How to lose votes and alienate people: An examination of the causes of Conservative decline in Liverpool since 1945

This is my doctoral thesis – I’m very proud of it, and I’m even prouder to have a contract with Liverpool University Press to expand this project and write a full book!

You can read the thesis on Academia.Edu here, or directly download here.

This thesis is an examination of the causes of Conservative electoral decline in Liverpool, from the end of World War Two to the present day. This is an area of Liverpool’s political history, and of the history of the Conservative Party, which is understudied. This thesis counters the traditional argument that declining sectarianism, or the premiership of Margaret Thatcher, are the root causes of Conservative decline in Liverpool.

This thesis also discounts theories of local party organisational inefficiency, municipal electoral biases, demographic change, and population drain, arguing that generally these changes were too gradual to account for the sudden, dramatic decline of the Liverpool Conservatives in the 1970s. Similarly, many of these factors do not chime temporally with actual changes in Conservative vote share.

Instead, this thesis proposes a tripartite framework, which separates the periods of success (1945- 197), decline (1973-1986), and irrelevance (1987 onwards). Each period can be explained by recourse to different phenomena. Conservative success in Liverpool can be primarily explained by the socialisation effect of Protestantism, boosted in years when the Conservatives were doing well nationally. Conservative decline is mainly a result of a perfect storm of unresponsive local parties, an energetic nascent Liberal Party, dissatisfaction with the Heath government nationally, and an all-out local election in 1973 (when all seats in council were up for election) triggered by local government reform. Finally, Conservative irrelevance is attributable to a change in Scouse local identity which took on an element of anti-Thatcherism/anti-Conservatism, and has persisted to this day.

This work was supported by the QMUL Principal’s Studentship, co-funded by Queen Mary University of London and the Economic and Social Research Council, award number 1523299.

The British Labour Party and leadership election mandate(s) of Jeremy Corbyn: patterns of opinion and opposition within the parliamentary Labour Party

in (2017) Journal of Elections, Public Opinion and Parties. (With T. Heppell and A. Crines)

The link to the final, published version of this article can be found here, but for those who do not have access you can access the pre-publication version here.

This paper offers the first systematic evaluation of opinion within the 2015–2017 parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) towards the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. We do this by identifying whether individual parliamentarians remained supportive of Corbyn as their party leader or not, and then relating opinion on this to a series of variables that form the basis of a unique data set on the PLP.

By constructing this data set we are able to test, via logistic regression analysis, a series of hypotheses based around (1) demographic variables – i.e. age, gender and trade union membership; (2) political variables – i.e. year of entry, constituency region, marginality, main competition and the endorsement of their constituency Labour Party (CLP) in the leadership election of 2016 and (3) ideological variables – i.e. views on continued European Union [EU] membership, immigration, intervention in Syria and the renewal of Trident.

We find that, when it comes to opposition to Corbyn, there is limited evidence of significant demographic, political or ideological patterns at play. The fear of deselection or the fear of electoral defeat did not motivate Labour parliamentarians to remain loyal to Corbyn, and nor was it the case that the PLP has evolved into clearly defined and cohesive factional blocks

Instead, our research suggests that the PLP concluded that the members had been mis- taken in their choice of leader – Corbyn was too divisive, too unelectable, and his competence was too widely questioned, to make him a credible candidate to be Prime Minister.

The drive to unseat Corbyn was a crisis of leadership as much as it was an ideological conflict – why else would so many of the supposedly loyalist Corbyn faction have voted for his removal?

The UK government and the 0.7% international aid target: Opinion among Conservative parliamentarians

in (2017) British Journal of Politics and International Relation. (With T. Heppell and A. Crines) 

The link to the final, published version of this article can be found here, but for those who do not have access you can access the pre-publication version here.

This is the first article to use a detailed dataset of the 2010 – 2015 Parliamentary Conservative Party (PCP) to identify the drivers of MPs’ positions on legally enshrining a commitment to spend 0.7% of gross national income on foreign aid.

We position every Conservative parliamentarian into three different categories on international aid:

  1. aid critics, who openly opposed and/or voted the 0.7% target
  2. aid sceptics, who abstained in parliamentary divisions on the 0.7 target and
  3. aid advocates, who voted for the 0.7% and spoke out for it.

We then draw on a range of political and ideological variables to determine drivers of support or opposition to aid.

By doing so we identify that Cameron achieved remarkable success in transforming opinion towards aid amongst Conservative parliamentarians, in stark contrast to the difficulties associated with another aspect of social liberal modernisation — same-sex marriage.

