What do we know about the barriers to people voting Conservative? In recent weeks, we’ve heard Party strategists suggest that one such hurdle is the Party looking insufficiently “caring”. Other suggestions include, for public sector workers, the Government’s austerity programme and, for young people, the Government’s inability to provide enough homes. Clearly, there’s no single barrier but what does the opinion research tell us?
1. Lack of interest in healthcare. While there’s no single barrier, healthcare seems to matter to practically everyone that doesn’t vote Conservative. While it’s always been a key political issue, it’s currently right at the top of people’s minds and the Party trails Labour badly on it. This is partly for historical reasons – the perceived lack of Conservative interest in the NHS – but also because of claims the Party is currently cutting healthcare budgets and remains open to privatisation. While the Tories publicly worry about housing policy – apparently with young people in mind – health is taken far more seriously by 18-24 year olds.
2. The Party of the rich. As Lord Ashcroft has shown, the Party has a brand problem around its perceived values. His research shows that far more people think Labour stands for fairness, opportunity for all, helping people get on in life etc, than think the Conservatives do. My research (a little dated now, admittedly) for Policy Exchange shows people explicitly think the Tories are most concerned about rich people. This is fundamentally the problem: many think it’s a rich person’s party. This reputation puts off many on lower incomes, although the power of this narrative is waning and working class voters are starting to look at the Party more favourably.
3. “Cuts” more generally. Between the General Election and the Budget, there was a growing belief that the Conservatives failed to secure a majority because of austerity fatigue – and particularly the denial of a pay rises for public sector workers. In truth, there was little evidence for this. Perceived cuts are off the scale more important – the NHS obviously, but it’s staggering the number of people in focus groups that argue the Government is cutting education budgets and forcing schools to shed staff. Campaigns on this were unbelievably effective. Parents across the country have completely swallowed hostile campaigners’ talking points.
4. Cultural hostility. There are two massive cultural barriers for some: Brexit and immigration. While driving the Brexit process has been just about positive, particularly in working class provincial England, there’s no denying it’s been damaging elsewhere – above all in London. Tory candidates across London were destroyed in 2017, in part because of Londoners’ opposition to Brexit. This derives from practical concerns about the economy, but also from fears Brexit was a culturally aggressive, right-wing act. You could say similar things about immigration: while taking a tougher line on border control than Labour has been just about electorally positive, it undoubtedly puts off wealthier voters, those that live in cities and, most importantly, those that have recently come to the UK or that have non-British heritage.
5. Wider social issues. It is harder to prove directly from the polling, but anyone actively interested in politics knows there’s a group of mostly middle class, urban, younger voters that display a visceral reaction against the Party – largely driven by social, rather than economic, issues. These range from the Party’s historical antipathy towards gay rights, to Conservative politicians’ links with campaigns on family values, to support for fox hunting. This is extremely common in London, but is found across the country.
6. No reason to turn out. Finally, it’s not an existential barrier, but from the election campaign onwards, the Conservatives have provided few positive reasons to vote for them. Despite the election being called to secure a majority, the manifesto read like one of a Government in a national economic emergency. Voters were effectively threatened with higher taxes and big bills in the future. Since then, there have been few retail policies announced. Campaigns matter, and the Tories haven’t and aren’t providing attractive policies for people to get behind.
The Conservatives might well conclude that certain barriers can’t ever be tackled – or certainly not in the short-term. For example, it’s going to be extremely difficult to turn around the hostility displayed by culturally left-leaning Londoners in a meaningful way. And it’s also going to be hard to win over remain-voting ultras when the Government is pulling Britain out of the EU. However, in trying to maximise the Tory vote share, it’s essential that a proper audit of these barriers takes place (and others will no doubt think of some I have missed). There’s a danger that some within the Party are using anecdotal evidence from their own local campaigns, as well as their own worldview, to diagnose electoral problems and therefore to suggest remedies. The Conservatives need to stay ruthlessly focused on the opinion research.