The writer is professor of political science and British politics at Nuffield college, Oxford. Roosmarijn de Geus also contributed to this article and research.
The Conservatives are limping into a lengthy general election build-up set to be dominated by the cost of living crisis. Even in our age of volatility, we know that the economy drives political choices. But the formula for Boris Johnson’s victory in 2019, and therefore his party’s chances next time, has been misunderstood.
That is because a prepation with the Conservatives’ inroads into poorer areas of the country (and greater support among working class voters) has produced a caricature of “left behind” places and people. Our research shows that this geographical lens obscures the role of greater economic security in tipping voters towards the Conservatives — and the danger that growing feelings of insecurity now pose to the party.
Using the British Election Study data from 2018 and 2019, we have been able to see who in the country feels economically secure and the electoral damage that could be done to the governing party if people lose this feeling.
Tory voters are more economically secure than Labor voters — even many of the older Conservative voters on lower incomes. Around two-thirds of those who went on to vote Conservative in 2019 across Great Britain reported higher than average feelings of economic security when surveyed the year before, including in so-called Red Wall areas. In the North East of England, for example, less than 30 per cent of those who voted Tory felt economically insecure.
But a loss of this sense of resilience among these voters could be pivotal — and poses a danger to the territorial gains made in Johnson’s last election campaign.
Economic security, which is strongly correlated with voting Conservative, is not the same as income or social class. It is having savings, a job or a secure income, the ability to borrow or cover an emergency expense, and owning a home. An economically secure person has buffers to weather an economic storm such as the one we are experiencing now.
If this is lost among older pensioners, Labor could be the recipient of their votes. Evidence from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in 2019 found that pensioner poverty was on the rise, particularly among women (women and ethnic minorities experience more economic insecurity across our study).
A homeowning pensioner who has previously voted Conservative because of both their economic security and their views on Brexit may not be very forgiving if they lose their savings and spare income because of the cost of heating their home this winter.
The Conservatives also need to worry about the younger generations of non-graduates — those who may have felt represented by Brexit, hopeful for the economic benefits of levelling up and who approved of controls on immigration. They went into the current cost of living crisis (and the pandemic) with substantially higher economic insecurity and are probably now facing stressful decisions.
We have found that economic insecurity is just as important for explaining vote choice as how one voted on Brexit, immigration attitudes or a person’s social conservatism. And these voters make up large proportions of the electorate in key constituencies, including labor-conservative marginals. They are also in all parts of the country — not just in the “Red Wall”.
Political parties need to understand who are most and least protected now against the predicted further squeeze on household incomes. It makes political sense, for example, that the government is offering at least the hope of wider home ownership. A failure to deliver on that opportunity, along with so much else, could prove their undoing.