The Polling Observatory Forecast #4: Conservative hopes recede slowly

As explained in our inaugural election forecast, up until May next year the Polling Observatory team will be producing a long term forecast for the 2015 General Election, using methods we first applied ahead of the 2010 election (and which are also well-established in the United States). Our method involves trying to make the best use of past polling evidence as a guide to forecast the likeliest support levels for each party in next May’s election, based on current polling, and then using these support levels to estimate the parties’ chances of winning each seat in the Parliament. We will later add a seat-based element to this forecast.


This month’s Polling Observatory reported falls in support for both Labour and the Conservatives. Our forecast again finds the parties locked in a statistical dead heat, although Labour has edged up slightly, by 0.3 points, to 36.5%, and the Conservatives have slid back further, down 0.6 points to 34.9%. The continued stagnation in the polls is starting to harm the Conservatives in our forecast, with a slight widening of the gap between the parties.

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Spot the difference: noticing the change that austerity is making to public services.


“Public service cuts – did we notice?” asked BBC News back in October, publishing the results of a recent ICM Poll. The item parallels a commonly circulated argument that the unprecedented 28% cuts to local government’s central grant have been delivered without significantly impacting local services.  Can this really be true?

For the Coalition, such polls provide evidence that cuts are necessary for creating streamlined services.  The local government trade press prefer a heroic narrative, focussing on local authorities as the ‘most efficient part of the public sector’.  From an academic perspective, John (2013) has termed local government the ‘great survivor’; out-competing other local organisations through its resilient political and managerial core and flexible menu of administrative functions. The problem with these interpretations is that they share a tendency to over simplify the multi-layered process of delivering local savings.  They also negate deep-seated changes that are occurring under a veneer of stability.

So why haven’t spending reductions translated tangibly to service reductions?

Firstly, it depends on your perspective.  Research by Sheffield Hallam University and Joseph Rowntree Foundation has demonstrated that cuts have ‘hit the poorest areas hardest’, whilst more affluent areas have experienced lower levels of change. Secondly, local authorities themselves are contributing to the impression that ‘nothing has happened’ by delivering massive savings through a root and branch re-appraisal of local services.

Shared services across two or more authorities are increasingly common, raising questions about local political accountability.  ‘Commercialism’ is the contemporary buzz-word as services compete to produce ever leaner business models and lever-in income.  Contracts with the private and voluntary sectors are coming under pressure as authorities adopt a tougher approach to commissioning, rather than the partnership ethos espoused in better-resourced era of ‘network governance’.  Fundamental re-thinking is occurring on the extent to which local authorities can support the ‘big ticket’ issues such as social care, libraries and leisure. Whilst many would applaud such ‘efficiencies’, these changes are not value-free, and represent an extensive reappraisal of the way we deliver public services.

However, efficiencies are not the whole story.  There is also evidence of a continuous, but subtle resistance at an individual and institutional level to mitigate the worst effects of degradation of services.  Janet Newman reminds us that there are “multiple spaces of power and resistance with which actors engage – pragmatically as well as politically” and in some cases these spaces of power are being exploited at a local level to protect the most vulnerable.

For example from a political perspective, decisions have been made in some councils to instigate a living wage for the lowest paid staff, whilst pay freezes have been accepted by higher paid staff as a necessary trade-off.  There has been evidence of ‘gaming’ around elements of welfare reform with authorities exploring the re-designation of bedrooms in order to protect tenants from the bedroom tax, or directly employing benefit claimants to avert a benefits cap.  Despite cynicism about the ‘big society’, new spaces are also opening up for faith and citizens groups to engage with service delivery – organisations such as the Trussel Trust and Citizens UK have seen their national influence grow as the state contracts.

In short, the perception that ‘nothing has happened’ is arguably the result of continuous and strenuous effort by many actors at myriad levels.  This goes beyond a recycling of previous ideas and solutions to genuine attempts to design and enact alternative outcomes.  However, these changes are occurring in a piecemeal fashion, with varying impacts, internal contradictions, and limited national debate or direction.

The LGA and Parliamentary Political and Constitutional Reform Committee have called for a fundamental re-think on Councils’ role and functions; and debate on the powers of English local government will be fuelled by fresh negotiations on settlements for Wales and Scotland.  In the meantime the apparent capacity of Councils to absorb the spending cuts allows constitutional innovation to be metaphorically kicked down the road by successive administrations, whilst spending cuts carve subterranean caverns within local government’s future capabilities. If we fail to spot the differences occurring to our public services now, we may one day awake to find that the local picture of public services we want and expect to see has been altered out of recognition.

Alison Gardner is a doctoral research student in the University of Nottingham’s School of Politics, studying how local public services are responding to conditions of austerity.  Prior to starting her PhD she worked for 14 years as a policy advisor and consultant in and around local and national government.

Polling Observatory #30: Good news for all the parties… except the Lib Dems

UK 05-11-13 low res croppedtytThis is the thirtieth in a series of posts that report on the state of the parties as measured by opinion polls. By pooling together all the available polling evidence we can reduce the impact of the random variation each individual survey inevitably produces. Most of the short term advances and setbacks in party polling fortunes are nothing more than random noise; the underlying trends – in which we are interested and which best assess the parties’ standings – are relatively stable and little influenced by day-to-day events. If there can ever be a definitive assessment of the parties’ standings, this is it. Further details of the method we use to build our estimates of public opinion can be found here.


