We drove out to the Cotswolds to stay with some friends over the weekend. On the way, we passed through Witney, which for those who are unaware is David Cameron’s own constituency. Given the fact that it is one of the safest Tory seats in the country, I figured it would be pre-Cotswolds cuteness all the way. Whoa Nelly. Witney is much more like Corby than Bath; a clearly mixed socio-economic mix that felt more industrial and down at the heel than I would have ever expected.
Thus, you might think that like Corby Witney is a Lab-Tory marginal. But like I said, it is one of the safest Tory seats in the country. And it isn’t because it’s David Cameron’s seat either. The causality flows the other way – Cameron picked it because it’s one of those places that’s always been Tory and probably always will be into the future as well.
All of this made me think of the Conservative “brand” and how different parts of the country respond to it. For instance, how in places like Oxfordshire and the Cotswolds, voting Tory is unquestioned; it’s the thing you do, unless there’s something a bit off about you. Contrast this with Scotland, where no one votes Tory, even in previously safe Conservative and Unionist seats up there. It’s interesting to me to see how the Tory brand remains completely solid in some places, regardless of socio-economic factors, while collapsing completely in others.
A good example of the solidity of the Tory brand in certain places is within the business community. Sir Martin Sorrell, a large Tory donor, was in the media this weekend talking about his concerns regarding the way the Conservative Party are flirting with a Brexit.
“From an electoral point of view Ed Miliband clearly believes bashing business is good for the ballot box and will benefit him. It’s a conundrum for business. Labour won’t have a referendum but you might have a regime that is more negative to business, and a referendum makes a Conservative vote that much more difficult,” he told the Guardian.
What’s most interesting to me about this whole exchange is that there is a pro-business party out there as we speak, one that is explicitly pro-Europe as well. Granted, they cannot get a majority, but the business community could prop the Liberal Democrats up in the hopes of making sure that either Labour become friendlier to business, or that the Tories keep us in the EU. And yet, as you can see from the Sorrell quote, people such as he are clearly viewing the whole thing as a binary choice between Labour and the Conservatives – despite neither of them offering the business community what it wants.
So they side with the Tories – much like the voters of Witney, mostly out of an unbreakable habit. And the thing is, just how deeply that brand identification runs in other parts of the country will be one of the deciding factors of the election in May.