Sunder Katwala is the Director of British Future. Follow Sunder on Twitter.
The challenge of change
Talk to backbench MPs across
the party divide and a common theme emerges: a pessimism shared across the red
and blue tribes that their party will secure a majority government at the next
The energy is with those who do not aspire
to govern. The mainstream party leaders struggle to find any attractive
explanation of the offer they can make to voters – namely, that, with a deficit to pay down, governments will have to spend less, and cut services without being able
to afford large tax giveaways. There is a further, perhaps underestimated, factor:
that politics is struggling to adapt to a changing electorate.
The 36.1% won by the Conservatives at the 2010 general election was not quite
the lowest ‘winning’ score at a post-1945 election: Labour won a majority five
years earlier on just 35.3% of the vote. Even aiming for 40% of the vote sounds
to many like wishing for the moon on a stick. Though both major parties cherish
fading memories of more dominant times – the hat-tricks of election victories
won by Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, respectively – they were won in a
Britain which was strikingly different from that which will go to the polls in
2015. That leaves the two parties without any clear
road-map for a future majority strategy.
The Conservatives received a wake-up call about the dangers of getting on the wrong
side of demographic change from the experience of their U.S Republican cousins
last year. Mitt Romney went into the
final fortnight of the election believing he could still be President. His
campaign resonated in red state America. Indeed, nationwide Romney won six out
of ten white votes, outperforming any recent Republican Presidential candidate
with that demographic. Six out of ten
white voters amounted to 53% of the electorate in 1992: a knock-out blow. In
November 2012, it could not compensate for the Republican failure with
minorities, particularly Hispanic voters. America had changed, and the
Republicans had not.
This was not inevitable: George W Bush had made impressive inroads into the
Hispanic vote, but his party had thrown that work away, while going backwards
with women voters, first-time voters and college graduates too. The success of
the Canadian Conservatives in breaking the liberal dominance of minority votes,
and of Boris Johnson winning twice in London, offer counterpoints to
the Republican nightmare.
The Conservatives won 16% of non-white votes in 2010, compared to 36% of white
voters. As an authoritative forthcoming Oxford
University Press book by Anthony Heath and his colleagues will
set out, these differences are more often in spite of income and social
because of it. The scale of this
challenge is not yet at U.S levels, but given that Britain under 18 is
considerably more diverse than the current
electorate, it will become increasingly unlikely at each election there will be a future
Conservative majority government without making considerable progress among ethnic minority voters.
Moreover, such an outcome is in
the national interest too: these voters are disadvantaged if one
believes they could be taken for granted, and the others that they are
out-of-reach, so the convergence of majority and minority voting
time should be seen as a positive indicator of integration.
There has often been a practical confusion between engaging with faith and ethnicity.The elusiveness of so-called "ethnic communities" has seen religious leaders engaged as often poor proxies for them. It would make more sense to engage the leaders and followers of both Christian and minority faiths on their merits. The 2011 census showed Britain becoming more secular, but at the same time, faith groups have an increasing share of civic mobilisation and activism. Parties might need to articulate both the scope and limits of faith in politics more explicitly, though a British aversion to US-style culture wars continues to unite most believers and non-believers.
But demographic change is about much more than Britain’s growing ethnic diversity. Age
could be emerging as significant a cleavage as political class, on some issues at
least. The generational pattern of UKIP
support is striking. In one Survation poll last month, UKIP was the fifth most
popular party among the under-24s, with 7%, but the first choice of the
over-65s on 33%.
There is a possible political trap here between the short-term power of older
voters – more numerous and more likely to vote – and getting on the wrong side
of the electorate of the future. The European Elections of 2014 – like the US
mid-term elections – will be fought with a smaller and different electorate:
considerably older, whiter and more Eurosceptic than those who go to the polls
eleven months later. Ipsos-Mori’s in-depth research into generational attitude shifts suggest that these will present long-term
opportunities and threats to both left and right: younger voters are strikingly
more socially liberal, and less collectivist, being more relaxed about gay
marriage, diversity and immigration, and more sceptical about state welfare
provision and taxation too.
Seeking young votes or old
votes, still less ethnic minority or white
votes, will be a dead-end. The challenge for major parties in building a winning electoral coalition will be
to address majority anxieties that most people feel at a time of fast and
unsettling change while offering what is currently missing: a vision of the future
they are working towards. Just because parties have the
technology and databases to micro-segment the electorate by social
class, ethnicity, age or shopping habits, it doesn’t follow that they
should; particularly when authenticity is the question-mark about the
parties for many voters.
That will also mean being clear about where and when they cannot indulge a ‘party of no’
impossibilism, which appeals strongly to a sociologically declining minority. A
party like UKIP hoping to break-through with 10 per cent of the vote can afford to indulge
more rejectionist views – like the one in four whose immigration preference is
to ‘shut the borders’ – but the major parties will have to, instead of making
impossible promises, seek majority consent for things they could actually do.
makes gauging these balances more difficult, especially in a hung Parliament,
is that each party’s internal debate lacks voices to speak up for the parts of
the country, and the electorate, that the party does not represent, but needs
to win. Labour has more MPs from Yorkshire than the English south; while every
Conservative MP will know friends and family who are taken by Nigel Farage, but
may be less often in touch with attitudes in big cities, like Manchester, Leeds
or Birmingham, where a majority party would need at least a foothold.
Winning amidst change
If the Conservative party often seems to face particularly stark challenges
from changing demography, historians may note how often the Party has been here
before. The Conservative tradition may be dispositionally reluctant to
accelerate change, yet it has shown a talent for adapting to it. Indeed, this challenge
of political statecraft is foundational to enabling a conservative politics to
endure over time.
That the Conservatives were the dominant electoral force across the twentieth
century, after the mass enfranchisement in 1918, would have surprised Lord
Salisbury, whose strategy was to delay the extension of the vote to the
unpropertied for as long as was possible. His pessimism about the consequences
for property of democracy, which he regarded as a "‘dangerous and irrational creed by which two day labourers shall outvote Baron Rothschild’ proved unfounded – as Baldwin, Macmillan, and
Thatcher, in turn constructed cross-class coalitions which made them the dominant
figures of their era. The Conservatives proved
clear net beneficiaries of the enfranchisement of women too, winning greater support
among women than men from 1918 until the late 1990s.
However, the reversal of that gender gap more recently, and
the experience of dispossession of the Scottish Unionists, from being the only
party to ever win a majority of both Scottish votes and seats in the 1950s, to
being marginalised by Labour and then the Scottish nationalists within a couple
of generations, shows too the stark, kaleidoscope-shifting political effects of
social change when parties fail to respond or adapt.
The central lesson from history is that there is no political
determinism in demographic change. Previous predictions have often quickly
shown their date – from the sociological tracts asking ‘Must Labour lose?’ in
the 1950s and 1980s to the obituaries for the Tory party after 1997 – or
breathless dispatches from the Rose Garden about a Cameron-Clegg permanent
Demographic change shifts the social and
political context in which leaders make decisions – but it is how parties
respond that makes the decisive difference. Facing
short-term pressures to hunker down and secure their base, at least, each side of
the political spectrum currently finds it easier to articulate the barriers
than the opportunities. The real questions may be less whether to modernise or
not, but about the range of different paths that attempts to build broader
support might take.
Nobody in 2013 can guess which party might show the political imagination to
craft a future majority. That leaves the
future of British politics unusually up for grabs.