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May’s Conservatives: closer to a genuinely national party than Thatcher in ’83?

May’s Conservatives: closer to a genuinely national party than Thatcher in ’83?

🕔19.May 2017

You might think, given the record of opinion polls in the 2015 election campaign, that there’d be slightly fewer of them this time. Dream on, writes Chris Game!  So far this month they’ve averaged more than one a day, including no fewer than two that have put Labour’s support at 32% – or higher than at any time since last November.

That, though, is about as good as the party’s otherwise totally craptacular stats get. The Conservatives’ overall lead in these 19 polls has averaged 18%, prompting even one of Labour’s chief supporters and funders to suggest that emerging with just 200 Labour MPs would qualify as a successful campaign – before, that is, UNITE General Secretary, Len McCluskey, realised he’d misspoken.

That would in fact be Labour’s worst result since 1935, worse even than 1983, when under Michael Foot’s leadership it was reduced to 209 MPs. And, while the PM may understandably wince at personal comparisons with Margaret Thatcher and in her party’s ‘Reddish Tory’ Maynifesto has distanced herself ideologically, it is that 1983 election with which comparisons are likely increasingly to be made, starting in the second part of this blog.

The first part looks at something arguably more interesting – the regional variations in current voting intentions, as collated by YouGov in a total GB sample of over 17,400 respondents, and a comparison with the actual votes in the 2015 election, summarised in the central sections of the table below.







The so-called ‘headline voting intention’ that would have been reported in YouGov’s late April/early May polls – that is, excluding ‘don’t know’s and ‘won’t say’s and weighted by respondents’ self-described likelihood to vote – would show the Conservatives with a 16% lead over Labour, with the Lib Dems on about 10% and UKIP around 7% and sliding.

The modesty of the Lib Dems’ post-2010 recovery, the recent collapse of UKIP, and the performance of other smaller parties are obviously important and will be decisive in many individual constituencies.

But my main concern here is the bigger picture: the variation in the Conservatives’ current lead across the regions, and the extent to which the figures support the claim that Theresa May seems increasingly keen to make of her party being truly national in its appeal and support.

We’re used to seeing political maps of the UK, whether of national or local government, from what might be called a ‘geographic’ viewpoint: each constituency or council a blob of appropriate colour the relative size of its land area. And, as shown in the left of the three representations of the 2015 election outcome, a visitor would probably conclude that, in England and Wales at least, we’re already there: more or less a one-party state.







Indeed, had you shown a visitor, as I used to, a similar map of New Labour’s all-time record 418-seat triumph in 1997, they might well have guessed even then that it was the blue lot that were bossing the country.

In this respect, the West Midlands is a scale model of the whole. We heard repeatedly during the mayoral election campaign how, in the country’s biggest metropolitan region outside London, Labour in 2015 had a roughly 10% lead over the Conservatives.

Check the map, though, and all those votes and seats amount to a minuscule red smudge in an ocean of blue. Indeed, London itself is a not much bigger smudge – but more of that later.

In that respect, other ways of mapping the same 2015 results give at least a slightly truer-looking representation – or have done in the past.

Now, though, following the local elections, Conservatives are the largest party in every English county and county unitary authority except Durham, and the regional YouGov polls tell the same story. The swing of support between the two major parties since May 2015, coupled with the respective performances of UKIP and the Lib Dems, has put us on the brink of becoming, as well as just looking, a one-party state.

In under two years, one English region, Yorkshire/Humber, has swung from majority Labour to majority Conservative. A second, the North West, has seen a 14% lead completely disappear.

And, perhaps most strikingly, Wales and Scotland, for decades dominated almost monopolistically by Labour, are both currently showing the Conservatives with a clear two-party voting lead.

In general, and with one big exception, the below-average 2015-17 swings from Labour to Conservative have been in the already strongest Tory areas – the South East, South West, and East of England.

And the above-average swings have been in the traditionally strongest Labour areas, where they can make the relatively greater electoral impact: the North East, an early deliverer in the form of an unexpected mayoral victory in Tees Valley; the North West, May’s choice for the launch of her party’s manifesto; the Midlands, Scotland and Wales.

The elephantine exception to all this is obviously London, increasingly unmoored in so many respects, it seems, from the rest of the country. Current voting intentions don’t quite match the 44% to 35% split in 2015, and with which Sadiq Khan won the mayoralty last year, but they’re very close.

London’s real political exceptionalism, however, is shown when we start comparing with 1983 and the figures shown in the final columns of my table. In that election the regional voting figures in London and the West Midlands were close to identical: 44/45% Conservative, 30/31% Labour, 25/27% SDP-Liberal Alliance, and in both cases a 14% Conservative lead.

By 2015 that lead had been reduced to 9% the West Midlands, but in London had been reversed to one of 9% for Labour. And over the past two years that divergence has accelerated, with the Conservatives 23% ahead in the West Midlands and Labour 5% ahead in London.

The last (bracketed) column in the table is intended to take advantage of the fact that nationally the Conservatives’ current lead in voting intentions is effectively the same as that achieved by Margaret Thatcher’s party in 1983, and to see how the different regions compare and contrast.

Headed massively by London there are 4 minus signs, but the 7 pluses suggest that May’s Conservatives are indeed developing a claim to be a more genuinely nationally supported party than we’ve seen for at least several decades.

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