This morning Onward publishes its latest research report, No turning back, which finds that if the Conservatives can deliver on levelling up they will consolidate their temporary coalition of provincial middle class and industrial working class voters – and could make it permanent. But if they fail to do so they may be caught between two stalls and forfeit the 80-seat majority they won last year. Only a 4.3% swing to Labour would be needed to generate a hung parliament in 2024.
The study explodes the myth that new Red Wall voters are different from the Tory core vote
The report demonstrates that it is a mistake to think the Conservatives are ideologically split between “Southern” conservatism on the one hand and “Red Wall” conservatism on the other. The Conservatives no longer represent the kind of metropolitan values characterised by the Notting Hill set, but their new coalition is highly homogeneous in terms of values – leaning marginally to the left on the economy and right on socio-cultural issues.
The Tories’ old and new voters are united in wanting politicians to be tough on crime and immigration and to invest in and support communities and local economies. They are far from economically liberal: a majority support tax rises to pay for more NHS and public spending and want a government that regulates more rather than less, focuses more on economic inequality, and pushes businesses to do more to retrain workers. Statistically 62% of Conservative voters are closely aligned with each other on economic values and 51% are aligned on social values.
The Labour Party, by contrast, is heavily split between moderate centre-left voters and a group of voters who are radically left-wing on the economy and liberal on social issues. More than one in four (27%) of Labour voters in 2019 are defined by having strongly left wing views on both social and economic axes. As a result, just 40% Labour voters are closely aligned with each other on social or economic issues, while and around 1 in 4 hold radically different values from the average Labour voter.
The geography and demography of the main parties has fundamentally changed post-2019
This reflects the changing demographics and geography of both main parties, as Labour has become more of a young, metropolitan and liberal party and the Conservatives have become older, more provincial and more rooted in a set of values favouring economic order and cultural attachment. Onward finds that, following the 2019 General Election:
Brexit and other factors have completely changed the fundamentals of the electorate from when David Cameron was first elected in 2010. In total, over a quarter (26%) of Conservative 2019 voters had not supported the party at a previous election and one in five (20%) Labour voters were new to the party. This realignment has been happening for some time, visible in Ed Balls’ defeat in Morley in 2015 and Ben Bradley’s win in Mansfield two years later, but it accelerated in 2019.
Two in five Conservative voters are working class voters. In 2019, 24% of the party’s coalition were C2 voters and 18% of DE voters. Fewer than half of AB voters (45%) voted Tory whereas more than half of C2 voters (51%) did . Overall, the Conservative Party won over 43% of C1, 51% of C2 and 41% of DE voters, compared to 33%, 32% and 39% for Labour. 1 in 10 (9%) of DE voters swung to the Conservatives during the campaign itself.
The Conservatives hold a greater share of seats in the North and Midlands than at any point since 1935, holding 57% of seats. They also won two in five of the original Northern Rugby League towns. In contrast, 37 of the 50 safest Labour seats are now within the boundaries of Britain’s four largest cities: London, Birmingham, Manchester or Liverpool. Despite suffering their worst defeat for several decades, Labour recorded the equal highest number of seats in London and the South East since the 1997 landslide.
The Conservatives led Labour by 37 points (59% to 22%) among those with no qualifications but trailed by 5 points among graduates. But this was mainly due to age. More than twice as many under-35 year olds with degrees voted Labour (52%) as voted Conservative (24%). In contrast, the Conservatives won the support of 46% of over-55 year old degree holders while only 27% voted Labour.
The tipping point at which voters are more likely to vote Conservative than Labour is now 43, down from 47 at the 2017, but the gap between the oldest and youngest voters widened to more than 80 percentage points. Fewer than 1 in 5 voters aged 65 or over years old would even consider voting Labour at the last election and only 1 in 3 voters aged 18-24 years old would consider voting Conservative.
The Conservatives have created a coalition across four of the most populous voter tribes, which share many values. 40% of “Industrial Working Class” voters voted Conservative, compared to 35% for Labour; 52% of “provincial middle class” voters backed the Conservatives, against 12% for Labour; 65% of “Cultural Conservatives” backed the Conservatives, versus 7% for Labour; and 56% of “Traditional Tories” voted Conservative, against 11% for Labour. Together these groups make up 55% of the electorate.
Labour have concentrated their support among groups that are smaller in number and, in values terms, not representative of the rest of the population. 60% of left-wing “New Radicals” voted Labour, making them Labour’s largest group, representing 27% of voters. 44% of “Metropolitan Liberals” voted labour, compared to 16% for the Conservatives. 30% of “Progressive Professionals” voted Labour, marginally ahead of 28% for the Tories. Together these groups only make up 37% of the electorate.
Will Tanner, Director of Onward, said:
“A year on from the election, it is fashionable to say Boris Johnson must choose between loyal voters in the South and new voters in the Red Wall. This is a false choice. The truth is that the party’s new coalition is not only more working class and provincial than before, it is more culturally coherent as a result.
“There is no clear distinction between the values of more traditional Tory voters in the South and first time voters in the North and Midlands. They both want a government that is tough on crime and immigration, that delivers Brexit and which is willing for the state to intervene to fix problems in the economy. This agenda may not win back metropolitan areas like Battersea or Brighton, but those are yesterday’s battlegrounds not tomorrow’s.
“There can be no turning back. The Government has to double down on levelling up and deliver for its new voters if it wants to convert them from contractors to loyalists in 2024. But in doing so they must not ignore the growing chasm with young people, who are drifting further away from the centre right. The Conservatives must fight on two fronts, with shield and sword, to retain a majority coalition.
“It is Labour’s coalition which is split – between a large radical faction that is economically left wing and socially liberal and a smaller cohort on the moderate centre-left. Unless Keir Starmer radically changes Labour’s younger, metropolitan coalition, he will have to do the political splits to unite his party and be unable to reach other voters with a fundamentally different set of values.”
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