Will supporting gay marriage help the Tories? It's all a matter of location, location, location. - Spectator Blogs

15 November 2012

3:34 PM

15 November 2012

3:34 PM

Do pollsters and pundits actually understand how British elections work? I sometimes wonder. Take, for instance, the debate concerning whether or not supporting gay marriage might win the Conservative party more votes than it loses. The Prime Minister says there are polls that suggest it would. Not so fast, retorts ComRes’s Andrew Hawkins. He argues:

Your letter of 19 October 2012 to The Rt Hon Cheryl Gillan MP states that “a recent poll by ComRes found that 10 percent of current Conservative voters say that the policy [to legalise same-sex marriage] would make them ‘less likely to vote Conservative’ compared with 7 percent saying it would make them ‘more likely to vote Conservative’.

I should like to put the record straight because the wrong figures have been quoted. Your figures relate to whether current Conservative voters are more likely to vote Labour, not Conservative, as a result of the policy. The correct figures are that 19 percent (of current Conservative voters) are more likely to vote Conservative, while 11 percent are less likely to do so.’

However, this is to miss the more important point from the poll which shows both that the party loses more votes than it gains as a result of the policy, and that former Conservative voters are especially less likely to return to the fold.’

Well, maybe. The Prime Minister may be guilty of being too partial in the figures he cites but it does not follow that Mr Hawkins is correct either. Anthony Wells explains why:

Polls asking if supporting gay marriage would make you more or less likely to vote Conservative show marginally more people saying less likely than more likely, but there are good reasons to be very cautious about questions asked in this format. People are not good at reporting what actually drives their voting behaviour. There is also the effect on the wider image of the Conservative party, whether it is seen as tolerant and in touch with modern Britain, which effects voters but is harder to pick up in polls, not to mention perceptions of Cameron and his leadership (as Lord Ashcroft wrote here, if Cameron did change his mind it wouldn’t just be the policy effect, but whether he would look weak, or like he was flip-flopping). I would be extremely, extremely cautious about drawing any conclusions about whether the net benefit of backing a policy is positive or negative.

I think that’s a more than plausible argument. Even so, the real argument is not whether supporting gay marriage might help the Tories win more votes overall but, much more importantly, whether it might help the party win votes where they need to win more votes.

Not all votes are equal. Some are more valuable than others. It little profits the Tories to rack up ever-larger majorities in the shires at the expense of losing seats in metropolitan areas. Granted, it can be difficult to measure the political effect of individual policies and even trickier to weigh this kind of Shire vs City trade-off. Nevertheless this is what the argument is really about.


One problem the Tories have is that their vote is not always distributed terribly efficiently. Scotland offers an extreme example of this: in 2010 the Tories won 412,000 votes north of the Tweed but their vote was so dispersed that they only took one seat. By contrast the Liberal Democrats had 465,000 votes and took 11 seats while the SNP’s 491,000 votes brought a haul of six MPs.

Now gay marriage isn’t going to transform the Tories’ tartan fortunes but it might well – at least this is the intuitive argument – assist them in other places they need to do better. Like London and other major cities.

The Tories won just 28 of the 73 seats available in the imperial capital and they fared even worse in other metropolitan areas such as Birmingham and Manchester. The Conservatives cannot do very much better in eastern England or the south-east than they did at the last election. They won 127 of the 142 constituencies in these regions and must be closer to their “ceiling” here than they are in other parts of the country.

So simply adding up the number of voters who won’t vote Tory if the party supports gay marriage and comparing that to the number who say they might if the Conservatives do embrace equal marriage rights is not a very useful exercise.

Intuitively, it seems plausible to suppose that voters in London and other cities tend, on average, to be younger and more liberal (socially-speaking) than voters in the True Blue shires. Equally, they are less likely, I think, to support a party or even consider supporting a party whose views on social policy collide so vigorously with the reality of their own lives.

