We spend much time looking at the most recent developments. Â But every now and then it is profitable to stand back and look at longer term trends. Â That is most easily done by comparing elections which produced quite similar overall results and then looking at the detail. Â The 1992 and the 2015 election results are sufficiently similar overall to make that a valuable exercise. Â Except in Scotland.
The overall result in 2015 was as follows:Â Con 330Â Lab 232Â SNP 56Â Lib Dem 8Â Plaid Cymru 3Â UKIP 1Â Green 1Â Speaker 1Â Northern Irish parties 18
The result in 1992 was as follows:Â Con 336Â Lab 271Â Lib Dem 20Â Plaid Cymru 4Â SNP 3Â Northern Irish parties 17Â (The outgoing Speaker had retired).
As you can see, the Conservatives tallied much the same seat count in both elections, Labour did considerably better in 1992, as did the Lib Dems, while the SNP went from nowhere to third place. Â For Lib Dems surveying these two election results, it must feel like clogs to clogs in five elections. Â They have fewer seats now than they had then. The only seat held in both elections is Orkney & Shetland.
Let’s start with the big point of difference, Scotland.Â In 1992, the SNP were nowhere.Â They had fewer seats than Plaid Cymru.Â It is easy to forget, but the Conservatives as well as Labour and the Lib Dems had substantial seat numbers in Scotland.Â A generation on and the landscape is unrecognisable.
Scotland’s seat count has declined by 13, reducing its numerical significance in Parliament even as demands for independence and further devolution have catapulted up the political agenda.Â And the SNP have effectively wiped the other three parties off the map.Â In the same period, Plaid Cymru have gone nowhere.
This is, of course, a disaster for Labour who at a stroke have lost a large block of MPs.Â They will either need to be recovered or replaced elsewhere.Â Right now, the latter looks much more achievable.
These results are as close as you will ever get any two election results. Â So substantial differences in the detail will have real meaning.
There were 11 more seats in England and Wales in 2015 than in 1992. But the distribution of the seats has been uneven. Despite the rapid population growth of London, there are 11 fewer seats in greater London now than in 1992 (the newcomers must in large part be non-voting immigrants). There are five fewer seats in the north west and the north east combined than in 1992 (regional boundaries were a little different then).
Meanwhile, there are seven extra seats in the south west, four extra seats in the east midlands, an extra seat in the west midlands, two extra seats in Wales and 13 extra seats in the south east and east. The seats have been accumulating in more Tory-friendly areas over the last 24 years.
And this is the real story. Labour are not taking fewer seats now than in 1992 in the south. They took ten seats in the south west, the south east outside London and the east in 1992 and 12 seats in the same areas in 2015. But the Conservatives, benefiting from this southwards drift of population, are taking 20 more seats in these areas. Labour’s failure to find a message for southern England is becoming ever more damaging to their chances.
We see the same picture in the east midlands, where Labour have the same seat tally as in 1992 but the Conservatives have gained ground, pocketing all the increase in seat count in the area. Only the west midlands have decisively swung away from Labour.
In Wales, Labour have lost a quarter of its vote share in under 25 years (and 40% of its vote share since 1966). Â So far it has not significantly affected its seat count, though it is drifting down, because the rest of the vote is still more fragmented with the rise of UKIP. Â But Labour looks vulnerable in Wales in the longterm if this trend continues. Â The example of Scotland should be fresh in their minds.
If Labour have underperformed in these areas relative to 1992, there are areas of outperformance too. They have increased their stranglehold on the north east and the north west, getting four more seats in these regions even with a reduced seat count to aim at. Most strikingly, they have conquered London, holding 60% of the seats now as opposed to the 40% of seats that they held in 1992. Â But again, there are fewer seats in London than there once was.
It is anachronism to refer to the Core Cities in 1992, since this grouping of the largest cities outside London was only set up in 1995. Â Labour always found strength in the larger English cities, but Labour have strengthened their position in the English areas now covered by that grouping still further.
In 1992, the seats in what is now covered by the Core Cities in England divided as follows:Â Labour: 82Â Con: 31Â Lib Dem: 2
Now, the split is:Labour: 83Â Con: 16Â Lib Dem: 3
The seat count in the Core Cities in England has declined, but Labour are getting ever closer to a whitewash. Â 55% of all Labour seats are now found in an English Core City or in London. Â The perspective of the average Labour MP may be unhealthily influenced by concerns of constituencies that are not particularly representative.Wherever they have strengthened over the last 23 years, Labour are getting a larger slice of a smaller cake.Â Meanwhile, the Conservative-dominated areas of England have gained seats, benefiting the Conservatives by default. Labour risk being on the wrong side of longterm demographic trends.
There is another way of looking at this.Â Twice at low ebbs Labour have been reduced to nominal seat counts in the ruralÂ south, but in better times in the interim they have picked up a lot more seats in those areas.Â They simply need to rediscover that art.
Even in good times, however, the Conservatives have found themselves progressively squeezed further out of their weaker areas and are losing London.Â Labour have an immediate demographic problem but the Conservatives have a much more enduring demographic problem.Â Their room for further progress is limited unless they can unlock more seats in areas that have been turning their backs on them for a generation.
Meanwhile, the distance that they couldÂ fall is much greater.Â George Osborne is developing policies such as the Northern PowerhouseÂ to appeal to the Core Cities.Â Will they be enough?Â We shall see, but I doubt it.Â Both mainÂ parties are facing longterm trends that should trouble them deeply
Antifrank is a long standing contributor to PB and blogs at News To No One, where this piece first appeared.