Image Credit: Lad 2011, Wikimedia Commons
Image Credit: Lad, 2011 Wikimedia Commons
Leeds has been the dark horse outside of London in recent years. Despite Manchester’s charismatic mayor Andy Burnham popping up all over news channels to advertise his city’s success, Leeds has quietly grown to become the most diverse economy of all of the UK’s major employment centres and had the third largest job total by local authority in 2015, with 480,000 in employment and self-employment. It is also a strong breeding ground for bright, ambitious graduates as it has the fourth largest student population in the UK, making it possible for CCHQ or, with Michael Gove suggesting moving parts of government north, even the Civil Service to recruit locally. Since the December 2019 general election, the Conservative presence has grown in the city with 3 out of 8 constituencies and 23 out of 99 council seats turning blue.
Senior Conservatives are particularly optimistic for the move north, co – chair Amanda Millings outlined their new vision in no uncertain terms; “We’re determined to make the blue wall part of the fabric of our Party and our country. The best way we can deliver for people there is to be there.” They recognise that having won over so many new voters at the last election, the challenge now is to maintain their faith and trust in the party. The Prime Minister, with usual bombast, equalled Ms Millings’ optimism by announcing long-term fixed-rate mortgages with only 5% deposits at the virtual conference. He declared the policy as having the potential to create “Generation Buy”, in particular the 95% mortgages, announcing “I think it could be absolutely revolutionary, particularly for young people.” The attempt to appeal to young voters is unsurprising given that on average, only 24.6% 18-39-year olds voted Tory in the 2019 general election (Polling: YouGov). Emphasis on the domestic agenda is also astute, given Leeds has been anti-Brexit since voting remain in the referendum.
Despite the city centre being Labour, professor of economic geography at LSE Neil Lee points to how “Yorkshire is often quite a Conservative place – there is a strong conservative tradition there, which is quite important. Furthermore, Leeds was less staunchly remain than other large cities in the referendum. Therefore, there is scope for the Tories to tap into new and potential Conservative voters in the region. Other experts are less convinced by the Conservative’s northern intentions. Henri Mursion, director of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership points out “whatever the symbolic importance, this move is marked by the fact it has come alongside party political game-playing delaying devolution, so it does undermine any impact it might have with the public.” Although CCHQ is set to move north, any sign of power being decentralised from London appears unlikely. Anti-Brexit groups have been vociferous in their opposition to the decision of a new CCHQ, given the Conservative’s main policy, to deliver Brexit, appears at loggerheads with Leeds’s own politics. Louise Brown, co-founder of North East for Europe has declared “If the Tories are in Leeds then you can bet, we will turn up to show them what we think.” How the new HQ will be received by the majority remains to be seen.
Symbolism or genuine policy?
The need for the Conservatives to give back to their newly won voters has been evident ever since the last election. Moving their strategic campaign headquarters north, filled with campaign fundraisers and press gurus is a marked step towards a more decentralised Britain. Whether the new Leeds HQ will be used for back-office matters rather than giving decision-making powers remains to be seen. The government’s promise of “levelling up” the UK would likely be taken more seriously if it relocated sections of non-partisan institutions such as the Civil Service to the north, rather than tie such matters up with party politics.