If there’s a panic button in CCHQ, it must be nearly broken given the number of times senior Conservatives have hit it since the election. Not a week passes without someone coming up with a new narrative for the party’s recent failure to secure a majority. The latest is, of course, the idea that it was austerity that did it for Theresa May – and that an end to the public sector pay cap is the way out. Where these ideas come from is anyone’s guess because they don’t reflect the reality of the polls. This is what we know so far:
- The Conservatives ran a terrible campaign. This is an obvious point but given the nature of the panic in Conservative circles it needs remaking. The party offered no decent retail policies for the lower middle class and Theresa May was wooden on the campaign trail. Underperformance wasn’t (generally) borne of any sort of existential crisis. How do we know this? Because the polls showed massive leads amongst almost every part of the electorate as the election was called (and overall by 45-27 per cent in the April Ipsos-Mori poll – p.1 here). Existential problems would have been evident then had they existed.
- The lower middle class didn’t turn out for the Conservatives. As I discussed last week, the lower middle class didn’t show up – and these voters determine victory and defeat in British elections. It shouldn’t have been this way: in April, the Conservatives enjoyed a lead of 25 points amongst C1s and 20 points amongst C2s (p.1 here). (These are the sorts of numbers that would have secured a large majority: the Conservatives need to win big among C1s and tie among C2s to secure a majority – see 2015 and 1992 ). As it turned out, these massive leads shrank to four point leads among both groups (see here). Indicating higher taxes, pledging potentially massive costs on retired people and raiding middle class welfare will all have played a role.
- The rejection of austerity is about tax and healthcare. Why have senior Conservatives decided that removing the pay cap is the answer to the party’s prayers? Certainly not because of the polling evidence. Of course, if asked, public sector workers will say they want more money – don’t we all? But the polling before the election revealed there was far more concern – generally, but from public sector workers too – about NHS and education spending than there was for cost of living issues (p.36 here). These issues were at the top of voters’ concerns and the Conservatives didn’t tackle them. Senior Conservatives are recommending a massive, massive fiscal burden by calling for an end to the pay cap because they’ll only then have to address what the public really care about: NHS and education spending.
- Young voters are different but, they’re not from another planet. While the Conservatives don’t face a general existential threat, there’s no doubt their appeal to young voters has vanished. In this election, among 18-24 year olds Labour beat the Conservatives by 62-27 per cent. In 2010, the Conservatives nearly tied for this vote, with 30 per cent voting Conservative and 31 per cent voting Labour. Unlike 25-34 year olds, who also voted Labour massively, they didn’t change their minds: the Labour lead was 20 points in April (p.1 here). Why are 18-24 year olds so hostile? It’s hard not to draw the conclusion that they simply want more spent on public services. This matters more than “culture”. Polls show that young voters have the same political priorities as the public at large, but prefer a different approach. Simply put: they like Corbyn’s approach to public services (see p.33 here). Given that only half of 18-24 year olds vote, the party will obviously need to weigh up the benefits of policies like cutting fees with the potentially bad effect this will have on other voters – like DE voters that go on to higher education in smaller numbers.
- The Conservatives were right to frame the election through the prism of Brexit. Every group before the election said handling Brexit was the top priority for the Government – and every group says the same now. It made sense for the Conservatives to say they were and are the right party for the job – and that argument remains true today. The problem in the campaign was that didn’t do anything to prove it – after their first high-profile row with Jean Claude Juncker.
The Conservatives should be preparing to launch a major campaign right now to get back on top of the polls so they’re ready for any new election that comes. Such is the threat Corbyn poses to the country, they should be prepared to consider any policy options. But in developing a new policy platform they have to do so on the basis of evidence. In next week’s column, I’ll look at what policies might work.