James Blagden is a researcher at Onward.
The day after last December’s election, the Prime Minister thanked those who “lent” their support to the Conservative Party. People who had never voted Conservative before, in places that had never returned anything other than a Labour MP, gave Boris Johnson their vote. But how many ‘”lent” votes were there, who are these temporary Tories, and can they be persuaded to stay?
The commentary this time last year was not about lent votes but “tactical voting” – the idea that voters would tactically coordinate and switch their votes to block a specific party. Remain United, People’s Vote and Best for Britain all attempted to persuade campaigners to align behind Remain parties and built websites to help them decide who to vote for.
But most of the evidence suggests that this kind of tactical voting – voting to block a particular candidate – simply didn’t happen. Labour suffered a historic collapse and the Liberal Democrats defied expectations in the wrong direction.
In fact, while many did lend their votes to non-ideal parties, this was contractual not merely tactical. In 2019, reluctant votes for the Conservatives were not just votes against challenger parties, but votes in return for a specific outcome.
In No Turning Back, Onward’s major analysis of the post-2019 electorate, we find that one in five Conservative voters supported the party despite it not being their ideal choice. Why? Mostly to “get Brexit done”. A majority (56 per cent) of these “Contract Conservatives” said they were voting to deliver Brexit, compared to 34 per cent of other Tory voters.
Contract Conservatives were more likely to have backed Leaving the European Union in 2016 (87 per cent) compared to other Conservative voters (74 per cent). In a sign of their antipathy to Jeremy Corbyn, they were also three times as likely as other Conservatives to say that they were voting to stop a party they disliked from winning.
But their political allegiances are febrile and there is reason to believe this group are not yet secured. 64 per cent said that they would ideally support the Brexit Party – and 34 per cent had voted UKIP in either 2015 or 2017.
Nor were Contract Conservatives too enthusiastic about the Conservative Party itself: only a quarter (25 per cent) voted for the party because they thought the Conservatives offered the best policies or had the leader who would be the best Prime Minister – compared to 57 per cent of the rest of the Conservative coalition.
But irrespective of their motivations, the Conservatives’ new voters have remarkably similar values to those already loyal to conservatism. In fact, they almost exactly overlap with other Conservative voters across both the economic and social dimensions. Both groups want politicians to be tough on crime and immigration and to invest in and support communities and local economies.
They are not particularly small-state or free-market: a majority support tax rises to pay for the NHS and boost public spending. They want a Government that regulates more rather than less and pushes businesses to do more to retrain workers in this country rather than bring in labour from abroad.
In the areas that they differ, these voters are dragging the party left on economics and right on culture – away from the coalition that David Cameron built. Contract Conservatives are more in favour of cutting the foreign aid budget than other Tory voters and more likely to think that immigration has made the country worse overall.
They are slightly more egalitarian and less meritocratic: 70 per cent think there are always opportunities in this country if you’re willing to work hard, compared to 83 per cent of other Conservatives. Both groups strongly believe that, as a society, we should encourage people to take more responsibility for themselves, but Contract Conservatives are less likely to think that unemployment benefits are too high (63 per cent, compared to 70 per cent of other conservatives).
The electoral impact of this cannot be overstated. This group of contract voters is roughly equal to 3.2 million people. Without these electors, the Conservative national vote share would have been 33 per cent in 2019, rather than 45 per cent, and their majority would have halved from 80 to 42.
Because millions of people voted Tory despite the Conservatives not being their ideal choice, the Party managed to net an extra 19 seats. These include Blyth Valley, Sedgefield (Tony Blair’s old seat), Great Grimsby and Wakefield. Overall, contract voting was decisive enough to alter the result in 63 constituencies – many in the Conservatives’ favour and with the largest swings in constituencies that had the highest support for Leaving the EU. In Bassetlaw and Great Grimsby around seven in 10 people voted for Brexit. Contract voting boosted the Conservatives by an extra 15 per cent in both of these places.
But this exposes the vulnerability of the 2019 Conservative coalition. If, in four years’ time, these contract voters feel let down or the Government has failed to deliver for them, then many of the iconic Conservative gains could fall back to Labour. The margin is very thin. As little as a 4.3 per cent swing from the Conservatives to Labour would be enough to generate a hung Parliament in 2024.
Given the link between the 2016 referendum result and the 2019 Conservative landslide, it is essential that the Government gets Brexit done. But that begs the question: What will replace Brexit as the central motivation for Contract Conservatives to keep voting Tory? If Brexit is resolved, why vote Conservative?
The Spending Review last week demonstrated that the Chancellor sees public services investment and levelling up as the two key policies that can fill the gap. He is right to focus his firepower there. Ultimately voters wanted to “get Brexit done” in order to invest in the NHS or boost regional growth, not just to leave the EU.
The challenge for the next three years is to show them that the Government has a plan for doing so after we leave. The Government’s increased NHS investment and new National Infrastructure Bank – something Onward called for – are important downpayments on that message.
The critical point is that the Conservatives cannot assume that the majority is safe. In fact, the softness of the vote and the changing nature of the electorate means it looks superficially large and could easily be lost. This means that the party has no option but to deliver on its promises, to level up left-behind places, and in doing so consolidate a new coalition that can endure. There must be no turning back.