Most of those registered to vote do not want a Conservative Government, yet they keep getting elected! How does this happen? Democracy campaigner and author of The Tory Winning Machine, Adam Herriott, explores the reasons.
The Conservative Party has always been the party of the rich and powerful. The Tory Party operates to form governments that defend the interests of the wealthy at the expense of ordinary people. Over the last 13 years, the Tories have destroyed the economy, presided over a deep cost-of-living crisis that has resulted in a third of children now living in poverty, have massively reduced public spending, refused to tackle climate change effectively, attacked our democracy, undermined public services, weakened trade unions, failed to deal with the housing crisis, and operated a racist, authoritarian, populist immigration policy that scapegoats entire communities.
So how is it that the Tories are the most successful and dominant political party in Britain? This has puzzled me for years. The Tory Party may be tearing itself apart at the moment, but history shows that they always make a comeback. To stop them from dominating in the future, we need to understand why they have been so successful in the past. It is possible to end this destructive cycle and chart a new path for the country, one which serves the interests of ordinary people instead of the rich. To collectively beat the Tories and limit the damage they can do in the future, we need to understand them.
The Tories are driven to win elections, form governments, and hold on to power, to maintain the social order and to prevent Labour from forming governments that threaten this goal. The Tories want to maintain the power and legitimacy of the elite and the rich, and stop the redistribution of wealth. They do this in government by forcing their values and interests on society, and blocking their main opponent, the Labour Party, from promoting its values of moderate redistribution when in government.
I have identified some reasons for the Tories’ election success:
- The UK voting system: the UK’s ‘first-past-the-post’ (FPTP) system puts those parties on the left and centre-left at a disadvantage, forcing them to fight over the same voters, and ‘splitting the vote’, whereas the Tories do not generally have to compete with other parties on the right, which gives Tory candidates an easier path to victory. Additionally, the Tory vote is more widely dispersed around the country, meaning they generally win more seats by a small number of votes, whereas Labour pile up thousands of ‘wasted’ votes in safe seats in urban areas and some industrial regions. Low turnout usually benefits the Tories; many people who might vote for other parties are disillusioned and disengaged from politics, and don’t bother voting. In addition, FPTP makes it easy for the Tories to change parliamentary constituency boundaries to their advantage – this is known as ‘gerrymandering’.
- Leaders with broad appeal: compared with the Labour Party, the Tory Party has a record of picking leaders who appear more credible and have broad appeal to voters and win elections, The Tories are also much more ruthless at removing leaders that are no longer popular and likely to result in the Party losing the next election.
- Appearing unified: the Tories know that to keep winning, they need to stay united in public. The party has learnt from its own painful history, and from watching the Labour Party, that if a political party is seen by voters as being divided, that is a sure way of losing elections. The Tories generally pick leaders who prioritise party unity over the needs of the country. Even if Tory MPs don’t agree with the leader’s policies or strategy, they and the broader party are generally very loyal to their leader – as long as they seem likely to win the next general election. Historically, Tory Party leadership elections are normally conducted with little fuss and damage to the party, and once a new leader is selected, the party moves on to focus on winning the next election. Recently, however, the Tories have been appearing less united.
- High levels of adaptability: the Tories are extremely adaptable and pragmatic and will do whatever is needed to win the next election. The party has a flexible ideology and little internal democracy, meaning the leader has significant control over its direction and policies. The party has a long history of effectively adapting to locate itself on the centre ground of British politics, where a majority of swing voters are located. Large sections of the current Tory Party, however, seem to have forgotten the importance of being pragmatic, and are over-focused on ideology.
- Ability to bounce back: throughout the 20th century, when defeated, the Tory Party quickly worked out a strategy to regain power. This has meant that the party has been in opposition for far less time than its opponents; although it does seem to be struggling with this skill in the 21st century.
- Strong organisation of the party: the Tories have a history of superior party organisation at national, regional and local levels. This has given them the edge in close elections and has helped them bounce back quickly from defeat. The current Tory Party, however, is struggling with fundraising, and is losing large numbers of activists due to a general expectation they are going to lose the next election.