As the dust settles after conference season the state of support for the parties as 2014 approaches appears to have crystallised a little. Despite the supposed conference bounces and bumps that media commentators identified following Ed Miliband’s energy price freeze pledge and David Cameron’s conference speech, when all the underlying noise has been accounted for there has only been a slight shift since the end of the summer (and – as we have noted before – vote intentions for the main parties had been stable for some time before this).

If there is a winner from conference season, it is Labour, who after making the political weather ever since putting energy prices top of the political agenda have seen their support increase to 38.3%, up one point from our last report at the time of their conference in mid-September. This marks a reversal of the recent trend of a decline in Labour support. Despite the fanfare around the Conservative Party conference and the Godfrey Bloom side show at the UKIP conference, support for both parties has been static in the last six weeks – with no sign of a lasting conference bounce. Support for the Conservatives stands at 31.8% (with no change since our report at the time of their conference in late September), and UKIP at 11.3% (unchanged). There is worse news for the Liberal Democrats who now stand at 7.4% (down 0.3 points since their conference) – close to the all-time low for this parliament. Despite efforts to put clear blue water between them and their coalition partners – such as on green taxes on energy and qualifications for teachers – they are still paying the price for their abandonment of key election pledges early in the parliament. It is increasingly significant that the UKIP vote has been consistently higher than the Lib Dems for six months now – suggesting that there has been a rebalancing of electoral support for the third and fourth parties.

In previous posts (here, here and here), we have sought to urge caution on the lazy anecdotal use of past precedent to predict the outcome of the general election due to be held in 2015. We are keen forecasters ourselves, and some of these important qualifications will also apply to statistical models that look to forecast the likely swing towards or against the governing and opposition parties as the election nears. It is not uncommon for the statistical relationships that underpin these forecasts are context-variant. In other words, the economy might be a critical factor in one election but not in the next. Or leader ratings might matter for some parties but not others. Or voters might move back towards the governing party late on for some election cycles, but not others. In short, aphorisms such as ‘it’s the economy stupid’ and ‘leaders matter’ are based on sound political science, but may not always hold and may lead forecasters to go badly astray when predicting the result. They also provide journalists and opponents a convenient stick to beat parties and their leaders with, when the foundations of electoral support are often more nuanced. There are several reasons why forecasts for 2015 might not stick to the expected script that the Westminster Village has been reciting so far.

Firstly, it is undeniable that both the Conservative and Labour parties have a much lower ‘ceiling’ than in past elections. The Conservatives last won over 40% of the vote in 1992 (and Labour in 2001), and have not looked likely to do so in 2015 so at any point in the current parliament. They would likely have to beat this figure to secure a majority. Yet the party still suffers from an image problem with large swathes of the electorate and has done little to widen its appeal while in office. This makes the prospect of a large final year swing towards the government improbable despite the historical trend for mid-term movement away from the government in the polls to return as Election Day nears. Labour’s prospective pool of support has also looked much lower than its time in opposition during the 1987-1992 and 1992-1997 election cycles, where its poll numbers exceeded 50%. It cannot count on protest votes against the coalition because of the presence of UKIP, and its traditional base is shrinking, and also vulnerable to the challenge from Nigel Farage’s party.

Secondly, it is over-simplistic to suggest that a growing economy will assure a Conservative victory. It would certainly make it more likely, given that many people will be better off as a result, but it still depends on who benefits from the economic recovery. Personal (‘pocketbook’) economic judgments have been shown to be a significant determinant of voting. Even then, parties that have overseen sustained periods of economic growth are not always rewarded by voters. This perhaps explains why the Labour Party have been keen to push the economic debate towards the question of living standards (and the cost of living) rather than focus on the Coalition’s record on reducing the deficit and the impacts of austerity cuts. While much of the public still blame Labour for the economic problems left after the financial crisis, they also are strongly of the opinion that the Coalition is handling the economy badly. This again points to the argument that the sort of pro-government swing experienced at past elections will have to be achieved against much stronger headwinds.

Thirdly, David Cameron has tended to enjoy a comfortable lead over Ed Miliband in survey questions both about the ‘preferred Prime Minister’ and leader approval or satisfaction. Cameron also receives much more positive evaluations on his performance from supporters of his own party. Miliband has not made an impact on substantial parts of the electorate. For some, this state of affairs might point towards a clear-cut advantage on the basis of the importance of party leaders for voters making up their mind late. However, these advantages are observed in a context where all of the party leaders in Westminster have had persistently negative net ratings for the past three years. Indeed, Cameron currently has lower approval ratings (38%) than the St-Remy brandy-swigging and crack-smoking Mayor of Toronto, Rob Ford (44%) (no relation) [HT @JoeTwyman]. It is worth remembering that Cleggmania in 2010 stemmed from the public’s previous relative lack of exposure to Nick Clegg. If Ed Miliband is similarly able to put in a strong performance on the campaign trail and also during the election debates that surprises the expectations of voters, it may deliver a last-minute bounce and negate the recent trends.

