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Dowsett MichaelMichael
Dowsett is a Conservative Party activist and a former Vice-Chairman of
Southampton University Conservative Association.

A combination of
Britain’s changing demographics and persistent differentials in voter turnout
between social classes threatens, if unaddressed, to make the Conservatives’
ambition to form a majority government in 2015 even more unrealistic than at
present. Popular commentary in the past year has focused on the Party’s
difficulty in winning the support of aspirational C2 voters, as well as the
difficulty in winning larger numbers of ethnic minority voters over to the Conservatives.

However,
alongside these challenges must now sit the problems the Conservatives face in
winning over Britain’s higher-income voters: the middle-class voters in the AB
social class who now comprise nearly a third of the electorate. Between the
2005 and 2010 general elections, the proportion of UK voters belonging to these
classes rose by over 3%. Relative declines in the preponderance of voters in
the C1, C2 and DE social classes meant that AB voters formed a plurality of all
voters at the last general election.

At first glance,
the growing electoral influence of this section of the middle-class should be
good news for the Conservatives. However, despite winning 56% of the AB vote in
1992, the last year the Party won a majority, Conservative support amongst
these voters declined by 19% over the next three general elections, and only
slightly recovered in 2010. Furthermore, the Conservative share of the vote
amongst female AB voters has now fallen in each of the last four general
elections.


The main
beneficiaries of this decline in AB support for the Conservatives prior to 2010
were the Liberal Democrats. However, the entry of the Liberal Democrats into
coalition with the Conservatives has seen their support amongst AB voters
decline by around two-thirds since the last election. Disappointingly, and in
spite of the fact that the Conservatives have won the AB voter group by varying
margins in every recent general election, AB voter defections from the Liberal
Democrats since 2010 have disproportionately benefitted Labour. Indeed, some polling
conducted since the spring of 2012 has placed Labour tied with or even ahead of
the Conservatives amongst AB voters on several occasions.

This
development, if sustained in the run-up to the next general election,
represents a clear and present danger to the Conservatives winning a majority
in 2015. The Conservative strategy for the next election is increasingly
dependent on winning large numbers of Parliamentary seats, and middle-class
voters, from the Liberal Democrats. However, even if these gains were to
materialise, they could be cancelled out by Conservative losses to Labour in
‘blue-red’ marginal seats located in middle-class suburban areas. Such a
scenario would make the prospects of David Cameron continuing as Prime Minister
after 2015 very dim indeed.

The trends
observed in the political loyalties of AB voters over the last two decades have
been underpinned by a shift in the attitudes of these voters on a variety of
political issues. As this social class has grown in number and importance, the concerns
of AB voters have shifted towards quality of life issues, particularly issues
related to the public services. An October 2012 polling exercise conducted by
YouGov for the centre-left magazine Progress even found greater support amongst
AB voters for raising income tax to protect spending on public services than
that expressed by the average voter.

Further evidence
supporting this theme can be discerned through an examination of the importance
which AB voters ascribe to several public policy areas, compared to the average
voter. According to polling carried out by Ipsos-MORI since 2010, AB voters,
like all voters, cite the economic situation as the most important issue facing
the country. However, AB voters are more likely to cite the NHS or education as
an important issue for the country, along with concerns related to poverty and
inequality. Meanwhile, the polling also shows that AB voters are less likely
than the average voter to identify crime, immigration or taxation as an
important issue for the United Kingdom.

This polling is
in one sense heartening for the Conservatives given their current lead over
Labour on the issue of the economy amongst middle-class voters. As such,
achieving a sustained economic recovery prior to 2015 can be expected to boost
the Party’s popularity amongst these voters, as well as the electorate as a
whole. The electorate’s assessment of the Conservative’s performance on
education and schools is also encouraging, with the Party consistently either
tied with or leading Labour on this issue. This is particularly welcome given
the double-digit leads which Labour held on education during Tony Blair’s time
as Prime Minister, and also suggests that legislative radicalism in a
traditionally Labour policy area does not necessarily present an obstacle to
the Conservatives polling well on the issue in question.

The biggest
issue prohibiting the Conservatives from significantly rebuilding their support
amongst middle-class voters is the NHS, with Labour’s lead on the issue
remaining large since long-before the last general election. In the past, the
Conservatives may have been able to discount such leads in preference for
focusing on other issues where they are more competitive with Labour. However,
the high priority which the growing number of AB voters ascribe to the NHS
could lead to the Party unnecessarily sacrificing electoral support going forward
should they fail to engage effectively with voters’ concerns on this important
issue.

In summary, the
Conservatives face a tough test to build the broad electoral coalition through
which they can win a majority in 2015 or at other future elections. Perhaps
ironically, given the Conservatives’ reputation in some quarters for being the
‘party of the rich’, re-engaging with higher-income voters is a key part of the
work which needs to be conducted in the future. The challenge for the Party
will be to reconcile their traditional pitch to voters with engaging messages
on schools and hospitals and, of course, maintaining a robust lead on the
economy.

Whilst crafting
a coherent offering to the country on this basis may be difficult, it offers
significant electoral rewards for the Conservatives, and puts the Party’s first
majority election victory firmly back in sight.

To read the full
paper, ‘Rising to the challenge: middle-class voters and the Conservative
Party’ by Michael Dowsett, please click here.

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