Once upon a time, the realignment of British politics was working out very nicely for the Conservative Party. It is increasingly clear that this is no longer the case.
For some time, politics has been changing. Rather than votes being determined by economic class, cultural values have become increasingly important. Socially conservative working class voters have been moving to the right, socially liberal middle class voters have been moving to the left.
This is not unique to the UK but the Brexit referendum strengthened cultural identities and accelerated the trend. The Leave half of the country became increasingly Conservative, the Remain half increasingly non-Conservative. In the 2019 general election, the Conservatives embraced the realignment and were rewarded with an 80-seat majority.
There were three reasons why this was so beneficial to the Conservatives. The anti-Tory vote was split among Labour, Liberal Democrats, Greens, Nationalists (in Scotland and Wales) and even the occasional independent. The vote was also inefficiently distributed, with younger Remain-voting graduates being clustered in cities. Finally, the Leave half of the country realigned more fully than the Remain half as many moderate middle class voters feared the prospect of a Jeremy Corbyn-led government and stuck with the Tories. None of those factors, however, are proving to be permanent.
At this year’s local elections the anti-Conservative vote was not so much divided as willing to coalesce behind whoever was best placed to beat the Tories. This resulted in greater losses for the Conservatives than the parties’ shares of the vote might have suggested.
Demographic changes are also seeing the anti-Tory vote more efficiently dispersed. Young families have long moved out of London to the Home Counties but, with greater working from home, that trend has accelerated. These London exiles are maintaining their London non-Tory voting habits.
And, if anything, the 2019 realignment asymmetry has been reversed. Labour is recovering in Leave voting areas, as cost-of-living issues become more prominent, while the people who continue to care most about cultural issues are graduates who dislike the cultural values represented within the government.
Let us take my home county of Hertfordshire, a traditionally true blue area in which the Conservatives controlled seven out of ten district councils in 2015. They are now down to one district council, losing two in 2019 and a further four this time. This should not be viewed purely as a response to the government’s recent difficulties. In the county council elections in 2021, which were in general a pretty strong performance for a party in power, the Conservatives lost ground in commuter towns such as Berkhamsted, Harpenden, Hemel Hempstead, Hertford and Bishop’s Stortford. The decline of the Conservatives in Hertfordshire looks structural, not cyclical.
Hertfordshire is not unique. A similar story of disenchantment with the Tories can be told for Surrey, Sussex, Hampshire, Berkshire, Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire. (Buckinghamshire and parts of Cambridgeshire had no elections this year but would otherwise have fitted the pattern.) It is no coincidence that this geographical area is coterminous with those areas that favoured Remain in 2016.
Brexit, of course, is not the only issue. Judging by the leaflets delivered by both the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, the best way to be elected in the Home Counties is to oppose the building of homes.This is an issue on which the Conservatives cannot win.
Build more homes and they upset many existing residents. Plus there is the fear that new homes mean new residents, often younger and from London and not voting Tory. But fail to build new homes and they will be blamed for denying younger people the opportunity to own their own home (and their parents the opportunity to have a spare bedroom). The failure to expand development in these higher productivity areas (especially the Oxford to Cambridge arc) is also a lost opportunity for economic growth.
The wider issue, however, is that the Conservatives have alienated a large element of the electorate that, in previous eras, would have been natural supporters. Aspirational and relatively economically secure, they voted Conservative in the expectation of stability and caution, of sound public finances and respect for institutions, of competence and moderation. Instead, they have had the chaos of Brexit, the buffoonery of Johnson and the recklessness of Truss.
In Rishi Sunak, the Conservative Party has a leader who has the potential to appeal to the Blue Wall voters. Yes, he voted for Brexit but he does not sound like a Brexiteer. This counted against him in the Conservative leadership race last summer but is an advantage now. The problem is the party. These voters have noticed that he felt obliged to make Suella Braverman his Home Secretary and know that he constantly has to keep his right-wing MPs and party activists onside. The activities of the Conservative Democratic Organisation and the occurrence of the National Conservatism Conference will not reassure them.
To win back these socially moderate voters, the Conservative Party badly needs a period of modernisation. As it is, Sunak is doing well to resist the pressure to move further to the right. A bad general election defeat will mean that he will no longer be in a position to do even that.
The local election results should be a warning. The Conservative Party will probably not have to pay the full cost of political realignment at the next election. The thinly-resourced Liberal Democrats usually underperform in general elections compared to low-turnout local elections.
Unenthusiastic Conservatives will return to the polls in autumn 2024, preventing a Tory wipeout in the Blue Wall. But if the Conservative Party fails to recognise the danger and change, it is only a matter of time before that fate will befall it.
[See also: Is Scotland finally moving away from welfare for the rich?]
This article appears in the 10 May 2023 issue of the New Statesman, What could go wrong?