In short, 2015 remains difficult to call, and it will be a challenge for any party to win a workable parliamentary majority.

Robert FordWill Jennings and Mark Pickup

50 years after Macmillan retired, what can Cameron learn from ‘SuperMac’?


Image used under an Open Government License

A slick Tory toff is Prime Minister. He struggles to maintain Britain’s status in the world, wrestles with disunity in his party, but seeks to win an election promoting a land of opportunity. I refer not to David Cameron, but to Harold Macmillan, who resigned as Prime Minister almost exactly 50 years ago.

So how does David Cameron compare to Harold Macmillan, and what can the current Prime Minister learn from ‘SuperMac’, the Conservative politician who served as Prime Minister from 1957 to 1963?

Macmillan and Cameron are cut from the same cloth in that they can both be seen as actor-politicians. Both were and are superb at the set-piece occasions. Indeed, Macmillan’s motto, borrowed from Gilbert and Sullivan was ‘Quite calm deliberation disentangles every knot.’ He even had that quote pinned on his Cabinet door. Underneath, Macmillan was anything but calm: he was regularly sick before the weekly jousts at Prime Minister’s Questions.

By contrast, Cameron is a natural leader in public and in private, conveying the air of someone born to rule. His Commons handling of the apologies over Bloody Sunday and Hillsborough were exemplary. He handles the big state occasions well. In short, he looks and sounds like a leader in a way that Ed Miliband doesn’t.

Macmillan and Cameron face similar problems in relation to foreign affairs. One of Macmillan’s greatest achievements as Prime Minster was to repair the ‘Special Relationship’ with America, which had been blighted following the disastrous Suez adventure in 1956. Macmillan used his charm with Dwight Eisenhower, the American President to negotiate the 1958 Nassau Agreement, which governs the British-American nuclear relationship to this day. Fast forwarding to 2013, Cameron must repair the Special Relationship, following his recent humiliation over the Commons defeat on British military action in Syria.

Both Macmillan and Cameron have had to reshape Britain’s relationship with Europe and have landed in trouble thanks to resistance from the French. Whereas Macmillan’s attempt to enter the European Economic Community in 1963 was met with a loud French raspberry from General de Gaulle, Cameron’s decision to promise an ‘In-Out’ referendum on Britain’s continued membership of the European Union in January 2013 has again upset our Gallic partners.

The two Prime Ministers also share the problem of rebellious traditionalists in their parliamentary parties. For Macmillan, it was Empire loyalists who opposed his ‘Wind of Change’ decolonisation policies in Africa. For Cameron, it is a massive Tory right-wing, numbering more than a 100, who have opposed him on a whole range of issues from House of Lords reform to gay marriage.

But if there are similarities between the two Prime Ministers, Cameron is different in that unlike Macmillan, he is prepared to move with the times. Macmillan hailed from an Edwardian era where men especially didn’t show their feelings. His prudishness about all matters sexual was cruelly exposed during the Profumo Scandal in 1963. Already haunted by the fact that his wife Dorothy was having a long-term affair with Lord Boothby, Macmillan froze and handled the issue badly. Ultimately, it contributed to his downfall.

By contrast, Cameron is attempting to drag his party kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century by supporting gay marriage. Ever since Macmillan’s day, the British people have moved in an almost relentlessly liberal direction on social issues, and Cameron realises that he has to change his party to reflect that fact.

In terms of economic policy, there is a huge gulf between Macmillan and Cameron. Macmillan believed in the so-called ‘Middle Way’, a happy medium between socialism and capitalism. Macmillan’s economic views were shaped from his experiences in the First World War when officers and men from different social classes mixed more easily than in the past, and during his encounters with his impoverished Stockton constituents in the depression years of the 1930s.

Constantly fretting about the return of another depression ‘SuperMac’ wanted to go for economic growth, almost at any price. Many in his Cabinet disagreed. In 1958, Peter Thorneycroft, the Chancellor resigned along with his entire Treasury team in protest at Macmillan’s expansionist policies.

In truth, Macmillan’s support for the ‘Middle Way’ is much closer to New Labour’s adherence to its ‘Third Way’. Were Macmillan alive today, he would be thrown out of the Conservative Party for being a socialist. In his retirement, remember, Macmillan attacked the Thatcher government for ‘selling off the family silver’ through its privatisation policies. When Alistair Horne, Macmillan’s biographer admitted that he wasn’t a very good Tory, ‘SuperMac’ replied, ‘Nor was I dear boy.’ As Cameron embarks upon flogging Royal Mail to investors and selling publicly owned banking shares at a discount price, he should heed Macmillan’s warning.

Cameron could learn most from Macmillan in terms of his ability to win elections. Macmillan’s greatest triumph came in 1959 when he won a landslide majority of 100 against Hugh Gaitskell’s Labour Party. Labour had launched a highly professional campaign, making good use of television for the first time, but Macmillan trumped that by appealing to the British people’s innate love of the consumer society. Macmillan won big in 1959 because he realised that voters wanted a washing machine, a fridge and a television set. Cameron’s recent Conference speech where he extolled the virtues of a profit-making economy surely echoes Macmillan’s rallying cry of 1959.

