Don’t Believe the Polls, the Conservatives Will Hold their Majority at the Next Election | Harry Mayo

“There is an overpowering fin-de-regime stench emanating from Downing Street that can no longer be ignored… it is their shocking sense of superiority, the sneering elitism and the subsequent lies that are most angering voters…. the Government’s incompetence and moral failings are a toxic combination that have cut through [and is] everything the public hates about the political class, and will be devastating for the Government.”

These are not the words of a Labour Party press release but the well-respected right wing Libertarian Allister Heath; capturing the dominant narrative that the days of the PM and the Conservative Party will soon come to an end. 

It is a prediction the polls would support. Redfield & Wilton find that 63% of Britons think Johnson should resign as PM and have the Labour Party on a 4 point lead – its biggest since the previous election – with YouGov also holding the public’s disapproval of the PM at 64%. As Labour leads in the last three out of four polls the Conservatives appear to be undergoing a civil war with 99 Conservative MPs rejecting plans for vaccine passports and many more indicating that they will not support the imposition of any further COVID restrictions. The other week’s Old Bexley and Sidcup by-election where the Conservatives scored a much-reduced majority hints that there is discontent among those who voted Conservative at the last election, even in a constituency that is historically Conservative and Brexit voting.  

What are the main factors driving this? The first is that, since their 2019 electoral victory, the Conservatives have lurched from crisis to crisis with 49 U-turns and counting. A deepening healthcare emergency, rising inflation and stagnating wages set amidst a backdrop of both an energy and supply chain crisis have all coalesced to create a death by a thousand cuts of the Party. The latest ongoing scandals surrounding lobbying and sleaze appear to be the final straw as evidenced by the North Shropshire by-election which saw the Liberal Democrats overturning a 23,000 Tory majority.

Last week’s political events appeared to significantly contribute to the narrative of Conservative declinism. Fresh with an attempt to move the media narrative onto friendly territory the Government announced its ‘Crime Week’ only to find itself eclipsed by back-to-back scandals. What started as a focus on law and order with Home Secretary Priti Patel set to make planned announcements on tackling drugs, violent crime and illegal immigration descended into farce as Commons Speaker Lindsay Hoyle declared an investigation into the use of drugs on the Parliamentary estate. Patel then found herself awaiting the verdict of the Royal Courts as to whether she bullied staff and, to top it off, the Government was cornered in one of the biggest political scandals; accused of holding seven separate Christmas Parties last year at the height of lockdown restrictions.  

The evidence of a crisis is stark and the Party is intensely divided. Cultural Conservatives appear to be frustrated with the Party for its perceived squandering of Brexit and inability to tackle illegal immigration. Brexit was supposed to be a new start for the UK but paradoxically the country has become more European in its outlook with an ever-expanding state encompassing a 70-year tax high, nationalisation of failing industries and the largest national debt since the 1960s.  

On the COVID front, the Government finds itself boxed in by two unappeasable and warring factions: the vocal pro-lockdown lobby believing that restrictions should have been implemented stricter and the lockdown sceptics who believe that more focus should be placed on the detrimental impact of restrictions on the economy and who want to uphold personal liberties; resisting what they see as authoritarianism in the form of mandatory vaccines, lockdowns and vaccine passports.  Amongst this, so-called ‘red wall’ Conservative MPs elected in former Labour seats in 2019 are acutely aware that they reside in marginal constituencies likely to be lost at the next election. The emptiness of the Government’s levelling up strategy has hit home and made them far more likely to criticise the Government. There is also a prevailing zeitgeist that the Conservatives have been in power too long. After over a decade in office, the Conservatives seem to have run out of ideas.  

Although the analysis of a Party in crisis is true, I do not believe that this will translate into the Conservatives losing power at the next election. Far from it, I predict that the Conservatives will maintain a sizeable majority and even potentially increase their current number of seats.  

The first point is that Labour’s road to power faces significant geographical issues. Owing to the UK’s first-past-the-post system, winning an electoral majority requires both depth and breadth of support. Labour currently holds a significant depth of the vote in major cities such as London, Manchester and Liverpool as well as the university towns of Oxford, Nottingham and Coventry. However, it lacks electoral breadth in the small towns and rural and coastal areas that make up much of the UK and where Labour fails on voters’ cultural tests of immigration, crime and patriotism. Factor in that Labour is unlikely to recover its first ‘red-wall’ in Scotland and the path back to power for Labour feels even bigger.  

