As the Conservatives gather in Manchester I thought it might be useful to describe the structure of their vote. Or, to put it more simply, who votes for them and who doesn’t. More important still what are the characteristics and lifestyles of these people and where do they live?
So, where to start? Well, how about we divide the population up into chunks first. We’re interested in which groups of voters are voting for the Conservatives and which aren’t so it makes sense to look at how each group of voters have voted.
The chart below divides the country into fifteen groups and the strength of support for the Conservatives amongst each. They are all of roughly equal proportions in the population, and all with their own distinct characteristics. It will help you to think of this chart from left to right. Put very simply, wealth goes from left to right (richer on the left, poorer on the right, middle-income (ahem) in the middle). Urbanity also moves from left to right (rural on the left, urban on the right, suburban in the middle). I’m going to describe the groups in more detail but I’ve labelled them as best I can. Don’t obsess on the names for now – it’s not important, trust me!
What the chart shows is how the Conservatives have performed among each of those fifteen groups since 2005. I hope you can see how the colour coding works – again, from left to right (darkest shade is 2005, lightest is 2017). Finally, think of the chart this way – the higher the bar the better the Tories perform; the lower the bar (below the line!) the worse they perform.
Take a while to look through the chart. But a few initial points should jump out at you. There are obvious structures at work here. In very simple terms, and no prizes for anyone here, the Conservatives do well among wealthier, rural voters and better-off elderly people. “Duh!”, I hear you say. Look also at how consistent that performance has been for over a decade. Equally consistent is how badly the party has performed among the poorest groups as well as those in lower income diverse areas and some of the blue collar working households. These findings won’t surprise anyone but maybe some would be surprised at the consistency across the decade. I can tell you they won’t surprise anyone inside Labour HQ or CCHQ.
However, there are certain eye-opening factors in 2017 if one looks at this chart. First of all, wealthy professionals moved away from the Conservatives in 2017 (the third set of bars from the left). These are high worth individuals owning high value properties in and around London and the south east mainly. They voted to Remain in the European Union and are repelled by any notion of a hard Brexit, particularly given that many of them commute into good jobs in the city which are reliant on international cooperation. In 2017 they either stayed at home, voted Lib Dem, Green or Labour in higher numbers than in previous elections. They live in detached properties, have higher managerial or professional positions, own shares, take three or more holidays a year, donate to charity and enjoy living in and around our major cities. These are engaged voters and good at turning out in elections. They didn’t turn out for the Conservatives in 2017, either at the general election or in the locals. What are the top two constituencies in the country for these voters? Kensington and Richmond Park. They’re also found in Twickenham and Cardiff North, both seats which the Conservatives lost. The map below shows where they are clustered in UK constituencies.
Conservative performance undoubtedly fell off a cliff amongst younger households, as can be seen from their ‘plunge below the line’ amongst students and postgraduates but their performance also weakened amongst early career households in first homes. Whilst ‘students’ as a group are often put under a single heading the data I use separates out students in education from postgraduates and those in the early stages of careers. This is important because they have different needs and characteristics. The Conservative’s position has weakened most among older postgraduates and those settling down in their first (probably rented) home. These voters are aged over 25 typically; most likely single but also possibly in short to medium-term relationships and in good jobs with opportunities for career advancement. They have liberal perspectives but ambitions for themselves. They enjoy living or working in diverse, vibrant places and reject any perspective which runs counter to their values. So for them anti-immigrant rhetoric or social conservatism more widely are repellent. They are ecologically aware and, where possible, ensure their purchasing decisions reflect their values. They likely read the FT or Guardian. They are pre-dominantly found in the south east. Oh, and they voted to Remain in the European Union. This group tends not to attach itself to any single political party and have a mixed turnout record. However, when activated they can call upon broad social networks and enjoy using social media, particularly Facebook, so any campaign which activates their needs and utilises Facebook will likely benefit. In 2017 they swung behind Labour and away from the Conservatives. The map below again shows where they cluster.
