Boris Johnson heads a Government of staggeringly incompetent liars. Their mistakes over the management of the pandemic have resulted in one of the highest death rates in any developed economy, whilst they have wasted eye-watering sums of money on failed contracts that have been awarded without competition to their friends and allies. How is it comprehensible that they can be ahead of a Labour opposition of sane, sober, competent and level-headed pragmatists?
The biggest dividing line in UK voting behaviour is between young and old. According to YouGov polling, Labour took 55% of the votes of 18–24-year-olds but the share shrinks continually as age increases. Labour took a larger share of the vote than the conservatives in all groups under 40, while the Conservatives took a larger share in each group over 40, with the lead increasing with age. Education is another dividing line, with the conservatives taking 58% of the votes of those educated to GCSE level or below, but a little less than 30% of those educated to degree level, where labour took 43% and other left-of-centre parties nearly all of the rest. The big expansion of higher education in recent years means that younger people are also better educated on average, so the two effects are not independent of each other.
Social class is no longer a predictor of voting intentions, with the conservatives ahead in both ABC1 white collar occupations and C2DE blue collar jobs. However, although people no longer vote according to class as determined by occupation, those with wealth remain far more likely to vote conservative. As one indicator, the conservatives lead labour on voting intentions among owner occupiers, but lag far behind among those in rented accommodation. This is also likely to be in large part a reflection of the age divide.
Recent surveys of voter intentions show that electors view COVID 19 as by far the most important issue that will determine their vote if an election were held tomorrow. Allowing for higher turnout among older voters, roughly half of all conservative voters in the 2019 general election were over 60, the age group that accounts for over 90% of COVID 19 deaths. It might seem that miss-management of an epidemic that overwhelmingly kills the old should be bad for the future electoral prospects of the conservatives, who draw so much of their support from this group. There are two reasons why the health impact of the pandemic is not the main influence on voter intentions: –
- Though devastating for those affected, only a relatively small proportion of the population has been directly affected by the COVID 19 related death or serious ill-health of someone to whom they were close. A death toll of 145,000 or so, if we take all of those cases where COVID 19 was mentioned on the death certificate, represents only 0.22% of the population. It compares to a normal annual death toll of about 600,000. Some of those who died were in the last stage of life and would have died from other causes – excess deaths have turned negative in recent weeks, reflecting the fact that a significant proportion of those who died with COVID 19 had their lives shortened by months rather than years. Adding in those who have experienced symptoms for 5 weeks or more raises the share of the population who have experienced serious health consequences from the pandemic to about 1.5% of the population. Those most at risk have now been vaccinated, so fear for the future is also much diminished.
- For most of us, the most significant impact of the epidemic has been on livelihoods and lifestyles. Here, as I will show, the population in general, and conservative voters in particular, have fared far better than they might have expected.
According to the Bank of England, about 20% of households reported experiencing financial difficulty due to COVID 19, but experience is very variable. About 28% of households experienced some reduction in income as a result of the pandemic, while 65% had no change and 8% actually saw their incomes rise.
Although nearly three quarters of households experienced no reduction in income, 57% reduced their spending, partly due to lockdown preventing spending on holidays and recreation, and partly a precautionary response. As a consequence, total household savings have increased by about 8% since the start of the pandemic.
Among retirees and high and middle-income households, a clear majority increased their savings. Incomes and wealth typically rise with age and experience, and thus we can conclude that the group in the population from whom the conservatives draw the majority of their votes have actually improved their wealth during the pandemic. This is confirmed by very recent data from a March 2021 YouGov poll. This found that 74% of those who voted conservative in the 2019 election increased or maintained their savings during the pandemic, compared to 62% of labour voters, with the median increase of £5000 by conservative voters compared to £3000 by those who voted labour.
Among those who are employed but on low incomes, the Bank of England found that there is not much change in income or expenditure, with similar proportions of households increasing or reducing savings. Only among the group of unemployed and furloughed workers is there clear evidence of a majority of households drawing down their savings in order to maintain their spending. Even among furloughed workers, only 35% reported reducing their savings.
In summary, the picture that emerges is one in which the conservative Government has been able to protect the majority of the population from the economic consequences of the pandemic. Partly because of the sharp reduction in household expenditure, Government has been able to massively increase Government spending without having to raise taxes and without causing inflation: see my previous blog post for a slightly more technical discussion of how this is possible. The consequence is that most (but by no means all) of the population feel better off than they expected to at this stage in the pandemic. They may be aware that some aspects of the pandemic have been very poorly managed, but they are more influenced by two things the Government has seemed to get right from their perspective:- rolling out immunisation, and protecting their incomes.
Those who have suffered most from the pandemic are less likely to be conservative voters.
The young have had their education and career prospects blighted and their social life severely disrupted.
Those working in the public sector in health, education, and social care in particular have had a horrible and stressful year. There is no data on their voting habits, but anecdotal evidence and a consideration of self-interest suggests that the conservatives are unlikely to have a lead in this group.
A significantly higher proportion of BAME households reported themselves as struggling financially at the onset of the pandemic, and the major study undertaken of the impact on ethnic minority households confirmed that they have been disproportionately affected. This will have little impact on the conservative vote because BAM|E households are overwhelmingly labour supporting. For example, a November 2020 poll by Number Cruncher Politics found 61% support for Labour among non-white voters compared to just 14% for the conservatives. This result is something of an outlier, but all polls give Labour a substantial lead among non-white voters, though differences in turn-out reduce the impact at the polls:- only 39% of BAME respondents in the same poll said they were ‘very likely’ to vote in a general election compared to 61% of white respondents.
Of course, elderly conservative voters have children and grandchildren, they are the heaviest users of health and social care, and are presumably no less compassionate than the rest of the population. It would be unwise to assume that they do not care about what happens to the young or to the low paid health and care workers who look after their nearest and dearest. Nevertheless, their perception of how well the pandemic is being handled will be dominated by the success of the vaccination campaign, and by the fact that their personal finances have largely escaped unscathed. Even the low income red wall voters have fared far better than might have been expected.
I am not sure whether the interventions to combat COVID 19 were deliberately skewed towards conservative political advantage, or whether this was just an unintended consequence that reflects the fact that economic shocks almost always bear most heavily on the most vulnerable. When the 5th March 2021 edition of a conservative newspaper like the Financial Times says that the bias towards Tory seats in the ‘Levelling Up Fund is ‘pretty blatant’, it seems like a question that is worth asking.
 Ncpolitics, op cit
 How has Covid-19 affected the finances of UK households? | Bank of England
 Savings during COVID, Survey Report (yougov.com)
 ONS, C|oronavirus and ethnicity: a summary of what we know, 14 D|ecember 2020
 Ncpolitics.uk, ITV C|ovid-19 poll, November 2020
2 thoughts on “Why are the Conservatives ahead in the polls?”
Interesting and sobering read. Understanding what keeps the votes blue is essential if we’re going try and persuade people to change their colours; the challenge now is how to appeal to more than their immediate self interest.