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The Grey Marginals

April 7th, 2010

Research by Dr Scott Davidson, De Montfort University

Although the ageing of the UK population is well documented, less well understood are the implications for a first past the post electoral system such as ours, with the importance of marginal seats in campaigning. My research suggests that Labour and the Liberal Democrats are defending 57 “grey marginals” against the apparent rise in vote share for the Conservatives since 2005.

A note on methods (more details in the full report). I have taken the age differences in turnout from 2005, and assumed these will remain. Of course, future numbers will vary, but at the moment there is no indication of a sudden uplift in the turnout rates of younger voters. The charts below show the estimated age breakdown of turnout for constituencies.

The definition of the grey vote is all voters 55+. This can be justified on several grounds; people in their 50s start to experience age discrimination in employment; they are approaching retirement and may be worried about pensions; and their own parents are likely to be in their 70s or 80s and may be requiring long-term care.

The Grey Marginals

Labour are defending 38 seats with notional majorities of 5,000 or less, but where it’s estimated that over half of turnout will be made up by the grey vote. What immediately stands out is that it is the Conservatives who are challenging in second place. (The only exceptions are the three seats in Wales.) Most of these seats were Labour gains in the landslide of 1997. A significant proportion are in the midlands and north west, and dominated by small towns or seats that are a mixture of suburban and rural wards. Perhaps the most interesting aspect is that they exist at all – a Lab-Con grey battleground is a new electoral phenomenon – if the Conservatives do win, then Labour’s recovery strategy, I suggest, will have to prioritise how it wins back older voters in seats such as these.

Parliamentary Constituency 2010 % t/o 55+ Winner 2005 2nd 2005 Majority Majority (%)
Arfon 50.0 Lab PC 456 1.8
City of Chester 51.5 Lab Con 973 2.2
Stroud 55.0 Lab Con 996 1.9
Aberconwy 61.5 Lab Con 1,070 3.9
Hastings & Rye 56.2 Lab Con 1,156 2.5
Ynys Môn 58.7 Lab PC 1,242 3.5
Stourbridge 52.2 Lab Con 1,280 2.9
Calder Valley 50.1 Lab Con 1,303 2.7
Vale of Glamorgan 52.1 Lab Con 1,574 3.4
High Peak 51.1 Lab Con 1,750 3.8
Dorset South 59.6 Lab Con 1,812 3.7
Stafford 53.4 Lab Con 1,852 4.0
Brighton Kemptown 51.0 Lab Con 1,853 4.8
Carmarthen West 58.9 Lab Con 2,043 5.3
Wolverhampton SW 51.6 Lab Con 2,114 5.3
Burton 50.5 Lab Con 2,132 4.8
Pendle 50.6 Lab Con 2,180 5.3
Rugby 52.0 Lab Con 2,397 5.2
South Ribble 52.6 Lab Con 2,528 5.4
Cleethorpes 55.0 Lab Con 2,640 6.1
Dumfries & Galloway 53.5 Lab Con 2,922 5.7
Great Yarmouth 59.0 Lab Con 3,055 7.4
Brigg & Goole 55.0 Lab Con 3,217 7.8
Dudley South 52.6 Lab Con 3,222 8.9
Blackpool North 57.8 Lab Con 3,241 8.5
Wirral South 59.2 Lab Con 3,538 9.3
Halesowen 54.3 Lab Con 4,010 9.7
Dudley North 52.4 Lab Con 4,106 11.1
Swansea West 53.4 Lab LD 4,269 12.9
Gedling 51.5 Lab Con 4,335 9.6
NW Leicestershire 51.9 Lab Con 4,477 9.5
Bolton North East 51.2 Lab Con 4,527 12.0
Vale of Clwyd 58.4 Lab Con 4,629 14.2
Barrow & Furness 55.4 Lab Con 4,843 12.5
Morecambe 55.2 Lab Con 4,849 11.7
Keighley 51.6 Lab Con 4,852 10.5
Sefton Central 59.8 Lab Con 4,950 12.0
Dover 57.3 Lab Con 5,005 10.4

For the Liberal Democrats there has been a longer of history of battling with the Conservatives in grey seats. Indeed, with 19 grey marginals, this amounts to almost one third of their current parliamentary representation. Their battles with Tory challengers in these seats will have been a core concern for Lib Dem strategists. Their grey marginals are heavily concentrated in the south and south west, and they will have a special challenge in defending the two wholly new seats of York Outer and Chippenham.

Parliamentary Constituency 2010 % t/o 55+ Winner 2005 2nd 2005 Majority Majority (%)
Westmorland & L’dale 61.8 LD Con 806 1.7
Brecon & Radnorshire 61.5 LD Con 3,905 10.2
Newton Abbot 61.3 LD Con 4,830 10.5
Torbay 59.8 LD Con 2,727 6.0
Cornwall North 59.8 LD Con 2,892 6.9
Southport 59.6 LD Con 3,838 9.3
Truro & Falmouth 58.3 LD Con 3,931 9.3
Somerton & Frome 57.7 LD Con 595 1.1
Camborne & Redruth 57.1 LD Lab 2,733 7.1
Hereford & S H’shire 57.0 LD Con 1,089 2.4
Ceredigion 57.0 LD PC 218 0.6
Taunton Deane 56.1 LD Con 1,868 3.3
Cheadle 55.3 LD Con 3,672 7.4
Chippenham 53.4 LD Con 2,183 4.7
Chesterfield 53.3 LD Lab 2,733 6.4
York Outer 52.7 LD Con 203 0.4
Romsey & Soton North 51.6 LD Con 204 0.5
Cheltenham 50.4 LD Con 316 0.7
East Dunbartonshire 50.1 LD Lab 4,061 8.7

Grey Power?

It is now a feature of modern campaigns for commentators to proclaim older voters as one of the pivotal battlegrounds in determining the final outcome.

Certainly, it has been the recent drops in turnout amongst younger voters which has accelerated the impact of population ageing. Younger age groups in the 1970s showed lower turnout rates, but in subsequent elections and as they grew older their turnout increased. But, this trend seems to have been broken in the 1990s, and first time voters in 2001 maintained their low participation rates in 2005.

Older people are more likely to vote, join campaigns and contact elected representatives. They have higher levels of political literacy and are more likely to follow the campaign closely in the media. It would be a foolish strategist who ignored these voters. However, the grey power model is flawed. Older people are not homogenous in political attitudes nor do they vote as a single block who perceive a single shared interest. They are concerned about the prospects for their own children and grand-children and will be divided by hugely varying personal social and economic circumstances.

That said it is likely that parties can succeed if they adopt a sophisticated segmentation of voters by life stage. Furthermore, it is clear that there are issues that particularly impact on the quality of life for older voters, and if grey voters were to perceive one party to be discernibly stronger, or weaker, on those issues, this could become significant. Any party that scores badly with older voters is going to have to do remarkably well elsewhere to have even a remote aspiration of winning a majority in the Commons.

** The data was developed with support from Age Concern, who have used some of the findings for the launch of AGE UK, the new organisation that has arisen from their merger with Help the Aged.

Dr Scott Davidson

Twitter: @framingthedot