Conservative MPs are worried that “shy switchers” – people who look friendly to their party but are likely to vote against them – might cause a more severe general election defeat in 2024 than many Tories are prepared for.
A senior Conservative told PoliticsHome that they worry many people who have voted for the party in recent elections are simply being “polite” and “don’t want to be brutal” when they tell activists they may vote for them again, when they are increasingly likely to vote for Labour or the Liberal Democrats.
Current projections imply an autumn 2024 general election.
The senior Tory feared that this undercurrent of superficial support was clouding the vision of more optimistic MPs who still feel the party may win a very improbable triumph.
Some pundits have used the phrase “shy Tories” to characterize those who voted Conservative during general elections despite telling pollsters they wouldn’t, resulting in a surprise Tory victory.
A Tory aide told PoliticsHome that Conservative party campaigners felt the “switcher” phenomenon occurred at last month’s local elections, when the amount of individuals informing them on the doorsteps that the Tories had their support did not match the results.
We witnessed this especially in Tory districts that elected Lib Dems. “One thing was said on the doorstep, and another happened at the ballot box,” they claimed.
“The PM’s recent polling is better than the party’s, and I’m afraid to say it has much ground to cover if it is to recover from the toxic damage caused by Liz Truss’s idiocy and the turmoil of the Boris years. Voters remember the wrecked brand.”
Keir Starmer is on course to become Prime Minister as Labour maintains double-digit poll leads. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak faces an uphill battle to avoid the first Tory general election defeat since 2005 after the party lost support to Labour and the Lib Dems in key electoral battlegrounds in the May local elections.
Conservative MPs want to gain enough support between now and 2024 to at least deny Labour a legislative majority, resulting in a hung parliament. A smaller fraction thinks Sunak can pull off a 1992-style narrow victory despite Labour’s massive advantage and the grim economic outlook.
Labour’s local election campaigning, which gained several areas that had been Tory for decades, demonstrates the party is aware of “shy switchers”.
Labour’s National Campaign Coordinator, Shabana Mahmood, told PoliticsHome that Starmer’s “cultural shift” made it easier for the party to win over “natural Labour supporters.”
“We are trying to persuade those people to vote for us, so we meet them with humility, we meet them with respect, we talk about the issues that we know matter to them,” Mahmood said.
Queen Mary University Professor of Politics Tim Bale was not shocked when Tory volunteers noticed individuals voting differently from last month.
“Voters are quite polite when politicians accost them, generally speaking,”
“They do it when speaking to pollsters face-to-face, and I’m sure they do even more so when speaking to politicians and campaigners.”
He claimed switchers contributed to the Conservative party losing over 1,000 municipal seats.
“The Conservatives excused what happened that day [8 May] as their voters staying at home, but the beating they took indicates that quite a lot must have switched, and some of those will have said something different when canvassed,” he continued.
However, Rob Ford, Professor of Political Science at Manchester University, advised skepticism regarding Conservative “shy switchers” claims.
He told PoliticsHome that MPs and campaigners giving them what they want to hear “to get them off their driveways” is a long-standing political phenomenon, not new to last month’s local elections.
Ford agreed that last month’s elections were “unusually” terrible for the Tories since they lost the most support in the regions where they started strongest, indicating major party switching.
“That’s called proportional swing, and that doesn’t happen often,” he said.
“If this happens, it’s highly threatening to the party at a general election. They may be staring at this because they know locations that were solid for them are no longer.
Ford also referenced the British-politeness one could anticipate from a small-c conservative in Tory heartlands.
“After all, which kind of people would be most reluctant to say they won’t vote Conservatives?” he wondered.
“Most likely their past voters.”