Although Cameron is unlikely to repeat Macmillan’s 1959 feat of winning an outright majority at the next election, he remains the Conservative Party’s biggest asset because he, like ‘SuperMac’ realises that elections are fought and won on the centre ground.

Mark Stuart

Top picks from the Margaret Thatcher Foundation archives

Yesterday Lady Gaga tweeted the imminent appearance of the artwork to the cover of her new album – for her fans 6pm could not come fast enough. In a similar way, some will have been on tenterhooks to hear just which Liberal Democrat got what mediocre job in the reshuffle. It can be funny what we eagerly anticipate.

And whilst the Gaga fans can lay claim to being cooler, it was another Lady who grasped my attention for much of yesterday after this tweet by The Thatcher Foundation on 4th October:

If you haven’t ever checked out The Thatcher Foundation’s website and you have the remotest interests in British political history you should go there now. Beware; you may be there for some time. The site is a model for how an archive ought to work in the digital age – time and money prevent other Prime Ministers being afforded the same indulgence I guess.

It goes without saying that the Foundation is, online and accessible to all, making available some truly historic and valuable material. But it is also – as importantly – laying bare the mundane and everyday nature of what it would be like to be Prime Minister; and indeed the Whitehouse couldn’t get around to buying a Birthday Card.

Whitehouse birthday card

So to whet your appetite here are some of my picks from yesterday’s releases:

1) In 1936 Neville Chamberlain – then Chancellor of the Exchequer – wrote in the Daily Telegraph of how he had spent many months at Number 11 trying to identify a particular bird by its call. In contrast, if the Thatcher archives demonstrate just one thing it is the sheer workload of a modern politician and Prime Minister. And it isn’t all conference calls with World leaders…:

As you say, in parallel with the relaxation of controls over balloons I shall be amending the aerial advertising regulations to permit the towing of advertising banners behind aeroplanes.



2) If that wasn’t glamorous enough:

The store assures me that a hat won’t be necessary.

Sainsbury's hat

I understand that there are photographs on the wall of all previous Prime Ministers.

No 10 bar

3) On top of this, as a woman in politics, Thatcher faced an extra pressure that is unlikely to be recorded in many other Prime Ministerial archives – her appearance:

Jean Muir suede 2-piece


I am told that you would be well advised to wear an A-line skirt, though I have no idea what that is.

A line skirt

Prime Minister’s hair during campaign



4) Then there is the both humdrum and brutal business of being at the top of the greasy pole:

I sense that you are a little bored with these afternoon tea parties!‘ She was.


He is no good and ought to go.’ (Perhaps another post but, if you visit the archive for only one reason, do so for Ian Gow’s (Thatcher’s first Prime Ministerial Principle Private Secretary) notes of which this is one.)

5) And so, how to relax? An episode or two of ‘Cannon’ of course!


Matthew Bailey

Polling Observatory conference season update #4 – Conservatives

This is the twenty-ninth in a series of posts that report on the state of the parties as measured by opinion polls. By pooling together all the available polling evidence we can reduce the impact of the random variation each individual survey inevitably produces. Most of the short term advances and setbacks in party polling fortunes are nothing more than random noise; the underlying trends – in which we are interested and which best assess the parties’ standings – are relatively stable and little influenced by day-to-day events. If there can ever be a definitive assessment of the parties’ standings, this is it. Further details of the method we use to build our estimates of public opinion can be found here.

In this series of conference season specials, we review the state of support for each of the parties in turn. As we noted in Polling Observatory #27, there are dangers in the journalistic habit of focusing on poll leads, rather than shares, as well as interpreting poll leads in terms of the prevailing narrative of the Westminster Village. Focusing on the parties individually allows us to better understand the momentum behind them as the general election of 2015 fast approaches. Most people don’t pay much attention to politics or political events, so most shifts take place over a matter of months and years, not days. Looking back over the current Parliament – rather than just the latest poll figures – allows us to make a little more sense of where things stand.

We should be cautious, too, about extrapolating too much from past election cycles about the result in 2015 – as has become a popular pastime. Yes it is true that no government has ever increased its share of the vote after a first full parliamentary term since the war. Yes it is true that Labour’s poll share and Ed Miliband’s ratings are below what might be expected of a strong opposition. But precedents are there to be broken, and the 2010-2015 election cycle is arguably like no other in living memory. The main political parties vote shares have never been lower, a previously marginal party is polling consistently above 10% and the geography of the main parties’ voters is highly polarised, meaning that comparisons with how poll leads have translated into results in previous elections potentially are very misleading. The public are generally sick and tired of politics and politicians, so the ratings for leaders such as Miliband must be put in the context of a general disillusionment of citizens with the political class. And while the state of the economy matters to the election result, and there are signs of slight improvement (not to mention the warnings of a housing bubble due to the government’s policies) – other features of today’s economy are hardly likely to see voters rushing to reward the government, with the continued strain on living standards, a shift from full-time secure employment to part-time insecure jobs, and the growth of private debt to fuel the increase in consumer spending.


The summer saw a slight revival in the fortunes of the Conservatives, clawing back some ground lost during the UKIP surge of the spring of 2013. At their low ebb, immediately after UKIP’s local election breakthrough in May, we estimated the Conservatives at around 28% – they have picked up about 4 points since then.

