Tuesday, 22 December 2009

The real trend of Tory support - by John Ross

Iain Dale in his Tory diary recently asked the question why the Conservatives are having worse results in actual elections than in opinion polls - seeking an explanation from his readers. As Iain Dale put it:

‘Jonathan Isaby has posted last night's local election results on Conservative Home and described them as "disappointing". Indeed. OK, you might think, what do the results of a few council by-elections matter? And in some ways you'd be right. But these results are not isolated. There have been many similar results over the last few weeks. Invariably, Conservative vote shares are down and the party seems to be losing more seats in by-elections than it gains. Clearly, there can be peculiar local circumstances at play, but in seats like Wyre Forest, Tavistock and Weymouth & Portland (all parliamentary marginals), the Conservative should be gaining seats not losing them. Anyone got any light to shed?’

Others have commented on the fact that despite the extreme unpopularity of measures taken by the government in the last year, and Labour’s collapse in the polls, the Conservatives have been unable to raise their level of support, even in opinion polls, above the low 40 percents level -when at similar periods of extreme unpopularity of a Tory government Labour stood at 48% or even higher.

To aid Iain Dale, even although he won’t like the answer, Figure 1 below shows the Tory party percentage of the vote at every general election since 1931. The voting trend evidently shows a party in long run and unambiguous decline in support.

Figure 1

Naturally in the short run, which in these terms is a five to ten year period, the Tory vote swings around from defeat to victory, but the overall trend is unambiguously downwards. In particular, with the exception of the immediate post-World War II period, when the Tory Party vote was particularly depressed due the massive defeat of 1945, each Conservative victory was secured on a lower proportion of the vote than previously.

Taking Tory victories after the immediate post-World War II period the Conservative percentage of the vote was 49.6% in 1955, 49.4% in 1959, 46.4%, in 1970, 43.9% in 1979, 42.4%, in 1983, 42.2% in 1987, and 41.9% in 1992. This trend would imply a further Tory fall, to slightly above or below 40% at an election held in 2010.

Such a vote is, of course, entirely consistent with approximately where the Tories are at present in the polls. Therefore it is important to stress that these calculations are not based on these polls and they are the results of actual elections and not surveys of opinion. Nor were they made after the event. The graph is simply updated from the author’s book Thatcher and Friend’s, the Anatomy of the Tory Party. Published in 1983 its analysis of the social bases of the decline of Tory Party support were scarcely believed by most politicians at the time with one exception. Ken Livingstone was convinced by the data and this is how the author met him.

However evidently the disintegration of Tory support, and the consigning of the party to almost a decade and a half in the political willingness after 1992, was not a surprise in such an analysis. Nor, therefore, is the current confinement of the Tory Party, in what is a good period for it, to the low 40s in the opinion polls. Such figures are not accidental, nor can they be easily reversed, but are part of the long term falling trend of Conservative social support.

It would take too much space here to analyse the full social reasons for the Tory decline. For that readers are referred to the book in which the long term social analysis, not of course the contemporary commentary, remains entirely relevant. But in essence the Tory Party was born in the rural and prosperous suburban South East, gradually expanded out of it in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and has gradually declined back into it. This explains why, of course, David Cameron as been almost totally unsuccessful in expanding the Conservatives outside their southern redoubt. It also explains why even when the Tories are ahead in the polls they are not liked by the electorate - as the latest poll in The Independent confirms again. It is simply that Labour has regrettably created a situation whereby for the electorate it is even more unpopular than the Tories.

There are, of course, direct political implications that flow from such a real trend of support - as opposed to myths. The Tory Party is not 'the wave of the future,' it is a historically declining party. In particular it is extremely difficult for the Tory Party to raise its support.

It is evident Labour does not have to worry about a surge in support for the Conservatives, nor has Thatcherism, factually, ever been popular with the electorate – the Thatcherite victories in the 1980s and 1992 were won on the lowest shares of the vote for a Conservative government in the 20th century. What Labour has to worry about is building its own support. It shows clearly why there is no popular enthusiasm for the Tory Party even when there is massive discontent with the Labour government.

Second these facts show that Labour has strategically lost no support to the Tories in the entire post-war period – the entire loss has been to the Liberal Democrats, Greens and others. The Tories have simply not proved attractive to former Labour voters whereas the Liberal Democrats and to a lesser extent the Greens have.

The analysis presented here of the trend of the underlying social decline in Tory Party support has been factually vindicated by the results in six general elections, over a 26 year period, since it was written. It continues to explain the latest opinion polls and by-election results. Its consequences are clear. The Tories, a party in long term decline, cannot by their own efforts win the general election. Labour can merely lose it. Labour need not worry about the attractiveness of Tory ideas - they have been shown by real elections not to be attractive.

What are the implications for politics? First that, as is now being realised, given the long term trend of Tory decline the general election is not a simple foregone conclusion. As the Tories cannot lift their support, due to deep seated social processes, they have to rely on Labour remaining hugely unpopular - which of course can happen. Second, even if the Tories do win the election that will not halt their historical social decline. If the Liberal Democrats enter a coalition with the Tories, as is Clegg's evident present intention, they will be tied to a party declining in support and become unpopular with them.


A few second hand copies of Thatcher and Friends, The Anatomy of the Tory Party, which contains a much more detailed historical analysis of Tory support, can still be obtained second hand on Amazon


David Cox said...

Here are the results of the 280 by-elections held during 2009:

•Tories: gained +10, lost -34. Net loss: -24 seats.
•Labour: gained +23, lost -11. Net gain: +12 seats.
•Lib Dems: gained +28, lost -11. Net gain: +17 seats.

The Tories were, of course
defending many more seats – just over half of those they contested, in fact. However as you say Tories should be gaining, not be loosing their third safest division in Cornwall or a ward in Tavistock to the Liberal Democrats; nor should they be loosing to Labour in Portland, Jim Knight's marginal seat.

Mr Banks said...

An excellent update on a long-standing analysis that has stood the test of time.

Between the 49.6% of the Tory vote in 1955, and the 41.9% of their win in 1992, there is a loss of 7.7% over 37 years. In the 18 years since then, that is, on a strictly mechanical extrapolation of that trend, the Tory share of the vote at the next election might be 38.1%.

Of course, the real world is not like that and there are always significant oscillations around any trend.

But the trend is a real, long-term one stretching back to 1931. In addition, capped at these levels, and concentrated in the South-East of England, it is possible that the Tories may struggle to form an overall majority in Parliament. The next election is not already lost.

(BTW, Abe books also has secondhand copies of Thatcher and Friends, and Bookfinder.com is always a useful place to look).

james said...

Bought a second hand copy of that book a while back and have been meaning to unearth it to give it a read - primarily because of your theory of Tory decline.

Regarding the Liberals, their problem - or rather, the problem of the party's leadership, is that a deal to prop up and win concessions from Labour would be more popular with their members and voters than backing the Tories - in the short term, at least.

So a likely outcome of the next general election would be a minority Labour government without an overall parliamentary majority - rather akin to the situation of the SNP in Scotland. Not something the bond markets would be too fond of...

bob d said...

I too would recommend the book - I read it a long time ago in the mid-80s.

I would suggest that Blairism seized the opportunity created by long-term Tory decline to build a broad social and political coalition. While I may not like all that was associated with Blairism, I hope that the centre-left can reach out again politically and socially.