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Conservatives must remember why they won in 2019 if they want to triumph again

Conservative victory at the polls in 2019

4 min read

The last general election is now sufficiently long ago, or perhaps so much has happened since, that people are starting to forget its significance. That the result was historic hardly needs to be noted: the Conservatives became the first party in history to increase vote-share at four subsequent elections and reduced Labour to their worst defeat since the 1930s.

But it was the manner and composition of victory that mattered - which MPs demanding “radical supply side policies” or a return to the 1980s neglect at their peril.

The Conservatives won in 2019 not only by promising to deliver Brexit and deny Jeremy Corbyn a shot at government, but by assembling a different coalition of people and places than they had ever done before. The post-2019 Tory bloc is more working class, more geographically diverse and more economically insecure than any in living memory. Indeed, Boris Johnson won a majority (51 per cent) of skilled workers, a plurality (41 per cent) of unskilled occupations, and a majority of apprentices, school leavers and people with no qualifications whatsoever. 

Not only did the Red Wall fall but the entire centre of gravity of conservatism shifted. Before the exit poll, the geographic midpoint of Conservative-held seats was Buckingham; the midpoint of the party’s 2019 gains was in Sheffield, 100 miles to the north. And they were different economically too: average wages in 2019 Conservative gains are on average five per cent lower than Labour seats. Of the bottom quarter of seats in Great Britain with the lowest earnings, more are now held by the Conservatives than Labour.

As a consequence, the priorities of the party’s voting base have shifted. In Onward’s detailed post-election study, No Turning Back, we found that a majority of Conservative voters wanted zero-hour contracts to be abolished, would be “happy to personally pay more taxes to pay for public services like the NHS'' (64 per cent) and would prefer a government that regulates more rather than less (54%). This does not make them socialists (and voters remain relatively low tax in general) but it is fair to say that Conservative voters are simply much less interested in wholesale deregulation and privatisation than they were in the 1980s.

And libertarian MPs and commentators lamenting this fact does not make it any less true. In fact, two thirds of voters would prefer a government focused on giving people more security rather than one focused on giving people more freedom. 

Electorally, this is less a tragedy than an enormous opportunity for the Conservative Party. Their new coalition is far more united than Labour’s, which remains split between a progressive metropolitan clique and what remains of its industrial heartlands.

The party could find itself in no man’s land if it tries to rebuild the old order

The Tories’ old and new voters are to the right on culture and if anything marginally left on economics: they want politicians to be tough on crime and immigration and to invest in and support communities and local economies. It should not be impossible to construct a distinctly Conservative agenda to speak to those concerns. Benjamin Disraeli, Robert Peel, and Harold Macmillan all managed it, after all. 

Most importantly, the rotation that started to crystallise at the last election is likely to continue over time. Notwithstanding wider dynamics - not least the effect of integrity scandals on voters’ trust or rising costs of living - demographics (particularly age) suggest that many of Labour’s residual seats in the North and the Midlands will continue moving towards the Conservatives, while cities are likely to move further out of reach. In other words, the Conservatives new heartlands could still grow - and Labour’s woes deepen - if levelling up and the new “conservatism of the common good” can deliver. But the party could find itself in no man’s land if it tries to rebuild the old order. 

Sir Keith Joseph used to say that the Conservative Party succeeds at the ballot box when it appeals to what he called the “common ground” of ordinary folk's priorities and aspirations, as opposed to the "middle ground" that he attacked as an intellectual compromise between politicians and policies. It is that very same common ground where Conservatives need to focus today. 

Will Tanner is Director of the Onward think tank

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