How the Tories can win a General Election and why Labour cannot win

Summary 

In the May 2019 European Elections the Brexit Party were clear winners, with the Liberal Democrats a respectable second with near 20% of the vote. The two major parties were both punished by the voters – the Conservatives for failing to deliver Brexit and Labour for sitting on the fence. Analysis of the results by council area indicate

  • Labour Party support is more concentrated that the Conservative support and has huge divides in terms of support for Brexit.
  • Conservative support is more thinly spread and concides with both Brexit Party and Lib Dem areas.
  • Strong anti-Brexit vote split between Lib Dems, Greens, SNP and Plaid Cymru, whilst pro-Brexit support concentrated in the Brexit Party.
  • Change UK and UKIP had low support and have faded since.

The data strongly suggests that the Conservative Party are the most vulnerable to complete annihilation as a major player, but are the one’s who will be the net gainers with a clear Brexit policy. A No-Deal Brexit platform could see the Tories win a landslide, even with little over a third of the popular vote. A clear Remain platform for Labour could improve their current poll ratings, but is both unlikely under the current policy and would be insufficient overtake a Tory Party with a clear Brexit Policy.

Introduction

The United Kingdom of Great Britain & Northern Ireland is anything but united. The country as a whole and Parliament is deeply divided over Brexit, with a majority unable to be reached for any outcome. Prime Minister Theresa May has resigned the leadership of the Conservative Party with a large field of candidates vying to replace her. 

The Prime Minster, and others, have tried to patch together a majority through some compromise formula. The Withdrawal Agreement negotiated with the European Union will does not satisfy either the majority who voted to Leave the European Union, nor those who want to cancel the Brexit process. The new Conservative Leader will have a form a majority around a position, with a large highly disatified minority. In my view that will only happen after another General Election where one of the two major parties establishes a clear Parliamentary majority either on their own or in coalition. From my analysis of the data – mostly from the EU Elections in May – the only stable Parliamentary outcome is for the Conservatives to win on a platform of a no-deal Brexit. Under the current circumstances, the Labour Party cannot come close to a majority, primarily due to a revived Liberal Democrats, but also from the Green Party and the nationalists in Scotland and Wales.

Four recent UK elections & Failing to Deliver Brexit

The current context should be understood in the light of four recent UK-wide elections. 

Fig 1 : Vote share of major parties in four recent UK elections

The European Election in 2014 resulted in the United Kindom Indpendance Party (UKIP) achieving 26.6% of the vote and almost a third of the 73 UK seats in the European Parliament. The Conservative Party under David Cameron won the General Election in the following year with a promise of a referendum. Compared with the European Election of the previous year, the Conservative vote share increased 13.7% and the UKIP vote share decreased 14.0%.

The resultant European Union Referendum Act 2015 was supported by all major parties with the exception of the SNP. In the subsequent referendum on 23rd June 2016 the UK voted to leave the European Union, despite the vast majority of politicians and the greater financial resources being devoted to remain. Early the following day Prime Minister David Cameron accepted the result and resigned. Leader of the Opposition Jeremy Corbyn called on the Government to trigger Article 50 immediately. A few days later, Theresa May launched her leadership campaign with a key statement on Brexit.

 Brexit means Brexit. And we’re going to make a success of it. There will be no attempts to remain inside the EU, no attempts to rejoin it by the back door, and no second referendum. The country voted to leave the European Union, and as Prime Minister I will make sure that we leave the European Union.

On 7th December 2016, the House of Commons vote on respecting the
outcome of the referendum is passed 448 votes to 75.

On 29th March 2017 Prime Minister Theresa May notifys the EU of the UK’s intention to leave. The time period is two years, implicitly making the withdrawal date 29th March 2019.

On 18th April 2017 the Prime Minister calls a snap General Election to
for 8th June, to capitalise on the Tories clear lead in the opinion polls. The outcome is the Tories lose their majority. Yet compared to the 2015 General Election, the Conservatives vote share increases 5.6% to 42.4% and the UKIP vote share is down 10.8% to just 1.8%.

A House of Commons Timeline extracted the commitments of the two major parties in their 2017 manifestos. The Conservative manifesto stated

As we leave the European Union, we will no longer be members of the
single market or customs union but we will seek a deep and special
partnership including a comprehensive free trade and customs agreement.

