The former PM polls well in the Red Wall and beyond
Today marks eight years since the passing of Margaret Thatcher, and those eight years have made her legacy no less divisive, especially in the north of England.
There is some political value in riffing on this divisive legacy — for example, Momentum used to sell t-shirts emblazoned with ‘Still Hate Thatcher’ across the chest. Or take these tweets from the Northern Independence Party, which appear to celebrate Margaret Thatcher’s death.
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But is this a good strategy? Is the North as ‘anti-Thatcher’ as popular culture suggests?
In 2019 YouGov surveyed 1630 British adults about who they thought was the greatest British Prime Minister since 1945. Thatcher came first, with 21% of respondents, closely followed by Churchill on 19%. Among northern voters, Churchill came first with 19%, with Thatcher second at 16%. Blair was third on 7%.
IpsosMORI’s polling in February of this year found similar levels of popularity for the Tory PM. When asked voters about previous prime ministers, 40% of northern respondents thought Thatcher did a good job, compared to 34% who thought she did a bad job.
Of course, these are fairly small sub-samples of northern voters, and despite both pointing in the same direction, they might both be a fluke.
But back in 2014 the first wave of the British Election Study asked voters ‘Thinking about past Prime Ministers, do you think these Prime Ministers were good or bad for Britain?’. Half of voters in England said Thatcher was good for Britain (excluding don’t knows), compared to 35% saying she was bad for Britain, and among northern voters 40% said she was good, compared to 48% saying she was bad for Britain.
It’s worth noting that voters in Red Wall seats were more likely to say that Thatcher was good for Britain than voters from non-Red Wall northern seats (42% to 39% respectively) and thus less likely to say she was bad for Britain (45% to 49%). Obviously these differences aren’t massive, but it’s just one extra piece of information to show how the North — and northernness — isn’t one homogenous lump.
Why might Thatcher be more popular in the North than typically assumed? Firstly, there are Conservative voters up north — and always have been. Unsurprisingly, they’re more likely to rate Thatcher highly than supporters of other parties. Values also play a role — although the average Brit is to the Left on economic issues, they tend towards the authoritarian side of the authoritarian-libertarian spectrum, which chimes with Thatcher’s approach to issues like law and order. Emblematic policies from the era also contribute — for instance, even some Labour voters associate Thatcher with being able to buy their council houses.
It’s a strange quirk of our political commentary that the North is treated as barren when it comes to support for Thatcher: she’s certainly not universally loved, but anti-Thatcher rhetoric won’t unite the North either.