Do Red Wall voters trust the Tory leadership contenders to level up Britain?

I’ve spent last week telling whoever will listen – my flatmates, people on the tube, the guy at the bar in the local pub – my take on the Conservative leadership election.

So you can imagine my excitement at getting the chance to sit down with a group of Conservative voters in Bury to discuss my new favourite topic.  These were people who, in the majority, had voted Tory for the first time at the 2019 general election, living in what was now seen very much as a “red wall” seat.

First lesson: not everyone is as into the Conservative leadership election as I was. Most participants hadn’t really thought much about it. The leadership election was simply passing them by – and utterly detached from their day to day lives and problems.

And these problems are significant.  It’s been easy to forget this last week that we’re only at the start of a huge cost of living crisis. Participants explained how they were already cutting back on their weekly shop, their car usage, and many had long said goodbye to their social lives.

But this wasn’t the only thing driving their apathy; significantly, they also felt let down by the government.

Those who voted Conservative in 2019 did so because they were promised things would change. Instead, they’ve faced rising national insurance costs, spiraling fuel costs, and, so far, no tangible benefits from the Levelling Up agenda. It was this failing that brought the most scorn from the group, with one woman going as far as to say that she had made a “mistake” by voting Conservative.

Talking about these failures, and particularly the lack of action to address the north-south divide was what got the group properly animated – levelling up simply hadn’t happened: “the divide is still there, people who live in the North can feel it very strongly.”

Any goodwill for the government failing to deliver because of the pandemic or even the Ukraine war had long since evaporated, and participants were at pains to point out that we are after all one of the richest countries in the world.

Given the level of disillusionment I witnessed, perhaps it was not surprising that between them, there was not a single candidate that they were backing. Nor were they interested in getting to know any of them. Such was the damning disregard towards all politicians of the main two parties, and their ability to deliver real change for Bury. They were, to a man, resigned to the fact levelling up would simply not be the priority of whoever was in charge.

At an event for the Centre for Policy Studies this week Rachel Wolf, co-author of the 2019 Conservative Party Manifesto, warned the Tories risked “electoral oblivion” if they don’t wake up to why the electorate is so disenchanted. This group only further corroborated that view.

Participants still believed that Levelling Up was the right policy to focus on  and, as the impact of increasing costs start to bite, were desperate to see the improvement in living standards they had been promised when they switched their vote to the Conservatives in 2019.

Whoever wins the leadership race will have two years to deliver meaningful change for these votes in a moment of economic crisis. The race for leader might still be wide open. But the future of the party relies on them finding someone who can, through meaningful and tangible action and policy change, prove to the Conservatives’ electoral coalition that they are worthy of their vote.