- Protecting the interests of the wealthy, in turn attracts wealthy donors: the Tory Party is the political organisation of the rich, and operates to protect their interests. It is therefore well-funded by corporations and wealthy individuals, so it can outspend its opponents on election campaigns – helping the party to win more elections. In the past, the party has consistently raised more money to fund the party and its campaigns than its opponents, but now many Tory donors are no longer funding the party, and many businesses are now funding the Labour Party because it looks more likely to win the next election.
- Creating appeal as the natural party of government: the Tory Party’s electoral dominance results in a self-reinforcing perception that it is seen as the ‘natural’ party of government. During the 20th century, the Tories developed a broad appeal to voters through their ‘one nation’ tradition, and came to be viewed as a party with mass appeal, with membership peaking at 2.8 million in the 1950s. The Tories have claimed for themselves the appearance of ‘common sense’ – arguing ‘that their policies are practical, reasonable and measured because they are aligned with public opinion. The party is seen by many voters to stand for stability and continuity, the defender of tradition and Britain’s ‘proud’ history. The Tories have also effectively identified themselves with the British nation. This ‘patriotism and support for national greatness through rose-tinted nostalgia for the British Empire, and institutions such as the Commonwealth, the monarchy, the military and winning wars is very popular with ‘swing’ voters and voters on the right and centre ground. The Tories are currently failing to present themselves in this way, and Labour are working hard to be seen as being as patriotic and proud of Britain’s institutions.
- Tory statecraft. The Tory Party has developed a method of ‘statecraft’ to win elections and hold onto power once in government. This is a cycle that starts in opposition, to win the next general election and form a government, then go on to win a second term. Tory statecraft is made up of five components: effective party management, a strategy to win the next election, winning the political argument, competence in government, and winning the following election.
- Being seen as competent at governing the country: the Tories are very effective at projecting governing and economic competence. Governing competence requires a credible leader, managing events and crises well, continued party unity, and administering the economy successfully to ensure prosperity; but the Tories are now failing on governing and economic competence.
- Skill at ‘manufacturing’ new Tory voters: in the past, the Tories have proved effective at creating Tory voters, over the long term. An advantage of being in power most of the time means they can bring in policies that benefit Tory voters and swing voters, which helps the party win future elections. Historically, the Tories have broadened their appeal with social reforms, housebuilding, selling off council houses, privatisation and public share sell-offs, using economic policy for political advantage, (‘pork-barrel politics’), and have tilted the electoral playing field in their favour. However, over the last 13 years the Tories have completely failed to manufacture new Tory voters amongst young and middle-aged people, by not building enough houses, underfunding public services, crashing the economy, not tackling climate change, and attacking British democracy.
- Create distractions and blame others to cover up their failures: the Tories use several underhand tactics to explain away their failure to govern in people’s interests, which enables them to keep winning elections. These include creating distractions and blaming others, inventing domestic and foreign enemies from whom only the Tories can save the country, crushing opponents in opposition parties or the trade unions, and using dirty tricks and illegal methods to keep winning. The current Tories are working very hard to distract voters with their vile immigration policies. They also blame every social group they can think of for our social ills. Opinion polls are showing this is not working.
- Produce appealing electoral programmes and manifestos: they avoid making many specific commitments, instead giving general indications related to consistent themes in Tory election propaganda, such as patriotism, tax cuts, economic competence, family, defence, law and order. The Tories also pay large amounts of money for advertising professionals to come up with appealing election slogans. Since 2010, the Tories have taken breaking election promises to a new level. They have systematically and intentionally lied about popular policy announcements during election campaigns, knowing they have no intention of keeping these commitments.
