No Longer Deep Blue

Published by Liverpool University Press

Eric Shaw on falling to zero

Whatever Happened to Tory Liverpool? by David Jeffery published by Liverpool University Press 

Readers may be surprised to hear that for many years Liverpool was deep-blue Tory: indeed, it was the last major city to fall to Labour. Now Tory representation on Liverpool city council is precisely zero. This study seeks to explain why.

It argues that the Tory political trajectory since 1945 can be divided into three phases: success, 1945-72; decline, 1973-1986; and irrelevance, 1987 onwards. First, Tory success. At the 1959 election the Conservatives captured no less than 53% of the vote in Liverpool. This was the culmination of generations of Conservative ascendancy in the city, stretching right back into the nineteenth century. Jeffery adduces a number of reasons, but the principal was the impact of Liverpool’s confessional politics. Early in its history in the city the Conservatives presented and projected themselves as the champions of Protestantism.  Conversely when after 1918 Labour developed as its major competitor it drew much of its support from Catholics, mainly of Irish decent.  A key conduit here in mobilising Protestant working class support was the Protestant-only Liverpool Conservative Working Men’s Association, an organisation, in its heyday, with real influence.

 After 1959 the Tories were on a downward trend, though not consistently, enjoying occasional upsurges until 1973 when that trend became more pronounced. Jeffery spends much space – far too much, in this reviewer’s view – in discounting the significance of a range of possibly relevant factors, such as party organization, demographic changes and electoral biases. But the conclusion he reaches is a sound one:  the weakening capacity of denominational affiliation to structure the vote meant that much later than elsewhere class became paramount in determining partisan preferences.

But this could only be a part of the explanation for the disintegration of Liverpool Toryism: after all, throughout its history the Conservatives have been very successful in securing the support of many lower income voters.   Here usefully Jeffery draws comparisons with Conservative performance in other big cities, all of which exhibit a decline, so that common factors must be at work. Yet nowhere is that decline as steep as in Liverpool. One relevant factor was the rise of the Liberals who by the 1980s had replaced the Tories as Labour’s main rival,  in the process soaking up a slice of the Conservatives’ vote as they were squeezed by the electoral system

Yet this falls well short of a full explanation: the puzzle remains. In the most insightful part of the book Jeffery highlights the effects of what he calls “Scouse identity”  This is a complex phenomenon: it is about pride in Liverpool’s extraordinary musical and sporting heritage and its colourful history as a great seaport, resentment at the way the city has been mistreated by successive Tory governments and the economic toll this has taken; and anger at the various caricatures of “the Scouser” (lazy, self-indulgent etc) which became prevalent in parts of the media. It is also about difference: in a very distinctive accent, but also in the sense that it is not wholly part of England. One profound observation made of Liverpool (not quoted by Jeffery) was that it looks outwards towards the oceans, inwards towards itself but rarely eastwards to England.

Jeffery makes a powerful and (for me) compelling case that the intensification of Scouse identity was the key factor in Liverpool’s alienation from the Tories. Put simply, no real Scouser could be a Conservative. Speaking of his native city local footballing legend Jamie Carragher put this point well: “I’m not sure there could be anything worse than being a Tory. I think people around here would rather I played for Man United. I’m serious.”    

Jeffery adduces two key events which contributed to bolstering the anti-Toryism of Scouse identity. The first was the clash between Liverpool’s Militant-controlled Council and the Thatcher government in the early 1980s: even those unenthusiastic about Militant felt that the city was victimised by the Tories. The second was the Hillsborough disaster of 1989 in which almost a hundred Liverpool fans died. There was fury by the attempt, including by the police and the government, to hold the fans to blame for the tragedy with the Sun a prime culprit as disseminator of falsehoods and fabrications: to this day many newsagents in Liverpool refuse to sell the tabloid. Given its role over the years in mobilising support amongst its mainly working-class readers for the Tories it is pity that the author   does not investigate the political impact of the Sun’s low readership levels in Liverpool.

Too much attention is assigned in this study to quantitative methodology, not warranted by the additional insights it affords; conversely a major gap is that no use appears to have been made of interviews with local politicians, party organisers or activists.  Notwithstanding, this is a valuable and thoughtful book which anyone interested in the politics of Liverpool should read.


  1. Liverpool may be a path breaker in the immediate future. In no other fan base do you have fans booing the national anthem at cup finals. Liverpool FC Do
    Watch this space
    Trevor Fisher

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