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If the Conservatives want to avoid losing ground, or even power, at the next election, they need to pay attention to voters who say they “don’t know” who they will vote for. Because low turnout could spell disaster.
There has been lots of talk among pollsters about Conservative-to-don’t-know switching in recent weeks. Labour’s lead – as high as 10 points in some polls – is largely due to 2019 Conservative voters ticking the “don’t know” box on surveys when asked who they’d vote for.
Should the Conservatives be worried about these “don’t know” voters? There is every chance that previous Conservative voters will support the party again in 2024. But the 1997 General Election shows what can happen if they don’t.
Tony Blair’s 179-seat majority was driven as much by non-voting among Conservatives as by enthusiasm for New Labour. We sometimes think of this landslide victory as a national about-face, with a massive swing from Conservative to Labour. And it is true that Labour went from being 7.5% behind in 1992 to 12.6% ahead in 1997. It is by anyone’s measure an astonishing reversal. But look a little closer and you see that, while Conservatives lost 4.5 million votes, Labour only gained 1.9 million.
Where did the rest of those Conservative votes go? To “Don’t Know”.
The proportion of the electorate that actually voted on polling day fell by 6.4 percentage points (equivalent to 2.3 million people) from 78% to 71%. Millions of previous Conservative voters decided they would rather stay home than put a cross in any box on election day.
In a scenario where the Conservatives face a 1997-style defeat, then non-voting among their 2019 coalition could become a much bigger problem for the Tories than direct switching to Labour or the Liberal Democrats.
What might this mean for the next election?
The good news for the Conservatives is that this is not the 1990s. Even if we replicated the same 32% drop in the Conservative vote and 17% increase in the Labour vote that we saw in 1997, the Conservatives would lose a catastrophic 139 seats (to 226 MPs in total). But Labour would still only get 318 seats, shy of an absolute majority.
So the electoral mountain that Labour have to climb in order to win power is enormous. Whereas Tony Blair managed to win a full hundred more seats (418) than Labour would in this hypothetical 1997-style scenario, Keir Starmer would need to negotiate a coalition with smaller parties before he could start measuring the curtains at 10 Downing Street.
And Keir Starmer faces a problem that Blair did not: the SNP. Labour won 78% of Scottish constituencies in 1997. They now hold just a single seat, while the SNP hold 48 (81%). Without recovery in Scotland, Labour will struggle to form a government on their own, even if the Conservative Party collapses.
James Blagden, Chief Data Analyst at Onward
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