The bright future of Scouse Tories

There are plenty of blues among the reds

Artillery Row

The Conservative Party Conference took place in Manchester this month, whilst the Labour Party Conference will take place in Liverpool. It might sound unlikely that these locations could ever be swapped — but is it so absurd?

If we exclude Prime Ministers, then since 2010 there have been more people from Liverpool (Esther McVey, Nadine Dorries, Therese Coffey, Kit Malthouse, Gillian Keegan) in the Cabinet than Old Etonians (Kwasi Kwarteng, Oliver Letwin, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Rory Stewart). Another Scouser, Jake Berry, has served as Chair of the Conservative party and held various other frontbench roles.

If it is surprising that one UK city has provided so many Tory ministers in recent years, it is even more surprising that it is Liverpool, where the Conservative party doesn’t have a single councillor. It finished in lowly sixth-place in this year’s local elections and hasn’t had an MP since 1983.

Not only that, but the five safest Labour seats in the country (Liverpool Walton, Knowsley, Bootle, Liverpool Riverside and Liverpool West Derby) are all on Merseyside.

Nonetheless, this enthusiasm for Labour is a recent creation of the past few decades: the city only elected its first Labour MP, Jack Hayes, in a by-election in 1923; roughly two decades after other “Labour heartland” areas such as Manchester, Leeds, Glasgow, South Wales and East London had their first Labour MPs.

As late as the 1959 local elections, six of Liverpool’s nine council wards were controlled by the Conservatives. Three of those were solidly working-class areas, including Toxteth and Walton.

The Tories continued to win elections in the city until well into the second half of the 20th century. Conservative MPs were elected for the constituencies of Walton and West Derby until 1964 and for Wavertree and Garston until 1983.

The party was still able to win local elections in Liverpool as late as the 1970s, when control of the council swung between the Tories and the Liberals. When the Militant-dominated Labour Party took over Liverpool city council in 1983, it succeeded a Conservative–Liberal coalition.

Some further their careers by stressing their working-class roots

The headline figures from elections can only tell us so much, especially under first past the post: there are tens of thousands of people in Liverpool who consistently vote for the Conservatives, and even more who support “conservative” policies.

It is estimated that three Merseyside seats (Walton, Knowsley and Bootle) voted Leave in the 2016 referendum, whilst UKIP came in third place in the 2014 local elections — fewer than a thousand votes off the Greens.

This should not be surprising given the demographics of Liverpool constituencies. In terms of immigration levels, the number of graduates and home ownership, they are usually very different from the other safest Labour seats.

Sefton Central, for example, has a relatively small population of under 34-year-olds, a black and minority ethnic population of less than two per cent, and one of the highest home ownership rates in the country. Yet it has been Labour since 2010 with an increasing majority.

There are lots of small-c conservatives on Merseyside — even amongst those who vote Labour — and this milieu has been the source of one type of the Liverpool Conservative frontbenchers since 2010s. This type — let’s call them “overtly working-class Tory” — use their city’s reputation to further their careers by stressing their working-class roots or using humour to deflect criticism.

Think Nadine Dorries, who endlessly described David Cameron, George Osbourne and Rishi Sunak as “posh boys who don’t know the price of milk” (although for some reason she never made these accusations about Boris Johnson). Gillian Keegan, when challenged in the Commons over her hot mic rant earlier this month, claimed “as a Scouser I have a bit of a higher bar” for swearing.

There are a smaller but still not insignificant number of economic, big-C Conservatives in Liverpool, but they tend to leave the city early to pursue careers elsewhere.

These people provide the other type of Scouse Conservative MP, who take a different approach to Dorries and Keegan. They instead tend to play down or repudiate their heritage.

My wife briefly worked with Kit Malthouse’s wife on a project to help Palestinian journalists. After she noted that both of their husbands were Scousers, Mrs Malthouse was quick to insist that her husband, who was a wealthy financier when they married in 2005, “doesn’t have an accent”.

If the coming general election brings the expected electoral wipeout for the Conservatives, there will be a lot of soul searching as to the future direction of the party. They may choose to double-down on the May–Johnsonian move to the left on economics and right on culture, as supported by Dorries; or they may return to Trussite libertarianism, as advocated for by close Truss allies Jake Berry and Therese Coffey.

Either way, given the relative safety of their seats (only Berry with 9,522 and McVey with 17,387 have majorities under 20,000), and the political utility of having prominent Conservatives from such an archetypical Labour city, we can expect to see and hear from many more Scouse Tories in the years to come.

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