The shifting tides: voting trends since 2005

The shifting tides: voting trends since 2005

What were you doing in 2005?  At the time of the 2005 general election I was at a 40th birthday party in Northern Ireland (“I like this place: they take their politics seriously”, a Kenyan friend said, approvingly looking at all the posters).  Tony Blair had just won a third term for Labour with a majority of 66.  

In the intervening period, we have had four further general elections and the political landscape has been transformed.  Last year Boris Johnson won a majority of 80 for the Conservatives.  Cumulatively there has been an average 7.5% swing from Labour to the Conservatives over that period.

Averages, however, can conceal a wide range of variance.  How have constituencies moved individually over that period?  Fortunately, we can track these movements because, while there were some boundary changes in England in the 2005 Parliament, we have notional results for 2005 that we can track through to the present day.

At the head of this thread there is a map showing the cumulative swings to and from the Conservatives over that period.  It is zoomable, so you can inspect areas in detail.  I hope the map is fairly intuitive.  In essence, the deeper the blue, the better for the Conservatives and the deeper the red, the worse for them (NB I have coded swings to the SNP and the Lib Dems in the same way as swings to Labour – this is a map about relative Conservative performance).

If the cumulative swings had been uniform, we would expect the very light blue, representing swings of 5-10% to the Conservatives over the period, to predominate.  While it is the single most common colour, as you can see there is a wide range.

Swings aren’t the whole story by any means, of course.  Where a party was already very strong in 2005, the ability to generate large swings since was limited.  And where the Conservatives were very weak in 2005, as in most of Scotland, a swing to or against them may reflect the relative changes in fortunes of two or more other parties rather than anything they have done.  And in any case, swings in very safe seats are scarcely relevant in the short term.  But while swings aren’t the whole story, they do tell a story.

OK, what can we see?  Well, first off, London is very visible with a splash of reds, with some hefty swings to Labour in many seats against the general trend.  It shouldn’t be if swings were uniform.  The Conservatives have not just lost ground relatively in London, they have lost ground in absolute terms too.  

The Conservatives have also performed less well than average in the home counties, excluding Kent and Essex.  Many of these seats remain very safe for the Conservatives.  In the longer term, however, Labour and the Lib Dems will want to think about how to craft a message to take account of this trend away from the Conservatives.  There could be some surprising gains at some point.

Labour have done strikingly well in the Merseyside area, continuing to build on what was already a strong position in 2005.  You can also pick out Bristol, inner Manchester and inner Birmingham in red.  And for all the talk of swings to the Conservatives in Wales (and they have outperformed in much of Wales), Cardiff has swung to Labour in that time.

Where have the Conservatives done especially well?  In a ribbon of seats snaking from mid Wales to the Humber (omitting the centres of the largest cities en route), the Conservatives have secured swings of over 20%.  By any measure that is spectacular.  Remember, these are not just people who are receptive to the Conservative message now, these are people who were not receptive to their message in 2005.  In some seats, the swings were colossal.  In Bolsover, Cannock Chase and Mansfield, the cumulative swings topped 30%.  This did not start at the last election, which largely saw the east Midlands catch up with the west Midlands on this trend.  This tide has been running for many years now.

It’s a similar story in the north east, where the Conservatives outperformed their (already impressive) par in almost every seat.  In fact, they have consolidated their position on the whole eastern side of England as far down as the Thames estuary.

Less remarked upon, perhaps because it is an old success, is the Conservatives’ outperformance over the period in the south west.  Outside Bristol and Exeter, the area has swung hard to the Conservatives.

There are some real oddities.  In 2005, the Conservatives held Reading East and Labour held Reading West.  By 2019, these had swapped over.  Portsmouth North, Labour held in 2005, swung hard to the Conservatives and is now safe for them.  Portsmouth South swung away from them and is now Labour held.

The overall picture is, however, clear.  We can see the collapse of Labour in Scotland, the collapse of the Lib Dems in most places and the conquest of insular England by the Conservatives at the cost of losing metropolitans.  Will these trends continue or have some of them reached a high point?  Much depends on how the political parties respond to these trends.

Alastair Meeks

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