Whereas on international aid Cameron secured the backing of 190 (or 61.7%) of the PCP (with opposition at only 24, or 7.8%), he only secured the backing of 127 (or 41.3%) of the PCP on same-sex marriage, as compared to 136 (or 42.9%) who voted against.

This article represents a quantitative challenge to the prevalent qualitative assumption in the academic literature, which claims Cameron’s modernisation project was a failure.

The Conservative Party Leadership Election of 2016: An Analysis of the Voting Motivations of Conservative Parliamentarians

in (2017) Parliamentary Affairs. (With T. Heppell, R. Hayton, and A. Crines)

The link to the final, published version of this article can be found here, and is open access.

This article provides the first systematic examination of the voting motivations of Conservative MPs in the final parliamentary ballot of the Conservative Party leadership election of 2016. We identify the voting behaviour of each Conservative parliamentarian as part of a unique data set that we use to test, through the use of multivariate analysis, a series of hypotheses based around social background variables (i.e. gender and education); political variables (i.e. parliamentary experience, electoral marginality, the electoral threat posed by UKIP and ministerial status); and ideological variables (i.e. attitudes towards same-sex marriage and Brexit).

Our findings demonstrate that ideology did matter in terms of voting – there were two major cleavages in this leadership election: positioning in the EU referendum and social liberalism/conservatism.

May’s support was drawn from those who backed Remain in the referendum, whilst Leadsom and Gove both drew support from Brexiteers; Leadsom from socially conservative members of the PCP, and Gove from the socially liberal wing.

The United Kingdom Referendum on European Union Membership: The Voting of Conservative Parliamentarians

in (2017) Journal of Common Market Studies. (With A. Crines and T. Heppell)

The link to the final, published version of this article can be found here, but for those who do not have access you can access the pre-publication version here.

This article considers the attitudes of members of the parliamentary Conservative Party (PCP) during the European Union membership referendum held in the United Kingdom on 23 June 2016.

First, the article identifies the voting positions – remain or leave – of each Conservative parliamentarian in order to assess the strength of opinion within the PCP and place it within its historical context. Second, the article uses multivariate analysis to test a series of hypotheses about the voting of Conservative parliamentarians.

Through this we will aim to identify whether any associations existed between advocates and opponents of Brexit and social variables such as age, schooling, university, occupation and gender; political variables such as constituency marginality, and whether they were a minister, an ex‐minister or a permanent backbencher; and the ideological variable of morality – such as support for or opposition to same sex marriage.

This article is interesting because we find that there was a wider ideological dimension within the PCP to advocating Brexit – social conservatives were more likely to advocate Brexit than social liberals. This group of hard Eurosceptics and social conservatives formed the base of anti-Cameronite sentiment within the PCP. Our research confirms that this anti-Cameronite socially conservative and Euro-rejectionist grouping had increased from 50 or 16% of the 2010 to 2015 PCP, to 82 or 25% in the 2015-PCP.

This was my first co-authored article, and the first of a very fruitful partnership with Dr Andrew Crines (University of Liverpool) and Dr Tim Heppell (University of Leeds).

The Strange Death of Tory Liverpool: Conservative Electoral Decline in Liverpool, 1945-1996

In modern discourse, Liverpool is a by-word for anti-Tory sentiment, yet the city has not always been so inhospitable for the Conservatives. From the mid-18th century until the 1970s, the Conservatives dominated the city council and often held over half of Liverpool’s parliamentary constituencies. Whilst popular opinion ascribes Conservative decline in Liverpool to Margaret Thatcher, Conservative Prime Minister from 1979 to 1990, it began a decade before Thatcher gained power.

This article argues that Conservative decline in Liverpool was due to the increasing inability of socialisation to create new Conservative voters, coupled with dissatisfaction with the Heath government and a rejection of unresponsive local party machines. The Liberal Party, through their use of pavement politics, were able to exploit these issues. Their 1973 local election victory allowed them to displace the Conservatives as the main opposition to Labour in most of the city, thus beginning the strange death of Tory Liverpool.

Link to full article (open access) here:

I have also spoken about this topic in a keynote lecture and written about it for ConservativeHome (back when I was a fresh-faced PhD student).

‘How to Lose Votes and Alienate People: Conservative Decline in Liverpool’ [VIDEO]

This is the recording of my keynote talk at the Thatcher Network‘s ‘Thatcherism Now’ conference, held at the University of Liverpool in April 2018.

In it, I analyse the post-war history of the Liverpool Conservative Party, and Liverpool’s political history more generally, up to the present day. I also briefly look at strategies the Liverpool Conservatives could adopt in order to become competitive in the city again.

I’d be interested in your views, and you can email me here.



