It’s been five months since I started my PhD, and I can honestly say I feel like it’s just my second week. The time is flying by, and I have very little I can point to in the way of work – and yet I tell myself I’ll have time to maintain a blog.

For my first post I thought it would be a good idea, to paraphrase Maria from The Sound of Music (I won’t make a habit of that, don’t worry – habit, because she was a nun – keep up) to “start at the very beginning” since it’s “a very good place to start”. She was a wise gal.

For my PhD, the beginning is best summed up by my research proposal. Over the course of three to four months, I spent my free time frantically searching for relevant literature which would address the broad question that was forming in my mind – What caused the Conservative electoral decline in Liverpool? Part of me wanted to find an answer, to show that I wasn’t the only person interested in the topic, whilst another part was desperate to continue to hit a brick wall – funding proposals are always stronger when you can say you’re plugging a gap in the literature.

As time went on, I realised that there had been no comprehensive study of the Conservative decline in Liverpool (or indeed any other Northern city) – there had been studies into the decline in Scotland, but often a nationalist aspect was invoked to explain this sudden collapse of the Scottish Conservatives, whilst the Welsh were never one for the Tories to begin with.

Instead of finding works that would answer my question directly, I instead increasingly found myself stumbling across different frameworks that could be applied to Liverpool. I couldn’t believe my luck – within a few months I had developed a proposal which I was really proud of. I’m happy to say that it survived reviews from more than ten different academics (including about 8 potential supervisors) without any significant changes being suggested, and it secured funding from a few ESRC Doctoral Training Centres. In the end, I plumped for London, and that’s how I ended up at Queen Mary.

The point of this blogpost, however, is not the nice background story (perfect for a film adaptation, I think) but instead to explain the base of my research, the document which shapes what I will be spending the next 3-4 years studying, and how I will be conceptualising the problem of Conservative decline in Liverpool.

My proposal focused on six different hypotheses, which can broadly be considered under the headings of ‘exogenous’ and ‘endogenous’ factors. Under each, I will sketch out some initial thoughts/findings.

Exogenous factors

  1. Religion and class: The replacement of religion with class as the basis for party support eroded the Conservative vote (Butler and Stokes: 1974).

I was initially excited by this prospect, but this has dimmed somewhat. As I hope to make clear in later blogposts, Conservative decline began in earnest around 1969, and again in 1979. Religious dealignment seems to have occurred following the Education Act of 1870 up until 1945, but mainly between the wars. Thus there is no reason why it would take until 1969 for the effects to filter through (and to filter through so suddenly).

  1. ‘Vote drain’: A process of suburbanisation led to Conservative voters leaving Liverpool, thus creating a ‘vote drain’. (Jackson: 1985).
  2. Economic restructuring: The replacement of the traditional casual labour force with a large public sector workforce led to an increase in support for Labour (Blais et al: 1990).

For me, 2 and 3 are related. Liverpool’s population approximately halved between 1931 and 2001, from a peak of around 850,000 to 420,000 as the city underwent a long-term economic decline. Taking into account death, there must still been a large-scale outward migration flow as people sought out better opportunities throughout the country (and perhaps even further afield). It stands to reason that those who could leave were more likely to be wealthier, with greater occupational mobility – this screams out the middle classes (and perhaps upper-working class), as well as the children of better off families, who would leave Liverpool for university etc. and not return – thus not ‘replacing’ their parents in the local electorate when they died. Simply put, it is possible that Tory voters were more able (and thus more likely) to leave Liverpool – this would contribute to a long term structural decline in the Conservative vote share in the city.

This would have the effect of leaving the public sector as the prime source of middle class employment, and since public sector workers are more likely to vote Labour, we can see a shift of middle class support from the Conservatives to Labour.

This idea ties in with a new hypothesis I have been developing – socialisation – which I will explore below.

Endogenous factors

  1. Policy difference: A divergence of policy preferences between the public and the Conservatives (Seawright and Curtice: 2008).

I do not see policy preferences making a significant difference to Conservative party support – as is well documented, the average voter has very little knowledge of policy proposals. Furthermore, many Conservative leaders and policies  resonated with the ‘working class’ (e.g. Right to Buy), and yet Liverpool did not seem to mirror the increased Conservative support seen elsewhere.

  1. Perception: A failure of the Conservative Party to represent the interests of northern cities like Liverpool.

I think perceptions will tie in to socialisation, below.

  1. Structural problems: A decline in the local party association in Liverpool (Whiteley and Seyd: 2003).

I admit to being excited by this idea at first – but Ball’s magisterial Portrait of a Party, and Ramsden’s forensic biography of the Conservative Party between 1940-1957 and 1957-1975 highlighted the relative lack of importance attributed to local party structures – the Tories still did well, even when the local association was in periods of crisis in the 1950s and 1960s.  More recent studies have shown that local electioneering probably doesn’t make a significant impact on the final outcome of elections – and even if it did, it seems clear to me that a decline in the party association would follow – rather than cause – a decline in vote share (and indeed would probably be quite a delayed reaction, since those involved in party associations tend to be loyalists, who are willing to be involved even when winning is an unlikely prospect).

7? Socialisation

Socialisation was not part of my original research proposal, but is an idea that has grown out of my research so far. The basic premise of socialisation is that one’s political identity is significantly shaped by the period one grows up in – someone who had their formative years during the the 1870s will most likely hold different values to someone who grew up following World War 2.

The next step in my research is to sketch out a model of socialisation in Liverpool for various cohorts, and predict how they would be likely to vote (of course, no cohort ever votes in a uniform manner – there is variety – but I am referring to trends/likelihoods/probabilities).

Broadly speaking, I think those who were socialised before World War I would be more inclined to see politics as a Conservative vs. Liberal contest – they would have grown up in a time when Labour was not a viable contender, and thus would be less likely to trust them. As this cohort aged, and the Liberals were replaced by the socialists as the main opposition to the Conservatives, it is indeed possible that many Liberal voters would rather back the Conservatives than the party they see as replacing/destroying their first choice.

For those who grew up in the interwar years, they would be used to an era of Conservative electoral dominance. They would be left with the lasting idea that the Conservatives were the natural party of government, and perhaps they reflected this in their electoral choices.

It is not until 1945 that Labour is able to form a successful, stable, majority government that lasts a full parliament. Those whose formative years fell during this period would be shaped by horrors of World War II, would perhaps reflect favourably on the post-war welfare state, and would certainly not see Labour as an upstart party. For these voters, the contest was between the Tories and Labour, and there is evidence that these voters tended to lean towards Labour. Voters born between 1945-1952 would have been eligible to vote first in the 1970 general election (due to the lowering of the voting age to 18 in the Representation of the People Act 1969) – this roughly corresponds to the start of Conservative electoral decline.

Furthermore, there is the potential for a ‘positive reinforcement’ mechanism (not so positive for the Conservatives, however) – as Conservative voters left Liverpool the city became more left-wing/Labour-voting. This could have created and perpetuated an environment where it was ‘normal’ to be Labour, and thus the default option for new voters being born. Additionally, those who were Conservative may have sought out new places to live which better reflect their political persuasion.

That is a very rough sketch of my socialisation model, and hopefully I will be able to go into greater depth as time goes on.

So, that is my research as it stands so far!

Please do comment with your thoughts, suggestions, reading recommendations etc.!