In recent weeks, Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham and other northern leaders have clashed with central government over lack of support for their regions during the pandemic. Burnham’s crusade for £65 million to help Manchester’s poorest during the local lockdown has seen him heralded as “King of the North” and put devolution back on the political agenda.
This stand for Manchester and other northern areas impacted by Tier 3 restrictions has also created a split between Labour and Conservative MPs and councillors in the north, with Tory-run councils like Bolton breaking ranks to negotiate with the government. It’s unlikely to be the last time tensions arise between the Conservatives’ newly elected northern MPs and what’s left of the long-standing Labour ministers following 2019’s unprecedented general election result, which saw Labour lose 20 percent of its 2017 election support in “red wall” seats. Located across the Midlands and northern England, these constituencies were previously seen as Labour heartlands.
But what do the Tory voters themselves think? Nearly a year on from the general election, and with areas in northern England suffering some of the highest rates of coronavirus infections, VICE News visited a red wall town to find out.
On a sunny Wednesday afternoon, I took the bus into Stocksbridge, a town just outside Sheffield in South Yorkshire. In last year’s election, the constituency of Stocksbridge and Penistone swung Conservative for the first time in its history. First formed around a steelworks, the seat was previously held by Labour, but constituents voted leave in the 2016 European Union referendum. Back then, former MP Angela Smith criticised Jeremy Corbyn for failing to mobilise support in the region.
I asked 52 Stocksbridge locals for their thoughts on the Conservative government and its handling of the pandemic. Forty-four percent said that they voted Tory in the last election. Of these voters, 57 percent said that they wouldn’t vote Tory again.
One man told VICE News: “We lent our vote to Boris, and we went Conservative for the first time in our history, but what a terrible error that was.” Another said: “I think they’ve handled the whole pandemic all wrong, especially in the north, there’s just been zero planning or strategy.”
Sarah*, a Tory voter from Sheffield, said that while she did sympathise with Boris Johnson and his government, she did not believe that he had a long-term strategy for tackling the pandemic. “It just seems that he’s closing down the nation, then opening, then closing, without actually knowing what or why he’s doing it,” she said.
Many of the people I spoke to in Stocksbridge felt that they had given the Tories a chance with their vote. But this vote came with conditions, and if not met, it would not be repeated at the next election.
Newly elected Conservative MPs in the north seem to be aware of this skepticism. Last month, over 50 of them wrote to Johnson, expressing their fears that the Conservatives’ election promise to “level up” the north had been forgotten. The coronavirus pandemic, they argued, had exposed the “deep structural and systemic disadvantages” faced by northern constituents, and the Tories were at risk of losing their “hard-won mandate in December.”
Indeed, when asked if she’d vote Conservative again, Sarah said that she “just didn’t know, but probably not.”
Stocksbridge MP Miriam Cates (left) with Boris Johnson and Home Secretary Priti Patel at the Conservative Party Conference. Photo: Danny Lawson/PA Images via Getty Images
Others in Stocksbridge took issue with their local MP, Miriam Cates. Cates went on record to defend Dominic Cummings after his infamous breach of lockdown rules in Durham, going so far as to describe him as “admirable.” She was also one of the few northern MPs not to sign the letter to Johnson, and voted against the extension of free school meals.
One woman said: “Cates really upset a lot of people around here by publicly backing Cummings and his absurd story. People followed the rules because they told us to, and we couldn’t see our friends or family, so yeah, it got to a lot of us.” She also mentioned the free schools meals situation: “After she and a lot of the Tories voted against feeding poor kids, I don’t think I’ll be voting for them again.”
However, some Stocksbridge Tory voters told VICE News that they would stick by their decision. Many expressed sympathy for any government that has to handle a global pandemic. “They’re doing the best they can in a really bad situation, I honestly don’t envy them,” one woman said, going on to add that, “I think they’re probably doing a lot better than how Labour would be handling it.” A few of the Tory voters didn’t think that the government’s controversial local lockdowns worsened the north-south divide. One man said: “It’s not like they’re out to get the north, they’re just following where the cases are. It’s not a malicious thing.”
Ali*, another Tory voter from Sheffield, was of a similar view. He said that he would vote Tory again, but his opinion of Johnson as leader has changed since the general election: “He’s too indecisive with all these U-turns, and I don’t think he’s cut out for the job anymore.” Ali hopes that Johnson will step down or be pushed out, to make way for a stronger Tory Prime Minister.
The Conservatives won voters in the north of England with the promise to get Brexit done and level up northern economies. One year on, EU negotiations are ongoing and the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated existing regional inequalities across Britain. Johnson’s government has a lot of work to do if it hopes to keep their support.
*Names have been changed.