Most analysis of the electoral battleground is based on people’s voting behaviour. In my latest research I have taken a different approach to building the Conservative voting coalition – breaking down the electorate by their attitudes to opportunity, personal responsibility, and the role of government in their lives. Is there a definable group of people whose outlook on life ought to make them Tories, but who vote for another party?
My research identifies five distinct segments within the voting public.
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Just under a third of the population are “Optimistic Individualists”. Broadly, they believe hard work rather than social factors determine success, want a limited role for the state, dislike redistribution, are optimistic for themselves and the country and value strong leadership over empathy. They account for two thirds of current Tory support.
“Downbeat Dependants”, one in seven of the population, overwhelmingly vote Labour. In essence, they think their lives have got worse and will continue to do so, that success comes through connections not hard work, and that the government should meet people’s needs through higher taxes on the rich.
“Liberal Idealists”, another one in seven, also incline to Labour, and often describe themselves as working class, though many are university-educated professionals. Though personally optimistic, they tend to believe a person’s circumstances when young have as much influence as their talent on whether they will succeed. They have a positive view of immigration and want a more equal distribution of wealth.
The final two groups will decide the outcome of the election. The “Entitlement Anxiety” segment accounts for more than a quarter of the population. They often think they have a raw deal from an unfair system which rewards others but not them. They feel insecure, but think people who do not work seem to have an easier time than they do; they sometimes ask themselves why they bother. They fear for their children’s prospects, and often blame immigration for stagnant wages and lack of jobs. They account for a third of Labour’s poll share, but just over a tenth of the Tories’.
“Suspicious Strivers”, who make up 15% of the population, have many of the attitudes that Conservatives might think make them natural supporters. They might even be thought of as the natural successors to the C2 voters that Margaret Thatcher won from Labour in the 1980s. They tend to think people expect too much from government, oppose penalising top earners with very high taxes, and value flexible labour markets. But Suspicious Strivers are so called because they are not sure their efforts will bring the rewards they should. They suspect that hard work counts for less than connections, and are sensitive to signals that striving goes unrewarded, or even counts against them, when they miss out on help which, as they see it, they would get if they worked less hard. They are the least likely of any group to identify with a political party, and have the highest UKIP vote – another symptom of their dissatisfaction with mainstream politics. The Tories won comfortably among Suspicious Strivers in 2010, but Labour are now ahead.
Many of these voters feel they are just coping or even struggling, but even the more comfortable were often little inclined to the Conservatives. This was often because they felt their situation was precarious: they feared they were one redundancy, interest rate rise or tax credit rule change away from real difficulty. While the Tories would be there for them if they succeeded (and may indeed have a more realistic approach to the economy as a whole), they would not want to have to rely on a Conservative government if they found themselves in trouble.
Conservatives often think there are millions of people who are Tory in everything but their voting habits – people who work hard, want to get on in life, aspire to own their own home and perhaps build their own business. In trying to connect with them, we should be careful with the term “Conservative values”. For most people, particularly those who do not vote for us, working hard to do your best for your family are not values that belong to the Conservatives but values that belong to them. Tories need to show we share their aspirations and anxieties, not tell them they are on our side already if only they would realise the fact.
We should also avoid thinking that strivers have a ruggedly individualistic approach to life and simply want the government to get out of their way to let them flourish. In fact what they want, as much as anything, is reassurance – that doing the right thing will be worth their while, and that if they needed help, deserving cases would get priority.
Conservatives are naturally most comfortable talking to the Optimistic Individualists whose outlook they share. But Tory losses since 2010 are concentrated among Entitlement Anxiety and Suspicious Strivers. Many of them agree with much of what Conservatives claim to stand for. All too often, though, while they can see the Tories are for people who have achieved material success, it is not clear we are for people like them who do the right thing but have little to show for it. Cameron’s task next week is to show that we are.