When we combine the groups which the Conservatives lost in 2017 (younger, early career voters and the very wealthy) it produces the map below showing the voters which moved away from them in the general election. What we see is a hollowing out of the Tory vote in the south-east, which is unusual in recent elections. For the last decade the south-east has been something of a Conservative firewall. There are high-level changes happening which go some way to explaining these patterns. An economic model which sucks people into London has also produced outflows from central London to commuter-belt towns within a train’s distance of central London. Better-educated, early career postgraduates are more able to relocate to towns on the periphery of London, and have done so. This has changed the dynamic of those places, but has also provided Labour with a footstool into constituencies it has more recently struggled in. These groups voted to Remain in the European Union, but these are not the only reasons they would choose to move away from the Conservatives.
For younger, early-career voters the Conservatives have provided little assurance that they understand their needs. They want to move on to the housing market but won’t be able to given the price of housing where they live. They are ambitious for themselves but struggle to make ends meet and, given that they are almost all paying off large student debts, often wonder whether it was worth going to university in the first place. They commute to work using public transport but are left frustrated at how much they pay and the service they receive. They are open personality types who enjoy the diversity of the place they live and the friends they have, so reject out of hand the social conservatism of a wing of the Conservative party. In short, they are a group which the Conservatives appear not to understand and which has probably sensibly chosen to vote for other parties in 2017, most likely Labour, on the basis that they meet their needs better. The toxicity of the Conservative brand and message is a major barrier to the party winning these voters back.
However, it is not all bad news for the Conservatives. The party saw its performance rise markedly amongst homeowners in ex-industrial areas. These voters are typically aged over 55, in social grade C2DE, living in modest terraced or semi-detached properties and struggling to cope on the income they have. Their properties are worth less than £125,000 and where they have an income it comes from part-time employment and amounts to less than £15,000 per year. Their incomes are supplemented by accessing a range of benefits and their shopping choices are severely constrained by price. They ought to be Labour voters. In fact, for most of their lives, many of them were. However since 2010 they stopped voting for Labour and more recently swung behind UKIP in local and national elections. They voted to Leave the European Union in large numbers. They believe politicians are in it for themselves and no longer believe that the Labour party speaks for them. This belief preceded Jeremy Corbyn but his leadership has further cemented this view for many of them. In 2017 many of them were presented with a choice between Labour and the Conservatives given that UKIP did not stand candidates everywhere, and swung behind the Conservatives. The map below shows where they cluster.
You can see these voters are found in the Labour heartlands of the West Midlands, Yorkshire, the north west and north east and south Wales. No surprise to me that some of the seats with the highest proportions of these voters are seats the Conservatives took from Labour: Stoke-on-Trent South, Mansfield, Walsall North, Middlesbrough South & Cleveland. The Conservatives saw their vote share go up strongly in all of the seats with the highest proportions of these voters.
I should make a point about turnout, since I’ve done further analysis on which groups turn out to vote in elections and which don’t. You won’t be surprised to hear that younger voters have a poor turnout record, and when comparing the above groups it is easier to turn out the older ex-industrial households than it is the younger and better-educated. HOWEVER, the younger early career voters described here turned out strongly in both the European referendum and the general election.
This then is the broad structure of the Conservative vote. In 2017 the party continued to perform strongly amongst rural voters, older voters and the better off. It also gained a chunk of votes from former Labour supporting groups in Labour heartlands. All of these groups voted to Leave the European Union but with the exception of homeowners in ex-industrial areas they were also more than likely to vote Conservative regardless. In contrast the party has frittered away support amongst younger, early-career voters most strongly clustered in and around the south east. These are push and pull dynamics for the party, but they are similar to the dynamics at play within Labour and reflect broader societal phenomena. Better-off, better-educated, younger city-dwellers exhibit characteristics which are at odds with poorer, older town-dwellers in Labour’s heartlands. That is a gross over-simplification of the problem but the Conservatives and Labour are battling the same dynamics. They both may need to reassure both of these broad groups, a task akin to spinning plates. It may well be that before Brexit is through some of these plates come crashing to the floor.