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Last Updated: Friday, 19 January 2007, 18:30 GMT
The Tories' northern challenge
By Emma Griffiths
Political reporter, BBC News

The Conservatives recognise they have some way to go if they are to get back to the success they enjoyed in the north in 1970, when they took 62 seats.

Willliam Hague
Mr Hague and his wife Ffion vote in Catterick, North Yorkshire

Of the 162 constituencies in northern England, they now hold just 19.

A recent survey by the Unlock Democracy group found Conservative associations in the north typically had fewer than 50 members per constituency.

It suggested that in seats where they had little chance of winning, the party had "literally died off".

The decline can be traced back several decades, but numbers took a particular hammering during Labour's landslide election victory in 1997. From 53 MPs in 1992, they dropped to just 17 - although some were lost to boundary changes.

'Uphill battle'

Now the Tories, which managed to win the popular vote in England as a whole in 2005, have only 10% of their MPs in northern seats.

Among them is Yorkshireman and Shadow Foreign Secretary William Hague, who will head up the party's new Northern Board.

He acknowledged that gaining seats in northern England - where Labour hold 82% of seats - had historically been an "uphill battle" for the Conservatives.

Where the party died away somewhat at grass roots level in, say, the 1990s, then we lost the councillors and lost touch with people at a local level
William Hague

He told the BBC: "It went wrong partly in the 1970s and then of course in a big way in 1997 when the Conservative Party lost half its seats across the whole country. That happened disproportionately in the north of England.

"So we were left after that with strong pockets of support in the north but nothing like the wide support that we would like."

And it wasn't a case of narrowly missing seats, in the 2005 general election, the Tories came third or fourth in all of the Liverpool and Manchester constituencies and most of those in Leeds and Sheffield.

It is not just the parliamentary seats that have dwindled. While the Conservatives are keen to point out they have 1,362 councillors - several councils in major northern cities, including Manchester, Liverpool and Newcastle, have no Conservative representation at all.

Dramatic decline

A generation ago, they were major players in local politics in those cities, in 2006 their share of the local election vote has dwindled dramatically.

While they made considerable gains, particularly in London and the South East, during the 2006 local elections, in the North East they gained just one extra councillor.

Mr Hague recognises the importance of the local vote on the national stage.

"Where the party died away somewhat at grass roots level in, say, the 1990s, then we lost the councillors and lost touch with people at a local level and then it makes it harder to win the parliamentary seats," he said.

Part of his task, heading up the Conservatives' new Northern Board, will be to try to correct that.

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