Although support for the Conservatives has recovered slightly in the last few months, the longer term trend is much less encouraging, as our chart of support since the last general election makes clear. There are short term rises and falls, but the long term trend is clearly in a downward direction. Each slump in support hits new lows, and each rally peaks below the last. In particular, it is clear that the Conservatives lost a large chunk of support following the “omnishambles” budget of March 2012 that they have been unable to recover. Prior to this budget, we estimated Conservative support in the high 30’s. Since it was delivered, the Conservatives have struggled to reach 30%, and even after their latest rally they are still below 32%.  Over the past 18 months, Conservative support has fluctuated between 28% and 32%, well below the level of support they need to be the largest party in parliament at the next election, let alone win a majority. Where might hope of a political recovery lie for the Conservatives?

One of the areas where the Conservatives are widely agreed to be in a position of strength is their leader, David Cameron, who consistently out-polls his party and his fellow party leaders with the electorate. Much political science research has highlighted the importance of leaders in electoral success, but the impact on voters is very often over-stated – and is often factored into current support for the parties anyway. Further, while Ed Miliband’s poor ratings with the public signal a vulnerability that the Conservatives might seek to exploit, taking advantage of this is not always straightforward. With recent measures such as the proposed freeze on energy prizes, Miliband has staked out a brand of economic populism that may be difficult to counter – requiring the Conservatives to decide whether to paint him as either weak or dangerous, where the latter may perversely serve to improve his reputation for strong leadership with voters – on issues where the Labour leader also appears to have public opinion on his side. Meanwhile, the self-imposed constraints of austerity budgeting will make it difficult for the Conservatives to offer popular but expensive gifts to the electorate themselves, without undermining their argument that tough budget cuts are economically essential.

Unable to offer voters many gifts in the current economic climate, the Conservatives must therefore place their bets on a recovery before polling day. Economic optimism has been on the rise in recent times, which suggests the government is at least less likely to be punished for its austerity agenda than looked the case when the UK economy was flatlining. With Labour continuing to be blamed by a large section of the public for the state of the economy, the battle for economic credibility will be important as 2015 nears. Indeed, the economy seems to offer most scope to the government for selling a constructive story to voters about its achievements: a recovery will enable the party to claim vindication for its austerity policies and perhaps even offer a few goodies to the electorate. Without recovery, the Conservatives will struggle for a compelling message to win new support. It is not clear that a continued focus on right wing social issues like welfare and immigration can deliver many gains. The electorate has long known where the party stands on these issues, and growing discontent from their Liberal Democrat coalition partners will make further right wing reform in these areas difficult to accomplish, and if the Conservatives campaign on these issues without being able to act on them they risk increasing the appeal of UKIP to frustrated voters. The Conservatives will be looking to set out a clear agenda for a second term, starting with this year’s conference, but the nature of this agenda and their chances of being in government to implement it are now very much in the gift of economic forces beyond their control.

Robert FordWill Jennings and Mark Pickup

The Conservative party beauty contest of 1963

Sir Alec Douglas-Home. Image by itmpa

Sir Alec Douglas-Home. Image by itmpa

Almost exactly fifty years ago, in 1963, Conservative Party delegates gathered in the Winter Gardens in Blackpool, expecting to be addressed by their Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan. Instead, they were informed that their leader would be stepping down due to ill-health. The quiet, unassuming Foreign Secretary, Lord Home told shocked delegates of Macmillan’s wish ‘that it will soon be possible for the customary processes of consultation to be carried on within the party about its future leadership’.

The timing of Macmillan’s decision with the start of the Conservative Party Conference meant that it rapidly turned into a beauty contest between three contenders: Rab Butler, the Deputy Prime Minister; Lord Hailsham, the Leader of the House of Lords; and Reginald Maudling, the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Why then did none of these three leading contenders succeed? And why did Lord Home (later Sir Alec Douglas-Home) emerge as the unexpected choice of the party?

Macmillan’s first choice was Lord Hailsham (later Quintin Hogg), the darling of the Tory associations from his time as Party Chairman in the late 1950s. But Hailsham’s mistake was that he wanted the job too much. Almost immediately, he announced he would be renouncing his peerage (something that had just become possible with the Peerage Act of July 1963). ‘Q’ for ‘Quintin’ badges quickly appeared, and then by accident, Hailsham fed his baby daughter Kate in full view of the media. No-one today would bat an eyelid at a politician feeding a baby, but back then it was considered a bit ‘off’ (or should that read ‘orf’?)  It reaffirmed in grander circles of the Tory Party that Hailsham was too ebullient, too erratic to be Prime Minister.

Step forward the affable Chancellor, Reginald Maudling. ‘Reggie’ was a matey but indolent politician, a sort of latter-day version of Kenneth Clarke.  More to the point, like Clarke, Maudling was the candidate that the Labour Party most feared. Having secured the backing of his old friend Iain Macleod, all Maudling had to do was to deliver a barnstorming speech to conference delegates. As Maudling stood up, Macleod whispered in his ear, ‘Go on Reggie, this is your chance.’ The speech looked good on paper. Had it been delivered properly, it would have set the conference hall alight. Instead, Reggie could only muster a dull monotone. A few of Maulding’s supporters jumped to their feet, cheering their hero, but one by one, they returned to their seats, disconsolate. The Chancellor had blown his chances in full glare of the media. It was a mistake that David Davis would repeat at the Conservative Party conference in 2005 when once more, conference delegates were put to sleep by a Tory politician’s dull oratory.

