part of the Conservative candidate, Peter Cuthbertson. A Darlington man born and bred, he walks briskly from door to door in a cold, pelting rainstorm, listening to local concerns about parking garages, talking David Cameron up and Labour’s Ed Miliband down, and asking politely for support. Anywhere you go, retail politics are hard work, and it’s been a long day. As I flag, wondering if it would be bad form to suggest that we continue the campaign in a local pub, Cuthbertson breaks into a jog and heads for the next doorbell.
Darlington’s not a target seat for the Conservative party this year, and that imposes a double burden: It means that Cuthbertson gets less support from the party and is expected to spend a good deal of his time helping other Tory candidates in more-winnable seats. His next-door neighbor, the excellent young Tory MP James Wharton, is defending a razor-thin majority — he won the 2010 election by 350 votes — and the party is all in to back him. So, therefore, is Cuthbertson, who spent the morning leading his friends and supporters around Wharton’s constituency. It’s a duty, though Wharton’s a friend, which sugars the pill. But it’s all time spent away from Darlington.
In many ways, the story of Darlington is the story of the Conservative party. When the Tories lost the town to Labour in 1992, they still collected almost 24,000 votes. But in 1997, when Tony Blair swept to power, their vote total collapsed to 13,600. Across Britain, the story was much the same: Labour did well, but the real story was the catastrophic fall in the Tory vote. That vote has never come back. In 2010 the Conservative vote in Darlington was still stuck at its 1997 level. The same is true for the nation as a whole: In 2010, Cameron’s Conservatives won 3.5 million fewer votes, or 25 percent fewer, than John Major’s did in 1992.
It’s not so much the Conservative defeat in 1997 that’s puzzling; it’s the party’s failure to recover much ground since then that’s remarkable. Part of the problem is that successive defeats, especially in the north, have ripped the guts out of local Tory organizations, making it hard to organize a ground game that can match the Labour-supporting unions: Polling evidence suggests that the Conservatives are being outworked this year on the doorstep.
Worse, in a nation with strict campaign spending rules, the advantage lies with the incumbents. As an MP, Cuthbertson’s opponent travels to London at the expense of the taxpayer, while Cuthbertson, who like many challengers is still working his day job in London, has to pay his own way. Finally, across Britain, the central party headquarters intervenes enough to discourage local Tory activists but isn’t sufficiently helpful in other ways to make up for it: It’s hard to motivate activists to campaign for a neighboring MP, not their own man..
Of the three big divides in modern England — rich–poor, urban–rural, and north–south — the regional one is the least important. But that’s not to say it doesn’t matter.
And then there’s the regional problem. As one of Cuthbertson’s friends put it to me, of the three big divides in modern England — rich–poor, urban–rural, and north–south — the regional one is the least important. But that’s not to say it doesn’t matter. Especially with the posh Mr. Cameron at its head, the Tory party sounds like a party of the south — and a look at the map shows that it is largely uncompetitive in the north. The north is poorer than the south, and relies more heavily on public-sector jobs, which has a lot to do with the Tory failure. But it’s not all about economics. Just as the Conservatives, and now Labour, have been defined out of Scotland, the Tories are at serious risk of being defined out of the north. To be a Northerner, in many eyes, is to hate the Conservatives.
Of course, the same is true of Labour in the south. Indeed, UKIP’s strategy for becoming a national party now rests on the belief that it can consolidate anti-Labour forces in the north and anti-Tory forces in the south, thereby becoming a meaningful opposition in constituencies that right now are virtually one-party states. That’s not likely to happen in Darlington, where it looks like it will stay a straight fight between the Tories and Labour. Yet the raw materials for UKIP to work with are there. Apart from the economy, the biggest issue on the doorsteps of Darlington has been immigration, which is where UKIP has made its running.
But if that’s a problem, it’s one for future years. Right now, Cuthbertson is eager to remind Darlington that a Labour government would likely have to rely on votes from the Scottish Nationalists to stay in power. It’s a topsy-turvy world when undecided middle-class voters are more frightened of 50 socialists in Scotland than they are of electing one themselves. But it’s the only Conservative appeal that’s really caught the public’s eye, in and beyond Darlington — and for once, it’s a way to make regionalism work for the Tories, not against them. For Darlington to go Tory blue on Thursday, however, it will have to work better than anyone expects.