- Superior campaigning and communications methods: the Tory Party have developed more effective electioneering techniques than their opponents over the last 123 years. They quickly adapt to new communication and campaign technology, including radio, cinema vans (used in the 1920s/30s to show Tory propaganda films), television, use of computers, direct mail, and more recently the internet and especially social media. The Tories use their funding advantage to hire expensive external professionals to advise them, including advertising agencies, opinion polling, mass-communication professionals, expensive election-winning experts and strategists.
- Right-wing media bias: there is a direct relationship between the Tories’ success at winning elections and staying in power for long periods, and the right-wing media bias in their favour. There are significantly more Tory-supporting newspapers, so over the long term, the Tory-supporting papers are read by many more voters than Labour-supporting papers. The Tory press sets the public agenda, both during election periods and between elections. These papers also influence the broadcasting and online news reporting by the BBC. During election campaigns, any disagreements between the Tory press and the Tory party are forgotten. The Tory-supporting media become a unified, coordinated, sophisticated, ruthless machine, funded by a small number of billionaires with multiple press and broadcasting outlets to appeal to a broad range of people. The Tory press help the party by spreading Tory party lies, distorting reality, repeating lies until they are believed, covering for Tory party failure, and discrediting or attacking the Labour party and its leaders. All of this is ongoing and will help the Tories significantly at the next election.
- Skilled at building voter coalitions: the Tories have proven to be consistently more effective at building ‘voter coalitions’ than the Labour Party. They achieve this by winning over key voter constituencies that have particular strategic leverage within marginal seats, by extending the party’s appeal beyond their core voter base. The Tories have built voter coalitions of well-off middle-class voters in the south and in rural seats, with millions of aspirational working-class voters across the country. A majority of the middle and upper-class support the Tories (although middle-class support has weakened recently). About a quarter to a third of working-class voters have always supported the Tories, and this has increased since the 1980s. Most older people and homeowners have always supported the Tories more than Labour. The Tories have more support in the south, the midlands and in rural areas. The Tories started making gains in northern ‘red wall’ Labour seats in the 2017 and 2019 elections, although they have now lost most of the red wall voters that were gained in 2019, many of whom will vote Labour at the next general election. Many previously loyal Tory voters may simply not vote at the next election – there will be a low turnout – but those voters who oppose the Tories will turn out in huge numbers, making a Labour majority government likely.
- Better at understanding voters’ psychology: I have identified six broad reasons why people vote for the Tories: fear of the opposition; self-interest; ideology; identity group; ignorance and misinformation due to propaganda lies and the media; and working-class conservatism. In addition, the Tories understand moral psychology better than their opposition. Their slogans, political advertising and speeches appeal to emotions and values. The Tories understand that politics is more like religion than shopping: people are drawn to a populist vision that claims to unite the nation and call it to greatness. The Tory party is good at providing this appealing vision, even if it is empty and not achieved; whereas generally, Labour and the Liberal Democrats focus more on policies and the benefits they offer voters.
- The Tories’ opponents struggle to compete: and the reasons are largely a mirror of those listed above. Money, the antagonistic mainstream media, the persistent fiction that Labour are spendthrift etc all play their part. The current Labour Party under Keir Starmer is clearly focused on winning power and doing what is necessary to appeal to crucial swing voters in marginal seats; however, while this approach may be strategic, it is having the effect of alienating many on the left of the party.
I believe we can improve the dire state of British society. Many developed Western countries have a much better-functioning state, that offers more protection for the less-fortunate in society. Of course, all countries have problems, but Britain has extreme levels of inequality and a broken political system. It does not have to be this way. The pro-democracy and anti-Tory movement is gaining momentum in Britain across dozens of organisations, groups and campaigns. Thousands of people have had enough of Tory misrule and are ready for our political system to be transformed. I want to encourage you to take heart that you are not alone: there are people who feel the same up and down the country. There are campaigns and roles for everyone if you are ready to take action.
