Michael Dowsett: The Conservatives’ class quandary
A combination of Britain’s changing demographics and persistent differentials in voter turnout between social classes threatens, if unaddressed, to make the Conservatives’ ambition to form a majority government in 2015 even more unrealistic than at present. Popular commentary in the past year has focused on the Party’s difficulty in winning the support of aspirational C2 voters, as well as the difficulty in winning larger numbers of ethnic minority voters over to the Conservatives.
However, alongside these challenges must now sit the problems the Conservatives face in winning over Britain’s higher-income voters: the middle-class voters in the AB social class who now comprise nearly a third of the electorate. Between the 2005 and 2010 general elections, the proportion of UK voters belonging to these classes rose by over 3%. Relative declines in the preponderance of voters in the C1, C2 and DE social classes meant that AB voters formed a plurality of all voters at the last general election.
At first glance, the growing electoral influence of this section of the middle-class should be good news for the Conservatives. However, despite winning 56% of the AB vote in 1992, the last year the Party won a majority, Conservative support amongst these voters declined by 19% over the next three general elections, and only slightly recovered in 2010. Furthermore, the Conservative share of the vote amongst female AB voters has now fallen in each of the last four general elections.
This development, if sustained in the run-up to the next general election, represents a clear and present danger to the Conservatives winning a majority in 2015. The Conservative strategy for the next election is increasingly dependent on winning large numbers of Parliamentary seats, and middle-class voters, from the Liberal Democrats. However, even if these gains were to materialise, they could be cancelled out by Conservative losses to Labour in ‘blue-red’ marginal seats located in middle-class suburban areas. Such a scenario would make the prospects of David Cameron continuing as Prime Minister after 2015 very dim indeed.
The trends observed in the political loyalties of AB voters over the last two decades have been underpinned by a shift in the attitudes of these voters on a variety of political issues. As this social class has grown in number and importance, the concerns of AB voters have shifted towards quality of life issues, particularly issues related to the public services. An October 2012 polling exercise conducted by YouGov for the centre-left magazine Progress even found greater support amongst AB voters for raising income tax to protect spending on public services than that expressed by the average voter.
Further evidence supporting this theme can be discerned through an examination of the importance which AB voters ascribe to several public policy areas, compared to the average voter. According to polling carried out by Ipsos-MORI since 2010, AB voters, like all voters, cite the economic situation as the most important issue facing the country. However, AB voters are more likely to cite the NHS or education as an important issue for the country, along with concerns related to poverty and inequality. Meanwhile, the polling also shows that AB voters are less likely than the average voter to identify crime, immigration or taxation as an important issue for the United Kingdom.
This polling is in one sense heartening for the Conservatives given their current lead over Labour on the issue of the economy amongst middle-class voters. As such, achieving a sustained economic recovery prior to 2015 can be expected to boost the Party’s popularity amongst these voters, as well as the electorate as a whole. The electorate’s assessment of the Conservative’s performance on education and schools is also encouraging, with the Party consistently either tied with or leading Labour on this issue. This is particularly welcome given the double-digit leads which Labour held on education during Tony Blair’s time as Prime Minister, and also suggests that legislative radicalism in a traditionally Labour policy area does not necessarily present an obstacle to the Conservatives polling well on the issue in question.
The biggest issue prohibiting the Conservatives from significantly rebuilding their support amongst middle-class voters is the NHS, with Labour’s lead on the issue remaining large since long-before the last general election. In the past, the Conservatives may have been able to discount such leads in preference for focusing on other issues where they are more competitive with Labour. However, the high priority which the growing number of AB voters ascribe to the NHS could lead to the Party unnecessarily sacrificing electoral support going forward should they fail to engage effectively with voters’ concerns on this important issue.
In summary, the Conservatives face a tough test to build the broad electoral coalition through which they can win a majority in 2015 or at other future elections. Perhaps ironically, given the Conservatives’ reputation in some quarters for being the ‘party of the rich’, re-engaging with higher-income voters is a key part of the work which needs to be conducted in the future. The challenge for the Party will be to reconcile their traditional pitch to voters with engaging messages on schools and hospitals and, of course, maintaining a robust lead on the economy.
Whilst crafting a coherent offering to the country on this basis may be difficult, it offers significant electoral rewards for the Conservatives, and puts the Party’s first majority election victory firmly back in sight.
To read the full paper, ‘Rising to the challenge: middle-class voters and the Conservative Party’ by Michael Dowsett, please click here.