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UK's Conservative party is one of two main parties and arguably dominant in the UK.

But I don't understand how did they manage to pull that off in the century XX with its urbanization. As one would expect, the working class is going to vote for the left. The "intelligentsia" also leans left and the urban middle class is going to be divided between two. Theoretically, that's game over for conservatives: their primary voters are rural folk who are shrinking, and the capital owners, who no doubt prefer Conservative policies, aren't numerous to begin with. Recent immigrants are also expected to vote for the left.

This hypothetical picture actually seems to come true in some elections.

Even in the USA, Republicans seem to have some electability issues lately. But overall, US seems to have much more domestic capital, and farmers which actually contribute to the economy, and the Dem-Rep distribution looks more territorial. So I would expected the UK's conservatives to lose competitiveness faster, and UK to behave like one large US coast for political purposes. But apparently it isn't so. Why? What do Conservatives do right?

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    The Conservatives are only dominant in _ English _ politics - not in ANY of the other three countries of the union.
    – MikeB
    Apr 22 at 13:31
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    @MikeB True. But England has 6 time the population as the other three combined so the result in England dominates the UK result.
    – matt_black
    May 12 at 16:40
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    @matt_black I was just trying to point out that the question clearly only refers to English politics, but incorrectly states that it refers to the whole UK. I tried to edit the question, but the Mod's said no, for some reason.
    – MikeB
    May 13 at 14:05
  • I just went to UK parliament wikipedia entry and Conservatives show numerical advantage in the layouts of its chambers. That's what I mean by dominance, no need to dig further.
    – alamar
    May 13 at 14:28

6 Answers 6

38

By not splintering into new parties despite internal factions.

In the UK the centre and left consists of four parties; Labour, SNP, LibDem and Greens. So it is common to see seats in the First Past The Post (FPTP) system won by plurality rather than a majority of votes.

The Conservative party is good at ensuring it does not split the right vote in this manner by remaining as a single broad-church. The ultimate expression of this is Brexit. The Conservative party has been split on this issue for over 50 years. The link shows a 56/44 split in its MPs on the issue at the time of the referendum.

It is such a significant and constitutional issue that it could/should have split the party. The two successor parties would have split the right vote and likely left them out of power for several decades until one became clearly dominant and attracted all but the most die hard of position skeptics.

That this did not happen is a testament to the capability of the party as a body understanding the consequences of a split.

The same can be seen in Labour where the more socialist parts of the party (Corbyn-like) and the centrist (Blairites/Starmer) remain together despite strong tensions.

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    Worth noting that the only reason the Conservatives committed to holding the Brexit referendum in the first place was to lure voters away from the upstart UKIP, who were threatening to split the right-wing vote just as the parties you listed split the left-wing vote. UKIP themselves have since split with the creation of the Brexit Party (now Reform UK).
    – F1Krazy
    Apr 22 at 8:23
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    Another reason the Tories don't splinter is because the rich don't bankroll activities designed to cause them to split - for example, funding insurgent factions, or using the press to attack them in ways designed to bring about internal disarray.
    – Steve
    Apr 22 at 11:08
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    @F1Krazy UKIP was formed by the internal split in the Tory party. Iirc all their MPs were former Tory MPs.
    – Caleth
    Apr 24 at 8:16
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    Lib Dems are a pro-business party. Where I lived they were locally a NIMBY populist party campaigning against new housing and speed bumps. When faced with the choice in Westminster, they helped Conservatives to power, not Labour. Similar with sister parties in other countries. Disagree with marking them as left.
    – gerrit
    Apr 24 at 8:57
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    @gerrit I agree left/right is difficult for the LibDems their internal split with their fiscal conservative subset the Orange Bookers is a significant part of this. But they did not have a choice of Conservative/Labour in 2010. They had a choice of in power with Conservatives or Conservative minority government. Labour + Lib was not enough to govern even if it did edge out Conservatives alone.
    – Jontia
    Apr 24 at 9:43
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Another factor that's worth mentioning: there's a powerful right-wing press in the UK (The Times, The Daily Mail, The Daily Express) which tends to support the Conservative government.