Surely then, Rab Butler would succeed Macmillan? The bookmakers certainly thought so, having made the Deputy Prime Minister the 6-4 on favourite for the Tory crown. All Butler had to do was to rouse party delegates during the leader’s address on the Saturday morning. Enter Lord Home, the Foreign Secretary. Just as Butler was about to address delegates, Home delivered his bombshell: he had been approached about the possibility of becoming party leader. Whether Home intended to unsettle his rival is not known. Either way, Butler’s speech barely managed to surpass Maudling’s in its dullness.

But surely Lord Home didn’t gain the Tory leadership simply because his rivals faltered. Even after the Tory Conference, a specially commissioned poll by the Express still put Butler on 39.5%, Hailsham on 21.5%, Maudling on 11%, with Home in fourth place on 9.5%. True, Home’s speech on foreign affairs, delivered before Maulding, had been well received. But in reality, the Eton-educated Home was a virtual unknown amongst the public. In the eighteenth century, he would have made an ideal Prime Minister, but not in the more media-orientated world of 1963.

In fact, Home became Tory leader because by this stage Macmillan had recovered sufficiently from his illness to engage in a stitch-up in order to prevent Rab Butler from becoming leader. The Prime Minister therefore called upon senior figures in the party – the so called ‘magic circle – to take soundings amongst the Cabinet, MPs and the party at large. These results were manipulated in such a way as to portray Home to Her Majesty the Queen as the compromise candidate, the man who wouldn’t split the party. Faced with such a blatant stitch-up, Rab Butler bottled it, and refused to challenge Macmillan’s view.

What lessons can be drawn from this sorry episode?

One notable lesson is that when it comes to Tory party leadership contests, the favourite almost never wins. In 1975, Margaret Thatcher triumphed, despite Willie Whitelaw being the favourite to succeed Ted Heath. If we fast-forward to the dramatic events of November 1990, Michael Heseltine was the favourite. Conservative MPs didn’t opt for John Major because of his own merits, but because he was the ‘Stop Heseltine’ candidate. In 1997, Conservative MPs only chose the inexperienced William Hague because he wasn’t Kenneth Clarke. In 2001, the 14-1 outsider, Iain Duncan Smith had the advantage of not being Michael Portillo. And in 2005, David Davis was the favourite, not David Cameron.

So, if David Cameron were to fall under a bus tomorrow, who would be likely to succeed him? Surely not the current favourite, Theresa May? While Michael Gove still represents very good value at 7-1, history suggests that some lesser known figure will emerge to seize the Tory leadership. That’s why I’m having a small flutter on Justine Greening at 33-1.

Mark Stuart

You can also see video footage of the 1963 Conservative party conference. Note the newspaper headlines covering the leadership contest – there’s no mention of Lord Home. 

Why party conferences still matter


The annual Party Conference season is now well and truly under way. It’s a time when each political party’s enthusiasts – what I call the badge wearers – spend a week debating obscure composites, resolutions and amendments. Little wonder then that the general public generally switches channels to see if there is a decent repeat available on Dave.

To their detractors like Tony Benn, party conferences have become like American political conventions in which ‘we just let off balloons, sing pop songs, greet showbiz celebrities and, if you’re lucky, have the occasional debate.’

So, do party conferences still matter?

The answer partly depends on whether a party is in Opposition or in Government. Opposition parties and their leaders are generally ignored by the media for the rest of the year, so the party conference becomes a vital occasion for Leaders of the Opposition to explain to the voters what they stand for. But if the party is in Government, conference defeats can be more easily discounted, as in 2003 when Tony Blair simply brushed off a conference defeat on foundations hospitals, and pressed on with the enabling legislation regardless.

In reality, the power of the annual conference largely depends on which political party we are discussing. In the case of the Liberal Democrats, currently gathered in Glasgow, genuine democracy prevails. As Nick Clegg admitted this week, ‘one of the joys’ of the Liberal Democrats is that their party conference truly decides matters of policy. Party delegates will largely determine the content of the next Liberal Democrat manifesto; at least in terms of policy, if not priorities. It matters, then, that Clegg narrowly won Monday’s debate on economic policy, not least to avoid the appearance of disunity.

If we go far back into its early twentieth century roots, the Labour conference was the sovereign body of the party. Labour MPs were seen as delegates whose role was to implement Labour party policy in the House of Commons. In theory, that part of the Labour rulebook – Clause 5 – still remains in place (‘The work of the party shall be under the direction and control of the party conference’)  But in practice, as the parliamentary Labour party grew in size, so its MPs started to flex their muscles. Initially, Conference defeats were rare, as the union block vote rallied behind the leadership. Indeed, between 1949 and 1960, the Labour leadership only suffered one defeat. It was only in the era of Hugh Gaitskell that the Labour leadership suffered a couple of serious reverses on the issues of Clause IV and nuclear disarmament. Since the Gaitskell era, defeats have simply been ignored.

