January 3, 2012 9:20 pm

Thatcher legacy still haunts northern towns

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Violent clashes between miners and the police loom on the big screen as Margaret Thatcher’s shrill voice demands “closures of uneconomic coal mines” in the biopic of the former Tory prime minister, which has its UK premiere in London tonight [Wednesday].

Her victory in closing 20 pits in the mid-1980s marked a seminal juncture in Britain’s industrial relations. It also rendered her Conservative party toxic in pockets of the industrial north.

Nearly 30 years on, her legacy is once again haunting the region’s political landscape. There is a sense in some northern towns that David Cameron’s coalition is coming to finish what Mrs Thatcher began. Cuts to public sector jobs and local council budgets are hitting state-dependent northern regions hard, while plans to explore regional pay variations for public sector jobs and to allow councils to keep a portion of their business rates have unsettled Tory MPs in some northern seats.

In Dewsbury, a once rich Yorkshire mill town whose fine stone buildings are now scarred by boarded-up shop fronts, Labour politicians are quick to seize on the apparent parallels.

“It was great when Cameron said to Ed Miliband he was proud to be a son on Thatcher rather than a son of [Gordon] Brown,” says Mahboob Khan, Labour leader of the Kirklees local council. “People here are realising there is not much difference between Cameron and Thatcher. They see through the thin veneer of compassionate Conservative because the ways the cuts are being implemented are hurting disproportionately the towns in the north.”

Mr Kahn’s remarks are backed up by polling data. Only 29 per cent of northern voters polled by YouGov in the month to November 30 said they would vote Conservative against 41 per cent of southerners.

Tories are less popular in the north than in 1979 when Ms Thatcher came to power. According to another YouGov poll last year, two-thirds of northerners believe the Tories failed to both understand and represent them.

Simon Reevell, a former army man and barrister who in 2010 became the third Tory in 147 years to wrest Dewsbury from Labour hands, is unrepentant about public sector cuts, despite a third of people in Dewsbury relying on the state for jobs.

“You can’t have a situation where people are employed forever in the public sector,” says the MP in his constituency office in the heart of the town. “I have found people are pretty objective when they understand what is happening. They don’t think it is personal to a group, or a town, or an area.

“The economy in the south is developing at a certain rate. The economy in the north is not in competition,” he adds.

Mr Reevell insisted Mr Cameron is beginning to do more for the north, citing recent proposals to widen the trans-Pennine M62 motorway, tariff cuts on the Humber bridge and electrification of the train lines from Manchester to York.

But the first 18 months of government has unnerved some northern Tories as powerful regional development agencies were abolished and development funding cut. Northern councils suffered bigger grant cuts than those in the south. With the public sector employing up to 40 per cent of workers in some towns, job losses have been high, while reductions in benefits have hit consumer spending

The Yorkshire Post, a traditionally Conservative-supporting newspaper, has campaigned for a “Fair Deal for the North” and denounced the widening north-south divide. Planned investment is also skewed says IPPR, a left leaning think-tank, which last month calculated that 84 per cent of George Osborne’s £5bn infrastructure programme would be spent in the south against just 6 per cent in the north.

It is not all bad news for the Tories in Dewsbury, however. An injection of free-market zeal has found favour with some. Mohammed Naz, owner of the Igloo ice cream bar and a former Labour voter, has been so impressed with Mr Reevell that he is considering voting Tory at the next election.

“Politicians here before just focused on the local working class rather than businesses. They could have done better fighting for local business.”

Paul Rose, who employs over 400 people at Rixonway Kitchens, says it is time to rebalance the north’s economy and thinks the proposals to vary regional public sector pay, announced by George Osborne, the chancellor, in November, will help him compete more effectively in the local labour market.

But for many workers, the Thatcher era still colours attitudes towards the Tories. “They never change, they just look after their own,” says Tony, a retired foundry worker from Mirfield. “I knew as soon as [Cameron] got in [that] things would get worse.”

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