Let’s start not in Australia, but here in Britain – with Onward’s recent report Generation Why?
It has a section listing marginal constituencies. These are divided into –
- “At risk” seats, which the main challenger party should already hold.
- “Closing On” seats, in which the main challenger party is becoming more competitive.
- And “Gaining On” seats, in which the incumbent party is entrenching its position.
Seats that the Conservatives should hold
As a challenger party, the Conservatives have only two “at risk” seats in their sights.
- These are: Dudley North and Argyll and Bute (held by the SNP).
Conservative seats that other parties should hold
But as an incumbent party, 15 of their own seats are “at risk”.
- These are: Chipping Barnet, Crawley, Finchley and Golders Green, Harrow East, Hendon, Milton Keynes North, Milton Keynes South, Northampton North, Northampton South, Putney, Richmond Park (Liberal Democrats), South Swindon, Telford, Thurrock and Watford.
Notice anything? The majority of these are in London or the South East.
- As an incumbent party, Labour has only a single “at risk” seat vulnerable to the Conservatives – Dudley North, as we have seen.
Seats where the Conservatives are closing on the incumbent party
But now have a look at the number of seats in which the Conservatives are “closing on” the incumbent party. There are no fewer than 27 of them.
- They are: Ashfield, Barrow and Furness, Battersea, Bedford, Bishop Auckland, Carshalton and Wallington (LDs), Central Ayrshire (SNP), Colne Valley, Crewe and Nantwich, Derby North, Eastbourne (LDs), High Peak, Ipswich, Keighley, Kensington, Lanark and Hamilton East (SNP), Norwich North, Oxford West and Abingdon (LDs), Penistone and Stockbridge, Perth and North Perthshire (SNP), Peterborough, Stockton South, Stroud, Wakefield, Warrington South, Warwick and Leamington, Westmoreland and Lonsdale (LDs).
Of these, no Labour seat is the South East. Battersea and Kensington are in London.
- (Labour is “closing on” the incumbent party in three seats: Morecombe and Lunsdale, Southampton Itchen and Stirling (SNP). One of the two Conservative held seats is in the South-East, one not.)
Conservative seats where the other party is consolidating its lead
Now let’s turn to the “gaining on” seats. There are 20 of them.
- These are: Blackpool North and Cleveleys, Bolton West, Broxtowe (won by the Tories in 2017), Cambourne and Redruth (LDs), Calder Valley, Cheltenham (LDs), Copeland, Corby, Gordon (SNP), Hastings and Rye, Mansfield, Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland, Midlothian, Morley and Outwood, Pendle, Pudsey, Presell Pembrokeshire, St Ives (LDs), Stoke-on-Trent South, Vale of Glamorgan.
Of these, none are in London or only one is in the South-East.
- (In only four “gaining on” seats is Labour entrenching its position against the Conservatives: Canterbury, Newcastle-under-Lyme and Lincoln and Portsmouth South. The SNP is doing so against the Tories in Edinburgh South-West. Two of those Labour-head seats are in the South-East, and two of them outside it.)
The road to a Conservative victory runs through Midlands and Northern marginals
Onward is looking at seats through the prism of age: seats in which voters are getting older trend to the Tories, seats where they are getting younger to other parties. One might use other measures as a starting-point. Furthermore, the constituencies that Onward lists are not necessarily the most marginal seats at the next election to come: the think-tank is trying to plot a trend.
But it is reasonable to presume, in the absence of other recent studies of marginal seats, that Onward is on to something.
What its figures show is that –
- Of 22 seats in which the demographics are unhelpful to the Conservatives, 13 are in London or the South-East.
- Of the 49 seats in which the demographics are helpful to the Tories, two are in London and none are in the South-East.
Readers will already have spotted the overlap between the Conservative-Labour electoral map and the Remain-Leave electoral map.
In very simple terms, the Tories are advancing in Leave country and retreating in Remain country. Obviously, they have to try to hold their position in the latter – no easy task, to put in mildly, with resurgent Liberal Democrats and a pro-Remain London Labour party.
But to have any hope of making any progress at all at the next election, they must also do the former. Again, the challenge is formidable. The Liberal Democrats may fade out as a force the further one leaves the South-East behind. But the cultural obstacles to voting Conservative in Midlands and Northern marginals have traditionally been stronger than in the south, to Labour’s benefit. And now there is the Brexit Party to contend with too (who will be a problem for both the main parties, but probably for the Tories especially).
These Midlands and Northern voters are likely to have a certain sensibility. They will be pro-Brexit. They weren’t deaf during the Cameron years to the argument that the country must live within its means. They are more resistant to immigration than Londoners. They use cars, not trains – and are sensitive to rising fuel and energy bills. Like voters everywhere, they will value the NHS and want better state schools. They will be among those expressing rising anxiety about crime in surveys. Housing will be no less pressing an issue for some of them than for their fellow voters in the South-East – but by no means all. They will want to hold and keep better, well-paid jobs.
Parallels with other countries can mislead – particularly in the wake of election results which have yet to be fully analysed. Australia isn’t Britain. But these UK voters sound a lot like the “battlers” that Scott Morrison, and the Liberals down under, targeted ruthlessly and successfully to win their election victory.
This site is concerned by the lack of comparable polling and focus among Conservatives in Britain. The Onward Report is useful, and its analysis of what younger voters want is perfectly sensible. James Johnson in Downing Street will be doing polling work in depth.
But the Conservative Party is on the verge of a leadership election, and there is an imbalance between assertion and evidence. And, therefore, a lack of clear strategic thinking.
On that first point, we concede that our take on Midlands and Northern voters above may be wrong. (Though James Frayne uses polling to back up a very similar take in his fortnightly column on this site.)
On the second, the issues are not always thought through elsewhere. So for example, if the One Nation Caucus believes that declaring a climate emergency is the right course to take, then so be it.
But has it thought through the electoral consequences of doing so? These would surely include higher fuel and energy bills. Will voters in the 49 seats above vote for a party that imposes these on them?
Time is short and evidence is scant. The Conservative leadership contenders will want to set out their plan for the whole country – and that necessarily includes lots of people who don’t and will never vote Tory.
But they also need a Thatcher-like instinct for “our people” – that’s to say, not just those who usually Vote Conservative, but those who might be persuaded to do so. The Tories’ Australian sister party seems to have it. The Conservatives don’t.