Tuesday, June 08, 2010

So where have the Conservatives failed to recover?

With the dust of the general election now settled, attention is turning in so many quarters to analysing where each party succeeded and failed. Invariably there has been a lot of different interpretations and arguments, with some based on false assumptions about the actual breakdown of the party's vote base. But there are some studies out there if people know where to look.

Over on LabourList Declan Gaffney has written Immigration and the leadership debate: Time for a reality check which addresses the question of how strong the Labour vote has been amongst the various social groups over recent elections, using figures from Mori. It is rare to find insight on Conservative electoral problems on a Labour blog, but the following caught my eye:
The main reason Labour didn't do even worse in terms of the popular vote in May 2010 is that the Conservatives failed yet again to make a breakthrough among more affluent demographics. It is worth reminding ourselves of how catastrophic 1997 was for the Tories' relationship with what had previously been the bedrock of their support. In 1992, they held 54% of votes in the ABC1 demographics; in 1997 this was down to 39%, which is also the share they won in 2010. The Conservatives have never recovered from their loss of better-off voters in 1997. But they have regained the share of low income voters they held in 1992.
There has been an ongoing mini-realignment away from the traditional class based voting over the past few decades which has seen the middle classes slowly swing leftwards whilst other social groups swing to the right - it's often forgotten that in the 1980s Thatcherism was repelling chunks of the traditional Conservative vote base (some, but not all, public sector professionals) even as it was attracting in others.

The main historic data set can be found at Ipso Mori: How Britain Voted Since October 1974 and the 2010 data is at How Britain Voted in 2010.

Looking at this data shows some interesting conclusions about the three main categories used and how each is voting.

Amongst "Semi/unskilled working class (DE)", the Conservatives polled 31%, the same share as in 1992 and higher than anything since. That share crashed to 21% in 1997 but rose to 24% in 2001 and then 25% in 2005. Under Thatcher the Conservatives had polled 34%, 33% and 30% successively. Labour still led amongst the DEs in 2010 with 40%, the lowest share in at least 36 years (and probably a lot longer). The Liberal Democrats polled 17%, slightly down on the 18% in 2005. Historically they've bobbed between 13% and 24% over the period.

Amongst "Skilled working class (C2)", the Conservatives polled 37%, the highest since 1992, whilst Labour polled 29%, the lowest in the 36 year period. The Lib Dems polled 22%, the same as in 1987, and only polled higher in 1983. Looking over the past elections the Conservatives made a major advance here in 1979, drawing level with Labour and then leading or levelling for the next three elections. There was a crash in 1997 with the Labour lead jumping to 23%, but the Conservatives have steadily advanced since from 27% to 29% to 33% to 37%, whilst Labour declined from 50% to 49% to 40% to 29%, and on this occasion the Conservatives took the lead. But it is a lead that has built up over time.

But it's amongst "Middle class (ABC1)", that the figures tell a different story. The Conservatives polled 39% in 2010 - the same as in 1997. And the long term figures show a big change. The Conservatives went from getting consistently in the mid 50s from 1974 until 1992, then crashed to 39% in 1997. But the worst followed, dropping to 38% in 2001 and 37% in 2005. Meanwhile Labour may have got only 27% of ABC1 in 2010, but that's still a better score for them than anything from before the Blair era. Labour polled between 16% and 24% between 1974 and 1992, then jumped to 34% in 1997 and held the same in 2001. In 2005 it slipped to 30% and then dropped to 27% this time. The beneficiaries in all this have been the Liberal Democrats who got 26%, their joint highest since 1983. Back then they polled 28% but declined steadily to 26% to 21% to 20% by 1997, only to see a turn of fortunes with 22% in 2001 and 26% in 2005. This time round they may not have advanced but they didn't fall back.

The small growth in votes for "others" slightly distorts things but the overall figures show that amongst both the C2s and DEs the Conservatives have basically recovered to their 1992 position. For those who want a stunning but true quote try "David Cameron did better amongst the DEs than Margaret Thatcher in her final election."

It's the complete failure to recover the lost ground amongst the ABC1s that remains the Conservatives' biggest stumbling ground. Whilst there was some advance amidst Labour's fall, it was only a small amount. The best that can be said is that the bleeding has been stemmed and more ground has not been lost, which is an improvement on the outcome of the Hague and Howard strategies. Indeed these figures suggest that a hard-line campaign like those fought in 2001 & 2005 would have just continued the Conservative decline here. But there has been a realignment to the benefit of both Labour and the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives need to find ways of either overturning this effect or compensating for it with more advances amongst the C2s and DEs.

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