The Conservatives weren’t seen as divided during the campaign

Contra Nick Timothy, a “divided party” isn’t the reason for poor performance

Last week Nick Timothy and Tim Montgomery had a short spat on Twitter about the reasons for the Conservative party’s failure to win a majority in June’s general election. Nick Timothy tweeted that

When other things are equal, people are generally less likely to vote for parties that are seen as divided. If the Conservatives had been seen as divided in the run up to the election, that might have hampered their chances of doing well. In fact, the Conservatives were seen as one of the most united parties. Whatever the reasons for the party’s failure to win seats, perceptions of division cannot be one of them.

I base this claim on data from the British Election Study (BES). For over thirty years, the BES has asked survey respondents whether they see the main parties as divided or united. The current edition of the BES — which has been running since substantially in advance of the 2015 election — is no different.

In each “wave” of the survey, voters are asked whether they see each party as very united, fairly united, neither united nor divided, fairly divided, or very divided. The graph below shows, for the campaign wave which ran from the 5th May to the eve of the election (wave 12), the proportion of respondents who saw each of the four main UK-wide parties (Conservatives, Labour, the Liberal and UKIP) as very or fairly united, very or fairly divided, or neither united nor divided.

The Conservatives top the table: 61% of respondents during the campaign saw them as very or fairly united, and only 23% as very or fairly divided, for a net score of +38%. The Liberal Democrats follow not very far behind (+32), with Labour bringing up the rear with a net score which was firmly negative (-65%).

These figures reflect averages from a very large number of respondents (there were over 34,000 respondents involved in the campaign wave). Could this average conceal big differences which emerged only over the course of the campaign?

Not really. Daily figures for voter perceptions of how united each party was are shown in the second graph. Although the Conservatives came to be seen as less united over the course of the campaign, and Labour more united, these differences were not huge: they started with a net score of 40%, and finished the campaign with a net score of 35%. Far more impressive were the Labour gains, but then Labour started from a very low base.

I’ve described these changes as small: they are certainly small compared to the gap in perceptions before and after the campaign. The final graph shows responses to the same question plotted above, but this time asked of the post-campaign wave, fielded between the 9th and 23rd June. From a net score of almost plus forty, the party has fallen to a net score of -44. Only UKIP — then, as now, leaderless — was seen as more divided. The only party that was seen as more united than divided were the Liberal Democrats.

I’ve suggested that the Conservatives were seen as much more united than divided during the course of the campaign, and that this can’t account for their poor performance (relative to initial expectations). It is possible, of course, that parties can be divided in ways that aren’t visible to voters, and that these can have knock on consequences for electoral performance. Party divisions may make it more difficult to get canvassers out and about into the places where they are most needed. Still, if the figures from the BES post-election wave are broadly correct, the party may look back fondly on a period when its divisions were still by and large invisible to the public.


Perceptions of party unity across the different waves of the BES…