Who are the Conservative “don’t knows”?

Patrick EnglishDirector of Political Analytics
October 26, 2023, 8:17 AM GMT+0

Older, non-degree educated women homeowners make up the bulk of people telling YouGov they don’t know how they would vote if there were an election tomorrow

Much has been made of the fact that Labour’s current vote intention lead is driven heavily by around a quarter of Conservative 2019 voters telling us they either “don’t know” who they would vote for at a general election, or that they simply wouldn’t vote.

As YouGov’s Adam McDonnell wrote earlier this week, the “Conservative to Don’t Know” effect is a large and vexing problem for Sunak as he attempts to cut Labour’s polling lead over the Conservatives. Though he has made some headway in reducing this number compared to where it was under former Liz Truss, the majority of this group show little sign of budging for now.

Now analysis of almost 11,000 adults in England and Wales surveyed from 17-23 October can reveal detailed information about the backgrounds of 2019 Conservative voters who are currently unsure who they would back at the next election.

One in three adults in England and Wales (32%) say they would vote Labour at an election held tomorrow, while 17% say they would vote Conservative. A further third tell us they are not sure (18%), or would not vote (14%).

Of those who voted for the Conservatives in 2019, 12% suggest they would now vote Labour. While this figure is a good number as far as Starmer is concerned, it is overshadowed by the 16% of Conservative to Labour switchers (according to British Election Study data) which Blair achieved in his 1997 landslide victory - the last time a Labour leader of the opposition ousted a sitting Conservative government.

That 12% figure is also less than half the percentage of Conservative 2019 voters who say they “don’t know” (23%) how they would vote or that they simply would not vote (7%) in an election being held tomorrow.

Only 43% of 2019 Conservative voters intend to stick with Sunak’s party, while 11% said they would instead vote for Reform UK.

Analysis of the socio-demographic backgrounds of these voters reveals important and telling differences about the kind of voters who are currently behaving in each way.

All following figures and analysis relate specifically to 2019 Conservative voters.

Firstly, those currently unsure about how they would vote now differ significantly from other groups in terms of gender. However, we must keep in mind that women generally tend to answer “don’t know” to survey questions more frequently than men. Even so, 62% of Conservative 2019 voters telling us they are unsure how they would vote in an election if it held tomorrow are female, while only 38% are men.

This compares to 49% female among the “would not vote” group, 44% female among the “switched to Labour” group, 36% among the group currently sticking with the Conservatives, and 48% female within the group currently planning to vote for Reform UK.

The “don’t know” group tend to be significantly older than those who have switched to Labour, with a mean age of 58 for the former versus 51 for the latter, and those who currently would not vote (53). They are similarly aged to those who are sticking with the Conservatives (60) and those switching to Reform UK (59).

That age profile brings a large portion of the unsure segment into the retirement age bracket, with 40% telling us they have retired from work. That compares to 24% average across England and Wales, and figures of 29% for “would not vote”, and 26% for those switching to Labour. In this regard, our uncertain group look much more like those currently sticking with the Conservatives (46% retired) and those currently switching to Reform UK (40%).

In terms of education level, those who are currently planning to vote Labour have a significantly higher proportion of graduates than all other groups, at 30%. That figure is 22% for both our “don’t know” and “would not vote” groups, 24% for those sticking Conservative, and 20% for those switching to Reform UK.

Nearly half (49%) of the uncertain tribe are located in the South of England (outside London), though this is also true of those sticking Conservative (47%) and those switching to Reform UK (49%). Around four in ten of the “would not vote” (40%) and switching to Labour (42%) groups are also in the South. Those who have gone back to Labour are slightly more likely to be in the North of England (28%) than other groups – including the “don’t knows” (21%).

Our groups show little difference in terms of social grade and income, with similar numbers across the board for all groups with the exception of those who tell us they “would not vote”, who are slightly more likely to be in social grade categories DE (27%) and have household income under £30,000 per year (36%) than average (21% and 30% respectively).

Finally, there are important differences regarding home ownership rates between our segments. Rates of outright home ownership (in other words, without a mortgage) are 48% among the “don’t know” group, significantly higher than the average[i] (31%) and both the “would not vote” (37%), Labour switchers (29%) groups. A similar number of those switching to Reform UK (47%) are also outright homeowners, while a higher proportion of Conservative stickers – over half (56%) – own their own homes.

Looking at ownership with mortgages reveals a potential key driver behind direct switching; of those currently intending to switch to Labour, 38% hold mortgages. This is well above the average (28%) and every other group – 27% of “don’t knows”, 31% of the “would not vote” group, 25% of Conservative stickers, and 28% of those switching to Reform UK. This, we can suggest, is very much connected to the interest rate hikes seen in the past year.

Overall, the profile of that significant portion of the Conservative 2019 vote which does not know where to go ahead of the next general election is quite clear: they tend to be older women, home owners, non-degree educated, and live in the South of England.

1 Note that the average figures expressed in this research will differ slightly from official statistics, as our panel data concerns the tenure status of where respondents reside, meaning mortgage holding rates in particular are likely to be understated (owing to by-to-let and/or second home properties, often held with mortgages). Our figures are also measured at the individual, rather than household, level.

See the full results here

Photo: Getty

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