Those of us who want a better society have a unique opportunity to lay the groundwork over the next year while the Tories are still in office, to prepare for a Labour government – because that is when the hard work begins. Sadly, simply electing a Labour government is not enough; we will need to apply pressure on the Labour Party to push it towards the world we want. A Labour government will not do what is necessary without us demanding it. I understand that with the Tories far behind Labour in the polls, it is tempting to sit back and do nothing, but this is a mistake. If we want progressive change for our country, we must take proactive action now, or we’ll miss our chance.
So what must we do to improve things? To stop the Tories in the short term, we need mass tactical voting, to remove Tory MPs at the next election. The next election will likely be in the Spring or Autumn 2024. This will be a defensive election for the Tories – trying to minimise their losses – and an offensive one for the opposition parties. We need industrial-scale tactical voting, and there will be multiple tactical voting websites, including the one I’m involved in – Stop The Tories. Vote – to help with this.
The Tories are currently far behind the Labour Party in opinion polls, and following the Tories’ 2023 local elections disaster (where they lost over 1,000 Councillors), a Labour government looks likely after the next election. However, the polls will narrow between now and the election; the Tories’ election campaign will also reduce Labour’s opinion-poll lead, combined with the Tories’ boundary changes to the parliamentary seats and the introduction of voter ID at polling stations to help them win more seats. We can’t assume anything and must work on the basis that those who oppose the Tories must do everything possible to remove them from power.
To stop the Tories long term, we need broad and deep political and constitutional reform. This is not sexy or exciting, but it is the reality of the situation. Britain’s political system is clearly broken and needs significant reform. It helps the Tories win more elections before turning around and wrecking the country. Electoral reform is the key to bringing in the changes we need to make more reforms possible and weaken the Tories. We need a strong form of proportional representation (PR), either the Single Transferable Vote or Open Party Lists. Introducing PR would improve our politics in multiple ways, with more progressive governments and fewer Tory governments – although it would also force those Tory governments to be more moderate to win power. It would also help reduce the extreme inequality in Britain, and improve living standards. Finally, it would help protect any new progressive reforms and make governments more accountable to voters.
The other political reforms we need are: extending voting to 16 year olds, House of Lords reform and replacement, election spending reform, media reform, devolving powers from our over-centralised state, new laws to hold governments to account for any damaging policies and any abuses of power, protecting the independence of the judiciary, strengthening the Human Rights Act to protect our rights … and we need all these reforms included in a written, codified constitution – one in which key constitutional provisions are provided for within a single document..
The Conservatives will never back electoral reform, so, as things stand, only a Labour government would be in a position to do so . The party’s membership and the large trade unions strongly back proportional represnetation. However, Starmer has said it is not a priority for the next election. There is a rational caution to this, even if I would prefer Labour to commit to electoral reform in next year’s general election manifesto.
Labour’s National Policy Forum (NPF), which develops party policy for the election manifesto, has recently come out against our current electoral system, (FPTP), which is encouraging. The NPF statement on electoral reform says that there is no consensus on a replacement electoral system, and that the Labour Party will not introduce a reform in a top-down way. This has led to calls to build a large national campaign that ‘punches through’ to the public in the same way as the EU ‘Remain’ or Green New Deal campaigns achieved. There are campaigns to raise awareness about electoral reform – such as Make Votes Matter and Get PR Done – but these are not cutting through yet. Work has begun on this campaign, to be launched after the general election, when we hope to have a Labour government.
Even with a national campaign, the next Labour government and MPs will need to be heavily lobbied in different ways. Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform (LCER), and more recently Labour for a New Democracy (L4ND), have been leading the electoral reform campaign inside the Labour Party and trade unions, to get us to this historical point in terms of support for changing our voting system. So if you agree we need electoral reform and you are a Labour Party member, join LCER and get involved.
Even with a national electoral reform campaign that meets the Labour Party’s criteria, there may still be resistance from the right of the party, so it may be necessary to get creative with campaigns and tactics, to apply pressure in different ways to force the party to introduce this crucial reform.
Adam Herriott is a democracy campaigner and the author of The Tory Winning Machine: Why the Conservative Party keeps winning elections and what we can do to stop them.