Despite suffering these defeats, successive Labour leaders since Gaitskell have understood the true value of party conference speeches: they give Leaders of the Opposition a chance to be seen to be facing down critics in their own party. Famously, Neil Kinnock’s speech against the Militant Tendency in Bournemouth in 1985 demonstrated to the wider electorate that Labour was serious about modernization. His successor, John Smith, risked the leadership of his Party in 1993 in order to secure One Member, One Vote for the same reason. Twenty years later, Ed Miliband faces a similar challenge to that presented by Smith: he must show the public that he is serious about reforming Labour’s historic link with the unions.

In theory at least, the Conservative party conference is one in which the leadership is all powerful. But in practice, Tory conferences have shown a marked tendency to spark into life. Back in1978 when the Tories gathered in Brighton, a vigorous debate ensued in which delegates called for the lifting of economic sanctions against Ian Smith, the white supremacist ruler in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). Replying to the debate, Tory frontbench John Davies gave a rambling speech, during which he was heckled loudly from the Conference floor. Sadly, the splitting headache he suffered from on that occasion was not the result of the heated debate, but a malignant brain tumour, from which he died a few months later. But no senior Tory frontbench still alive can forget the mauling Davies received from delegates on that occasion.

For decades following the abolition of the death penalty in 1965, the annual capital punishment debates at the Tory Party Conference became awkward events requiring careful handling by the conference platform. In his memoirs, William Whitelaw, Margaret Thatcher’s first Home Secretary, acknowledged that his over-emotional response to the capital punishment debate at the 1981 Conference damaged his standing in his party. Later on in the decade, Douglas Hurd, a consistent opponent of capital punishment, recalled having to contend with emotive speeches from retired police sergeants who were capable of stirring the Conference delegates into a froth. Mrs. Thatcher felt she had to attend these law and order debates, even if she took a different view from her Home Secretary. As speaker after speaker called for the restoration of the death penalty, she would clap her hands under the platform table, out of sight of the delegates.

Unluckily, it was Douglas Hurd, by this stage Foreign Secretary, who had to cope with yet another lively Conference debate in 1992, this time over Europe. On that occasion, the Party hierarchy allowed Norman Tebbit to make a poisonous speech against the Prime Minister, John Major. As Hurd prepared his reply to the debate, Major peppered him with ‘Give ‘em hell’ notes. Hurd was able to face down his conference critics, but only just.

The very fact that the Tory leadership has to respond to the occasional bout of sustained criticism from their members is surely good for our democratic system. Granted, the party leadership normally gets its way. But what the public don’t see are the fraught negotiations behind-the-scenes between delegates and the leadership over the wording of those aforementioned composites, resolutions and amendments. It’s what Richard Kelly in his seminal 1989 work on Conservative Party Conferences called The Hidden System.

Hardly the sort of political intrigue to persuade the public to miss a repeat of Would I Lie to You? on Dave, but important nonetheless.

Mark Stuart

MPs and Twitter: which parties are tweeting?

Image by Shawn Campbell

Image by Shawn Campbell

For my final year dissertation I chose to look at what use MPs’ are making of social media. Focussing on their use of Twitter, I set out to answer two questions; which MPs are tweeting and what are they using it for? Something that emerged when carrying out the research was the differences between MPs from the three main parties.

Party Yes No N
Conservative 54.8 45.2 305
Labour 69.1 30.9 256
Liberal Democrat 75.4 24.6 57
Others 65.6 34.4 32

Who tweets? By party (% of total MPs)

As of January this year, 54.8% of Conservative MPs were tweeting. This is significantly less than the 69.1% of Labour MPs and 75.4% of Liberal Democrats. The Conservatives certainly look to be lagging behind the two other parties, but this difference in numbers is largely down to the number of tweeting frontbenchers.

The majority of Labour and Liberal Democrat frontbenchers do tweet, with over 80% of each party’s frontbenchers on Twitter. This is in contrast to the Conservative party, with only half of its frontbenchers using Twitter as of January this year. If there is one party that is behind in using Twitter it is the Conservatives, with proportionately less of their MPs on it and significantly fewer frontbenchers. It seems to be viewed with suspicion amongst the party’s leadership, with David Cameron once infamously claiming ‘too many tweets make a twat’ and reported attempts to restrict their MPs’ use of it. On Labour’s side, with 85.7% of their frontbenchers on Twitter this suggests more of an effort to get their frontbench to make the most of Twitter.

If they are making this effort, it hasn’t filtered through to their backbenchers. Whilst there is a large difference between the number of Labour and Conservative frontbenchers who tweet, there is little difference between the backbenchers with 56.3% of Labour backbenchers and 59.8% of Conservative backbenchers tweeting. With fewer MPs, proportionately there are more tweeting Liberal Democrat backbenchers at 71.8%. The Liberal Democrats are the only one of the three parties with a high proportion of both front and backbenchers tweeting, meaning overall they have the highest proportion of MPs on Twitter. Only 13 of their MPs do not tweet. Given their position as the third party, this is not massively surprising. Twitter is perhaps seen by them as a means to promote their party, whereas they might struggle for coverage in the media compared to the other two, larger parties.

