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Where the next election will be decided

October 17th, 2007

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    A guest article by Blair Freebairn

The Pirahã tribe of the Amazon has words for one, two and many. Number-wise that’s it. The count for an STV Pirahã election would be fun. The Romans didn’t have the digit zero and their arithmetic was mind-bogglingly horrible; yet imperial Rome seemed to muddle through. Yet all languages seem to have the same basic 10 words for colours. Maps have been around since before writing let alone number systems. We are not hard wired to understand numbers, maps and colors yes – numbers no.

Hence the map you see above. It is a pseudo Dorling-cartogram combining categorical and nominal thematic shading, or as we say in the trade a pretty map. As a maker of graphics designed to reveal patterns lurking within numbers, I know if I have to explain what it is going on in my graphic then the graphic has failed. I’ll take a flyer and offer no text explanation. It is, I think, the first public airing of such an image using the notional 2005 results for the amended constituencies of the next election. Hurrah a pb.com first.

Nice map but so what? Take a good look at the map. Notice anything?

That these marginal seats will decide the next election is not news. But look at the pattern the 201 marginal seats highlighted make. They don’t concentrate in Wales, Scotland, London, the major cities or the truly rural areas. They aren’t really regional. They are heavily concentrated in Medium English Towns and Their Hinterlands (METTHs from now on).

From Scarborough via Stourbridge to Hereford. Or maybe Cleethorpes to Halifax. Stevenage to Swindon by way of Luton. From St Austell to Taunton and up to Stroud and Redditch. Kettering Corby and Broxtowe (hi Nick). How about Gravesham, Hastings and Basingstoke. Burton across to Southport via Chester. The marginals are strung like bunting through Britain avoiding the cities and the truly rural. It’s the towns, stupid!

These seats are clustered on a fine scale but not a large one, in other words they occur across all parts of the UK but where they do occur you get lots of them. When analysts talk about key battlegrounds and try to isolate regional clusters they are missing the big picture. Again, so what?

For campaign strategists this is a striking piece of good news. Local urban context and sub-regional belonging influence the attitudes and concerns of residents far more than large scale regionality and, sometimes, even demographics. Strategists should be imagining how policies will play not broken down by geographical regions but rather by urban context. Of course these METTHS will have a broad attitudinal and demographic spread, rich and poor, Guardian and Sun readers, conservative and liberal. Equally METTHs themselves will not be homogenous. There will be commuter towns, market towns and ex-industrial towns. But interlaced with these varying influences will be the universal influence of living in a METTH. What might these METTH specific concerns be?

Here are three ideas.

1. Transport: METTHs are too small and diffuse to support mass transit systems. The car is central. Perceived policy towards the car is unremittingly hostile, but remember the fuel protests – a full-blown taxpayers revolt. New road developments and car neutrality will play well. How many “Bypass here now!” groups would mobilise precious swing voters? How many silent bus lane curses can be tapped into?

2. Development Control: METTHs are in line to absorb a huge part of the required new housing growth. Meanwhile our planning system is frankly a mess. On one hand absurdly local, four hundred local planning authorities with duplicated roles yet differing interpretations. And on the other stupidly centralised, who decided where these houses are going to go and on whose authority? A root and branch revolution into how we decide what to build where would motivate many. If you doubt this, read the letters pages of any local paper.

3. Civic pride in local public service institutions: Bit of a mouthful for an issue that may not win many votes but when ignored will leads to catastrophic loss. Where do you think the at-risk general hospitals and grammar schools tend to be? Think 100 Kidderminsters or the Tory grammar school fiasco.

There are others, but I’m done.

Blair Freebairn is an occasional poster but long time reader of pb.com. For a living he helps various organisations make good decisions where location is important (new stores, wi-fi hotspots, hospitals that sort of thing)






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