The final agreement will be subject to a vote in both houses of parliament. To agree the terms of our future partnership alongside our withdrawal, reaching agreement on both within the two years allowed by Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union.
Once EU law has been converted into domestic law, parliament will be able to pass legislation to amend, repeal or improve any piece of EU law it chooses, as will the devolved legislatures, where they have the
power to do so.

The Labour Party Party Manifesto stated

Labour accepts the referendum result and a Labour government will put the national interest first.
We will prioritise jobs and living standards, build a close new relationship with the EU, protect workers’ rights and environmental
standards, provide certainty to EU nationals and give a meaningful role
to Parliament throughout negotiations.
To scrap the Conservatives’ Brexit White Paper and replace it with fresh
negotiating priorities that have a strong emphasis on retaining the benefits of the Single Market and the Customs Union.
A Labour government will immediately guarantee existing rights for all EU nationals living in Britain and secure reciprocal rights for UK citizens who have chosen to make their lives in EU countries.

Both parties have commitments to leave the EU, but have quite different intepretations. The Conservatives guaranteed to leave on 29th March 2019, whilst Labour makes leaving conditional on obtaining certain guarantees. Neither Party has changed these commitments. It can be argued that neither Party respects the perception of leaving as exiting the single market and other institutions, as projected by both the Leave campaign and the Government’s Pro-Remain booklet sent to every household as part of the referendum campaign. 

The EU withdrawal agreement does not contradict the Conservatives manifesto, but does contradict the perception of what leaving the EU means.

On 15th January 2019 the EU Withdrawal Agreement is defeated “by a majority of 230 (with 202 voting in favour of the Prime Minister’s Brexit deal and 432 against).” Despite this, the Government won a no confidence vote the next day by 325 to 302. In a second “meaningful vote” on 12th March, the Government loses by 149 votes.

On the 13th March, “Dame Caroline Spelman’s amendment (moved by Yvette Cooper) – ruling out a ‘no-deal Brexit’ at any time – is passed by 312 votes to 308.” On the same day a motion “to seek permission from the EU to delay Brexit beyond 29 March 2019” is passed by 413 votes to 202.

On 14th March “Dr Sarah Wollaston’s amendment – requesting an extension of Article 50 in order for a second referendum to take place – is rejected by 335 votes to 85.” This is delayed first to 12th April, then to 31st October. 

It is interesting to note that during March the Conservatives were mostly leading in the opinion polls, but after 29th March Labour were leading. In April, after the launch of the Brexit Party and the announcement of European Parlimentary elections, both parties lost support. 

In the European elections the Brexit Party was the clear winner. The Brexit Party and UKIP combined reached 33.7% of the vote (30.5% and 3.2%), up 31.9% on GE 2019, whilst the Tories had 8.8% of the vote, down 33.6%. The Liberal Democrats and the Green, with their clear policies to stop Brexit,improved by 12.2% and 11.0% to 19.6 and 12.6%, whilst the Labour Party’s vote share declined 26.3% to 13.7%. Whilst not all the vote movement from the Tories to no-deal Brexit parties, or from Labour to the stop Brexit parties, a massive poll published by Lord Ashcroft on 27th May confirms that this was the majority case. The Tories saw greater losses to the Brexit Party, whilst Labour saw losses to both the Liberal Democrats and the Greens. The poll also showed that the Labour Party of who retained more supporters from the General Election 2017.

The EU Election 2017 as a General Election opinion poll 

Although there are clear differences in voting patterns between the European Elections and the General Elections, it is clear that from the above analysis for either the Conservative or Labour Parties to stand a chance of getting a majority, they must regain voters lost to other parties in the European Elections. Some voters will move back anyway, and much higher turnout in General Elections will have a role to play. But opionion polls in the last two weeks show that we may have four UK-wide parties in play, with the Greens making up a significant fifth. Fig 2, extracted from Britain Elects, summarizes these polls.

Fig 2 : Westminster Opinion polls in the three weeks following the European Elections 2019. Source Britain Elects

Britain Elects also summarized the EU Election Results 2019 by council area, with the change on 2014. For Great Britain (i.e. the UK excluding Northern Ireland) I have summarized these results by the YouGov opinion poll regions. That is (with number of MEPs) England North (17), England South (16), Midlands + Wales (23), London (8) and Scotland (6). This is only indicative as council areas vary considerably in number of voters. In the EU Referendum of 2016, the electorates for the Isles of Scilly, Orkneys and Shetlands were respectively 1,800, 16,700 and 17,400. At the other end of the scale Leeds had 543,000 voters and Birmingham 707,000. Also I have only covered just over 90% of councils. Due to re-organisations in areas like Suffolk and Dorest comparisons between 2014 and 2019 are not available.

