How do the Tories keep winning elections?

The conservatives won a 66 seat majority in 2019, but less than 30 % of the electorate voted for them. They received just 44% of the votes of the two thirds of us who bothered to vote.

This is not unusual. Since 1945, not a single Government in the UK has taken power with a majority of the votes cast, and none has had the votes of more than 40% of the electorate. Ironically the party that came closest was Labour in 1951, when they received the votes of 40 % of the electorate and 49% of those cast- despite which they lost the election to the Conservatives who had a 17 seat majority.

The percentage of the electorate who voted for the winners has been less than 30 % in every election this century. This has happened for two reasons.

Firstly, turnout has fallen from an average of 76% in the 1945-1999 period to just 65% in the current century. The lowest turnout was 2001 when less than 60% of people voted and Tony Blair won a 167 seat majority with the votes of just 24% of the electorate.

The second reason why Governments can win power with a lower share of the vote is that the two main parties no longer command the loyalty of nearly all of the population. Until 1970, the combined share of the vote taken by the conservative and Labour parties averaged over 90%. The rise of the SNP and other nationalist parties and later of UKIP have split the vote. The share of the two main parties fell to 65% in 2010 before recovering to 83% in 2019 as BREXIT and the coalition dimmed the appeal of UKIP and the Liberal Democrats. More fundamentally, the drastic decline in manufacturing jobs and in trade union membership has eroded the class basis of political parties in the UK. The main dividing lines in voting patterns in the UK are no longer social class but are instead age and education- with younger and better educated people more inclined to vote for Labour and other left and centre parties, though unfortunately they have lower turnout. The Tory bias in policy in favour of the elderly is no accident.

The situation would be bad enough if parties only had to gain the support of 30 % of the population, but in practice they need to influence even fewer voters. Over 500 of the 650 seats in parliament were won with majorities of more than 10%, and 68 seats had majorities of more than 45%. This means that the votes of many of us simply don’t matter- the incumbent party is very unlikely to be ousted. It also means that parties can achieve power by appealing to the interests and prejudices of a very narrow group of voters in a fairly small number of relatively marginal constituencies. The scope for unethical and even corrupt practices in order to sway the vote is obvious, and can be seen in the politically biased allocation of levelling up funds, and the dog- whistle policies of scapegoating refugees to name just two policy areas.

UK Economic Growth Performance since 1960

A 2015 post on this blog looked at economic performance under Labour and Tory Governments and concluded that there wasn’t much difference overall, but that Labour distributed the gains of economic growth more equitably and was a better custodian of public services. This post provides a partial update focusing on economic growth.

I compared UK economic growth with the average of all of the wealthy countries that are members of the OECD using data on the World Bank web site accessed on 11th March 2023. This reveals:-

I. The UK has been falling behind the average of OECD countries for most of the last 60 years. The average OECD country had a GDP that was nearly six times larger in 2021 than in 1960 whereas UK GDP had increased less than fourfold ( OECD average 588% of 1960 level, UK just 388%).

2. The UK economy did keep pace with the average of the OECD countries over the period from 1992-2010, the improvement having started under the Conservatives from about 1993 but being maintained under Labour from 1997-2010, with the financial crisis of 2008 resulting in only a modest dip in relative performance. The performance under Labour is all the more impressive because improvements in economic growth were successfully used to reduce poverty and improve public services.

3. The period of conservative Government since 2010 has seen a return to relative decline. The UK economy was only 10% larger in 2021 than in 2010, whereas the rich countries as a group had grown by 20% – twice as much.

4. As documented in other posts on this blog, the Tory Government has not only performed poorly on economic growth. It has also presided over a collapse in the quality and availability of public services, and a massive increase in poverty and inequality, while it’s BREXIT policies have significantly increased the difficulty and cost of investing in and trading with the UK, reducing our future growth potential.