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9 July 2024

The Tories will keep losing if they chase Reform

Making undeliverable promises to a limited pool of right-wing voters is a recipe for failure.

By David Gauke

The simplest explanation for why the Conservatives didn’t just lose last week’s election but went down to a catastrophic defeat is that the right was divided and the left united. Reform took votes off the Tories, costing them large numbers of seats, while the centre-left parties obtained a highly efficient distribution of their vote share. This structural change means that our first-past-the-post voting system now works against right-of-centre parties and, until this is reversed, a centre-right government is impossible.

An additional point is made, particularly by those on the Conservative right, that the emergence of Reform was as a consequence of the Tory government failing to deliver on its promises. Older, working-class, Leave voters who probably voted Tory in 2017, and certainly in 2019, were left angry and disappointed and voted last week for Nigel Farage’s party. The Conservatives, it is argued, must win back those voters. 

It is certainly true that the split on the right badly hurt the Tories but it does not follow that the answer to their woes is simply to unite the right. The main argument against this analysis is, first, that you cannot simply add the Conservative and Reform votes together: many Reform voters would not consider voting Tory and many Tory voters would have nothing to do with a party that reached an accommodation with Nigel Farage. Second, even if this degree of unity could be achieved,  it is still not enough to form a parliamentary majority.   

According to the pollster Luke Tryl of More in Common, only 36 per cent of Reform voters would have considered voting Conservative.  An analysis by Robert Colvile, the director of the Centre for Policy Studies, using realistic assumptions on returning Reform voters, suggests that the Conservatives would still only win 168 seats. 

As for the votes lost from the Conservatives, approximately the same number went to Labour and the Liberal Democrats as went to Reform. And as James Kanagasoorium of FocalData has pointed out, a vote lost to your principal opponent counts twice as much as a vote lost to another candidate. Only five of the 244 seats lost by the Tories went to Reform. 

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It is undeniably true, however, that many of the Tories’ 2019 promises to Leave-voting, Red Wall voters were not met and the party paid a price. The failure, however, was not so much the failure to deliver the promises but that the promises were undeliverable in the first place. 

Boris Johnson’s Tories in 2019 promised 40 new hospitals, reform of social care and levelling-up. Social care and regional inequality are immense challenges with which governments of all parties had wrestled for decades. Anyone in 2019 who pointed this out, however, was dismissed as a doomster.   

To the extent that these objectives could be met, they required a strong and sustained focus across government on policy development and implementation (not a strong point of the Johnson administration) and a significant increase in public spending. The latter would have to be paid for by higher borrowing or higher taxes, both of which had been ruled out.  Inevitably, the big promises of 2019 on public services, social care and levelling-up were broken. 

The 2019 Conservative manifesto was not the first to promise lower immigration but this government had to cope with the dislocating effects of the end of freedom of movement and a pandemic. It mitigated what would otherwise have been a labour market crisis by liberalising immigration policy. Combined with a humane (and popular) response to events in Ukraine and Hong Kong, net migration surged to a record high of 745,000 and another promise was broken. 

Underlying all of this is Brexit. The 2019 Tory coalition relied very heavily on those who believed the implausible promises made to them in 2016: that Brexit would deliver the change they wanted and that, free of the European Union, the UK would be a better place for them and their family. By 2024, few believed that those hopes had been met. Leave-voters, in particular, were inevitably left disappointed. 

If the Conservatives’ response to the 2024 general election is to concentrate on winning back those voters, what will likely follow is a series of big promises along similar lines to those offered in 2019 – improved public services and redistribution to poorer regions but without higher taxes; lower immigration without any of the economic downsides; and delivering the illusory “benefits of Brexit”. 

Even the target audience for such claims would surely be sceptical of such promises given the Tory track record of 2019-24. Farage, for one, would question the credentials of a Conservative Party making such claims and argue that he was better placed to do so.   

There is now a well-established formula for how oppositions win power. In 1997, 2010 and now 2024, successful oppositions have been cautious about making ambitious promises and concentrated on reassuring the public that they would deliver competent government. The larger the promises, the more sceptical the electorate. 

Concentrating on Reform voters would be a mistake. It is not just that there are not enough of them, or that it will drive centrist voters to Labour or the Liberal Democrats (although this is true), but that it requires making promises that few would expect to be delivered. For a party that must recover its reputation for integrity and competence, that is a very bad idea.

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This article appears in the 10 Jul 2024 issue of the New Statesman, All Change