The geographical issues facing Labour are inextricably intertwined with the fact that the Tories no longer face serious electoral competition from other right-wing parties as they did in 2019. Whilst the Conservatives have come under some pressure from Reform UK, its leader Richard Tice does not possess the media cut through held by Nigel Farage in the 2019 election. Groundbreaking analysis by polling expert John Curtice found that the Brexit Party cost the Conservatives at least 25 seats in 2019 which could have seen the Conservatives win a landslide majority of 130. The 2021 Hartlepool by-election was evidence of this where Labour held the seat in 2019, with the Brexit Party picking up over 10,000 votes, but lost the seat to the Conservatives in 2021 with a near 16% swing to the Tories. Take also for example Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper’s seat of Normanton, Pontefract, and Castleford which holds a majority of just 1,276 yet also saw the Brexit Party come in third with over 8,000 votes. Taking note that the overwhelming majority of Labour’s marginal seats are outside of London and the South East and the potential for the Conservatives to significantly expand their Parliamentary base becomes evident in the absence of right-wing challenger parties.    

At the same time that Mr Johnson is succeeding in uniting parties on the right, the left appears to be more disintegrated, with Labour haemorrhaging votes to a Green Party which is making significant electoral inroads. In May 2021, the Green Party saw record local election results gaining 99 seats in the process. In Bristol, they finished second in the Mayoral Elections and Sian Berry, the Green’s London candidate came third received just under 200,000 first-preference votes, double her party’s total in 2012. Political campaigning is largely about building momentum and the Greens appear very much on track to replicate trends in Europe where Green Parties are eroding support for centre-left parties.  

This erosion of the centre-left’s political base is also being hastened by its leadership. Sir Keir Starmer finds himself bequeathed a toxic political legacy as he governs a disunited party. Overtaken by the pandemic and outmanoeuvred by the Conservatives drift to the economic left, Starmer has found cutting through to the general public very difficult. He still trails Johnson in his personal poll ratings with 56% feeling that he is doing badly as Leader of the Opposition. Previous Labour leaders such as Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband, enjoyed significant poll leads at the mid-way point only to be beaten at the next election. Several studies have shown that Labour remains deeply unpopular and that voters either don’t know or don’t like its policies. As Tony Blair’s own think tank concluded: “Labour has a cultural problem with many working-class voters, a credibility problem with the middle ground, and is seen as being for everyone other than the hard-working families who feel their taxes aren’t spent on their priorities.”

These problems are largely of Labour’s own making, whereby Labour MPs hold mostly different cultural views than those of the average voter. These MPs are more supportive of large-scale immigration, much more convinced that Britain is an institutionally racist country and much more supportive of identity politics. Labour MPs have every right to hold these views but the polls show they run contrary to what many voters in this country believe.  

It is important to remember that in the last 50 years only two leaders have taken Labour from opposition to Government: Harold Wilson and Tony Blair. Both held significant popular ratings amongst the public and were seen as engaging, attractive and credible governments in waiting. “I lead my party, he follows his” – was the effective phrase used to dismantle John Major’s Government by Blair. For Starmer to achieve a majority he will require a vote increase that would eclipse the swings that both Clement Attlee and Tony Blair achieved – something those leaders pulled off not just by criticising the Conservatives but by painting Labour as the Party of the future. “Education, education, education” and “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” were Blair’s messages – messages that voters eagerly got behind.  

One final factor to take note is that under the new constituency boundary changes set to take place, the Conservatives are predicted to gain up to ten seats which would have taken their number to 355 in 2019. This is owing to the fact that many of the seats created will be in the south of England where the Labour Party is not traditionally well represented. Ten seats may not seem to be the largest figure but it makes the Conservatives ability to hold onto its majority that bit easier.  

Last week should have been a momentous day for the Conservative Party seeing as it was the one-year anniversary of the vaccine roll out. Instead, Johnson’s ramblings about Peppa Pig to top finance officials seemed to epitomise a government adrift and without direction. However, this will not necessarily translate into electoral losses for the Conservatives. Voters will likely come to the conclusion that this government is incompetent and unprofessional, yet will still vote blue if they cannot see that Labour is making a preferential offer. In the meantime, Conservatives will bang on about ‘getting Brexit done’, mumble about something to do with ‘levelling up’ and stress that ‘things would be much worse under Labour.’ The latter argument may be their best chance of getting back into power. 

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