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OK, so the first thing to know is that UK politics is all about waiting for the current party to mess up giving the other party a decade or so in power, until they too mess up and the cycle repeats itself.

Gordon Brown was in power, along comes the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, voters notice that in their quality of life and don't like it. They don't want to re-elect Brown, and that means electing Cameron instead.

Then the conservatives get to hang on to power for a few decades until they have an economic crisis of their own thanks to a disastrous mini-budget that sends mortgage costs skyrocketing. A load of sleaze, corruption, lockdown parties etc add nails to the coffin.

Secondly, the conservative party is united by a determination to win power, rather than any particular ideological stance.

That's in contrast to parties like the Liberal Democrats, a party entirely comprised of people who've made peace with the fact they're never going to hold power. And the Labour party has many members who passionately support Corbyn despite his inability to win elections, and are lukewarm about Starmer who isn't ideologically pure enough.

This gives the conservatives a great deal of flexibility in adapting to public sentiment. When Cameron won election with a socially liberal approach, environmentalist policies and legalising gay marriage, the party would back that. When there's a change in the political winds and Sunak decides that 'ending the war on motorists' seems like a vote winner, the party's more than happy to back that too.

Thirdly the conservatives have some popular policies - for example, the Conservatives have had three female prime ministers, while the Labour party hasn't even had a female leader, let alone a PM. And 50% of the electorate are women.

The conservatives have largely avoided any expensive Blair-style foreign wars. The UK conservatives also differ from US republicans a great deal: UK conservatives don't give a shit about religion, abortion, or guns.

They also have a reputation as a party that would sooner cut government spending than increase taxes - that's popular with a lot of people. Sure, maybe they'll have the taxpayer foot the bill for dredging their castle's moat, or they'll buy a few hundred million pounds worth of defective PPE from their child's company - but they won't raise taxes to pay for it.

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    "Secondly, the conservative party is united by a determination to win power, rather than any particular ideological stance. That's in contrast to parties like the Liberal Democrats, a party entirely comprised of people who've made peace with the fact they're never going to hold power. And the Labour party has many members who passionately support Corbyn despite his inability to win elections, and are lukewarm about Starmer who isn't ideologically pure enough." - this is right. They also have a noisy radical progressive left, who promote ideas that turn off ordinarily left-leaning people
    – Lag
    Apr 24 at 8:23
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    Corbyn reached 40%, which is very high for a social democrat and higher than Labour scored in a long time.
    – gerrit
    Apr 24 at 8:56
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    "UK conservatives don't give a shit about religion, abortion, or guns". All major parties, not just the Tories. Guns are a non-issue in the UK, almost everyone supports the strict gun controls we have. Abortion and Religion are regarded as private matters of conscience (except by sectarian parties in Northern Ireland). Any votes on these issues in the commons are free votes, with no official party position or "whip" to follow.
    – nigel222
    Apr 24 at 10:21
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By adopting policies that are supported by many people

Examples of policies that have widespread support include:

  • Privatisation of industry
  • Individual home ownership
  • Deregulation of business
  • Nationalism and Euroscepticism
  • Monarchism
  • Unionism
  • Maintenance of a nuclear deterrent
  • Reduction of income and business tax

Such policies are principally associated with the Conservatives, although other parties have adopted or partially adopted some of them (because they have proved popular)

Secondly, they have a general reputation for competence. They are generally considered to be effective managers and administrators while in government.