Independence Parties Vote increase from 2014 to 2019

If the May European Elections had been a General Election I estimate the Brexit Party would have won a parliamentary majority of around 170 seats with just under one third of the vote. Combined with the UKIP vote, the two Independance Parties achieved a considerably higher share of the vote than UKIP did on its own in 2014. This is common across virtually every council area, as shown in Fig 3

Fig 3 : UKIP vote share by council in European Elections 2014 compared to Brexit Party plus UKIP vote share in European Elections 2019. Black line denotes no change.

There are very few council areas where the Independence vote did not increase. The variation by YouGov region is noticeable.

Fig 4 : Regional split of UKIP vote share by council in European Elections 2014 compared to Brexit Party plus UKIP vote share in European Elections 2019. Black line denotes no change.

It is in the North of England, the Midlands and Wales where some of the largest increases in the Indpendence party votes have occured. In the South of England the increase is more moderate. In both London and Scotland support for Independance parties is generally less than in the rest of the UK, with the outliers being in outer London. In 2014 the call was for a Referendum on the European Union. In 2019 the failure to implement the result of that referendum resulted in an even greater vote for the Independence Parties. In the sample councils in 2014 the unweighted average for UKIP was 29% of the vote. In 2019 the Brexit Party had an unweighted average of 33.9%. The Lib-Dems on a “block Brexit” platform achieved a more substantial gain, from 7.2% in 2014 to 19.9% in 2019. The Conservatives lost ground, from 25.0% average vote share in 2014 to 9.0% in 2019. The Labour Party also lost ground from 22.9% to 12.6%. 

Countering the Lib-Dems and the Brexit Party in a GE2019

In the 2014 Euro Elections both Labour (under Ed Miliband) and the Conservatives (under David Cameron) lost votes to UKIP, but both maybe gained votes from the Liberal Democrats. In 2019 the Conservatives and Labour Parties both lost more ground, this time to the Brexit Party, the Lib Dems, and to lesser parties like the Greens. In this section I look at the vote shares of the two major parties in 2014 Euro Elections with those of the Brexit Party in 2019.

Fig 5 : Labour and Conservative vote share by council in European Elections 2014 compared to Brexit Party vote share in European Elections 2019. Black line denotes equal share. To the lower left is where Brexit Party has larger share in 2019 than Labour or Conservative Parties in 2014.

In Figure 5 in the vast majority of councils the Brexit Party achieved a greater share of the vote in 2019 than either the Labour or Conservative Parties did in 2014. The scatter is somewhat different. The Labour party has a fair number of councils where their 2014 vote share far outstripped the Brexit Party’s 2019 vote share, but a far greater number of councils where they did badly in 2014 (i.e. much less than 20% vote share) and where the Brexit Party achieved over 30% vote share in 2019. For the Conservatives the biggest cluster is where they achieved greater than 20% vote share in 2014 and the Brexit Party achieved greater than 30% vote share in 2019. This indicates that the Conservatives have far more to gain from adopting the Brexit Party’s no deal Brexit position than Labour.  The regional split largely confirms this. 

Fig 6 : Regional split of Labour Party vote share by council in European Elections 2014 compared to Brexit Party vote share in European Elections 2019. Black line denotes equal share. To the lower left is where Brexit Party has larger share in 2019 than Labour Party in 2014.

Figure 6 looks at the regional fight between the Labour Party and the Brexity Party. Given that the current Labour leadership is dominated by London-based MPs (Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott) the perspective could be that there is little to be gained electorally from adopting a strong “Leave” position. Labour are strong where the hardline Brexiteers are weak. There are also councils in other parts of England (e.g. Liverpool, City of Manchester, Oxford, Bristol) where this pattern also applies. Conversely there are many councils in the Midlands and the South where the Labour Party has a very weak presence, but the Brexit Party gained over 30% of the vote in 2019. There are also quite a few councils where the Labour Party has considerable competition from the Brexit Party. This includes many marginal areas in the Midlands and North that Labour would need to win to form a Government. These include Barrow-in-Furness, Broxtowe, Bolsover, Dudley and Wrexham.

