Nick Faith is Director of WPI Srategy.
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s (JRF) fascinating analysis of last June’s general glection has produced some key lessons for the Conservative Party. The charity asked Matthew Goodwin and Oliver Heath to analyse the British Election Study data to examine voter attitudes towards income, poverty and Brexit.
These are the four main take-aways which could influence future elections:
- The working class vote is very much up for grabs
Both Labour and the Conservatives increased their share of the working class vote by about eight percentage points. 37 per cent of lower income earners voted for the Tories compared to 42 per cent for Labour. While many voters on low incomes agree with the vote for Brexit and still favour immigration controls, they were still relatively more likely to vote for Labour because of their desire to improve living standards. This suggests that Labour’s anti-austerity agenda and historical identification with people on lower incomes still resonates strongly with a significant proportion of working class voters. However, what the research clearly reveals is that voting on class lines alone is becoming less and less important, and indeed has been eclipsed by educational qualifications and age.
- The Conservatives will need a ‘Brexit Plus’ offer to win over swathes of lower income voters, especially in more urban areas
The Conservatives’ approach to Brexit and immigration undoubtedly helped win over a significant number of older, lower income voters. This was especially true for voters living out of major urban centres with fewer educational qualifications. As the report’s author highlights, in a traditional Labour seat such as Rother Valley, held by Labour since 1918, the Conservative vote increased by more than 17 points. The same pattern was repeated in places such as Burnley, Chesterfield. Redcar, Ashfield and Heywood and Middleton, where the Tory vote increased significantly.
However, the Conservatives did not win the vast number of the 140-odd Brexit-supporting seats held by Labour. As the research suggests, Labour managed to rebuff the Tory drive due to individual fears over the state of their personal finances and future economic outlook. Quite simply, the Conservatives cannot expect to win over these more deprived constituencies at the next election unless they have a ‘Brexit Plus’ offering which works on the doorstep.
- The Conservatives must present a package of ‘counter intuitive’ policies which address living standards
Regardless of how Jeremy Corbyn is viewed, the Labour brand is still (just about) strong enough among many working class communities. The research primarily puts this down to lower income earners perceiving Labour to be able to improve not only their own personal financial situation, but also the future economic potential of the wider communities they live in. People who thought their household’s financial situation had worsened the year leading up to the election were almost twice as likely to vote Labour than Tory (48 per cent – 27 per cent). Just as importantly, the analysis reveals that people also voted in line with the deprivation levels of their wider community. The probability of a low earner living in a poor area of the country voting Conservative was 23 per cent.
Theresa May and her team were right to focus on presenting the Tories as standing up for ‘ordinary working families’ or those who were ‘just about managing’. The problem was the speed of the election and muddled campaign strategy did not allow the party to test and roll out big, new and practical policy ideas that would address the living standard question. They also failed to bring enough wider supporters – charities, think tanks, campaign groups, community leaders – with them on key policies. Without other voices which may have more clout with more deprived communities, the report suggests that the Conservatives will struggle to increase their share of the vote enough to make significant electoral gains.
- The Party must continue to adapt to the changing nature of modern Britain
Turnout in 2017 was the highest since 1997 at 69 per cent. The biggest increases were in seats with a large proportion of younger people, graduates, ethnic minority communities and people who voted remain in the EU referendum. This was not just a London phenomenon. Indeed as the JRF report highlights, of the 50 seats that recorded the sharpest increase in turnout only 14 were in the capital. Younger voters must not simply be defined as students and recent graduates. Pretty much every age bracket under 47 voted for Labour. The population may be ageing, but the Conservatives are in danger of haemorrhaging age groups who historically tended to vote for them in large numbers.
The Conservatives also lost support among ethnic minority communities. The party’s vote declined by 0.5 points in the 20 most ethnically diverse seats while Labour’s vote increased by 10 points. Just 25 per cent of BAME communities voted Tory, compared to 61 per cent who voted Labour. Given that Britain is expected to be 30 per cent non-white by 2050, the demographic shifts pose serious electoral challenges to the party.
What should we conclude?
To state the obvious, elections are notoriously difficult to predict. However, this new research shines a light on the opportunities and major challenges facing the Conservative Party. The party is at its very best when it is able to appeal to a broader church as possible. There is clear evidence that lower income voters are not wedded to any particular party. At the same time, people under 50 – especially those who are well educated, from minority communities and live in cities – need to feel that the Tories are on their side.
Presenting a set of policies which address peoples’ concerns, not just about Brexit, but their future – quality education and retraining opportunities, job security, earnings potential, housing affordability and availability – could lead to the Conservatives securing a fourth term in government.
As a starter for ten, a united front might help.