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    This answer would benefit from more sources like polls, reviews and the like. It looks a bit as if it is so general that it might be true for every country (except maybe for monarchism). Apr 22 at 6:59
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    Nationalism and Euroscepticism were not widely held positions within the conservative party until 2016.
    – Jontia
    Apr 22 at 7:13
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    Certainly quite a lot of this answer isn't true right now: some of these policies no longer have widespread support, and the conservative's reputation is poor. But it's likely they will lose the 2024 election by a large margin, so the question (and this answer) is really about how they managed to win so many previous ones. Apr 23 at 9:01
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    The basic point is that the Tories haven't won elections by dark magic, luck, or anything else. They have won elections because lots of people freely voted for their policies. I don't much like their policies but they are popular.
    – James K
    Apr 23 at 16:44
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    Also, people talk a lot about the failings of the Conservatives but there are other players in the game! If the Conservatives are so bad, why hasn't Labour won? Labour has failed to win over more voters where/when it matters. The Conservatives have won when Labour has lost.
    – Lag
    Apr 24 at 8:20
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I am very very surprised that nobody has answered this but one major reason is it's strong (and heavily antidemocratic) first-past-the-post voting system

https://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/who-benefits-from-westminsters-first-past-the-post-voting-system/

Given the increasing geographical concentration of votes, voters of different parties suffered from First Past the Post in different parts of the UK. In England, over half the votes for Labour (50.6%) went unrepresented, compared to just under a quarter (24%) of Conservative voters, with even fewer (19.7%) votes for the Conservatives going unrepresented in England.

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  • I know about first-past-the-post, but I would've imagined it would stop favouring Conservatives and start hurting them as they lose the majority pretty much everywhere, for the reasons described in the question.
    – alamar
    Apr 24 at 9:53
  • @alamar It's a shit tier system that favors concentration over actual majority so no. Also: insane amounts of propaganda. I mean there are still brits unironically thinking Thatcher was good for the country
    – Hobbamok
    Apr 24 at 9:55
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    The first-past-the-post voting system doesn't explain the "dominance" of the Conservatives. It explains why two parties tend to dominate.
    – Lag
    Apr 24 at 10:16
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    Jontia's answer expresses it better. The conservatives win because the right isn't split, and fptp favors whoever doesn't split
    – Caleth
    Apr 24 at 10:29
  • @Caleth he also references 0 sources and does not show how badly this fact is undermining democracy in concrete numbers
    – Hobbamok
    Apr 24 at 10:32
0

Given that the Conservatives are the party of ownership (landlords, aristocracy, shareholders, etc.), it is strange that they consistently manage to win votes from working people and therefore elections. Here are some possible reasons for this:

  1. The UK, and England in particular, is a deeply feudal society. There are simply a lot workers who subconsciously buy into a lords and peasants mentality, whereby a ruling class (the Conservatives) should be in charge.
  2. A lot of workers also own stuff (shares, land, property, small businesses), and the Conservatives actively pursue social policies that make it profitable to do so. For example, some working class people are anxious about things like inheritance tax (even though it will not affect the vast majority)
  3. Despite the fact that the Conservatives actively support a system whereby you can make money by simply owning stuff, they consistently promote the idea that they represent "strivers" or those who work hard, whilst Labour represent "skivers" or those who draw benefits or otherwise avoid work. A lot of workers buy into this point of view and self-identify as "strivers", and therefore Conservatives.
  4. The Conservatives market themselves as averse to change, and actively play on a sense of nostalgia for "better times". Those who for whatever reason don't like the way the country is going in, therefore instinctively vote Conservative.
  5. There are fewer workers in the UK than you might think- only about 30 million (out of a population of nearly 70 million), and of those only a much smaller proportion are actual employees and not self-employed. Of those that are not working, many are too rich to work. In other words, a party that represents workers (Labour) may not have as wide an appeal as you might assume, since only a minority of people in the country work for somebody else, and of those that don't, many are independently wealthy.
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    Re item 1, what's the evidence for "There are simply a lot workers who subconsciously buy into a lords and peasants mentality, whereby a ruling class (the Conservatives) should be in charge"? Fascinating.
    – Lag
    Apr 24 at 13:07

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