8 March 2013

The Tory Party at Prayer

I am always interested when people are prepared to make a prediction (and put the best in the first post of the year) and the more precise the better. So I was intrigued by an article in the Guardian’s Comment is free by John Ross, The Tories will get 30.3% at the next general election. Here's why. Ross has calculated that since the 1930s the Tory vote has declined at 0.2% a year. Superimposed on this long-term secular decline are upticks in popularity when there has been a Conservative majority at a general election, but:
Typically, the Conservative vote, each time the party won a general election, was lower than the one it won previously, and each time it lost an election its vote fell to a lower level than the previous defeat.
Because of the long-term decline Ross forecasts:
… if the Tories won the next election, they would get 34.6% of the vote, and if they lost they would get 30.3% of the vote. As there is no doubt at present that the Tories will lose, they will get 30.3% of the vote. As always there is a bit of statistical noise in any calculation, so 29.3% to 31.3% would be a reasonable range, but 30.3% is the central figure.
Ross has used this approach before. In the Guardian in May 2010 on the same basis he predicted:
If this trend were extrapolated to the current election the Tories would receive a maximum 39% if they were to win and 33% if they were to lose.
In fact the Conservative share was 36.1%. Ross is Visiting Professor at Antai College of Economics and Management, Jiao Tong University, Shanghai, and his blog, Key Trends in Globalisation, is, perhaps unsurprisingly, subtitled "Seek truth from facts - 实事求是 Chinese saying originally from the Han dynasty". However, extrapolation is one thing, explanation another. In his recent Guardian article Ross identifies:
a social process – the progressive collapse of the Tory party back into its south-east England heartland. The Tories have declined from a "one nation" to a "half a country" party.
It seems likely that underlying this observation some deeper social changes are taking place. Previously on this blog I have mentioned the fact that:
The educational experiences of different age groups reflect the continuing expansion of opportunity over recent decades. Among the over 55s, about half finished full-time education before the age of 16, whereas about a third of the under 35s had finished under 18.
But another perspective stems from the observation by a suffragette, Maude Royden, in 1917:
"The Church [of England]* should go forward along the path of progress and be no longer satisfied only to represent the Conservative Party at prayer."
which led to the often-repeated jibe of the Church of England being the Tory party at prayer.

But is it still? Looking round for some relevant statistics, I discounted church attendance, which has a marked seasonal (ie Christmas) variation and is probably enhanced by parents wanting their small children to enter C of E primary schools. Instead I selected Figure 6 from the publication Church Statistics 2010/11 the numbers being confirmed, (the upper chart below) as indicative of a deeper commitment to the C of E. The lower chart is from Ross’s Guardian article with the timescale stretched to align with the upper one.

I was surprised by the extent of the match, for example the temporary revival of both the Tories and the C of E in the 1960s - somewhat at odds with that decade’s reputation, though perhaps the Sixties started for most people after 1970.

I can’t help feeling that the other prediction which caught my eye this week is somewhat optimistic. Tim Montgomerie told readers of The Times (£) on 4 March in the wake of Ukip’s good showing in the Eastleigh by-election that:
Conservative strategists are confident that Labour support can be capped at about 35 per cent once the big guns are pointed in Mr Miliband’s direction. If Mr Cameron can use the next year to rebuild relations with the once loyal Tory press, Mr Miliband will face the biggest demolition job since Neil Kinnock was destroyed in 1992. The central Tory message at the next election will be that middle Britain will face huge tax increases if Ed Balls gets back into power and is allowed to finish building Gordon Brown’s sprawling welfare state. But the problem for Mr Cameron is that, because of Britain’s electoral geography, Mr Miliband can become Prime Minister on the back of 35 per cent of the national vote if the Right of British politics is divided — and it is.
Is it really Ukip, whose support may well be much smaller in a general election than in Eastleigh, that is the Tories’ problem, or is it something more fundamental? David Cameron’s recognition of the need to modernise the Conservative party and widen its appeal has been in the face of a long-term decline which makes more sense to me.


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