Thursday, 30 June 1983

Thatcher and Friends: Chapter 9 - The Social Base of the Tory Vote

By John Ross

The reality of the rise and decline of the Conservative Party becomes even clearer if we now turn from mapping its gains and losses geographically to the social processes which underlie these shifts. If we take first the broadest divisions within the British state - those between the nations which have historically comprised it - then the best available guides to their relative economic and social positions over long periods of time are their respective per capita assessments for tax. Table 10 therefore shows these for periods since the beginning of the nineteenth century. As we are concerned here with relative economic position, we have expressed all figures as a percentage of the assessment for England.

Table 10

As can be seen from these figures, Ireland has remained consistently by far the poorest national within the British state. Ranking next after Ireland, but a long way ahead, comes Wales. England has remained, with the exception of one short period, easily and consistently the richest part of the British state.

The one case which shows a change in its relative position overtime is Scotland. Scotland started the nineteenth century even poorer than Wales and remained, relative to England, extremely poor until the mid-nineteenth century. But from the latter part of the nineteenth century onwards Scotland's position improved rapidly so that its average per capita assessment for tax actually was higher than England by the period immediately following the First World War. Then a new decline set in: by the 1960s Scotland had again fallen behind England.

The relation of these economic and social unevennesses to the levels of Tory support we looked at earlier is obvious. The majority Catholic population of Ireland, living in the consistently poorest part of the British state after Ireland, was the other absolutely consistent area of Tory failure from the 1860s onwards. The specific path of Conservative development in Scotland – low support in the mid-nineteenth century, rising support in the period around the First World War, and then a collapse from the 1950s onwards - evidently correlates perfectly with the changing relative economic position of Scotland itself. England, the consistently richest part of the British state, is the traditional stronghold of the Conservative Party. The correlation between relative economic and social position and degree of support for the Conservative Party is complete.

Exactly the same pattern is shown if regional unevennesses, as well as national, are considered. Within Ireland British and Unionist rule systematically built up a comparatively privileged position for the Protestant working class of the North as against the Catholic South. Taking indexes of poverty to illustrate this, by 1891 the number of paupers in Belfast was only half the level of Catholic South. Taking indexes of poverty to illustrate this, by 1891 the number of paupers in Belfast was only half the level of Catholic Dublin and only a quarter that of Catholic Cork, Waterford, and Limerick. Skilled building workers in Belfast, chiefly Protestants, had wage rates higher than areas of England such as Yorkshire, the North of England, and Scotland. From 1945 to 1965 less factory space was built by the North of Ireland government in a city with a Catholic majority (such as Derry) than in a Protestant city with a much smaller population (such as Larne). Prior to 1974 the Protestant working class of the North of Ireland was the most secure of all mass urban bases of the Conservative Party.

Within Scotland the average figures do not show the incredible difference between the West Coast industrial towns, centred on Glasgow, and the other areas of the country. By 1971, the last census for which full figures are available, Glasgow had only half the number of "upper professional" occupations compared to Britain as a whole, but twice the average rate of male unemployment, half the average level of car ownership, and by far the highest incidence of infant mortality in Britain. By 1983 there was not a single Conservative MP elected from a Glasgow constituency.

In Wales the most basic social division is between the industrial south and the rural north - coupled with a fundamental language question. As late as 1891 the majority of the population of Wales was still Welsh-speaking. In 1961 the figure was still 27 per cent - which can be compared to under 2 per cent for Gaelic-speaking in Scotland. By 1983 the Conservative Party was gaining 45 per cent of the vote in rural Powys, but only 19 per cent in Mid-Glamorgan. Plaid Cymru was strong in Welsh-speaking North Wales, gaining 33 per cent of the vote in Gwynedd.

In England itself the distinctions between the regions are well indicated by comparing wage levels for standard industries between different cities. The pattern at the turn of the century is quite clear: the Tory stronghold of London had the highest wage rates in every major job category (bricklayer, engineer, printing compositor, etc) followed by the Conservative-dominated cities of the North West of England and Birmingham. Leeds (Yorkshire) and Newcastle (the North-East) had low wage rates and were areas of classic Tory failure.

The same pattern prevails today. Average personal income is higher in the South East, rates of unemployment lower and Tory percentages of the vote higher than anywhere else in the country. The Tory areas of support are, with minor exceptions, those with low rates of unemployment and high rates of pay. The famous North-South divide is rooted in an immense social reality. 

Opinion polls

If we now turn to the Tory decline after the Second World War then here analysis of geography and social trends can be supplemented through opinion polls and similar types of studies. As all the different types of analysis cross-correlate, there is little doubt that the social shifts in Tory support are being accurately followed. Looking first at the initial period of post-war Tory decline from 1955 to 1964, Gallup Poll studies show a general drop in Tory support among all social groups: the percentages of the upper middle class, the middle class and the very poor voting Tory all fell by 12 per cent in this period, while the percentage of the working-class vote fell by 8 per cent. Although the social criteria used in these studies are crude, there is no reason to doubt that they show an underlying trend of some significance.

This is borne out by taking the more detailed breakdown of opinion poll studies available for the period from 1964 onwards(see Table 11). The figures used for 1979 and 1983 in this Table are those published for the Harris "exit poll". Substitution of, for example, the published MORI figures would give slightly different absolute figures but identical trends. As can be seen, Tory support fell between 1964 and 1983 in every social category except skilled workers. Among skilled workers, Tory support actually increased.

