How the parties changed in the 2010s
The parties that fought the 2010 election are now very different beasts to the ones that sit in the house of common today. This blog outlines how the parties have dramatically changed in several ways. The article outlines how the parties have grown ideologically distant from one another. Further to this, the blog highlights how the parties’ membership has changed and how at the same time the elite of the party, the parties’ parliamentary group, have fragmented. Finally, it discusses how changes inside the party and amongst the electorate have urged parties to change their electoral strategy, and as a result change the voters who they most target in election campaigns. This blog concludes this wide change amongst UK party politics has primarily occurred due to the rise of radical right politics, which was created through UKIP’s surge of support, and from this forced the Conservative Party to adopt positions away from the centre. This process was then accelerated by the Brexit event, culminating in the parties being much more polarised, and very different from the organisations that had existed in 2010.
Parties’ ideological position:
The Conservative Party was a middle-England liberal-conservative organisation that sought to win power though appealing to metropolitan areas of the country. David Cameron in particular was seen as a moderniser of the party and he staked his premiership on the argument such an approach would lead the Tories back to being the natural party of government. Alternatively, New Labour had just been dealt its first general election defeat and its future was very much in doubt. Labour elected Miliband who was slightly to the left of Blair and Brown, similar to Kinnock’s position in the 1990s. However, the party could still be described as a traditional centre-left party competing over the same swing voters the Tories were aiming to keep. Yet, as the decade progressed these centre-ground parties were greatly altered. Initially, the Conservatives found themselves being dragged into positions UKIP owned. The coalition government found itself facing difficult rebellions over the issues of migration and Europe and the administration came under significant strain when the Conservative Party decided to adopt UKIP’s radical right stances on such issues. As the Liberal Democrats passionately defended the UK’s position in Europe these two parties drifted away and could not work together by the end of the decade. Meanwhile, Labour spent this time drifting to the left and quietly became a more liberal pro-EU organisation. Miliband found it hard to stick to the centre and the party came across as more left-wing than its recent new Labour centre-ground position dictated should be the case. The latter half of the decade witnessed further polarisation of the parties. After the 2015 election the Conservative Party’s electoral mandate relied upon holding a referendum sometime in the 2015-2019 parliamentary session, thus dragging them further towards UKIP’s stances. After losing this referendum in 2016 the party became a committed anti-immigration and Eurosceptic party and developed harder lines on the issue as the Brexit debate unfolded. Labour, whilst pledging to honour the referendum result, gradually became committed to holding a 2nd referendum, with many in the party wanting to campaign to re-join the institution. On top of this, Labour had elected Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party and by 2019 the left controlled the party machine and forced the party further leftwards. The liberal democrats also diverted away from a centre position and strongly backed cancelling Brexit by the end of the decade. Therefore, as the decade neared its conclusion the parties had gravitated away from the centre-ground on key issues, meaning that the parties’ ideological positions had become much more polarised, producing a very different set of parties that existed in the 2010 election.
The parties particularly grow apart on the cultural divide:
The cultural divide, which particularly divides people around liberal and authoritarian values, also saw the parties growing in distance. As the Tories committed to clamping down on immigration and delivering a hard Brexit they grew apart from the Labour Party. This distance further increased as Labour diverted to the left and the increasing left-liberal sentiment amongst the wider party caused Labour to oppose many Conservative Party positions with polices that were located on the other side of the divide. Therefore, it can be said that as the decade developed the voters were increasingly confronted with starker party choices.
Overtime the parties’ membership has polarised in the same way the parties’ overall ideology did. The Conservative membership became more right-wing and culturally conservative. Alternatively, the Labour Party’s membership drifted further to the left and gradually has become more culturally liberal on key issues. This has occurred because of two reasons. Firstly, new members have joined the two main parties. Secondly, some members have switched their party loyalties.
The new members joining the parties have helped separate the parties.
Those joining the Conservative Party tended to be more right-wing and culturally Conservative than the average Tory member was at the start of the decade. Oppositely, Labour’s surge in membership came from members who were more left-wing and culturally liberal. This was not just due to former old-school Labour members re-joining the party, but also due first-time younger members signing up, most of whom were naturally left-liberal inclined. The two main parties’ membership diverging has helped to push the parties into opposite ideological directions, which was especially the case for Labour as Labour’s membership has greater power to change their party’s manifesto direction.
Party member gains and losses:
Party members changing their allegiance also helped increase party polarisation.
Conservative: Those who left the Conservatives, who primarily then choose to take Labour, Lib-Dem or no membership, were more culturally liberal inclined. This suggests that the Conservative Party’s lurch towards anti-immigrant and EU position might have pushed once loyal Conservative members into no membership, or membership of a rival party, thus helping push the parties further apart.