3 things I learned from Liverpool’s local election results (number 2’s a shocker!)

My to-do list is scary. Actually, there’s no single to-do list, but rather a range of different to-do lists scribbled over different apps. Things have gotten so bad that I’ve made a to-do list which comprises solely of ‘sort out to-do lists’. How meta.

One of the things that’s been sitting on a few of my to-do lists is to put Liverpool’s local election results into STATA and see if the data throws up anything interesting (I know, I need to calm down). Funnily enough, the data confirms a lot of what I had already accepted as fact. This is good for me, since I’m the kind of person who prefers statistics to case studies or ‘common knowledge’.

Anyway, I thought instead of just hiding the results away and perhaps forgetting about them, I’d throw them into a little blog post.

NB: the graphs below will not look great because STATA seems designed to impede the production of presentable graphs. Also, spoiler: number 2 isn’t really a shocker, I just hoped a Buzzfeed-style title would draw in an audience. Next week: 6 things the Liverpool Tories did which lost them votes (you won’t believe number 3!).

1) Labour’s vote was more efficiently spread than the Conservative’s vote

The graph above shows that, on average, both Labour and the Liberals did better in Liverpool on any % vote share than the Conservatives could expect to do. This suggests that the Conservative vote was more concentrated in safe wards, and coupled with the fact that many Labour-leaning wards were smaller, meant that the Conservatives had to work harder to translate votes into seats.

However, there were two local boundary reforms between 1945 and 2003. It stands to reason that changing how Liverpool was divided up would impact on the translation of votes into seats. The next graph breaks up the period into the three boundary regimes.

SS by VS LE by BO

As we can see, until 1952 the relationship between vote share and seat share was almost exactly the same for the two main parties. However, the 1952 local boundary reforms significantly benefitted the Labour party – on average, a vote share of 40% for both parties would result in ~30% seat share for the Conservatives, whilst Labour could expect ~50% of the seats.

Following the 1973 boundary reform, the Conservatives were further harmed by a concentration of votes in a small number of wards, meaning that even when their voters turned out in high numbers, the party could expect a significantly lower seat share – on 35% vote share the Conservatives could expect just over 20% of the seats, compared to Labour’s 40% and the Liberal’s 35%.

Overall, these results suggest that Labour’s vote was indeed spread more efficiently across the city than the Conservative’s vote was. However, when the Liberals replaced the Conservatives as the main opposition to Labour, they did not suffer with this problem to anywhere near the same extent.

2) Labour did better when turnout was high

VS by TO by BO

Again, if we choose to split this period up into the three different set of boundaries we can see three different patterns emerge.

In the first period, we see that in fact higher turnout tends to slightly benefit the Conservatives at the expense of the Liberals. This relationship is minor, however, and the Liberals were goosed either way. Turnout seemed to have no impact on the Labour vote.

Between 1953-73, we do see a strong decline in Conservative vote share as turnout increases. Indeed, this is almost totally as a result of the rise of the Labour vote. This suggests that it was Labour that lost elections, rather than the Conservatives winning them, by not getting enough supporters to vote. Labour apathy benefitted the Tories.

In the third period, we see a similar pattern, but with different parties. Low turnout now seems to benefit the Liberals, and as turnout increases both Labour and the Conservatives can expect to increase their vote share. However, this result is skewed somewhat by the anomalous 1979 local election result (the three dots to the far right). This local election was held at the same time as the 1979 General Election, at the end of the unpopular Callaghan government. As such, both turnout and Conservative vote share are exaggerated here, and without this year included the Conservative trend line becomes much flatter, suggesting that over this period as turnout increases Conservative vote doesn’t change.

However, the third period hides important changes in the effects of turnout on Conservative vote share, due to the party’s rapid decline from 1973 to 2003. If we split the third period into decades (nb the 1990s includes up until 2003…), a clearer picture emerges.

In the 70s, there was a slightly negative relationship between turnout and vote share. This became more dramatic in the 1980s, somewhat explained by high-stake elections in the 1980s surrounding Militant, which would generate higher turnout from its supporters, whilst Conservative voters would face pressure to vote Liberal to keep the trots out. Finally in the 1990s/early 2000s, we see that as vote turnout increases the Conservative vote share increases slightly, but this is all pointless because they rarely top 10%…Con VS by Dec in 70-03

3) The Liberals took more votes from the Conservatives than Labour

This statement passes for common knowledge in the political history of Liverpool, and is justified by the data. VS by Lib VS 2

We can see that in 1953-73, as the Liberal vote increased, the Conservative vote declined whilst the Labour vote remained static. This suggests that the Liberals were indeed taking votes from the Conservatives whilst barely denting the Labour vote. What should be noted though is that, on average, it took a Liberal vote of over 10% in this period for Labour to best the Tories (although as previously mentioned, even with the Conservatives ahead in the popular vote Labour could still win a much greater seat share).

