Why do the Tories still have 37%? It may not be Labour’s fault, it may be the centre parties

March 13, 2018

by Martin Odoni

The poll news from Survation over the weekend, suggesting that the Labour Party suddenly has a seven-point lead over the Conservatives, is most encouraging for the British left. But I notice many people are expressing a growing exasperation; how come, given the maliciousness, deceitfulness, and incompetence of one of the most chaotically-bad Governments in living memory, the Tories still have over one-third of the UK population’s support?

The former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, takes every opportunity to insinuate that any perceived ‘under-performance’ by Labour is the fault of its present leader. The fact that, in two-and-a-half-years with Jeremy Corbyn as leader, most of the damage has been done by Blair’s centrist allies never merits comment. But let us leave that on one side.

In fairness to Blair, I remain somewhat unsure of Corbyn’s handling of Labour’s, still somewhat vague, policy with regards to leaving the European Union. For reasons well-recorded, the country really needs to stay in both the Single Market and the Customs Union to mitigate the damage of ‘Brexit’ as much as possible. I genuinely think Corbyn would gain more support than he would lose by committing to this path. He also needs to define more clearly what he means by the UK being in “a customs union” with the EU under a Labour Government. Clearly he does not mean the present Customs Union, but that is about all that is clear.

But for all that, I do not think the Tories’ ability to cling to Labour’s coat-tails is particularly down to Corbyn’s non-committal Brexit stance. Professor Simon Wren-Lewis rightly highlights the distortion of the post-Election ‘media-filter’. But there is more.

Voters who transfer between the two big parties are the exception rather than the rule. My suspicion is that the real reason the Tories are still above thirty per cent is that the centrist parties, principally the Liberal Democrats of course, are presently so weak. Thanks to the last two General Elections, the UK is now in another era of ‘Two-Party-Politics’, the last of which effectively ended in 1997.

Historically, whenever the big parties haemorrhage support, it tends to shift to the smaller ones between them, rather than to each other. Since 2015, the LibDems have been in a near-death-spiral, suffering the loss of vast swathes of the student vote, due to helping the Tories force through increases in tuition fees a few years earlier. The Scottish National Party had a massive surge (at the expense of both Labour and the LibDems), but in 2017, they had a significant slump, with their lost support draining mainly to the two big parties again. (Ironically, Scotland, a country that has complained for decades about having Tory governance ‘imposed’ on it by England, is now the country that has given the Tories just enough seats to form some kind of minority Government. Oh well…)

Look also back to 1979 and 1983; –

The fateful moment when Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister in the 1979 Election saw a modest Tory majority of 43 in the House of Commons. This resulted from the Tories scoring 13,697,923 in the popular vote. Their vote-share was 43.9%.

In the 1983 General Election, the Tories scored a landslide majority of 142 seats. Their total number of seats was up by 38. The interesting thing is though, they scored 13,012,316 in the popular vote, a loss of over six hundred thousand votes. Their vote-share was also down, to 42.4%.

The reason the Tories did better that year than in 1979 was not that they drained support from Labour; they clearly did not drain support on any significant scale from anyone. It was because the centrist wing of the Labour Party had split off and formed the new ‘Social Democratic Party‘, which went into alliance with the Liberal Party. (This alliance was the precursor to what would become the Liberal Democrats.)

SDP Liberal Alliance

Dr David Owen, who was among the infamous ‘Gang Of 4’ to leave Labour in 1981, eventually became leader of the newly-formed SDP, which allied itself to David Steel’s Liberal Party.

Labour and the SDP/Liberal Alliance split the vote in the left half of the political spectrum, allowing the Tories to gain many seats by default. Although the alliance, in the end, won few seats, it bled a lot of support from Labour, who ultimately lost nearly sixty seats. That is to say, an upstart, surging, centrist alliance took support from Labour, the Tories did not.

(Equally, the LibDem surge in 1997 played a key role in collapsing Tory support.)

At the moment, the centrist parties are not in an ‘upstart’ condition. They are weak instead. The LibDems are short of inspiring spokespersons. The Green Party and Plaid Cymru are both too small. The SNP and the Social Democratic Labour Party in Northern Ireland remain too limited by geographical self-restrictions. Therefore, these parties offer little appeal (or in some cases little access) to the liberal wing of Tory supporters. This also helps explain why Labour’s support is way up in the mid-40% range, for the same reasons; the centrists offer little appeal to the social democratic wing of Labour’s support, which is therefore almost as high as it ever gets.

This is what happens when the UK is in a state of Two-Party-Politics, which in turn is a side-product of deep national divisions. These have been opened up by Austerity and Brexit.

There is only so much that Labour can ever do to dismantle Tory support directly, be they led by a Corbynist left or a Blairite right (which tends to alienate Labour’s core support in any event), not least because a great many Tory supporters are so details-resistant that they would never, under any circumstances, vote for a party wearing red.

Were a resurgence in right-leaning centrist politics to occur – such as the LibDems resurging under a Menzies-Campbell-type figure perhaps – then, given the wretched, extremist shape of the current Government, I honestly think the Tory Party would slump in the polls by another ten points.

It is odd, but frequently true; the left would benefit from a resurrection of the right-of-centre.

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