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Matthew Sinclair: How to avoid the dangers of Root Canal Conservatism

Sinclair MattMatthew Sinclair is Director of The TaxPayers' Alliance. Follow Matthew on Twitter.

When I was reading Stephan Shakespeare’s fascinating recent article about people’s perceptions of “left” and “right”, some advice he once gave me about polling started to ring in my ears. If you’re trying to work out how people can be persuaded, make sure you are isolating the views of the persuadable. It is easy for the results of an aggregate poll to be dominated by those who already agree or will never agree.

In the case of this particular set of poll results I wondered whether people attached worse names to “right” than “left” because conservatives tend to be happier and therefore, particularly as they are also often older, less likely to call those they disagree with names.

Graph 1


YouGov have published the full results and I think you can see that in the data to some extent. The graph above shows that one of the principle differences is that Conservative voters in the 2010 election are more likely to have a fairly negative view of the left while left wingers are more likely to have a very negative view of the right. But, to be fair, Labour voters were also somewhat more likely to have a very or fairly positive impression of the right. To some extent the number of don’t knows suggests they were more confused by the question. I think there is actually a much stronger – and more relevant to my day job – lesson to be taken from the detailed data.

While Conservative voters (at the 2010 election) associate the right with lower taxes, Labour voters don’t; while ABC1s associate the right with lower taxes, C2DEs don’t; while people in the South associate the right with lower taxes, people in the North and the Midlands and Wales don’t. The numbers are really stark. Outside those areas and groups associated with the Conservative core vote, people don’t think the right and – assuming people do associate the Conservative Party with the right – the Conservative Party is the low tax side of the debate.

Graph 2


Graph 3Graph 4In every one of those cases, the less Conservative group is roughly as likely to associate the left with lower taxes as it is to associate them with the right. There are consistent results if you look at where people think higher taxes fall on the ideological spectrum.

Of course, one explanation of that result is that people just associate things they like with their end of the political spectrum. But that doesn’t hold on other issues in the survey where policies that the public are overwhelmingly in favour of – like limiting immigration – are associated with the right in every group.

Graph 5

Another explanation is that this is just a temporary result of a fiscal adjustment in which the Conservative Party is cutting spending and raising taxes. But I’m not so sure.

It has been twenty years since the Conservatives ran an aggressive election campaign on the issue of tax. And twenty-four since Nigel Lawson’s tax cuts in 1988. There have been other moments of Tory tax cutting since and there was the pledge to cut Inheritance Tax before the last election. But at the same time there has been the Poll Tax, a Labour election campaign in 1997 that pledged not to increase the Basic or Higher rates of Income Tax and fiercely attacked tax rises in the Major Government; and then tax rises, particularly VAT, under this Government.

That suggests two opportunities.

First, while the media could report it that way, many voters might not see a pledge of tax cuts as a lurch to the right.

Second, the right’s support for tax cuts isn’t already priced into people’s views. Convincing voters that they are the party of lower taxes is a key opportunity for the Conservatives to make inroads outside their traditional base, and they should avoid anything which unnecessarily confuses people on that issue. Complex and defensive debate over revenue neutral reform probably doesn’t help.

The history of past tax reforms that is studied in the 2020 Tax Commission final report (see Section 3.5.3) provides some clear examples of how important the tax cutting brand, or the lack of it, has been to conservatives in the past.

Goldwater lost the US Presidential Election in 1964 and is held up as a famous example of a candidate losing because they were far too right wing. He was “Mr. Conservative”. But what many people forget is that he had also voted against the major tax cut first promoted by President Kennedy – who presaged Art Laffer by arguing that “the soundest way to raise the revenues in the long run is to cut the rates now” – and then passed by President Johnson. Those tax cuts were terribly ‘regressive’ in the terms used by ‘progressives’ today, but they were a significant tax cut across the board and public support was strong. It was once the Republicans established a clear brand as tax cutters under Reagan that they started to win elections.

In the same way, one of the weaknesses of the Conservative brand, though it might not fit into the way we normally think about ‘detoxification’, is that for many people it isn’t associated with paying less tax. To the extent the Conservatives are seen as the party of the rich, the most important thing – as people care far more about their own taxes than other people’s – could be that they are seen to support higher taxes for people on low and middle incomes. Whatever people think of taxes that affect other people, they care far more about the taxes that take money out of their own pockets.

It will be hard with the present situation in the public finances. But if it wants to enjoy long term electoral success then the Conservative Party needs to avoid getting stuck in the bear trap of what the Americans call Root Canal Conservatism.


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