David Cameron was warned on Friday that the Conservatives will struggle to win a general election unless they recover in the North after the party was pushed into third place in a Manchester by-election.
The UK Independence Party won a race for second place with the Tories in the safe Labour seat of Wythenshawe and Sale East. The other losers were the Liberal Democrats, who lost their deposit for the eighth time in 10 by-elections since 2010.
Renewal, a campaign set up to revive Tory fortunes in the North, said the party must tackle its image problem in the region. David Skelton, the group’s founder, told The Independent: “The Tories should be willing to show contrition and humility for past mistakes, show how that they aren't a privileged southern party and, instead, share the values of voters in great northern cities, have a real ambition for cities like Manchester and are doing something about the concerns of voters in northern cities.”
Mr Skelton, a former Tory parliamentary candidate, said: “Labour's vote in the North has collapsed since 1997 but disenchanted voters in cities like Manchester aren't turning to the Conservatives. The party needs to do something to ensure that Conservatism doesn't become totally counter-cultural in Northern cities.
"The Conservatives are not competitive in many of the great northern cities and that needs to change if they're to win big majorities again [nationally]. It shouldn't be acceptable for a national party of government to be also-rans in a city such as Manchester, in which it was once a major force.”
Mr Skelton admitted that the Tories would not recover overnight but said they must start showing they understand why northern voters have deserted the party in droves. “The Tories long-term plan needs to involve moving from third to second and becoming the major challenger to Labour in many seats if they've got any chance of ending Labour's inner city dominance,” he said. “They need to be serious about restoring a councillor base in cities that have become Tory-free zones and ensuring they are seen as a major threat to Labour in its heartlands by the 2020 and 2025 elections."
Thursday’s by-election, caused by the death of the former Labour MP Paul Goggins, saw Michael Kane hold the seat with 13,261 votes, a majority of 8,960 over Ukip’s John Bickley, with the Tories on 3,479 votes and Lib Dems trailing on 1,176. The turnout was 28 per cent.
David Cameron admitted the result was “disappointing” but said it was “not particularly surprising.” Although Ukip failed to get close to Labour, it took comfort from hovering up Tory and Lib Dem votes. Nigel Farage, the Ukip leader, conceded he had hoped to win more than 20 per cent of the vote, but said its 18 per cent share represented "really good solid, steady progress.”
The Lib Dems’ suffered the biggest ever drop in the third party’s share of the vote in a post-war by-election - down 17.4 points, worse than in Manchester Central in 2012 (17.2 points). “This confirms the party is in terrible trouble,” said John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University.
Tim Farron, the Lib Dem president, admitted: “In by-elections of the past, the Lib Dems were the ‘none of the above party.’ The reality is now that we are one of the above.”
On a visit to Wythenshawe, Ed Miliband claimed the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats were “in total retreat.” He said: “This is a constituency where even in 1997 the Conservatives were polling over 20 per cent of the vote. So I think they should be deeply concerned.”
The Labour leader added: “They've been telling people that everything's fixed, that the economy is fine, that the cost of living crisis isn't there. The people of Wythenshawe and Sale East know differently.”