The boundary changes are officially dead, being defeated by a pretty substantial House of Commons majority. With that, many commentators would have you believe, goes the chances of a Tory majority in 2015. Tory supporters on Twitter and in the media have been bemoaning the result – suggesting that this means that a Tory overall majority is virtually impossible. Prominent Labour figures have also been rushing to emphasise the importance of the vote, and bookies Paddy Power have lengthened the odds of a Tory majority to 4/1 – that’s a 20 per cent chance. The Betfair graph shows how the odds of a Tory majority on the betting exchange have changed from 6/4 to almost 4/1 in the past year or so:
Commentators shouldn’t be so quick to rush to judgement. Conservatives have been spending too much energy and capital focusing on the boundary changes, effectively using them as a crutch. In truth the effect of the boundary changes was always going to be minimal and didn’t represent an adequate substitute for the Tories thinking about why they haven’t won an election for 20 years. Now that they have been killed off it forces the Conservatives to focus on one all important fact – if they cannot win over voters that failed to vote for them in 2010 they will not win a majority at the next election. In the minds of some Tories, the boundary changes may have been a substitute for making the tough choices necessary to reach out to voters still sceptical of the Tory brand.
In 2010, Conservatives could only muster 36 per cent of the vote. Their main problem wasn’t with the boundaries. Their main problem was that Tories failed to appeal to sufficient voters outside of their South Eastern heartland, failing to appeal to sufficient working class voters, ethnic minority voters or voters in the North and midlands. Still, after almost a decade of modernisation, some 42 per cent of voters say they will never vote Tory.
Rather than being distracted by the false promise and quick fix of boundary changes, Conservatives now need to focus attention on appealing to those voters turned off by the Tory brand or those voters who considered voting Conservative last time but, ultimately, decided to vote Labour or Liberal Democrat. This clearly isn’t going to be easy – renewing in Government is more difficult than renewing in opposition and Conservatives remain handicapped with the perception that they’re the ‘party of the rich’, not ordinary people.
They could start to tackle this by showing that they’re serious about ‘cost of living’ issues, such as the cost of energy. Our research has shown that these issues are by far the most important day-to-day concerns for ordinary voters. To take one example, politicians could save households up to £400 a year, and meet their green targets, by creating a level-playing field for carbon-reducing techniques, rather than subsidising expensive technologies. The cost of housing and rent is also a major issue for many people – that’s why more should be done to loosen the planning system in order to allow more houses to be built and more people to get on the housing ladder.
Conservatives also need to go further to address the perception that they’re the ‘party of unemployment’, which still has potency in the North and the Midlands. A clear ‘industrial policy’ setting out a vision for private sector job creation and manufacturing growth could help repair some the Conservative image in some areas, especially if Conservatives associated themselves strongly with good news about job creation. Being serious about a vocational and technical track in education, with a solid academic core and real employer engagement, could also appeal to many working class voters who have been turned off by the Tory brand.
The election was not settled with the vote on the boundary reforms. There are still a large number of voters who remain genuinely undecided on how they will vote and could be persuaded by a compelling offering that genuinely reflected their concerns. The death of the boundary reforms has removed the factor that was obscuring the Tory focus on appealing to those voters they failed to win in 2010. If the Conservatives can broaden their appeal to working class voters in the North and Midlands, they still have a fighting chance of winning in 2015.