OPINION - British politics: the Conservative Party vs the Not Conservative Party

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

With apologies to Labour, the Liberal Democrats, SNP, Greens, nationalists and unionists, the UK is a strict two-party system. It is comprised of the Conservative Party and the Not Conservative Party.

A cursory glance at the last 100 years will tell you this generally works out pretty well for the Conservatives. The party has been in power in one way or another (majority, minority, coalition, national) for roughly two-thirds of the period.

Such was their dominance that, when William Hague stood down in 2001, he became the first Tory leader not to become prime minister since Austen Chamberlain in the 1920s. For context, Labour has produced two election winners since 1964.

Some of this is can be attributed to first-past-the-post, which tends to exaggerate small differences in vote share to deliver majority governments. As such, it punishes fragmentation. And for many election cycles, certainly since 2010, the Tories have benefited from splits on the left. While Labour fights the SNP in Scotland, the Lib Dems in England and Plaid Cymru in Wales, the Tories are often (though not always – see Ukip, Brexit Party, Reform) free to hoover up support on the centre-right and right.

But first-past-the-post contains a sting in its tale for the Conservatives. Every once in a while, usually after a prolonged period of Tory rule, it flips, leaving the party isolated and prone to a Labour-Lib Dem pincer movement. That happened most famously in 1997 and again in 2001, and if today’s local election results are a guide, conditions seem rife for a repeat in 2024.

While there is no formal agreement between Labour and the Lib Dems (who often hate each other more than they do the Tories), they may not need one. The public can see for themselves which strand of the Not Conservative Party is best placed to defeat the Conservative Party, and vote accordingly.

When this happens, it matters far less how charismatic the Labour leader is or even how well the economy is performing (pretty darn good in the late 1990s, less so today). I’m loathed to be fatalistic, not least when looking at Labour’s record, but when the conditions are just right, it is difficult for the Conservative Party to defeat the Not Conservative Party.

At the time of writing and with half of councils reporting, the Tories have lost 407 seats while Labour is up 236 and the Lib Dems 109. Labour gains include key general election targets such as Swindon, Medway and Plymouth. The BBC is projecting that had elections taken place across the country, the share of the vote would have been:

  • Conservatives – 26 per cent

  • Labour – 35 per cent

  • Lib Dems – 20 per cent

  • Others – 19 per cent

Taken at face value, this is not Labour landslide territory in percentage terms. But general elections are about seats, not vote share. If the Not Conservative Party can regroup in 2024, we are likely to see exaggerated losses for the Conservative Party even with a decent share of the vote, meaning that Labour will require a smaller than expected lead to secure a parliamentary majority. Live by first-past-the-post, die by first-past-the-post, I suppose.

In the comment pages, Sadiq Khan reminisces about the Silver Jubilee and shares his excitement at attending tomorrow’s Coronation. While writer and royal biographer Hugo Vickers says King Charles will emerge from this sacred ritual as a different man.

And finally, things to do in London this weekend, coronation-free edition.

Have a good one.

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