In the run up to the 2005 general election a number of MPs set up blogs, and in 2010 they signed up to Twitter. They realised the benefits of blogging and tweeting for their campaigns, but as things stand the Conservatives lag behind in terms of their presence on Twitter (particularly amongst its ministers, being the only party with its backbenchers more likely to tweet than its frontbenchers). It will be interesting to see whether they feel the need to change this as we head towards 2015, or whether they will remain behind the other two parties.

James Donald recently graduated from the University of Nottingham with a BA in Politics.

See also:
MPs and Twitter: who’s tweeting?
MPs and Twitter: what are MPs tweeting about?
MPs and Twitter: an infographic

Five things you may think you know about the Conservative grassroots but actually probably don’t

The problem with doing any kind of social science is that the data you collect end up confirming what people already assume is the case. This is not bad in itself. There’s nothing inherently wrong in providing empirical evidence for something that, up to that point anyway, was merely unproven common wisdom. But it doesn’t make for great telly – or radio or press or even blogs. No-one, after all, wants to fail the proverbial No Shit Sherlock test.

Our recent survey of 852 rank-and-file members of the Conservative Party, conducted for us by YouGov and funded by the McDougall Trust turns out, predictably enough, to tell us some stuff we probably could have guessed at and other stuff that is slightly more surprising. Sometimes things that fall into the former category are actually pretty important. Sometimes things that fall into the latter are kind of fun, but hardly earth-shattering. Sometimes it’s not until you do the statistical analysis that you can tell the difference.

We’re not going to do that analysis here – something which, no doubt, some readers will be relieved to learn. For those who aren’t, some initial forays have already made their way into the media here, here and here. And some serious number-crunching is going into a suitably pointy-headed paper we’re going to be delivering at the American Political  Science Association’s meeting in Chicago at the end of August.

Instead we thought we’d pick out five more or less random findings that contradict or at least qualify the common wisdom about the Conservative grassroots. So here goes:

1. The Tory rank-and-file are a bunch of middle class old duffers who, when it comes to candidate selection, like to pick a typical Tory boy – public school, Oxbridge, and the rest.

Not quite. Grassroots Conservatives may indeed be ‘of a certain age’ – the average for our respondents was 59. And they are certainly overwhelmingly middle class. However, they are rather more open minded about candidates than many imagine. When we asked members about female MPs, 52% of them said they’d like to see more and only 2% said they’d like to see fewer, with the rest thinking the number was about right (24%) or not caring either way (22%). Even more interestingly, and chiming nicely with the work of Nottingham’s own Philip Cowley, when we asked them about MPs from working class or lower middle class backgrounds, 53% would like to see more and only 3% less, with the figures for those who were satisfied with the current number or not caring either way standing at 24% and 18% respectively.

2. Grassroots Conservatives are rabid right-wingers.

In fact, it all depends what you mean by right-wing. Our findings suggest that it’s important to distinguish between social conservatism and attitudes to the state and the market. The former – typified by current ambivalence or outright hostility to gay marriage – is pretty widespread, although there are some libertarians at the grassroots, including, perhaps, the third of members who don’t believe moral standards need to be upheld by censorship of films and magazines. On the economy and public services, however, we need to be a bit more careful. Between a fifth and a quarter of rank and file Tory members believe, for example, that big business benefits owners at the expense of workers, that ordinary people don’t get a fair share of the nation’s wealth and that there is one law for the rich and one for the poor. Moreover, especially where their own interests or those of their families are directly affected, grassroots Conservatives suddenly see a role for the state: while there is widespread support for spending cuts, less than half of rank and file members support the rise in university tuition fees, while more than half of them don’t want to see cuts made to the NHS.

3. The Tory rank-and-file are irredeemably opposed to immigration in all its forms.

No they aren’t, actually. As you may have seen reported in the media, we discovered that a significant minority of Tory members are tempted by UKIP – a party whose anti-immigration platform is a big part of their appeal. Indeed, while 66% of grassroots Conservatives say they would never vote for their coalition partners, the Lib Dems, in a general election, only 33% of them say the same about Nigel Farage’s outfit. However, as is the case for many of their fellow countrymen and women, rank-and-file Tory members’ views on immigration are actually rather more nuanced than many would imagine. True, a quarter of them (26%) would like to see an immediate cessation of immigration from inside or outside the EU. But that figure is dwarfed by the two-thirds of them (67%) who are happy for the government to allow people to come and live in the UK as long as they have a job or some other means of financial support.

4. The C of E might not be ‘the Tory Party at prayer’ any more but loads of grassroots Conservatives are pillars of their local churches.

Not really. While 15% claim to attend a religious service at least once a week – which is probably higher  than (maybe even double) the national average – a quarter (25%) go less than once a month and half (49%) practically never go, except maybe for weddings and funerals. That’s about the same for the population as a whole.

5. When they’re not hanging out at church, hordes of rank-and-file Tories are to be found gracing the golf courses of Great Britain.

Wrong. Turns out that only a disappointing 8% of Conservative Party members belong to a golf club: 11% of the men and 3% of the women. Whether more of the latter would belong if they could but are excluded by courses which don’t admit women, we don’t know. What we do know is that in the twenty-first century more than twice as many grassroots Tories (17% of them in fact) go the gym than play golf.

Tim Bale and Paul Webb