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Swing voters haven’t stopped swinging – they’re just doing it differently

February 8th, 2014

Collage DC EM NC NF

The classic Con/Lab voter has gone the way of the Con/Lab system

Once upon a time, most people voted at general elections and nearly everyone that did voted Conservative or Labour.  And thus the key swing vote was born: those persuadable voters in marginal constituencies.  Win them and you win the election.

Then it became far more complicated.  The rise of the Liberals, the Scots and Welsh Nationalists and more recently a plethora of other parties – combined with a rise in abstentions – made electoral dynamics far more multidimensional and gave those voters far more options.  It also produced all sorts of swing sub-groups: in addition to the traditional Con-Lab.  If Margaret Thatcher’s victories were grounded on winning the Con-Lab battles, they were turbo-charged by Labour also losing the Lab-Lib ones.  Conversely, Blair’s majorities were similarly enhanced by his being able to build a tactical voting machine involving the Lib Dems against the Conservatives.

And now?  There’s a funny resonance back to that first breakdown.  In 1970, Heath and Wilson won all but about 10% of the vote between them.  In February 1974, that share rose to fully 25% – a level it’s been around ever since, though trending even higher in recent elections.  There was a nominal swing of 1.3% from Con to Lab but that was far overshadowed by the 7.2% swing from ConLab to The Rest.  Neither Heath nor Wilson inspired and so the swing voters didn’t choose either of them.

Cameron and Miliband are probably closer to Heath and Wilson than any other pair of post-war leaders, in all sorts of ways (though as always, we shouldn’t carry parallels too far).  One of those ways is that what a government can do is hemmed in by circumstances more than has been the case a little earlier, due to economic weakness and a public willingness to protest against the measures needed to deal with that weakness.  Another is their background: all four are/were Oxford PPE graduates and essentially career politicians.

Much of the analysis of the rise in the UKIP vote has focussed on the fact that much of it has come from the Conservative’s 2010 vote.  This is true but doesn’t take a long enough historical perspective.  As this excellent article by Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin shows, much of UKIP’s support is working class – in contrast to their more prominent activists.  As this PBC article from last month shows, their concerns are similar to those of Conservatives but where the Tory figures is above average, UKIP’s is more so – and likewise when below.

Put those two facts together and what we have is the almost mythical traditional White Van Man swing voter: the one that Margaret Thatcher convinced them she spoke for in the 1980s and to whom Blair did likewise, though in a very different way, in the 1990s.  When they decided Blair didn’t speak for them, they often stopped voting altogether, something that also ties in with the evidence that UKIP is picking up former DNVs.

If we assume that the Conservatives won a fair share of the swing vote in 2010, then that puts the Con-UKIP swing since in a different light.  Yes, they were Tory in 2010 but they weren’t necessarily Tory-identifying in the long run (although the Con vote increased by only 3.7%, the higher turnout meant that this equated to an extra 2m voters on 2005).

The rise of UKIP is of course only one of the two post-2010 VI phenomena and the Lab-LD switchers are a wholly different category.  However, the tiny scale of net Con-Lab switching since the election isn’t an indication that those key, election-determining swing voters no longer exist.  It’s just that right now they’re not Blue or Red, they’re Purple.

David Herdson