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How Conservative MPs Became the New ‘Shy Tories’ – Attempting to Win Votes by Distancing Themselves From their Party

The ‘Shy Tory’ effect now extends beyond voters to Conservative incumbents as critics complain that voters shouldn’t need a ‘magnifying glass to work out’ who they are voting for

Even Prime Minister Rishi Sunak appears to be downplaying the party he belongs to in an attempt to avoid putting off voters. Photo: Benjamin Cremel/AP/Alamy

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The ‘shy Tory effect’ has been around since the early 1990s, but the phenomenon – used to describe how election polls would underestimate the Conservative vote because people were embarrassed to admit that they voted for the party – has taken on an entirely new meaning during this year’s general election campaign.

For it is now Conservative Party members, not voters, who seem most uncomfortable showing their colours.

The ‘shy Tory effect’, first observed by pollsters and psephologists, found that the share of the electoral vote won by the Conservative Party was significantly higher than the equivalent share in opinion polls.

The accepted explanation for the term was that ‘shy Tories’ were voting Conservative, but telling pollsters otherwise. It is said to have impacted both the 1992 and 2015 General Election results.

Byline Times needs your help to investigate disinformation and electoral exclusion as we head towards the 2024 General Election.

We’re asking for your help to keep track of dodgy campaigning this election, so if you spot anything that bears investigation, please email us at votewatch24@bylinetimes.com.

While Labour has dipped slightly in recent polls, it stills hold a 20-point lead over the Conservatives.

Since Rishi Sunak announced a 4 July election, several Conservative parliamentary and Police and Crime Commissioner candidates have been rather shy about advertising the party they are standing for – with little obvious mention of the party that has held power for 14 years in campaign literature.

Andrew Bowie, a Conservative candidate in West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine, is running a highly personalised campaign, with little acknowledgement of the party he is running for, though, he does make clear who he is running against.

One of his campaign leaflets mentions twice in small print that Bowie is the Scottish Conservatives candidate, but claims twice in large font that “it’s either Andrew Bowie or the SNP”. Bowie has a majority of less than 1,000 votes, meaning he is at risk of losing his seat.

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It seems that even Rishi Sunak is feeling a tad shy.

A letter shown to Byline Times by a couple from Dorset – sent round to elderly voters on behalf of the Prime Minister – only mentions the Conservative Party in small print at the bottom of the document. Instead, Sunak uses the words “we” or “we’ll” to describe party actions and promises.

Sunak’s letter also asks voters not to vote for Reform, and appears to concede that the Conservatives will lose the election: “If people like you vote for Reform, you risk handing Keir Starmer over 100 extra seats and a huge majority.”

The letter continues: “A vote for Reform won’t just result in the election of one Labour MP or Lib Dem MP – it risks so much more. That’s because the Lib Dems are on board with everything Starmer wants to do. So you won’t have anyone holding him to account on your behalf.”

Tom Brake, director of Unlock Democracy, a group campaigning for increased participatory democracy, told Byline Times: “Whether it is in their direct mail, leaflets or newspapers, candidates owe it to their electors to be up front about which party they are representing. Voters shouldn’t need a magnifying glass to work out who is seeking to influence their vote.”

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Robert Largan, the incumbent Conservative candidate for High Peak, recently came under fire for the unusual tactic of posting his name in the colours of Labour and Reform on X (formerly Twitter) with the captions “Reform for Robert and “Labour for Robert”. These were accompanied by posts on his campaign website with the same slogans.

Largan said he was “proud of the fact some local Labour voters and Reform voters are switching to support me based on my record of local delivery”.

But social media users branded the tactic “pathetic” and “inauthentic”, with several people accusing Largan of breaking the law. Derbyshire Police investigated the matter and announced that no action would be taken.

Largan’s posts did not provide any evidence for voters switching to him. He has a majority of just under 600 votes and Electoral Calculus has Labour on a 96% chance of keeping the seat.

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Robert Buckland, the incumbent Conservative candidate for Swindon South, also appears to concede Conservative defeat on a national level – but claims he can be saved locally.

His campaign materials were scant on Conservative branding and included the claim: “Your vote will not change the national result, but you can vote to retain me as a trusted, experienced, and local MP”.

The large print banner at the top includes Buckland’s name, but the Conservative Party is only mentioned in his signature at the end of the leaflet.

Alexander Stafford, the incumbent Conservative candidate for Rother Valley and former parliamentary private secretary to Boris Johnson, has also found a novel way of distancing himself from the national party – running with the backing of CCHQ under the banner ‘Local Conservatives’ so that he appears as Local Conservatives rather than Conservative and Unionist Party on the ballot. 

Stafford told Byline Times: “I’m on the ballot paper… [I’m] pleased to see that I have been validly nominated to stand under the banner ‘Local Conservatives’.

“I’m standing under this grouping to highlight the local focus and attention both me and the local Conservative Party are determined to continue in Rother Valley – and to contrast with the 101 prior years of Labour neglect and taking Rother Valley for granted. I’ll always put Rother Valley first.”

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Dr Phil Burton-Cartledge, author of The Party’s Over: The Rise and Fall of the Conservatives from Thatcher to Sunak, told Byline Times that “Conservatives trying to hide their party label has been something of a recent campaigning tradition” but that, as a national strategy, it was pioneered during the 2016 Scottish parliamentary elections.

Back then, he said the Conservatives “down played their party identity” and put forward Ruth Davidson as a “moderate politician who was normal and quite charismatic”, with the message being that they knew they weren’t going to win, but people should vote for Davidson and her team so the Scottish National Party “would face a decent opposition”.

In the 2017 General Election, he added, Theresa May “tried the same strategy”. At press conferences, party branding was hidden and May ” who was a relatively popular leader going into that election, was put front and centre” because the message was about “giving her and ‘her team’ a strong majority ahead of the Brexit negotiations”.

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May did not win a majority, but Dr Burton-Cartledge noted that the “rebrand” helped the Conservatives poll 42% of the vote – which Boris Johnson was able to add to in 2019.

“The hope many incumbent MPs have is that they have built up enough name recognition so that their personal brand overwrites any uncomfortable or toxic associations with the party name, ” he said.

“Unfortunately for them, due to the nature of the election system, most voters support parties over candidates because the values, ideas, and kinds of policies the different parties have, particularly the main two, are largely understood by the electorate.

“Most voters will see the party label and not the candidate’s name and, in all but a handful of cases, will vote accordingly.”


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