It is 13 years since the Conservative Party hosted a seaside autumn party conference. Next year – after going virtual – the prime minister should support struggling coastal communities, along with the great English seaside, by returning to the tradition of politics-by-the-sea.
It was on 11 October 1985 when Margaret Thatcher told conference that “We all love Blackpool”. No longer. That the Tories have not held a conference in Blackpool since 2007 – and Labour since 2002 – is symptomatic of how paranoid party leaders have become with being associated with the metropolitan gospel of British decline-ism. In a notorious Times column, Matthew Parris described seaside towns like Clacton as resorts “trying not to die”, being symbols of failure and social depression.
This is the wrong approach. One of Labour’s greatest mistakes at the last election was to ignore the seaside vote in towns like Blackpool, where homelessness and disadvantaged pupils are well above the national average. Coastal communities have ageing (ie voting) populations. The disaffected coastal vote, including fishing ports like Grimsby, can have a political sting – 67.5 per cent of Blackpool voted Leave in 2016. While Parris advised the Tories to ignore rundown coastal towns, the prime minister can’t afford not to tackle their problems.
With Covid accelerating the decline of many coastal towns, the pandemic presents an opportunity to spearhead the economic and cultural revival of our seaside resorts. The staycation boom offers a chance for dynamic reinvention of one of our greatest national assets.
Seaside – and fishing-town voters in red wall seats helped secure the prime minister his landslide. But their complex socio-economic issues – especially relating to mental health, addiction and multiple occupancy housing – need radical new policies if Britain is to prosper post-Brexit. Of the top five areas to vote Leave, every one was a coastal town or city. In last year’s government deprivation index, eight out of the ten most deprived neighbourhoods in Eng-land are in Blackpool.
This included a housing estate behind its promenade, close to the Winter Gardens, where Margaret Thatcher made her famous 1985 speech – a year after nearly being assassinated – saying Britain was no longer the sick man of Europe. Many in these coastal communities feel abandoned. Traditional maritime industries have vanished, creating unemployment, drug death and transitory problems. In Great Yarmouth, one-third of residents lack any basic qualifications. The area has the highest national rate of 15-17-year-old pregnancies.
The reality of life in Blackpool holds up a shattered mirror to the ever-widening social divides between the Lucky Haves and Left Behinders. That many Remain/Leave voters are clinging to stereotypical tribal political identities, and not moving on since the 2016 referendum vote, is a subject analysed in this issue by two leading political scientists, James Tilley, professor of Politics at Oxford University, and Robert Ford, professor of Political Science at the University of Manchester.
As we argue on page 107, the prime minister should appoint a seaside tsar to close this gap and make our coastal communities a place for business in-vestment as well as popular family holiday destinations. Giving communities back their spirit of place – through regenerated heritage and new galleries like Margate’s Turner Contemporary – helps redeem the past. Brighton and Bournemouth thrive as creative hubs by embracing their past and diversity, not turning away from it. The Greens and Lib Dems have rightly hosted recent conferences in both cities. The Tories should return to Blackpool, and not just for a 2022 spring conference.
Yet the main two parties still prefer to be associated with “high-growth” Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool, with their soulless corporate conference centres. After the IRA bombed the Tory conference in 1984, a return to The Brighton Grand would be a fitting act of support for Britain’s seaside renaissance.