Workers welcome the Prime Minister to Teeside (Photo by Boris Johnson/Twitter)
Artillery Row Election 2019

The realignment election

Can the Tories win enough old Labour seats to compensate their losses elsewhere?

I wrote on Wednesday about the decades-long decline of the Labour vote in the coalfields. The recent YouGov MRP model of constituency results suggests that the 2019 election will indeed see a number of ex-mining constituencies turn Tory for the first time ever, or which only centenarians can possibly remember having a Tory MP. On top of the 21 coalfield seats that were blue in 2017, YouGov projects another 12 to fall: Wakefield, Penistone & Stockbridge, Ashfield, Rother Valley, Bishop Auckland, Don Valley, Bassetlaw, Bolsover, Wrexham, Clwyd South and Leigh. This would give the Tories 33 out of 80 ex-mining constituencies, nearly the same as my crude projection on uniform swing did yesterday. Leigh is the most unexpected entry to this list – a seat that was Liberal from its creation in 1885 until 1922, when it went Labour and stayed that way usually by very large margins.

I’m interested in long term electoral change and one easy way of reckoning it is to take two elections with similar overall outcomes and see which seats have switched sides between the two. With an 11-point Conservative lead (43 per cent to 32 per cent) the voting intention figures driving the YouGov model are very close to what they were in 1987, at least as far as the big parties are concerned. Although two rounds of boundary changes cloud the comparison a bit, we can make out the principal movements over the 32 years since the Tories last won a comfortable majority. 

For the purposes of this exercise, I’ll assume – as everyone seems to be doing in the commentary business – that the YouGov MRP model is completely accurate, although of course no model can really claim that and there are still two weeks to go until polling day. I’ll also exclude Scotland, because Scotland’s voting patterns have become ever more detached from England and Wales and the rise of the SNP is the dominant feature of change.

Map: Blue indicates a seat that was Labour in 1987 but projected Conservative in 2019; red indicates the reverse situation. Scotland excluded. Data from YouGov MRP model, map via Wikimedia Commons.

First, I’ll take the 30 seats that have gone from Labour in 1987 to Conservative in the 2019 model. They form a very clear geographical pattern concentrated in mining and other former single industry towns in the North and Midlands. As well as the 12 coalfield seats projected to flip in 2019, there are another 4 that have already gone since 1987. A clean sweep for the Tories is projected in the Potteries, astonishing given their working-class history and composition. Four change in the Black Country. Single-industry and free-standing towns to abandon Labour since 1987 would be Crewe & Nantwich, Workington, Great Grimsby, Scunthorpe, Carlisle and Copeland. The common factor is their class and ethnic make-up – white working-class areas with ageing populations who have been Labour on economic grounds but often socially conservative. The odd ones out are perennial marginals Dewsbury and Telford. 

More than twice as many constituencies have flipped in the opposite direction – 69 were Conservative in 1987 and Labour in the 2019 model even given the dent that the MRP result would put in Labour’s strength. London is doing the heavy lifting for Labour, with no fewer than 25 blue-to-red constituencies mostly to be found in the constituencies halfway between the centre and the edge of the capital – Streatham, Edmonton, Brentford, even Walthamstow; the Tories did very well indeed in London in 1987. The long-term trends in London – demographic, economic – since the early 1990s go a long way to balancing out the rightward shift in the former coalfields, and there is similar inexorable demography at work.

For Labour there are simply not that many city, suburb and university town seats left to win

As well as London, the larger cities in the rest of England and Wales have had a metropolitan red shift. The core cities of Bristol, Nottingham, Cardiff, Brighton and Leeds deliver 11 seats, and suburban and satellite towns in the orbit of Liverpool (7), Manchester (5) and other large cities yield another 14. Linked to this set of blue to red seats are another group of 10 from smaller cities and towns associated with the presence of a university – Canterbury is the most extreme example but we also have Portsmouth South and Reading East. It is not just the students – Conservative support among university staff and other professionals who tend to live in the same part of town as the university has fallen steeply since the 1980s. Slough and Luton contribute three southern seats with rising BAME populations, and as with the red to blue seats there are a handful of oddities – Lincoln, Delyn and Batley & Spen.

Two very broad things are happening to electoral geography. The first is that places change; mining employment disappears and so does its strong tradition of worker solidarity, middle class London suburbs become increasingly ethnically mixed and youthful. The second is that the basis of party support changes. The Stoke seats would still be safe Labour and Canterbury safe Conservative if the electoral divides of 1987 were still in place – class, housing and north/ south. Just looking at the net transfer between the two parties, one might be tempted to say that Labour has had the best of the exchange – gaining 70 seats from the Tories for the loss of 30 helps explain why an 11-point Tory lead produced a majority of 100 in 1987 but only 68 on the 2019 projection. But Labour is coming close to exhausting this potential source of gains – there are simply not that many city, suburb and university town seats left to win, while the Tories still have room to grow in the white working class towns.

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