Fig 7 : Regional split of Conservative Party vote share by council in European Elections 2014 compared to Brexit Party vote share in European Elections 2019. Black line denotes equal share. To the lower left is where Brexit Party has larger share in 2019 than the Conservative Party in 2014.

Figure 7 shows a quite different position for the Conservative Party compared to Labour. They are strongest in the South and much of the Midlands. In these key areas the Tories have strong competition from the Brexit Party. 

Lib Dems and Brexit Party Head-to-Head 2019

In the Euro Elections the Liberal Democrats also made a strong showing, achieving second place behind the Brexit Party. Their “Stop Brexit” policy is the antithesis of the Brexit Party’s “No Deal Brexit” stance. There were other Parties with similar hardline positionsin the May elections. In Figure 1 the Green Party made a strong showing, as did the nationalist parties in Sotland and Wales. Change UK had a similar small share of the vote to UKIP. It is unlikely either will figure in a General Election.

The problem for both Labour and the Tories is that winning votes from either the Lib-Dems or the Brexit Party will mean losing votes to the other. Their attempts at straddling the polar opposites last month meant losing to both sides. In this context it is worth examining the vote shares of the Lib-Dems and the Brexit Party by council. 

Fig 8: Liberal Democrat and Brexit Party vote shares in European Elections 2019 for Great Britain. The black line denotes equal share. London and Scotland combined.

Of the 365 councils covered, the Brexit Party had a greater share of the vote in 297. The regional split gives more information.

Fig 9: Regional split of Liberal Democrat and Brexit Party vote shares in European Elections 2019. The black line denotes an equal share. London and Scotland combined.

In Figure 9 I have combined London and Scotland as they show a similar picture that is quite different from the rest of Great Britain. The North of England has a less widespread Lib-Dem support than in the combined South East and South West Regions. In the central belt from Wales to East Anglia there is quite strong Lib Dem support in a minority of places. In a good proportion of that minority Brexit Party support is stronger. In London and Scotland it is the Lib-Dems that are stronger. Scotland has most of the instances where combined Lib Dem and Brexit Party Support was less than 40% due to the SNP being the leading party.

Lord Ashcroft Polls

Lord Ashcroft published a massive Euro-election post-vote poll on 27th May looking the shift in vote from the General Election 2017 and the Euro Elections. With respect to the loss of votes from the two major parties the article states

More than half (53%) of 2017 Conservative voters who took part in the European elections voted for the Brexit Party. Only just over one in five (21%) stayed with the Tories. Around one in eight (12%) switched to the Liberal Democrats. Labour voters from 2017 were more likely to stay with their party, but only a minority (38%) did so. More than one in five (22%) went to the Lib Dems, 17% switched to the Greens, and 13% went to the Brexit Party.

That is, for every one of the 2017 Conservative voters who voted Liberal Democrat last month, more than four voted for the Brexit Party. For the Labour it is the other way round. For every one of the 2017 Labour voters who voted for the Brexit Party, three voted for the either the Liberal Democrats or the Greens.

If this is cast into the above analysis, a no-deal Brexit strategy for the Tories will draw back votes from the Brexit Party, but not lose them a whole lot more votes to the Liberal Democrats. On the other hand for Labour, a clear Remain strategy to win back voter share is less pronounced, as in May they retained a larger share of the 2017 voters, and have a less one-sided loss parties with a clear Brexit standpoint. From today’s announcement, the adoption of a clear Pro-Remain strategy is not likely to happen whilst Jeremy Corbyn is the leader.

Conclusions

In the South of England, much of Central England and in parts of Northern England and Wales the Conservatives were the strongest party in 2017 and where the Brexit Party support is considerably stronger than the Liberal Democrats. A clear No-Deal Brexit policy as the way of respecting democracy would, therefore, win more votes than it lost. It would mean losses of a number of constituencies such as Winchester and Richmond-on-Thames. On the other hand, it could mean winning constituencies from the Labour Party, particularly where the Liberal Democrat and Green share increased on 2017. For the Conservatives, it means a will to win a majority in the knowledge that fair number of existing seats would be lost in the process.

The Labour Party is unlikely to clarify its position on Brexit, despite many in the party such as Emily Thornberry and Tom Watson wanting this change. The reason is the danger of losing seats through betraying the Leave voters in the North, Midlands and Wales, with substantial numbers of Labour MPs being against the move. Yet sitting on the fence will lose votes to four parties, or for traditional Labour voters to stay at home. The Conservatives will the biggest winners here.

Kevin Marshall

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