The 2015 General Election was a stunning Tory tactical success.They won a majority of Parliamentary seats with the second lowest share of the popular vote for any party achieving this in British history – only Tony Blair’s vote in 2005 was smaller. Cameron is the Tory Prime Minister, with a majority in Parliament, with the lowest share of the popular vote in history.The unpopularity of coalition policies was shown in a dramatic 15% fall in the share of the vote for its parties - from 59% to 44% – but the Tories ensured Liberal Democrats suffered 100% of the loss. Lynton Crosby earned every penny of his fees from Cameron.
But despite the tactical triumph did the Tories shift the social forces and underlying trends in British politics? And if they didn’t what will be the consequences?
To analyse this the starting point has to be not opinion polls but real elections – which determine political shifts. Figure 1 chart shows the modern Conservative party’s share of the vote at every election since its first in 1847 after the split of the old Tory Party over the corn laws. The story the chart tells is clear. Short term swings are superimposed on an underlying trend of rising Tory support for almost a century until 1931 and then decline for over 80 years.
This curve is not statistical oddity but clear social processes produced it, The modern Conservatives originated in the South East of England, outside London, in the mid-nineteenth century. Over nearly a century they rose to become Britain’s dominant party by adding, in chronological order, mass support in North West England, London, the West Midlands and Scotland. Tory decline was the progressive loss first of Scotland, then North West England, then the West Midlands and London. Now the Tories are back in their original rural and South East bastion.
It is certainly possible to misjudge short term swings – the present author mistakenly believed two years ago that Labour would be ahead of the Tories due to the unpopularity of the coalition’s austerity policies. But a still more basic question for the future of British politics is have the Tories reversed their decline? The answer is no.
To see why focus on the post-1931 vote – its downward shifting trend is clear as shown in Figure 2 which shows the descending part of the chart above. This thesis of ‘Tory decline,’ when I first produced the chart of this trend in 1983 at the height of Thatcher’s grip on politics, in my book Thatcher and Friends, was met with disbelief. But it met the test of seven out of the eight next general elections. It is certainly annoying for the author, and much more importantly tragic for the country, that in 2015 it didn’t. But as the chart shows the Tory 36.9% in 2015 doesn’t break the overall descending trendline.
The underlying social forces that had produced the overall decline continued to operate even in 2015. Tory support in Scotland fell further to 14.7% - in 1945-55 Conservatives had more support in Scotland than England. In the North of England there was a swing to Labour. In the South’s urban bastion, London, Labour won 45 seats to the Tories 27. In contrast, in the South outside London, the Tories won seats from Labour.
The Tories collapsed further back into their South of England and rural heartland. Despite the dramatic 15.2% collapse of Liberal Democratic votes the Tories could only pick up a tiny 0.8% in a winning year – although it is unusual for them to increase at all between election victories.
For future trends Scotland decided the election in a dual sense. First it saw a crushing rush of votes to an SNP to Labour’s left. That was then used to in a scare campaign aimed at persuading English voters into not supporting Labour – for Tory media demonic Scots occupied the place previously occupied by Jews, West Indians, Romanians etc.
It is totally improbable Labour will ever regain Scottish dominance – any Blairite shift by Labour in England will further distance it from a Scotland which found even Ed Miliband too right wing. Scotland in 2015 is the equivalent of two previous tectonic shifts in British politics - 1868 when Irish Home Rule supporters entered parliament and 1900 when Labour did.
If the ‘Tory decline’ thesis is correct the consequences of this are clear. Despite the tactical success Tory support will shift downwards. The last time the Tories ‘cheated’ social forces by astute tactics, in 1992, tensions broke out despite the victory. The political fault lines of Tory decline this time are clear.
Whether to break promises to Scotland on further devolution, whether to adopt the divisive principle of only English MPs voting on English issues?
On the EU Cameron always intended to call for a referendum ‘Yes’ regardless of whether Merkel makes concessions. But not only UKIP but part of the Tories will campaign for exit.
The economic recovery is based on foreign borrowing and much of the worst hardship on social services to come.
If the ‘Tory decline’ analysis is correct Cameron/Crosby’s tactical success will therefore not halt the deepening fall of the party’s support.
Given that in 2015 the Tories engineered a tiny 0.8% increase in their support it is legitimate to demand the ‘Tory decline’ thesis be examined. I believe the facts show this election was a great Tory tactical success but it cannot halt the fundamental trend undermining Tory support. Naturally if the future trends show the opposite, that the Tory increase was not a blip in a descending trend but the beginning of a real upward shift , then ‘Tory decline’ would have to be abandoned.
It probably wasn’t Keynes who said ‘When the facts change, I change my mind, what do you do?’ But whoever did was correct. So far seven general elections out of eight confirmed the analysis of ‘Tory decline.’ The facts of the next five years will be the test again. The social facts show the Tory decline will continue – shaping the most fundamental trends in British politics.