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17 Jun 2013 07:49:26

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.

10 May 2013 08:27:21

Majority Conservatism: Five ideas for Cameron - 5) Work some magic on Merlin

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By Paul Goodman
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In the Grummidge West office of my political hero, J Alfred Prufrock MP, are a series of computer programmes, each one more elaborate and expensive than the last. All of them are named after figures from the Arthurian legends - BEAUMAINS, EXCALIBUR, GUINEVERE, MORDRED, etc.  None of them work.  And all of them were purchased at the insistence of CCHQ.

They whirr, stutter, malfunction, chew up canvass cards, lose invaluable information in the wastelands of cyberspace, spontaneously shut down - and explode, endangering the heath and safety of Prufrock's employees (Mrs Prufrock) and occasionally blowing the roof off the consituency office.  There is a lot of desperate shouting down the phone from the CCHQ helpline along the general lines of "Put EXCALIBUR into GUINEVERE" and "Plug MORDRED into BEAUMAINS", and so on.

There is obviously no resemblance whatsoever between this cautionary tale and the real-life Merlin computer system. None the less, the Express has quoted party activists as describing it as  "rubbish", "absolutely bloody useless" and "totally hopeless", Harry Phibbs referred recently to its problems on this site, and the Times (£) has described its failures during the Eastleigh by-election.  The company which owns the system is allegedly bust, and CCHQ is having to patch up its problems in-house.

It may seem like small beer to write about a computer system in the aftermath of four other pieces about Cabinet organisation, marriage tax policy, the Whips' Office and utility rip-offs, but canvassing is ineffective if there are no proper canvass cards (for example).  Grant Shapps is well-aware of the problem, but David Cameron should also be taking an interest.

9 May 2013 07:30:20

Majority Conservatism: Five ideas for Cameron: 4) Take up John Penrose's plan to combat rip-off utilities

By Paul Goodman
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Penrose JohnLower earners are being hit by rising energy costs, as are those who aren't earning at all - such as retired people on modest incomes whose savings are getting little return. Unemployment carries a heavy human cost with it, especially in times of low growth and diminished opportunity.  But inflation can also drive fear and anxiety: prices have been rising more rapidly than some would expect, given our recent low-growth economy.  The price of filling up a car or paying a quarterly utility bill is a driver of resentment among those hard-pressed voters who David Cameron needs to win back if he's to stand a chance of winning in 2015.

John Penrose outlined on this site yesterday his proposals to combat the rises in gas, electricity and water bills.  His plans can be read in full in his paper "We Deserve Better", but the outline is clear enough: the replacement of the specialist Big Regulators (Ofgem, Ofwat, Ofcom) by Big Consumers (armed with more choice and information by more consumer-responsive regulators, such as Office of Fair Trading and Competition Commission) - and an overhaul of the bodies that represent those consumers.  Tony Lodge of the Centre for Policy Studies has also called for more transparency and liquidity in the system.

The exemplar of how to run an energy costs-related campaign is Robert Halfon, whose lobbying against fuel duty rises has been one of the biggest successes of this Parliament.  Rises or falls or freezes in fuel duty are easy to understand.  Reforming the architecture of utility regulation to help the consumer, as Penrose proposes, is a more gradualist business - sincethe utilities don't always have a lot in common other than being state-owned.  But action is important and the Government is short of time.  Lodge's proposal to delay the carbon price floor is clearer-cut, but Clegg and company would presumably block it. A good subject for a Tory backbench bill, though.

8 May 2013 07:52:47

Majority Conservatism: Five ideas for Cameron: 3) Promote Whips

By Paul Goodman
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Screen shot 2013-05-08 at 07.50.48Lord Lawson writes an article - and Conservative MPs take to the studios and airwaves and newspapers. John Redwood. Bernard Jenkin. Jacob Rees Mogg (who this morning becomes the first Tory MP to write in favour of a Conservative-UKIP pact).  As far as the EU is concerned, this is scarcely new.  In some ways, it is a healthy sign: political parties must be able openly to debate matters of national importance.

It is also an indication of the powerlessness of the Whips' Office - at least when Europe is concerned. More broadly, the rise of the constituency champion backbencher (Sarah Wollaston is the classic illustration, but there are many quieter versions) has also weakened their authority.  No wonder three Tory MPs - Dominic Raab, Ben Wallace and Rob Wilson - were reported to have turned down Whips Office jobs in the last shuffle. Why join a declining institution?

