Bringing back switchers is a key challenge for the Conservatives

While former Conservative voters becoming undecided or less likely to vote is having an impact, former Conservative voters switching to Labour could be more serious long-term problem for the Conservatives.

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  • Dylan Spielman Public Affairs
  • Gideon Skinner Head of Political Research
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Why are the Conservatives behind Labour in the polls? While former Conservative voters becoming undecided or less likely to vote is having an impact, former Conservative voters switching to Labour could be more a serious long-term problem for the Conservatives.

Ipsos’ Political Monitor data shows that the proportion of voters who are undecided is fairly average in comparison with historical data. There is a gap between the proportion of 2019 Conservative and Labour voters who are undecided[1], but when looking at squeezed undecided voters (in our voting question those who say they are undecided are prompted if they are leaning towards any party[2]), this gap is only a few percentage points and only makes a small difference to our voting figures.

Proportion of undecided voters over time - Ipsos

 

Proportion of squeezed undecided past Labour/Conservative voters over time - Ipsos

Other 2019 Conservative voters may still support the party, but simply at the moment be less motivated and say they are less likely to vote.  The data shows that the proportion of former Conservative voters saying they are likely to vote at the next election was on average 4 points lower in our polls from September compared with earlier in 2021.  However, while this may have had some impact on the fall in the Conservative share, it’s also important to note that there is little to choose between former Conservative and Labour voters on this measure, and again this only makes a small difference to Labour’s lead.

Proportion of past Labour/Conservative voters likely to vote at next election - Ipsos

 

Voters switching from the Conservatives to other parties has more of a direct impact on why Labour is ahead. Most important are 2019 Conservative voters switching to Labour since Labour is the main challenger in most marginal Conservative seats, and in these seats, switchers ‘count twice’ by taking a vote from the Conservatives and adding one to Labour (though switchers to the Lib Dems obviously hurt in their marginals). The proportion of former Conservative voters switching to Labour has risen steadily to about 10% on average across our polls since the Conservatives lost their lead at the beginning of November, while switching to the Lib Dems has also increased. This level of direct switching to Labour puts the Conservatives on a similar trajectory to Labour in the middle of the 2005-2010 parliament after a similarly long period in government. While the level of switching then peaked at about 15% after the 2008 financial crisis, it returned to about 10% in 2009-2010.

2019 Conservative voters switching to other parties - IpsosPast Labour/Conservative voters switching to the other party

 

 

These direct switchers to Labour should ring alarm bells for the Conservatives because unlike undecided voters they are harder to get back. British Election Study data[i] shows that less than a third of Conservative to Labour switchers in the two years before the last three elections returned to the Conservatives at the next election, compared to two-thirds or more of undecided former Conservative voters. Data is sparse for earlier election periods, but just a quarter of Conservative to Labour switchers from 1993 to 1996 returned to the Conservative party at the 1997 election[3], suggesting that recent elections are not an exception.

Proportion of direct switchers and undecided voters who returned to their previous party at the next election - Ipsos

But voters have been more volatile than ever in the last few years so are Conservative to Labour switchers more likely to return? Ipsos UK’s data shows that the proportion of voters switching party has been higher since the 2010 election compared with earlier, and peaked in mid-2019.

Proportion of voters switching party since last election - Ipsos

 

While voters now have weaker attachments to political parties, this does not mean it is easy for party switchers to be brought back. Conservative voters who do not identify as Conservatives are more likely to switch to Labour than those who do, but among ex-Conservative voters who say they will vote Labour, it is those who identify as Conservatives most strongly who are most likely to return to the party at the next election[ii]. One reason for this may be that strong Conservative supporters who say they will switch to Labour are more likely to be registering a temporary ‘protest vote’ in-between elections and return once their party identity is activated following an election campaign, while those with no attachment to the Conservative party are more likely to be genuinely contemplating a switch. As fewer voters today have an attachment to a political party, those who say they will switch are more likely to mean it. So, there is no guarantee that Conservative to Labour switchers will naturally drift back en masse at the next election or be easily nudged into returning, particularly first time Conservative voters with no attachment to the party.

But there are two key factors that could determine if Conservative to Labour switchers return: events and leadership ratings (of course, there also other routes for the Conservatives to pick up votes, from other parties or previously undecided voters).

The impact of the first vaccine rollout demonstrates the first. In October 2020, Labour also led in the polls when 10% of 2019 Conservative voters switched to Labour. However, this lead was quickly lost as the vaccine rollout boosted the Conservatives and the proportion of 2019 Conservative voters switching to Labour fell to just 3% in April 2021. But this also demonstrates the scale of the challenge the Conservatives face to turn their position around and it is still too early to say what the impact of the crisis in Ukraine will be on voting intentions.

The other key factor is leadership ratings. According to British Election Study data, one of the strongest predictors of whether Conservative to Labour switchers from 2014 to 2019 returned to their party at the next election was how much they liked the Conservative leader in the month before the election. If Boris Johnson can turn around his poor ratings this would certainly bring back switchers, but no Prime Minister with his current satisfaction figures has gone on to win an election so this would need to be a historic transformation (and again, whether Ukraine will lead to a long-term improvement is still not settled). Another possibility of course is a change in leader – providing any new leader bounce does not quickly evaporate.

Probability of Conservative to Labour switchers returning at the next election from 2014 - 2019 - Ipsos

 

The outcome of the next election is still uncertain – particularly given the nature of the times we live in – but given their position in the polls the Conservatives should be worried.  Undecided voters and demotivated voters both play their part, but it is the rise in switchers and the difficulty in winning them back that could be the biggest challenge of all.


Annex – Methodology for British Election Study Internet Panel data on switchers and undecided voters

The figures in chart 6 were derived using data from the British Election Study Internet Panel Waves 1-18. Respondents were classified as direct switchers if they gave a Labour/Conservative general election vote intention in any of the panel waves between elections (waves 1-5, 7-12 and 14-17) or undecided if they responded ‘don’t know’ or ‘would not vote’ in any of these waves. Respondents were weighted using the cross-sectional weight of the first wave in which they switched parties or gave an undecided response. While this is an approximation, unweighted figures show very similar results. Base sizes are displayed below:

Year

Labour to Conservative switchers

Conservative to Labour switchers

Undecided former Labour voters

Undecided former Conservative voters

2014-2015

567

555

1228

1749

2016-2017

643

1299

3082

3228

2018-2019

859

254

4083

3585


[1] Note that data on past vote was incomplete between 2001 and 2005

[2] Respondents are first asked ‘How would you vote if there were a General Election tomorrow?’ and if they respond that they are undecided are asked ‘Which party are you most inclined to support?’. Squeezed undecided voters are those that respond undecided to both of these questions.

[3] Source: 1992-1997 BES Face to Face Panel Study. Figure is based on 211 voters who said they voted Conservative in the 1992 election but said they would vote Labour in any of the 1993-1996 panel waves, then on their recalled vote in the post-election 1997 panel wave.


[i] See Annex for methodology.

[ii] Data from British Election Study Internet Panel Waves 1-18

The author(s)

  • Dylan Spielman Public Affairs
  • Gideon Skinner Head of Political Research

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