Between 1973 and 2003, the Liberals begin to take votes from both the Conservatives and Labour – although for every percentage increase in the Lib vote share the Conservatives suffer to a greater extent than Labour do (based on the steepness of the line).

Obviously, this is only a basic analysis of election results. There is still plenty to do which could generate quite a bit of new knowledge (and plenty more which would generate nothing). So far though, the ‘received wisdom’ seems to be legit.

NB: if you’ve got any comments/tips/advice/demands for money let me know either in the comments or on twitter, @DavidJeffery_.

The Lib Dems’ success is the root of their failure – will Farron change this?

Today Tim Farron, MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale, was elected leader of the Liberal Democrats, beating his only rival Norman Lamb. Together the two-horse leadership contest represented 25% of the parliamentary party, of which Farron was the favourite throughout. He now has a herculean task on his hands – how can he rebuild a party which has been devastated by its stint in coalition? Unfortunately for Farron, the very tactic which made the Lib Dems so successful locally is the cause of their undoing nationally – and is the reason why they now have so little goodwill from the electorate.

The Liberal Democrats’ current electoral strategy can be traced back to the (Liberals’) autumn conference of 1970 when, following a disappointing general election, the party chose to back a resolution put forward by the Young Liberals. This suggested that the party “focus its campaigning at the community level.” The logic was that success on a local level, based on an effort “to help organize people in their communities to take and use power… to build a Liberal power-base in the major cities of the country… to capture people’s imagination as a credible political movement, with local roots and local successes” would trickle up, into success on a constituency level, returning Liberal MPs in general elections. (Dutton 2013, p.197). Thus ‘pavement politics’ was born, and the whole country has had to suffer countless Focus leaflets ever since.

Of course, in following this road the Liberals, and later the Liberal Democrats, also made much hay of being a protest vote. This goes hand in hand with pavement politics – the current party is useless, stick it to ’em by voting for us.

The logic of this approach is sound – however, it is in the execution where the Lib Dems face problems. Since getting a cracked pavement repaired, a pothole filled in, or flytipping cleared requires no ideology, this emphasis on ultra-local pavement politics comes at the expense of a coherent national policy direction. This, coupled with the highly decentralised nature of the party, means that local parties have a great say in their ideological positioning.

This flexibility is an asset when the same party is trying to fight elections simultaneously in, say, the Home Counties and Glasgow, but on a national level it leads to problems. By essentially presenting yourself as centre-left when against a Labour opponent, and centre/centre-right when you’re facing down the Conservatives, you set yourself up to disappointing at least one half of the divide. This is also a problem when you set yourself up as a protest vote – it’s all well and good uniting to be against something, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you will all be for the same thing. Every policy decision has the potential to alienate a significant section of support somewhere.

This happened to the Liberal Democrats in the coalition. Those who voted Lib Dem, but with a second preference for Labour, were horrified that the party had jumped into bed with the Conservatives at the first whiff of power – regardless of parliamentary arithmetic. Those who voted Lib Dem with the Conservatives as their second preference thought ‘may as well vote for the real thing’. Further, since voters place more emphasis on national politics than local – and indeed nowadays local elections are broadly at the mercy of a party’s national popularity – this national level decision overrode a huge swathe of local-level support, painstakingly built through years – often decades – of activity.

Nick Clegg, bless him, attempted to repackage this Janus-faced local approach into a winning national position, arguing that only the Liberal Democrats could provide a ‘heart to a Conservative government and a brain to a Labour one’. As the election result showed, acting as a brake on another party is no replacement for a winning, coherent, policy formulation.

Of course, the Lib Dems have always tried to be something to everyone – they are themselves the result of an oft uncomfortable merger of the SDP and Liberal parties. But the sad fact of the matter is this; the Lib Dems’ greatest local election campaigning tool, pavement politics and being the protest vote, is also its greatest general election liability. It was not until the Liberal Democrats had a taste of power in 2010 that the inherent incompatibility of this electoral strategy became apparent.

If Farron wants to rebuild his party – and the country needs a strong liberal voice in parliament – he needs to move beyond the party’s ultra-local, ‘trickle up’ campaigning tactic. Without a clear, popular, national policy direction, the party will have to continue to rely on pavement politics, and in attempting to be everything to everybody, they’re doomed to be nothing to anyone.