What’s happening with the Conservatives’ working-class 2019 voters since Rishi Sunak became PM? These are voters who have disproportionately drifted away from the Tories in recent times. What prospect is there for their return? It looks bad, but the picture is complex.
The Liz Truss debacle badly damaged the Conservatives amongst all voters. For the least-financially comfortable Conservatives specifically, the debacle turned them from being “don’t knows” to declaring for Labour. This helps explain why Labour’s lead in the polls has grown so much. There has been a shift in “don’t knows” to Labour, although Labour has also been attracting more of its historic voters back, such as from the Lib Dems.
This negative impact is easy to understand: this group was already leaving the Conservative Party more than better-off Conservative voters (as can be seen in my paper for the CPS). A perceived inability to reduce the cost of living and a sense of general unfairness in the economy were central to their reasons for leaving the Party. So it was no surprise the mini-budget had the impact it did (and it was entirely predictable).
Sunak hasn’t changed this fundamental picture. Predictably, the Conservatives have enjoyed a bit of a bump in the polls generally since he replaced Truss. But working-class voters haven’t really changed their mind on the Party. Could they? Will they? I haven’t polled in the same depth as I did in the summer. Nonetheless, my agency has conducted a number of polls and groups in recent weeks, so I think a reasonably clear picture is emerging.
Let’s look at the positives, which should give the Conservatives some hope with this group. Firstly, Keir Starmer still personally struggles – as he always has – with all swing voters. The Conservatives have recovered their position amongst voters overall on economic competence. At one level, this is staggering. A few weeks ago they appeared to have come close to destroying the economy. Now, the polls suggest more people trust Rishi Sunak with the economy than Keir Starmer.
Secondly, this comparative advantage Rishi Sunak enjoys over Keir Starmer on competence is broadly felt. He is viewed as being a better Prime Minister than Keir Starmer would be. This isn’t nothing. While we’re not a Presidential system, the leaders make a difference to which way people would vote.
It’s theoretically possible to imagine that a further decline in the economy might not be a terrible thing for the Conservatives because it would further intensify people’s fear. This might raise their desire to be led by a competent politician, which currently plays well for Sunak. I personally doubt this would be the case, but it’s been put to me persuasively by pollsters I respect.
Let’s now look at the negatives. Dealing with the obvious, Rishi Sunak is still basically unpopular. The Conservative Party’s reputation is dreadful; and many, if not most, voters want an election, feeling the Conservatives have no real mandate. Currently, most want an election to vote the Conservatives (and Sunak) out.
Sunak also tends to struggle particularly with this crucial group of financially insecure 2019 Conservative voters. In recent polling with More in Common, we found just under half of this group think Sunak would represent a fresh start, compared to almost two-thirds of better-off Conservative voters. More worryingly, a majority of these insecure Conservatives view Sunak as “out of touch with people like me”.
This group says the same about Keir Starmer, but it is worth remembering that just 3 years ago this group voted Conservative, not Labour. So the new Prime Minister has a task ahead of him to prove to these voters that he represents their economic interests.
Which leads to the biggest negative: the fact the Conservatives haven’t announced their economic policies yet, which seem sure to include both tax rises and spending cuts. While there’s clearly a lot of abstract support for cutting the deficit, many voters reasonably blame the Government for the predicament we’re in. They will therefore likely react badly to cuts and tax rises which appear to be a response to the Government’s own mistakes.
Equally, the situation is febrile and any unexpected levels of economic instability after the Autumn statement pose the risk of being seen as the “same as what happened with Liz Truss”. It seems unlikely the economic fall-out would be as severe as in September, but the room for error is massive.
This basic fact could undermine the Conservatives’ central narrative: that they made some mistakes, that the time is tough, and that difficult decisions are required to sort out the economy (and society). It’s hard to know what to say to the response: “your mistakes were massive, and we’re paying the price”.