To put it bluntly, some of the Tory votes in rural areas are expendable; those in the cities are not. So gay marriage – which, again, is a signal just as much as it is an actual policy position – is about being more competitive in seats such as: Westminster North, Hammersmith, Hampstead & Kilburn, Eltham, Cheadle, Hazel Grove, Solihull, Edgbaston, Sellyoak, Northfield, Nottingham South, Gedling and so on.

Now, one should be wary of over-stating the importance of gay marriage and refrain from suggesting that supporting it will transform the Tories’ urban fortunes. Nevertheless, the idea that it might help more than it hurts in these key metropolitan marginals is not daft. And nor is the notion that smallish gains in the cities are worth some leaked votes in the Tories rural strongholds. Again, some votes are more important than others and, on this matter at least, local trends and views matter more than national figures.

Of course, you can also take the unfashionable view that supporting gay marriage is a worthwhile endeavour because it happens to be the right – and conservative – thing to do.

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Show comments
  • rndtechnologies786

    Nice blog and view.

  • LosesomeRhoades

    Homosexuality by definition is aberrant behavior. That fact alone should tell anyone that “homosexual marriage” is non-existent.
    The essence of marriage is a committed relatioship between opposite-sex couples. By definition, “homosexual marriage” cannot exist. Changing laws, word meanings does not change essence. A rock does not sprout wings if we rename or redefine it to mean “bird”.

  • Frank Sutton

    Why are articles on the abolition of marriage and its replacement by something else which will be called marriage always illustrated with a gay wedding cake? Is the idea to raise support for the idea or strengthen revulsion.

  • Bob339

    Nothing can help the tories baby. Next election: they are gone…gone… gone.

  • Kevin

    What happened to Cameron’s intention to address the sexualisation of children? How has that manifested itself in society?

    It is certainly to the advantage of government that society should be sex-obsessed, as it devalues each person in the eyes of every other, making us all consumer objects. This leads to a fragmented society that is unable to resolve its disputes other than by calling upon government power.

    I cannot think of one policy that Cameron has implemented or intends to implement that promotes the conservative idea that sex is where babies come from.

    Not one.

    • Rahul Kamath

      Do you only have sex to create babies Kevin? What a dull and shrivelled life you must have.

  • Beefeater

    Curious idea you have about “efficiency” in getting conservative numbers up by offering leftist policies to certain constituencies. Rather like your recent post in which you recommended Republicans become Democrats to win. The time is right and the technology ripe for changing the system from voting for a representative of a district to voting on issues. Yes, referenda. Time to realize that our fundamental relationship with our compatriots is not as a face-to-face neighbor, kin, clan, worshippers or ghetto dwellers, but as strangers dealing with each other through institutions. We live in the abstract more than the concrete, which we take for granted. Half the country wants that institution to be the grand charity of government in a ghastly parody of village neighborliness, the other half wants it to be the free market with its possibility of far-flung global interaction with unknown cooperators all fulfilling their own needs and thereby helping others to do the same. Why be tied to a no on gays if you want a no on taxes? Bring on separate issue voting, cut out the party – platform and representatives. Good riddance to trimmers and die-hards and the endless yap of political analysts recommending they be one or the other or both.

  • JamesC

    A neat attempt to deflect the effect of Andrew Hawkins’ letter but most elections are decided in the suburban seats and you don’t address that. I suspect they are more aligned to the rural vote you describe. You also underestimate the social conservatism of the urban working class. Frankly its worrying that Osborne is the Tories’ chief electoral strategist.

  • Man in a Shed

    This looks like the product of those US advisor who were brought in to deal with the refusal of Conservative MPs to support the attack on marriage Cameron demands for his legacy. The strategy seems to be to ignore the moral failings of Cameron in his assault on English society, families and worse of all children and focus on grabbing a few votes.

    The problem is – perhaps those who say they’ll feel a bit more rewarding the Tories for selling out and adopting the ‘equality’ fascist agenda of the left – are really doing so to ensure there is no Conservative party worthy of the name. Lets face it such people are really Lib Dem/Lab voters en mass.

