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Unforgiving: Protestors in Liverpool celebrate the death of Lady Thatcher, who was blamed for the city's industrial decline 

Glance at a constituency map of England and things don't look too bad for the Conservatives. Pockets of red and flecks of yellow interrupt an overwhelmingly blue country. Adjust the map to take account of demography as well as geography, however, and the Conservative Party's northern problem comes into sharp focus. 

In 2010, just 31 per cent of northerners voted Conservative compared to 43 per cent across England. Of 158 seats in the three northern regions— the north west, the north east and Yorkshire Humber — just 43 are Conservative, fewer than after the Labour landslides of 1945 and 1966. Significantly, the political gap between north and south is not merely a reflection of economic difference. The north's economy lags behind the south's, but the political gap is wider still. Polling done by YouGov in 2012 for the think-tank Policy Exchange extracts the essence of the Conservatives' northern woes. It found that a middle-class northerner is less likely to vote Conservative than a working-class southerner and that an unskilled southerner is more likely to vote Conservative than professionals and managers in the north. The problem, then, is a cultural one.

The different strategies adopted by UKIP in each region further illustrates the north-south political divide. In last month's by-election in Wythenshawe and Sale East, near Manchester, UKIP campaigned to take votes from Labour rather than the Conservatives, beating the latter into third place. "Labour politicians try to portray themselves as ordinary people but . . . they are an elite political club of millionaires who have lost touch with the working-class voters of Wythenshawe and Sale East," read one UKIP leaflet that was notable for its lack of the party's gold and purple colours. This is a far cry from the southern image of UKIP as a middle-class protest party led by a Barbour-clad retired stockbroker. 

Most of those 43 northern Conservative MPs represent rural areas. There are some with seats in the North's more affluent suburbs — the Employment Minister Esther McVey in the Wirral Valley and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne in Tatton, near Manchester, for example — but not as many as there should be. If it's grim up north for the Tories, things are particularly grim in the north's cities. There are 348 councillors on the city councils of Liverpool, Newcastle, Manchester and Sheffield; not one of them is a Conservative. These cities have not returned a Conservative MP for a generation.

Nowhere has the party's northern decline been more rapid than in Liverpool. Hard as it is to believe, Liverpool was a predominantly Conservative city until the 1960s. This was in part because of the city's religious divide: Catholics voted Labour or Liberal, Protestants voted Conservative. The city returned a majority of Labour MPs for the first time in 1964. When Liverpool's docks declined in the 1970s due to the shift of British trade away from the Commonwealth and towards Europe, the Tories were blamed, especially under Mrs Thatcher. Despite Michael Heseltine's much-publicised urban renewal programme, the last Conservative MP in the city lost his seat in 1983. By 2010, four of the six safest Labour seats in the country were in Liverpool. Steve Rotherham won a whopping 72 per cent of the vote in Liverpool Walton in 2010, the highest share of the vote won by any MP that year.

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