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.
One thought on “How do the Tories keep winning elections?”
You rightly say ‘The main dividing lines in voting patterns in the UK are no longer social class but are instead age and education’. The trouble with younger (even educated) people is that they get older, and that pulls enough of them into the Tory gravitational field. With the average age rising (UK median 40.7 years in 2021), that’s bad news.