    No one cared about gay marriage – until the issue was brought up. But people do care about real marriage that Cameron plans to outlaw. They care about terms like father & mother. They care about their children not being damaged at school by those who will now teach that everything is relative. They thought the Conservative party was conservative.

    If the truth is that the vast majority of the country now wants to abandon the state recognition of marriage then the Conservative party’s aim should have been not to figure out which would be the winning side – but to argue to conserve the bed rock of our society that is marriage which has always been and will always be (though shortly thanks to Cameron and the equality fascists you’ll go to prison for saying it ) between a man and a woman, for life and the brining up of children.

    The end result of this will be the destruction of the Conservative party’s base, and its ultimate replacement. Just go and speak to the UUP about heartlands not mattering.

  • Grey

    The ComRes poll showed quite a high overall support for gay marriage. In Australia you can get quite different outcomes if you use an online poll or a telephone – even if your methodology in terms of balancing the demographics, income and political affiliation is the same.
    An online poll, like the ComRes research, will typically show a far great level of support for gay marriage than a telephone poll.
    Whether that would make a difference in terms of the affect on Conservative voting, I can’t say

  • Marcus

    Your last sentence is the wrong way round: it is the fashionable thing to do and it is the wrong thing to do.
    It is also inevitable.

  • baron

    Alex, a clever, and neatly nuanced take on the thing except that the two other mainstream parties are going to push for gay marriage as well, For a policy to gain votes for any party, it must be different from what the other teams are offering. Baron suspects the traditional Tory voters will stay at home, those who voted for Labour, the confused party will stay loyal provided everything else remaining as it would have been without the gay marriage commitment.

  • Noa

    Ultimately conservative success in the next election will be determined by its success or failure in debt/deficit management, though non-delivery on promises about an EU referendum, immigration control and the waste of ID has almost certainly destroyed the core conservative voter base to the lasting benefit of UKIP.
    Whether, by your own sources, the peripheral voter issue of homosexual marriage, ‘is the right thing to do’ is irrelevant irrelevant, but can be eagerly debated by the pyre on which their electoral hopes burn.

  • Troika21

    Calculated policy or not, I think it will do a lot of good for them.

    • Baron

      Yes, you so right Troika21, the talk in the shires, in the counties, in every nook and corner of the land is about nothing else but gay marriage. And as if that wasn’t enough , this morning, a little bird was sitting on a window sill trilling ‘the gay marriage is coming, the gay marriage….

      • Troika21

        If the Tories pass gay marriage then ten years from now married gays are going to remember who did it.

        Not only that but Labour stitch-up support from groups like these as long as conservatives feed them resentment, gaining support for Labour’s government interference and free spending ways in the process.

        Conservative principles of it’s none of your god-damn business who I marry are a perfectly sensible foundation for gay marriage. Pity they are ignored.

        • Baron

          you reckon then if two spinsters wanted to get married what with their love, care for each other, they’ll get away with it? Hmmm

          • Troika21

            I really don’t see how two spinsters getting married is any of your, or the governments, damn business.

  • andrew kerins

    The problem with Alex Massie’s ‘sending out a signal’ argument is that you are sending out two signals; one to voters in metropolitan areas and another to those in rural areas.
    The negative one is being sent to those who have voted for you. The positive one to those you think might vote for you. Once voters think you are indifferent to them, it is hard to win them back; ask a Scottish Tory, if you can find one. The success of UKIP in outpolling Labour at the last European election shows that there is – in many areas – an alternative on the right.

  • A Libertarian Rebel

    I wonder if we’ll ever get a senior Cameroon who states a belief because it’s his or her principles-derived belief & damn the consequences, rather than finely calibrating a professed belief to appeal to a supposed crucial x % of target swing voters in y target swing constituency.

    I’m not holding my breath. And they wonder why as a breed they’re despised by those whom they arrogantly assume are too stupid to see though the blatant insincerity.