Voters in the North of England are shunning the Conservative Party – threatening its victory chances at the next election – because they see the Tory leadership as "Southern, posh, white men" who are not "one of us", an influential MP has warned.
Eric Ollerenshaw, the ministerial aide to the Tory co-chairman Baroness Warsi, urged his party to tackle an image problem dating from the Thatcher years that still blights its prospects in marginal urban seats across the North.
He called for more Northerners to be promoted to high-profile positions, including the Cabinet, and for the party to moderate its rhetoric about trade unions and public sector workers.
Mr Ollerenshaw warned that the party's backing in the North was still weaker than in 1992 and was recovering more slowly than other parts of the country. The Tories are still only averaging 31.5 per cent support among Northern voters, compared with more than 50 per cent in the South outside London.
"The Conservative Party needs to win more seats in the North of England, and defend the ones it won on narrow majorities in 2010, if it is to win an overall majority at the next general election. To do this it needs to address its image in the North," he said in a report published today.
Mr Ollerenshaw, the MP for Lancaster and Fleetwood, said the party was still suffering from a political, as well as economic, divide that opened in the 1980s. He said: "The view ascribed to the Conservatives that unemployment was a price worth paying for the economic uplift saw a generation of voters turn their backs on a party they thought had turned their backs on them."
He said its problem in reaching out to voters today had been exacerbated by its dismal election result in 1997. "The rump of Conservative MPs left in Parliament came mainly from the South. The pool for party leaders to draw from and create shadow ministerial teams diminished and so the result was that what the public saw of the party on TV was increasingly Southern, posh, white men. The disconnect created through policies was reinforced through a visual and audio divide. Conservative politicians as a group were not seen as 'being like one of us' in the North, regardless of policies put forward."
Mr Ollerenshaw pointed out that only three cabinet posts are ministers with Northern constituencies – and two of them, George Osborne and Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, would not be regarded as particularly Northern by "anyone hailing from north of the Watford Gap".
He acknowledged that Tory cabinet members Eric Pickles and Lady Warsi are "very Northern" and the new Transport Secretary Justine Greening provides "some more Northern vowels".
He added: "Obviously the PM must select his Cabinet and ministers on the basis of talent alone but the fact remains that ministers are most often the party's face on television and voice on radio and the image of a largely Southern-dominated and focused party is reinforced."
He said he supported Mr Osborne's austerity programme, but warned that the party had to be "careful in language we use" explaining the measures. Pointing to the high proportion of public sector workers in the North, he said: "We cannot be seen to be the enemies of the whole public sector, or even of particular sections of it, when making our case."
He added: "Likewise, we need to moderate out language when talking about trade unions. There are more trade union members in the North."
North vs South: How the Tory vote stacks up
42 MPs in the North are Tory – a quarter of Northern seats
191 MPs in the South are Tory – almost three-quarters of Southern seats
84% of Tory MPs are male
54% attended a fee-paying school
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