The Tories are stuck in the middle with May. Here’s what they should do next

27 April 2019

4:00 PM

27 April 2019

4:00 PM

The Tories have a debate on their hands about what direction they should go in. Do they return to the politics of the Cameron coalition? This delivered majority government, won over a greater percentage of AB (better off) voters, won more university towns, more professionals but fewer rural areas. Or should the Tories double down and become the Brexit party, moving towards what Nick Timothy says is the “National” party, with a rural, less affluent base led by someone like Boris Johnson?

The choice is far from straightforward and there are five big considerations for the party to take into account on this issue before deciding which path to take:

  1. Demographic parameters: which demographic groups will get larger or smaller over time?
  2. Electoral system: what votes are “more equal” than others?
  3. Party political considerations: what makes the party unique? Can a whole party be subsumed by another? Which parties can act in consort with each other?
  4. Brexit: what is actually possible while this is being carried out?
  5. Ethical and political considerations: what are the worldviews and political positions of each political coalition?

After the 2017 election (which I worked on in Scotland for Ruth Davidson), I was struck at how the English and Welsh Conservatives had won so many votes and yet picked up so few seats. Much of this was due to the consolidation of the two-party vote. But it became clearer to me how the vagaries of the first-past-the-post (FPTP) system favour some electoral demographic coalitions over others.

I had a vague sense before that David Cameron’s group of supporters were more diverse, had less in common with each other but were spread geographically in such a way as to deliver maximum seat gains. In a FPTP system, you need stacks of votes from a concentrated base in a few places to win a foothold in parliament. But once that is achieved, a party must fan out a coalition far and wide if it wants to form a government. The initial process requires discipline and ruthless political focus; the second, careful and deliberate calibration. Unfortunately for Labour and the Tories, their current positions are likely to result in a thin and wide coalition of support, making for unpredictable and unstable politics.

So if the Tories do change tack, how might they fare? Does becoming the National party inevitably lead to electoral success – or was David Cameron onto something?

The mathematics of “Cameroonism” are clear. A generic political party, that has as its key target and archetypal voter a rural, affluent person could expect a natural demographic lead over its opposite (Labour) of 6.6 per cent (see technical note at the end of the article on how this is calculated). This figure closely matched the vote gap between the two parties at the 2015 election. This suggests that David Cameron did little more than simply deliver the natural demographic advantage inherent in a Tory proposition pre-2017.

How the Tories would fare if they returned to the Cameron approach

The numbers behind a “National Party” are fairly similar on a net basis, even if these votes come in entirely different places. If the Tories take Nick Timothy’s advice, both Ukip and the Brexit party would likely be subsumed by the Nationals.

The downside is that the Nationals would lose a huge number of affluent richer suburban voters to TIG, the Lib Dems and Labour. When you model this out, street by street, the Nationals lead over Labour would be 4.6 per cent – actually less than Cameroonism delivers. Changing the name of your party, losing 30 per cent of your voters and carting off free-market ideals in favour of more protectionist ones, only to see a natural demographic lead versus Labour weaken seems some trade off.

So going Full Brexit and Full Nationalist can deliver a decent lead over Labour. But it’s a quirk of branding that the Conservatives thought that Ukip was an existential threat when it polled in the mid-20s for a year and a half back in 2013/ 14, when the Liberals have been stealing the Tory vote for nearly a century.

How the Tories would fare if they took Nick Timothy’s advice

These findings indicate that a Conservative party going Full Brexit, or returning to Cameroonism, is demographically well placed to triumph over Labour (saying nothing about how easy it is to do this after nine years in Government and the party’s current handling of Brexit).

But when the party sits halfway between the two, it is massively disadvantaged. This is because it both fails to fully hollow out the Ukip and Brexit Party vote, and also faces the prospect of losing millions of votes to a well-organised, moderate centre force.

As I’ve explained before, TIG/ Change UK getting 22 per cent doesn’t translate into many seats for the centrists, but the results below show that the Conservative party must choose which way it goes – or get stuck in the middle.

Theresa May’s political strategy has been a disaster and any rudimentary analysis would probably have pointed out a similar truth. After all, half doing something wins you fewer friends than the ones you lose. This becomes clear from the results below, where support for the Tories falls to 34 per cent – putting the party only a whisker in front of Labour on 33 per cent:

Stuck in the middle: the Theresa May approach

(It’s worth noting that this chart illustrates the demographic and structural propensity of England and Wales to vote for particular parties. This is based on patterns observed from multiple elections, of which demographic coalitions tend to support different political propositions over a long-term horizon. This is quite different to the snapshot measurement of current party performance in European polls where the Brexit party are currently doing exceptionally well.)

The big question facing the Conservative party then is this: who owns the party? A split either way in the Tory party would be devastating on a seat basis. But it could have the effect of ballooning its “Liberal” and “National” wings, as the Cameroon wing became more Liberal and the National one more National. A split is a catastrophe for the right on a FPTP basis though and would only be remedied with a decade out of government and/or change in the electoral system.

This leads me to one final thought: a proportional system would, I think (for the first time in years), actually advantage the right rather than the left, as is commonly presumed.

Indeed when you model out an Australian-style “coalition” of Nationals and Liberals the result in the UK appears to systematically favour a ten point advantage – 55 per cent to 45 per cent for centre-right government versus centre-left. This is very similar to Australia and should give some heart to those of us on the right. And as if to stack up the coincidences (or not?) the one time this centre-right coalition has been tested in a proportional system with British voters is the Scottish independence referendum. The result? You’ve guessed it, was 55 per cent to 45 per cent.

What would happen if the Tories split?

A brief explainer:

To get the answers above, I’ve used as my source inputs more than 100 demographic variables (for example: education levels, age, ethnicity, income, working status) and some statistical insights available from the UK’s micro census.

Using these data sets and the statistical relationships between voting patterns and demographics, I’ve created a “Transition Matrix” which attempts to estimate how tiny pockets of voters across England and Wales would switch and distribute their votes should the electoral propositions presented to them (i.e parties) change.

This distribution analysis is based on long-term fundamentals and demographics and isn’t a snap shot analysis as offered in opinion polling. In my view it’s how political strategists should look at things before delving into the potentially dangerous and often misleading detail of polls. The downside of this type of analysis is that as a deep, long-term estimation, it can’t account for current political events and Government’s handling of Brexit. The modelling is done at a postcode level. As a result, it is crude but nonetheless, I believe, instructive. And while the results do not represent estimates of national vote shares, they show something else: the percentage of the country that is best demographically inclined and positioned to vote for a particular party.

James Kanagasooriam helped run the data strategy for the Scottish Conservatives 2015-17 and was head of analytics at Populus 2014-2018. He now sits on the board of centre-right think tank Onward and is a management consultant at OC&C

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