Who's voting Conservative?

Monday, December 19, 2016
Gideon Skinner


With less than two years to go until the next general election, now is the ideal time to pose the question: if the Conservative Party is a broad church, who is their congregation?

By combining all the monthly Political Monitors from April 2012 (post the “omnishambles” budget which has proved one of the few really defining political events since the election) to March 2013, we have a large data set of around 12,000 interviews to provide at least some of the answers.   But as well as painting the current picture, it is important to ask how this has changed since 2010 (and earlier).  Nationally the Conservative vote has fallen from 37% to 31% since the 2010 election, but has the fall happened among all groups or is there a particular type of voter that the Conservatives are losing?

In fact, the broad outlines of Conservative support will be readily recognisable.  It is concentrated among older voters, the middle classes, and in the most affluent areas (particularly in the South outside London and in the Midlands).  Conservative support rises steadily by age from 26% of 1824s to 37% of the over 65s, and from 25% among social grade DE (semi/ unskilled working class and those on state benefits) to 35% among the professional/managerial class AB.  There are, incidentally advantages to this lead among older (and more middle-class) voters as they are significantly more likely to turn out – but in the long-term this may cause more problems. 

Our data though allows us to dig into this in a little more detail.  Take the interplay between gender and social class, for example.  While our figures do not support the rather crude argument than women overall have been turning away from the Conservative Party since 2010 (there is a much longer-term pattern of falling Conservative support among women since the 1970s, but actually the most damage was done under Tony Blair – since the last election the fall in support has been exactly the same among both genders), there are clear signs of a problem among women in social class C2 (blue-collar/skilled workers, to use a rough generalisation).  In 2010, the Conservatives successfully appealed very strongly to this group – in fact, at 41%, better even than among middleclass women, for the first time in very many years.  But since that admittedly unusual high Conservative support has fallen by 12 points among this group, more than any other. Taking the long view also illustrates another point about the breakdown in class voting over the years – in 1992, the Conservatives held a 37 point lead over Labour among ABs, but in the last year this stands at a Labour lead of three.  

Other fault-lines also still hold true.  Conservative support stands at just 16% among BME voters, whilst seven in ten say they would vote Labour.  Much research has shown, despite many ethnic minorities holding ideological positions on some issues such as tax and spend closer to the Conservative end of the spectrum, the historical image of the parties in the eyes of ethnic minorities is very hard to shift (and of course the census shows that the country is becoming more diverse).  Although again the change since 2010 is useful to bear in mind – the Conservative share among BME voters since then has not got any worse, but it has fallen by six points among white voters. 

The Conservatives are also a party of England – a distant third in Scotland and ten points behind Labour in Wales – and more specifically, a party of the South and Midlands while being around twenty points behind Labour in London and the North.  Between them the South East, South West, and East of England make up 41% on the Conservatives support (and only 24% of Labour’s).  Yet the drop in Conservative support has been pretty much the same everywhere – the Conservatives haven’t lost in any one region more than another.

Similarly, Conservative support is far behind Labour in major cities (defined as those with at least two MPs) where the party only attracts 27% of the vote, compared to rural areas where the Conservatives have a six-point lead.  Meanwhile their share is twice as high in the most affluent areas as it is in the most deprived.  Again, though, the fall in Conservative support has been pretty equal across areas of different wealth, while even though in absolute terms the Conservatives still do best in rural areas, their vote has actually fallen more in the countryside than it has in the cities.

Finally, we can’t forget the recent rise of UKIP.  While for much of 2012, the Conservatives were losing voters to Labour and UKIP in roughly equal proportions, since the turn of the year the rise in UKIP’s support has come particularly from an increase in Conservative defections, with around one in seven 2010 Conservative voters in the last few months now saying they will support Nigel Farage’s party.  UKIP supporters more generally are driven by high levels of dissatisfaction with the Coalition government and all the main party leaders – can the Conservatives turn this around?

So what does all this mean?  First of all, we could point out that Labour suffers from the mirror image of many of these issues – their biggest swings are among young people who are least likely to vote, a quarter of their support coming from public sector workers, difficulties breaking into the South East outside London.  That does not take away from the clear challenges facing the Conservatives to broaden their support amongst the young, urbanites, working classes, in the North, and ethnic minorities.

The key lesson, though, comes when we look at the change since the last election, which actually shows a pretty consistent picture across all groups, more so than the current focus on the rise of UKIP would suggest.  The Conservatives have been losing support among all ages, regions and classes – there is no single “silver bullet” demographic who, if they could be brought back into the fold, would solve all of the party’s problems.  Floating voters can be found among all these groups, and further will have many of the same priorities as anyone else – the economy, unemployment, public services, immigration.  While the Conservatives do still hold a lead over Labour on some – but not all - of these issues, this is more to do with Labour’s difficulty reconnecting with the public rather than any great satisfaction with the record of the current government.  And history shows the task is even more daunting – no government for many years has been able to increase its share of the vote from one election to another.  

One final thought: it may be as much worthwhile considering the where of the Conservative vote as much as the who.  One of the key reasons behind the so-called ‘bias’ in the electoral system towards Labour is that actually its votes are much more efficiently spread out that the Conservatives, as Labour wins more seats on a lower share of the vote because the anti-Labour vote in those constituencies is more split (between the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives) than the anti-Tory vote in Conservative seats.  A focus on maximising the efficiency of the Conservative vote, in tandem with increasing its support among swing voters of all shapes and sizes, could be crucial.

This article was originally published in Crossbow, the Bow Group Magazine - Conference 2013. Published online 19/12/2016