Matthew Goodwin is Associate Professor at the University of Nottingham, and an Associate Fellow at Chatham House
The recent history of the Conservative party has been dominated by its inability to secure a parliamentary majority. By the next election, it will be almost a quarter of a century since a Conservative leader walked into Downing Street as a Prime Minister secure in his or her Parliamentary foundation. Indeed, it is even a stretch to describe the 92-97 Major Government in these terms.
Over the past thirty years modern one-nation Conservatism, Euro-sceptic British nationalism, neo-Thatcherism and progressive Conservatism have each been tried. Electorally, they have all fallen short. This could be misfortune or circumstantial, but the deeper evidence suggests something structural. How can the Conservatives become a majority party once more?
Clearly, no one dataset provides all the answers. But a new survey commissioned by the Extremis Project highlights both the challenge and the dilemma facing the centre-right. Working with the polling agency YouGov, we surveyed 1,725 adults online, and shortly after the close of the Olympics. The figures we report are weighted, and representative of British adults, aged 18 and above.
Respondents were asked whether certain policies would make them 'more' or 'less' likely to vote for a party, or whether these policies would make no difference to their choice. The four policies that we were interested in are focused on the identity axis, and have each been pushed by radical right parties in Britain and Europe, such as UKIP: (1) to stand up to political and business elites, (2) stop all immigration into the UK, (3) prioritise British values other over cultures, and (4) reduce the number of Muslims/presence of Islam in society.
As has been reported elsewhere, we found that large numbers of British voters would be more likely to back a party that offered these policies. But these responses also shed unique light on the Conservative base. With the exception of standing up to elites, those who voted for the Conservatives in 2010 were consistently the most likely to back these positions.
Almost three-quarters (74%) said they would be more likely to vote for a party that prioritised British values over other cultures, compared to 47% of Labour voters and 44% of Liberal Democrats. Over half (55%) would be more likely to vote for a party that promised to stop all immigration, compared to 36% of Labour voters, and 29% of Liberal Democrats. Moreover, almost half (49%) would be 'more likely' to vote for a party that adopted a tough stance toward Islam and Muslims, compared to 34% of Labour voters, and 25% of Liberal Democrats. The message is clear: on these identity-related issues Conservative voters are far more united than their Labour and Liberal Democrat rivals.
But at the same time, we find a sharp generational divide, and it is here where the centre-right finds itself confronted with a dilemma.
On the identity-axis, our results suggest that young Tories hold radically different views to their older counterparts. Whereas large majorities of those aged 60 and above say they would be more likely to back a party that pledged to stand up to elites (78%), end immigration (66%), prioritise British values (84%), and reduce the presence of Islam (63%), the young base adopt a markedly different outlook.
Whereas 66% of the 60+ Tory base say they would be swayed by a party that promised to halt immigration, the equivalent figure among those aged 25-39 drops to 45%, and then to 28% among 18-24 year olds. In fact, a striking 71% of those in the youngest group either say they would be LESS likely to back a party that made this promise, say it would make no difference to their choice, or do not know whether they would be swayed by such a promise. Similarly, 55% of Tories aged 25-39 years old would be less likely to endorse this policy, say it would make no difference or do not know. This also extends to attempts to talk tough on Islam: whereas 63% of old Tories would be responsive to attempts to curb the presence of Muslims and Islam, the figure among 25-39 year olds drops to 41%, and then to 29% among 18-24 year olds.
This suggests, then, that talking tough on the identity-axis will help mobilise the party's older and core base, but over the longer term the strategy risks alienating the younger ranks. For the party to move strongly onto the territory of culture and identity, focusing to an even greater extent on immigration and cultural unity in the hope of gathering a national values coalition would seem to be choosing its present overs its future. Some votes may be squeezed out of UKIP, but little else.
Furthermore, while Conservative support on the identity axis exhibits more of a 'block' character than the other parties, it ultimately remains a block that has not delivered a decent majority for a generation. If economic stagnation continues, which is likely, then any notion that cultural issues might provide a convincing alternative should be treated with scepticism, especially given that the trends documented above are occurring to a greater extent among the general population.
Consider this: among 18-24 year olds in our sample more generally (not only those who voted Conservative in 2010), 60% say they would be less likely to vote for a party that promised to halt immigration or said it would make no difference, 50% would be less likely to support a party that promised to prioritise British values over other cultures or said it would make no difference, and 55% would be less likely to support a party that promised to curb the presence of Islam or said it would make no difference.
While the coherence of support among Conservatives more generally on the identity axis may reassure many inside the party, a strategic shift toward that direction may not provide an easy way out of the party's current dilemma, especially over the longer-term. It appears, then, that our data pose more tough questions for the centre-right than provide easy answers.