Despite pundit predictions, Tom Pridham sets out why, by adopting a more conciliatory campaign strategy, the Conservatives, not Labour, are better placed to win the election.
The key to the Conservative Party’s victory at the next election lies as much in minimising the Labour vote as maximising its own. Ostensibly, the two main parties sharing over 80 per cent of the vote at the 2017 General Election indicates a high level of confidence in their leadership and policies. However, this figure disguises a high level of dissatisfaction. Indeed, 20 per cent of voters (over 6.5 million people) voted tactically at the last election, choosing the party that had the best chance of defeating the party they found most offensive rather than the one that best matched their beliefs. It is notable that the Conservative Party won more, and a higher percentage of, votes in 2017 than Labour under Tony Blair in 1997. Theresa May managed to increase the Conservative Party vote by nearly six per cent and was yet unable to retain the majority she inherited from David Cameron. Meanwhile, Jeremy Corbyn secured 40 per cent of the vote – more than Cameron in 2015 – but lost the election. The explanation for this lies in the failure of both to successfully undertake ‘asymmetric demobilisation’.
This is simpler than it sounds. The central element is making sure that one does not anger voters who would not consider voting for you to the extent that they coalesce around your main opponent. It is something both Cameron and Blair did effectively; however the most notable contemporary exponent is Angela Merkel. This is not to suggest that a British leader should copy Merkel. Our more adversarial political culture necessitates a more combative approach. However, the majoritarian voting system that encourages this also maximises the return of successfully minimising your opponents’ vote share. Theresa May benefitted from anti-Corbyn sentiment in the lead up, and early part of, the election campaign. However, as Conservative support gradually eroded, Labour’s support surged. In part, this was due to an energetic campaign from Labour, but much was attributable to the poorly-run Conservative campaign, specifically the framing of contributions towards social care and the suggestion of a free vote on fox hunting. Indeed, a Survation poll in the lead up to the election demonstrated how totemic fox hunting had become. We can therefore view the Conservative vote share of 42.4 per cent as short of its potential, and Labour’s 40% as near the ceiling of what a Corbyn-led party should be able to achieve.
The fact that Labour managed to exceed expectations and run a spirited campaign concealed similar problems. The Conservative campaign was arguably the worst in living memory and yet it still garnered over 42% of the vote. Without the sizeable anti-Corbyn vote this would have been impossible. Despite the vocal character of Corbyn’s supporters, recent approval ratings show that Theresa May is still (marginally) favoured as ‘best Prime Minister’. Consequently, it is necessary not to mistake the passion of Corbyn’s campaign for breadth of support. Another striking fact is the amount of voters – mainly pro-EU remainers – who switched from Conservative to Labour at the last election. It seems unlikely that many of these former Tory remainers have suddenly become favourable to hard-left policies and reasonable to assume that many were registering a protest. Once Brexit has taken place and the issue begins to recede, it seems likely that many, if not all, of these voters could return to the Conservative Party.
Thus, a picture emerges whereby the Conservative Party is somewhat better placed to capitalise at the next election. This is strengthened when one considers the respective strength of each Party’s (unpopular) leadership. While Theresa May is facing seemingly perpetual threats of varying seriousness to her position, Corbyn’s position is secure and his internal rivals have essentially given up, at least in the short term. This makes it likely that Labour will go into the next election with a leader who, whilst inspiring enthusiastic support among some, has a track record of pushing away many. Meanwhile, the precarious position of Theresa May makes it likely that she will not, despite her protestations, lead the party into the next election. The Conservative Party will therefore have the chance to find a leader who is able to both maximise its own vote and minimise Labour’s. Contrary to the prevailing view that Labour will form the next government, the Conservatives stand an excellent chance.