New Times,
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  1. Election 2024
29 May 2024

The problem with the Tories’ core vote strategy

Rishi Sunak’s pandering to the base could alienate undecided moderates.

By Rachel Cunliffe

No group has fared better under 14 years of Conservative government than pensioners. The triple lock (intended as a temporary measure when it was brought in by the coalition government) has ensured the state pension has steadily increased even as workers’ wages stagnated. Since it was introduced in 2011/12 it is estimated to have grown by £78 billion. On average, pensioners are statistically more likely to live in households with assets over £1 million than they are to live in poverty.

They somehow still managed to feel aggrieved. Jeremy Hunt’s main giveaway in the Spring Budget was a reduction in National Insurance – a tax that pensioners are already exempt from. This prompted Janet Street Porter (aged 77) on Loose Women to accuse Rishi Sunak of hating her age cohort. Yes: a cut in tax that could not be cut for pensioners, because pensioners don’t pay it, was framed as proof that Sunak and Hunt “hate” the elderly.

One takeaway from this mathematically illiterate argument is that the pensioner cohort will never be satisfied: even as they were being given an extra £900 a year thanks to the uplift in the triple lock, the reflex was to accuse the prime minister of letting them down.

The other lesson, though, is that the Tories are in trouble with their core vote base. This concerning realisation has led to a new (and somewhat desperate sounding) policy: “triple lock plus” (also known as the “quadruple lock”).

Sunak, it seems, took it to heart when Street Porter accused him of hating pensioners. The Tories, he has promised, will ensure that the state pension is not only protected from external economic forces by increasing in line with inflation, wage growth or 2.5 per cent (whichever is highest); it will be protected from tax too. Increasing the tax threshold for pensions will cost £2.4bn a year – for context, that’s about how much it would cost to scrap the two-child benefit cap, which would lift 490,000 children out of poverty.

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This is an interesting policy priority for an election. The over-70s – Street Porter’s cohort – are the only age group where support for the Conservatives (39 per cent, according to YouGov) is higher than for Labour (25 per cent). At the other end of the scale, the numbers look dire: 18-24 year-olds back Labour over the Tories by 57 to 8. And even among those aged 40-49 (not usually bracketed as “the young”), Labour support is over three times Conservative support.

A party hoping to reverse their dire poll ratings and have a hope of winning the election needs to increase its support across the age range. Instead, Sunak has focused his first election giveaways on the group already most likely to back him.

His other big policy announcement so far, a nonsensical “national service” plan which falls apart as soon as the details are scrutinised, also seems certain to disgust young people and be met with derision by the parents of anyone who might be affected. But for a generation nostalgic about an era they (for the most part) didn’t live through but have grown up glorifying, it has more appeal.

This, then, is the Tory strategy: retrenchment. It’s not about winning over Labour supporters or even undecided swing voters, but rather doubling down on the party’s core base, trying to ensure those who are already most likely to back it actually turn out on polling day. The triple lock plus and national service policies aren’t meant to appeal to young progressives or even mid-40s undecided voters; they’re meant to ensure that older, traditionally conservative people (particularly women, according to More In Common’s Luke Tryl) who voted Conservative in 2019 don’t stay home this time round.

We are likely to see similar attention from Sunak on the type of 2019 Tory voter who has been persuaded by Reform. With Reform keen to make this the “immigration election”, expect a big focus on the Rwanda flights (which the Tories have said will only take off if they win the election) and perhaps some new flashy policies aimed at deterring illegal channel crossings or slashing visa numbers. Again, this won’t appeal to the voters deciding between Labour and the Tories (whose vote would count double, if Sunak could only win them over), but will be aimed at keeping Tory-Reform switchers to a minimum.

The problem for the Conservatives with this strategy is two-fold. First, there’s a real risk pandering to their base alienates undecided moderates, making it counter-productive in terms of numbers.  Even younger Conservatives are horrified with the triple lock plus plan, for example, and there’s a growing list of Tory figures from the not-too-distant past who abhor the Rwanda plan.

There’s no guarantee it will work. Richard Tice and Nigel Farage are not going to let up in their criticism of the government’s immigration record, regardless of what Sunak announces. Polling suggests just a small fraction of Reform supporters would consider switching back to the Tories. Pensioners too cannot be relied upon to be appreciative. On the day Sunak announced the triple lock plus, it was immediately dubbed “too little, too late”.

Maybe Sunak should have learnt the first lesson from Janet Street Porter’s attack. Whatever the facts, some people will never be grateful.

[See also: Does Keir Starmer have anything to fear from the left?]  

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