Labour: Conversely, elements of Labour’s traditional base abandoned Labour for the Conservatives, or no new party. These members tended to be much more culturally conservative than Labour’s 2010-‘15 membership was, and much more so than the new members who joined Labour. These members may have abandoned Labour as they felt ever-distant to their party over attitudes towards immigration and Brexit and how new members seemed to be polar opposite to them on such issues.
Importantly, this divergence of membership only would have pushed the parties further apart and again shows how both the two main parties were going through deep changes throughout.
This divide amongst the membership also occurred at the elite level. For instance, Conservative backbenchers frustrated at the lack of government action on the EU question made several demonstrations against their own government. Further, Labour backbenchers dismayed at the election of Corbyn and his performance in parliament also produced large-scale rebellions. Finally, with Brexit being forced through parliament this created some of the biggest MP rebellions against the government, and also other party leaders, witnessed in UK post-war political history. As a result, the last decade fragmented the elite levels of the party more than any period of UK pot-war political history, producing great changes at the elite level. Such volatility ended Cameron’s, Miliband’s, Corbyn’s and May’s ability to lead, destroying their premiership. Moreover, many MPs lost the whip and an increased number of representatives crossed the floor. This all again indicates a large amount of party change and polarisation at all levels.
On top of MPs leaving the party they were elected through MPs who remained loyal have challenged their leader in greater numbers. The Conservatives managed to force their Prime minister out of office despite her short premiership. Theresa May secured 63% of the vote when her leadership was challenged. Although May secured more votes than Thatcher did during her challenge May’s leadership suffered more rebellions in a shorter period of time. Alongside this, the election of Boris and the removal of many one nation Conservatives does represent large change amongst the elite of the parliamentary party. As May’s departure displays a change in leadership that came through backbench rebellions it indicates fragmentation within the Conservative Party could have been forced through wider party changes.
Conversely, Labour experienced its own high levels of elite fragmentation. Firstly, the parliamentary challenge that Corbyn faced was far bigger than any previous leadership challenge. In 2016 Corbyn only received 18% of MPs support in a no confidence vote, indicating more than three quarters of the party elite did not back Corbyn. However, the membership backed Corbyn 62% to 38%, also indicating fragmentation between the grassroots and the elite levels of the party. The challenges to Kinnock’s leadership comparatively were much smaller, for instance in 1988 Kinnock was backed by over 80% of MPs, where his challenger, Tony Benn, only received 17% support.
Therefore, challenges to both the PM and opposition leader appear to have become more frequent and more intense than historically has been the case, indicating at the elite levels parties have fragmented greatly during the last decade. This has led to changes in leadership, the type of MPs in parliament and the overall party direction of the two main parties. For instance, Labour MP's have become more left-wing and culturally liberal, whilst Tory MPs now are clearly more Eurosceptic and represent the cultural conservative-right of the political spectrum.
Parties’ Campaign strategies have changed:
On top of findings from the BES, there are mainstream media outlets that have also found the exact same trend. According to news reports during the 2019 general election there were patterns in both the main parties’ online campaign strategy. The Conservative online campaign was very clear in the voters they were targeting. There were a number of media reports that uncovered trends that certain voters within 30 specific constituencies were being targeted by the Tories. These constituencies tended to have older populations and were areas that voted to Leave by a clear majority (Cellan-Jones 2019a; Sargeant 2019; O’Reilly 2019; Wright and Knowles 2019). Some recorded Facebook adverts identified that the Conservative Party was targeting voters with clear demographics within these seats, typically older male voters who had voted to Leave (Jeffers and Knight 2019). After the revelations of Cambridge analytica researchers and journalists formed the group “who targets me” to track who the parties target in elections. These researchers and journalists also found that there was a clear targeting of around 30 seats, almost all in the Midlands and North of England area. It also found that the Conservatives spent a large proportion of their total online spending on these targeted areas (Jeffers and Knight 2019). These adverts directly told voters how many votes the Conservatives needed to “get Brexit done” (Cellan-Jones 2019a). Their attack adverts in these seats heavily featured images of Corbyn and his pledge of a second referendum, indicating Labour was a Remain party (Jeffers and Knight 2019; Cellan-Jones 2019c). The “who targets me” vote campaign noted a large numbers of these ads being delivered to voters within Labour’s red wall (Jeffers and Knight 2019). This all indicates the Tories were targeting Labour Leave voters within Labour’s red wall. The trends uncovered reinforce the theory the Conservative Party heavily targeted older voters who valued leaving the EU within specific constituencies. This shows how the Conservatives have accepted a change in their base and adapted their campaign accordingly.