Some will rejoice at the weakening of the Whips Office.  But Parliament means party (to try to disinvent party is like trying to disinvent the wheel).  And party means whips: as Enoch Powell once suggested, Parliament needs whips - just as house needs sewers.  David Cameron should have made strengthening the Whips Office.  Instead, his reshuffle decisions have actually helped to weaken it.

At the last reshuffle, several whips left for the backbenches - James Duddridge, Bill Wiggin and Shailesh Vara among them.  It may be that some of those who did so were happy to leave the Government.  But for a Prime Minister not to promote his Whips is bad party management - especially when his powers of patronage are now so weak.  He should be using the Whips Office as a powerhouse for talent - and promotion.

7 May 2013 06:46:12

Five ideas for Cameron: 2) Transferable Tax Allowances Now

By Paul Goodman
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FAMILYDavid Cameron told Conservative MPs in the aftermath of the disastrous Tory Commons split over the Same-Sex Marriage Bill that the row would be forgotten by 2015.  The Prime Minister had a point, in that very few people will allow gay marriage to decide their vote in two years' time.  But it making it, he missed a bigger one.  For many older voters, the same sex marriage bill is one part of a bigger picture, like a collage on a teenager's wall - together with such other items as wind farms, Abu Qatada, Eton, overseas aid, rip-off utlities and MPs' expenses.  It is a blow to their deepest values - or prejudices, if you prefer.

The bill certainly wasn't forgotten when voters went to the polls last week - Conservative MPs I've spoken to say it was a factor on the doorstep - and the Prime Minister will be lucky if it is in two year's time.  Gerald Howarth has called for the bill to be withdrawn, and given the bill's lack of legitimacy I agree with him.  Indeed, my response to it has been to cut the money I give to the party this year. But I must be objective, and add that, in narrow political terms, withdrawing the bill would do Cameron no political good.  The gesture would simply leave him looking weak. The Ministers and MPs who backed it only because he did would rage at marching loyally towards the sound of gunfire...only to find on looking round that their commanding officers had deserted the field

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6 May 2013 07:50:00

Five ideas for Cameron: 1) He needs an Inner Cabinet. With Graham Brady in it.

CameronCleggBrady 7
By Paul Goodman

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Sue Cameron recently wrote that a four-foot long extension has been fitted on to the Cabinet table, in order to accommodate the 32 Ministers entitled to sit at it.  The detail encapsulated the abandonment not of Cabinet Government - that went a long time ago - but of the pretence of Cabinet Government.

No-one claims that important decisions in David Cameron's Government are usually made by the Cabinet.  But if the Cabinet is too big to be an effective one, the body that often substitutes for it is too small - the four-member Quad, in which Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are evenly represented, in arithmetical defiance of the balance of numbers in the Commons.

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27 Mar 2013 06:43:24

Jesse Norman MP: We need a 2015 manifesto that is short, engaging, clear and focused

Jesse Norman is the Member of Parliament for Hereford and South Herefordshire. Follow Jesse on Twitter.

What should the 2015 Conservative manifesto look like?  I discussed this question at ConHome’s recent Victory 2015 conference.  Of course there’s little use in trying to write a detailed manifesto now, more than two years before the election. But there’s every reason to ask the broader question of what the point of a manifesto is: what it should be trying to achieve, and why.

Official party manifestos are a relatively recent innovation.  When, at the dawn of the Conservative party, Sir Robert Peel published the Tamworth manifesto in 1834, it was a general statement of principles from him as leader, not a party document.  It was not until the general election of 1950 that the Conservatives issued a party manifesto as such.  Even then the document made few if any specific commitments, though its overall thrust was clear.

The past two decades have seen a calamitous fall in public trust in politicians, and a huge rise in interest group politics. Together, these factors have had the effect of lengthening manifestos and encouraging the political parties to pack them full of detailed promises.  Fail to mention some issue, and your inbox will be full the following day.  Offer a long, serious and thoughtful discussion of the issues, as we did in 2010, and it can be hard to break through to voters.  

The result has been a vicious circle, in which any deviation from a party’s manifesto in office is treated by the media as a betrayal, further fuelling voter distrust.  On the other hand, a vast array of undertakings in the small print of a winning manifesto thereby gain special legislative status in the House of Lords under the Salisbury-Addison convention - even when they have had no coverage or prominence in a general election and therefore lack any real mandate.  It is no surprise that few people seem to believe political promises anymore anyway.

