Conservative Home
Conservative Future

« Majority Conservatism: Five ideas for Cameron - 5) Work some magic on Merlin | Main | Max Wind-Cowie: We will win ethnic minority votes by backing outsiders - and learning from Boris »

Sunder Katwala: The Future Majority challenge to the Conservatives

Sunder Katwala is the Director of British Future. Follow Sunder on Twitter.

The challenge of change

Screen shot 2013-06-16 at 20.11.43Talk to backbench MPs across the party divide and a common theme emerges: a pessimism shared across the red and blue tribes that their party will secure a majority government at the next General Election.

The energy is with those who do not aspire to govern. The mainstream party leaders struggle to find any attractive explanation of the offer they can make to voters - namely, that, with a deficit to pay down, governments will have to spend less, and cut services without being able to afford large tax giveaways. There is a further, perhaps underestimated, factor: that politics is struggling to adapt to a changing electorate.

The 36.1% won by the Conservatives at the 2010 general election was not quite the lowest ‘winning’ score at a post-1945 election: Labour won a majority five years earlier on just 35.3% of the vote. Even aiming for 40% of the vote sounds to many like wishing for the moon on a stick. Though both major parties cherish fading memories of more dominant times – the hat-tricks of election victories won by Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, respectively – they were won in a Britain which was strikingly different from that which will go to the polls in 2015.  That leaves the two parties without any clear road-map for a future majority strategy.


The Conservatives received a wake-up call about the dangers of getting on the wrong side of demographic change from the experience of their U.S Republican cousins last year. Mitt Romney went into the final fortnight of the election believing he could still be President. His campaign resonated in red state America. Indeed, nationwide Romney won six out of ten white votes, outperforming any recent Republican Presidential candidate with that demographic.  Six out of ten white voters amounted to 53% of the electorate in 1992: a knock-out blow. In November 2012, it could not compensate for the Republican failure with minorities, particularly Hispanic voters. America had changed, and the Republicans had not.

This was not inevitable: George W Bush had made impressive inroads into the Hispanic vote, but his party had thrown that work away, while going backwards with women voters, first-time voters and college graduates too. The success of the Canadian Conservatives in breaking the liberal dominance of minority votes, and of Boris Johnson winning twice in London, offer counterpoints to the Republican nightmare.

The Conservatives won 16% of non-white votes in 2010, compared to 36% of white voters. As an authoritative forthcoming Oxford University Press book by Anthony Heath and his colleagues will set out, these differences are more often in spite of income and social class, not because of it.  The scale of this challenge is not yet at U.S levels, but given that Britain under 18 is considerably more diverse than the current electorate, it will become increasingly unlikely at each election there will be a future Conservative majority government without making considerable progress among ethnic minority voters. Moreover, such an outcome is in the national interest too: these voters are disadvantaged if one party believes they could be taken for granted, and the others that they are out-of-reach, so the convergence of majority and minority voting patterns over time should be seen as a positive indicator of integration.


There has often been a practical confusion between engaging with faith and ethnicity.The elusiveness of so-called "ethnic communities" has seen religious leaders engaged as often poor proxies for them. It would make more sense to engage the leaders and followers of both Christian and minority faiths on their merits. The 2011 census showed Britain becoming more secular, but at the same time, faith groups have an increasing share of civic mobilisation and activism. Parties might need to articulate both the scope and limits of faith in politics more explicitly, though a British aversion to US-style culture wars continues to unite most believers and non-believers.


But demographic change is about much more than Britain’s growing ethnic diversity. Age could be emerging as significant a cleavage as political class, on some issues at least.  The generational pattern of UKIP support is striking. In one Survation poll last month, UKIP was the fifth most popular party among the under-24s, with 7%, but the first choice of the over-65s on 33%. 

There is a possible political trap here between the short-term power of older voters – more numerous and more likely to vote – and getting on the wrong side of the electorate of the future. The European Elections of 2014 – like the US mid-term elections – will be fought with a smaller and different electorate: considerably older, whiter and more Eurosceptic than those who go to the polls eleven months later.  Ipsos-Mori’s in-depth research into generational attitude shifts suggest that these will present long-term opportunities and threats to both left and right: younger voters are strikingly more socially liberal, and less collectivist, being more relaxed about gay marriage, diversity and immigration, and more sceptical about state welfare provision and taxation too. 

Seeking young votes or old votes, still less ethnic minority or white votes, will be a dead-end. The challenge for major parties in building a winning electoral coalition will be to address majority anxieties that most people feel at a time of fast and unsettling change while offering what is currently missing: a vision of the future they are working towards. Just because parties have the technology and databases to micro-segment the electorate by social class, ethnicity, age or shopping habits, it doesn’t follow that they should; particularly when authenticity is the question-mark about the parties for many voters. 

That will also mean being clear about where and when they cannot indulge a ‘party of no’ impossibilism, which appeals strongly to a sociologically declining minority. A party like UKIP hoping to break-through with 10 per cent of the vote can afford to indulge more rejectionist views – like the one in four whose immigration preference is to ‘shut the borders’ - but the major parties will have to, instead of making impossible promises, seek majority consent for things they could actually do.


What makes gauging these balances more difficult, especially in a hung Parliament, is that each party’s internal debate lacks voices to speak up for the parts of the country, and the electorate, that the party does not represent, but needs to win. Labour has more MPs from Yorkshire than the English south; while every Conservative MP will know friends and family who are taken by Nigel Farage, but may be less often in touch with attitudes in big cities, like Manchester, Leeds or Birmingham, where a majority party would need at least a foothold.

Winning amidst change

If the Conservative party often seems to face particularly stark challenges from changing demography, historians may note how often the Party has been here before. The Conservative tradition may be dispositionally reluctant to accelerate change, yet it has shown a talent for adapting to it. Indeed, this challenge of political statecraft is foundational to enabling a conservative politics to endure over time. 

That the Conservatives were the dominant electoral force across the twentieth century, after the mass enfranchisement in 1918, would have surprised Lord Salisbury, whose strategy was to delay the extension of the vote to the unpropertied for as long as was possible. His pessimism about the consequences for property of democracy, which he regarded as a "‘dangerous and irrational creed by which two day labourers shall outvote Baron Rothschild’ proved unfounded - as Baldwin, Macmillan, and Thatcher, in turn constructed cross-class coalitions which made them the dominant figures of their era.  The Conservatives proved clear net beneficiaries of the enfranchisement of women too, winning greater support among women than men from 1918 until the late 1990s.

However, the reversal of that gender gap more recently, and the experience of dispossession of the Scottish Unionists, from being the only party to ever win a majority of both Scottish votes and seats in the 1950s, to being marginalised by Labour and then the Scottish nationalists within a couple of generations, shows too the stark, kaleidoscope-shifting political effects of social change when parties fail to respond or adapt.

The central lesson from history is that there is no political determinism in demographic change. Previous predictions have often quickly shown their date – from the sociological tracts asking ‘Must Labour lose?’ in the 1950s and 1980s to the obituaries for the Tory party after 1997 - or breathless dispatches from the Rose Garden about a Cameron-Clegg permanent realignment.

Demographic change shifts the social and political context in which leaders make decisions – but it is how parties respond that makes the decisive difference.  Facing short-term pressures to hunker down and secure their base, at least, each side of the political spectrum currently finds it easier to articulate the barriers than the opportunities. The real questions may be less whether to modernise or not, but about the range of different paths that attempts to build broader support might take.

Nobody in 2013 can guess which party might show the political imagination to craft a future majority.  That leaves the future of British politics unusually up for grabs.


You must be logged in using Intense Debate, Wordpress, Twitter or Facebook to comment.