Who Does the Conservative Party Represent?

I recently wrote a post about who the Labour Party represents and thought it would make sense to follow this up with a similar article about the Conservatives, especially with the Budget fresh in everybody’s mind.

The simplest starting point and to connect with the previous article is probably to say who they do not represent.  Two of the groups mentioned in the previous article are clearly not favoured by Conservative policies: those working in the public sector (circa 11.7% of voters, and referred to henceforth as “Public Servants”), who have seen significant job cuts and low pay settlements; and those who may or may not work, but who rely primarily on support through the benefit system, who have seen measures such as the benefits cap, tougher Housing Benefit (notably the so called “bedroom tax”), Jobseeker’s Allowance and Disability Benefit rules (estimated at 15% of voters, based on number of Council Tax benefit claimants plus 1m people, and referred hereafter as “State Beneficiaries”).

Next the relatively simple identification of clear groups that Conservative policies have favoured, at least relative to Labour.  Those with high incomes (>£150,000) or significant properties will certainly be better off based on stated tax policies, and anybody earning >£52,000 and contributing to a pension will be better off although the amounts are dependent on the level of income and contributions.  Next, those who own significant (>£250,000) assets or businesses, while not having been the subject of specific tax policies, can reasonably surmise that they would be better off under the Tories.  So while certainly greater than the so called “1%”, it is probably fair to say that the top 10% (which will include a relatively small number in the public sector, so let us assume this 10% and the 11.7% mentioned in the previous paragraph are separate) in terms of either income or wealth would be better off under the Tories; for simplicity I shall refer to all of the above as the “Well Off”.

So, we have 10% of voters who are definitely represented by the Conservative Party and circa 27% who are certainly not; so that leaves 63% who are up for grabs.  These people, who I shall call the “Broad Working Class”, are the equivalent of those who in 1979, 1983, 1987 and 1992 voted in droves for the Conservatives, and in 1997, 2001 and 2005 did the same for Tony Blair’s New Labour.  Now, it is unrealistic to think that 63% of voters are ever likely to be attracted to just one party’s policies, but gaining the majority of this Broad Working Class will dictate who wins this election.

As I posted last time, Labour’s problem is with attracting the Broad Working Class while not alienating State Beneficiaries at a time of austerity.  The Conservatives face a similar challenge; attracting the Broad Working Class without alienating the Well Off, however the electoral maths are somewhat different.  Neither the Well Off nor the State Beneficiaries have historically had anywhere else to go in electoral terms; this time it remains true of the Well Off but not the State Beneficiaries.  The SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Green Party are all promoting anti-austerity policies that would appeal to State Beneficiaries, plus many may decide just not to vote.  For the Conservatives, the challenge on the right comes from UKIP, which as a populist movement is more a challenge for the Broad Working Class than the Well Off, who in turn are more likely to vote than State Beneficiaries.

So does the Conservative Party represent the Broad Working Class, or at least enough of it to win the election?  What does this week’s Budget indicate?  I think it shows that the current Coalition is representing the Broad Working Class, but it is less clear that the Conservative Party does.  Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander may have severely damaged the electoral prospects of the Liberal Democrats, but they do appear to have focussed the Coalition policies more towards the Broad Working Class than the Well Off; the Conservatives went into the 2010 election with tax cutting focussed on Inheritance Tax, but the Coalition’s primary tax cut has been to raise the tax threshold massively, a tax cut whose benefits reduce for people earning over £100,000 and eliminated if you earn over £150,000.   The policies have been harsh, and there are no doubt that many people have and are suffering as a result, notably among the Public Servants and the State Beneficiaries, but equally, those policies are increasingly having a positive impact on many of the Broad Working Class.  Record levels of employment, low inflation and interest rates, and finally rising wage levels and now starting to make the feel better off, and perhaps the biggest concern amongst many Broad Working Class Voters would be whether a Conservative only government would be less interested in them.

No party has published its manifesto yet, but the indications are that the Conservatives cannot help but lurch towards issues that appeal to a vocal element of its core membership, but which carry only a minority interest in the wider population.  The obsession with Europe and the EU is the most obvious, especially following the UKIP success at the European Parliament elections last year, but other issues such as ending the hunting ban and further Trade Union legislation (notably where it appears one sided, e.g. you have to get a higher number of members voting for a strike, but we will not allow you to make it easier to vote through the use of online voting).  Like with the tax issue, the Liberal Democrats appear to have helped keep such niche matters off the legislative table.

If David Cameron wishes to gain a second term as Prime Minister, he needs to ignore the crazier elements of his own party and focus on a manifesto that looks more like the current coalition policies.  Secretly, I think he rather hopes he has to have Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander back round the Cabinet table; they make for far more sensible colleagues than many a noisy Tory back bencher.  If there was an option to vote “Current Coalition” on the voting papers in May, I would anticipate it would be getting a far better current poll performance than the Tories on their own.


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