Table 11
If we want to look at the structural shifts taking place, however, and to ignore the inevitable political fluctuations which take place from election to election, then support for the Tory Party in different social layers must be compared to support in the population as a whole. In Table 12, therefore, we give the difference between Tory support among different social groups compared to Tory support in the population as a whole in elections since 1964.

Table 12
The structural trends shown are quite clear and coherent -confirming that the polls are accurately reflecting social processes. The Tory vote has been lowest, and relatively constant compared to Conservative support in the population as a whole, among semi-skilled and unskilled workers. The Conservatives' relative advantage among the professional middle class, and among white-collar workers, has been eroded steadily and by 1983 was quite low among white-collar workers. However, the fact that the Tory Party actually increased its vote among skilled manual workers means that the relative Conservative unpopularity here had almost disappeared by 1983. Thatcher's unique success with skilled workers enabled her to arrest - even to reverse in the short term – the structural decline in Tory support.

Considered historically, however, higher-paid, and in this case skilled, workers are precisely the mass social base which the Tory Party had so laboriously built up during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Thatcher, in other words, has not succeeded in historically winning new layers to the Tory Party; she has simply reactivated the absolute core of its old mass base. This fact is confirmed by the geographical areas of support we looked at earlier.

Tory failures

The reality of the continuing social erosion of Conservative Party support shows up still more clearly if we now turn from those areas where Thatcher has succeeded in conjuncturally reversing the situation to those where she has had no success whatever. By far the most important of these is among women voters - indeed, about four-fifths of the decline of the Tory Party vote since 1955 can be explained by loss of Conservative votes among women. From 8 percent more women than men voting Conservative in 1955 the difference fell to 5 per cent in 1964, 2 per cent in February 1974, 0 per cent in 1979 and actually 3 per cent fewer women than men voting Conservative in 1983, according to Gallup polls.

Other studies, for example MORI and Harris polls, still show more women than men voting Tory in 1983. All of them, however, show a declining Conservative vote among women compared to men.
These studies on the sexual composition of the vote correlate with those on its social composition. In the 1971 census women comprised only 14 per cent of skilled manual workers, but 39 percent of professional workers, 44 per cent of semi-skilled and unskilled manual workers, and 71 per cent of clerical workers. The studies showing declining Conservative support among professional groups, unskilled workers, and clerical workers, but increasing Conservative support among skilled manual workers, therefore correlate perfectly with surveys showing the Tory vote holding up far better among men than among women.

A similar trend exists among black workers - also heavily concentrated in layers other than skilled manual. All studies show that up to 1979 85-90 per cent of black people voted for the Labour Party - we do not yet have figures for 1983. Moreover, a survey carried out for the Commission for Racial Equality found an increasing trend in the 1970s for black people to mobilise themselves electorally against the Conservative Party. In 1979 the South East constituency with the lowest swing to the Tories was the Asian stronghold of Southall - with a swing to the Tories of only 0.8 percent compared to an average in London of 6.4 per cent. In England two seats with large numbers of black voters - Bradford West and Leicester South - actually swung in favour of the Labour Party in 1979. While the average swing to the Tories in Birmingham in 1979 was 6.7 per cent, in the four constituencies with over 10 per cent of black voters the average swing was only 3.0 per cent.

Finally, the most increasingly anti-Tory of all groups, as one would expect, is the unemployed. Here a particularly clear view of the political effects of areas of high unemployment can be gained from the fortunate coincidence that the 1981 census followed fairly rapidly after the 1979 election. This allows a constituency-by-constituency study to be made. The pattern is clear. Only 8 out of the 100 constituencies in Britain with the highest unemployment in 1979 were in Southern England, i.e. in the heartland dominated by the Tory Party. In contrast, all 100 of the constituencies with the lowest rate of unemployment were in the Conservative-controlled South East. The 10 seats in Britain with the highest rate of unemployment averaged a 60 per cent Labour vote in 1979 compared to a 38 per cent average in Britain as a whole. In the same year Labour held 95 out of the 100 seats with the highest levels of unemployment and 166 out of the 200 with the highest levels. Opinion poll studies show that the Tory vote among the unemployed fell by 10 per cent in 1983 - the greatest fall for any social group.

Other layers among which the Tory Party has seen a significant decline in its support are council tenants (Labour led the Conservatives by 27 per cent in 1983), and pensioners (in 1983 the Tory vote fell by 3 per cent - the largest for any age group).These Tory falls in the vote among the unemployed, blacks, council house tenants, and those dependent on state benefits of course help explain the particularly sharp fall in support for the Tory Party in the big cities which we noted in the last chapter.

Finally, we can also see how socially as well as geographically the Tory Party continues to break at its weak links. Thatcher has revitalised the old core of the Tory vote geographically and socially and done great damage to the Labour Party. But she has not been able to arrest the underlying social trends of decline in Tory support. The long decline of the Tory vote we started the book with is precisely the underlying break-up of the social alliances on which the old Conservative supremacy was based. Thatcher has been unable to halt this progressive erosion of the Tory bloc "from the edges".

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