The Conservatives were never going to win the Wythenshawe and Sale East by-election. But the way the party has spun its third place is slightly depressing. The Times today quotes a party source saying:
‘This is a safe Labour seat with the largest council estate in Europe. It’s not on our marginal list.’
Now, this is an understandably pragmatic way of viewing a by-election. It wasn’t expected, as it was prompted by the tragic and untimely death of a respected Labour MP, Paul Goggins. So the Conservatives were not embedded in the constituency in the way that they were in Eastleigh, for instance. Labour moved the writ for a short by-election campaign, which also meant that Ukip didn’t have as much time to make its case, particularly to postal voters, as it would have liked. The same applied to the Tories, but they coupled that slow start with an uninspiring campaign.
And while a constituency with a large working class population and, yes, a large council estate (although there is some debate as to whether Wythenshawe remains the largest council estate – Becontree in Barking and Dagenham is also sizeable) in the north of England isn’t going to be the easiest seat for the Tories to win, it is quite depressing that spinners can make the existence of a council estate code for ‘unwinnable’ when the Conservatives are the party of Right to Buy and Macmillan.
There are efforts to improve the appeal of the Conservatives in constituencies such as Wythenshawe and Sale East. David Skelton’s Renewal campaign is one such ‘blue collar Conservatism’ group. But I do detect a funny inertia in many senior ministers and advisers about how to reverse the shrinking of the Conservatives’ electoral map. Some dismiss the idea of a ‘message for the North’ as a silly, patronising idea (the party did consider a manifesto for the North at one point, but dropped it). Others seem happier to accept that some parts of the country are no-go areas for the Conservatives rather than fret about whether the electorate there might quite like Tory policies. Boris Johnson explicitly attacked this last way of thinking in his address to the 301 group last week, telling them that there should be no no-go areas for Conservatism. But not all of his colleagues seem to have the same confidence – or indeed drive.