Labour’s campaign on the other hand was less co-ordinated. There was less targeting giving a limited understanding of their overall election strategy, however there were some clear trends that developed in the last two weeks of the campaign. The trend indicated Labour targeted younger voters and promoted a policy of a second referendum (Brand 2019; Doward 2019). The Labour Party also focused on other issues than Brexit more than other parties, such as the NHS and the threat they argued the Conservatives posed to its survival. This suggests they were trying to appeal to Remain voters who cared less about the Europe issue and instead prioritised the NHS (Duncan, Pegg, and McIntyre 2019; Cellan-Jones 2019b).
In summation, these trends are incredibly important as it confirms that parties have stopped targeting traditional middle England swing voters and now target different groups in order to expand their base and win elections. This shows the parties have acknowledged that their base has changed and accept the need to target new voters.
The parties have gone through extensive changes at all levels within the last decade. The most visible change can be witnessed through the parties' shift in ideology. This change has polarised the parties' manifesto content, thus producing starker choices to the electorate with successive elections across the 2010s. Further, such changes have in part been caused by alterations in the parties' membership, which then incentivised further changes through membership defections. As new members joined these parties they pushed them in a more radical direction. This push towards the extremes in the cultural divide incentivised some party members to quit previous membership, and in some case join rival parties. As the parties' membership and ideology changed so to did the elite of the party, where old MPs and leaders who no longer represented the party were forced out. This increased the amount of rebellions in parliament and the amount of MPs who crossed the floor in a given sitting, changing the parties at the elite level to an even greater extent. Such changes were partly created through the rise of UKIP, and later were extended with the Brexit crisis in parliament as party changes coincide with these two crucial events.
The parties completed the last aspect of wholesale party change when they adapted their election campaign tactics in the 2019 election in the acknowledgement that their ideological changes now meant it made more sense for them to target different voters. As a result, it can be stated that the Labour Party became a more liberal-left party that gained support from metropolitan urban middle-England, whilst the Tories became more right and culturally conservative and aimed to expand their bases to the working classes. This changed the language and narrative the parties used so they could successfully target these new bases (see this blog for more details).
Therefore, in summation it can be said that the main parties that fought the 2010 election are now very different beasts to the ones that sit in the house of common today.
Brand, Paul. 2019. ‘How Are Political Parties Using Facebook to Election Campaign in 2019?’ News Site. ITV News. 18 December 2019. https://www.itv.com/news/2019-11-18/what-issues-are-dominating-the-online-campaign/.
Cellan-Jones, Rory Cellan-Jones, Rory. 2019a. ‘Online Election Ads - Who Is Targeting Whom?’ BBC News, 11 November 2019, sec. Technology. https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-50375293.
———. 2019b. ‘Parties Splurge on Facebook Election Ads’. BBC News, 2 December 2019, sec. Technology. https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-50633210.
———. 2019c. ‘Online Election Ads - Do They Work, Are They Fair?’ BBC News, 11 December 2019, sec. Technology. https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-50734805.
Doward, Jamie. 2019. ‘Voters “Used as Lab Rats” in Political Facebook Adverts, Warn Analysts’. The Observer, 9 November 2019, sec. Technology. https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2019/nov/09/facebook-voters-used-as-lab-rats-targeted-political-advertising.
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Jeffers, Sam, and Louis Knight. 2019. ‘What Do Facebook Ads Tell Us about Parties’ UK General Election Strategy?’ Blog. Who Targets Me. 15 August 2019. https://medium.com/@WhoTargetsMe/what-do-facebook-ads-tell-us-about-parties-uk-general-election-strategy-af84dddb675.
O’Reilly, Gem. 2019. ‘How Parties Are Targeting Voters on Social Media’. News Site. BBC News. 10 December 2019. https://www.bbc.com/news/av/uk-england-london-50728851/general-election-2019-how-voters-are-being-targeted.
Sargeant, Paul. 2019. ‘What Facebook’s Ad Archive Reveals about the Campaign so Far’. BBC News, 8 November 2019, sec. UK Politics. https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-50335567.
Webb, P. & Bale. T (2020) 'Shopping for a better deal? Cross-party flows of members in Britain', unpublished paper.
Wright, Oliver, and Tom Knowles. 2019. ‘General Election 2019: Tory Ads Target Leavers on Facebook’. The Times, 5 November 2019, sec. news. https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/general-election-2019-tory-ads-target-leavers-on-facebook-hvv89z8kj.