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22 Mar 2013 15:30:44

Kevin Culwick: The Tory challenge amongst minority voters

Culwick KevinKevin Culwick is Director of Lord Ashcroft Polls. This is a summary of the presentation he gave to ConHome's Victory 2015 Conference on 9th March.

Last year Lord Ashcroft published Degrees of Separation, the biggest ever survey among ethnic minority voters about politics in general and the Conservative Party in particular. At the ConHome Victory 2015 conference I highlighted some of the findings in my introduction to the session optimistically titled ‘How To Win Among Ethnic Minorities’.

The research found that 45% of black voters, 35% of Muslims, 26% of Sikhs and 19% of Hindus said they would never vote Conservative. It also identified the views about the party that tended to accompany this answer – the main barriers between ethnic minority voters and the idea of voting Tory.

The view that the Conservatives do not stand for fairness was the single most important factor for Hindu and Sikh voters who would not vote for the party. This is the familiar brand problem, with which we have become wearily familiar, of the Tories seeming to be for the better off not ordinary people. However, more than half of ethnic minority voters also felt that Conservative policies had shown they were hostile to people from different ethnic and religious backgrounds. People felt their communities had lost out disproportionately as a result of Tory policies, and even if this hadn’t been the party’s intention, it didn’t seem to mind very much that it was the result.

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21 Mar 2013 04:42:09

Martin Callanan MEP: We need fewer husky rides and more hard-nosed policies that will help people to get on

CallananMartin Callanan MEP is Chairman of the European Conservatives. This is the text of the talk he gave to ConHome's Victory 2015 Conference on 9th March. Follow the ECR Group on Twitter.

The ConservativeHome conference was an excellent initiative by Tim, Paul, and the team. Being one of only three elected parliamentarians from the North East region, I was asked to sit on a panel about 'Winning in the North', alongside Lord Bates and Stephan Shakespeare from YouGov.

The most common misperception we make is that Margaret Thatcher was hated in the north of England, and our fall in support was as a result of Thatcherism. Actually, when she was in power we had many seats in the north, and the Party represented a much better geographical spread than it does today. Ultimately, as a Geordie, my impression of people from my region is that they share very many Conservative values. They are patriotic and have pride in the country's institutions such as our Queen and our forces. They want to work hard and get on. They believe in a strong sense of community and want to see crime stamped out.

So what has gone wrong?

I think that part of the problem was the government's response following the attempts to broaden and restructure the economy of the North. We threw government money at it. As a result, we created a bulging public sector, and a culture of dependency. Don't get me wrong, the money helped in some places, but it also created a swathe of people who relied on big state spending to keep their state jobs, or to maintain their benefits payments.

Continue reading "Martin Callanan MEP: We need fewer husky rides and more hard-nosed policies that will help people to get on" »

20 Mar 2013 06:25:11

Matthew Elliott: What kind of machine do political parties need to win elections in the present age?

Matthew Elliott is Founder of the TaxPayers' Alliance and Big Brother Watch, former Campaign Director of NOtoAV, and Chief Executive of Business for Britain, which will launch shortly. This is the text of the talk he gave to ConHome's Victory 2015 Conference on 9th March. Follow Matthew on Twitter.


At ConservativeHome's Victory 2015 conference earlier this month,Grant Shapps explained how he was elected as MP for Welwyn Hatfield in 2005 through effective on the ground campaigning. This was a useful reminder that however much we marvel at the technical wizardry of digital campaigning or the sophistication of Big Data, the most effective way to win someone's vote is for the candidate or someone known to the voter to ask for it in person. Since it is practically impossible for a candidate to speak to every constituent ahead of Election Day, an effective party machine is necessary to win elections. But with the decline of mass membership political parties in the UK, where are the volunteers? Who will deliver the leaflets?

How can canvassing be done? The party that addresses this problem most effectively will be the one that wins a close election.

I remember William Hague saying in 1997 that he wanted the Conservatives to have a million members by the Millennium. At that point, Party membership was about 400,000. Today, some estimates put it as low as 130,000. The fact that the other parties have faced a similar collapse in membership is of little comfort, particularly since the Labour Party can also draw on Union support. The good news is that, whilst the Party might not have the millions of members it had in the immediate post war period, millions of people are involved in third party groups which share aspects of the Party's agenda.

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