Ten year swing: comparing the patterns of the 2005 and 2015 elections
I try sometimes to take the long view on electoral patterns. I wrote a piece for Conservative Home last year looking at the similarities and differences between the electoral maps of 1964 and 2010, elections which produced fairly similar numbers of Conservative MPs nationally. Boundary reviews – which, unfortunately, look like becoming more frequent in future – disrupt one’s ability to look back over time because the continuity of constituencies is broken. Has a seat switched sides decisively through long term political change (like Liverpool Wavertree, or Staffordshire Moorlands)? Or is an apparent change mostly because the boundaries have altered so that the seat’s political complexion has been shifted (like Southampton Test, or Norwich North)?
We can, though, look at ten years of electoral history on the same boundaries, comparing the 2005 election (using the ‘notional results’ for English and Welsh seats compiled by Rallings and Thrasher) with 2015. For 630 constituencies out of 650 (i.e. not Northern Ireland, nor the Speakers’ seats in 2005 and 2015), we can calculate the swing, i.e. the average of the Conservative gain and Labour loss. Of course, there are a large number of constituencies where these two are not the principal parties and the Con/Lab swing calculation is a bit like ascertaining the vitamin C content in a bowl of fruit punch – information of some value, but a long way short of the most relevant observation. The SNP landslide in Scotland and the Lib Dem collapse were the two startling changes in the 2015 election, and it is a bit artificial to look at Con/Lab swing in the seats affected, but it can still tell us something.
That said, let us look at the pattern of Con-Lab swing from 2005 to 2015: Blair to Miliband and Howard to Cameron. The colour scheme indicates strength and direction of swing. Dark blue is to the Conservatives of more than 10 per cent, blue is to the Conservatives by 5-10 per cent and the beigey shade is to the Conservatives by 0-5 per cent (i.e. still to the Tories but below the national average). Light red is 0-5 per cent to Labour, regular red 5-10% to Labour, and dark red is over 10 per cent to Labour.
The places where Labour did better in 2015 than in 2005 (relative to the Conservatives) are mostly found in London, Merseyside, Birmingham and some other metropolitan residential areas that have highly educated professional electorates (Edinburgh, Oxford, Sheffield Hallam, south Manchester, Hove, Bristol West) that deserted Labour for the Lib Dems in 2005 over the war and other issues and have subsequently returned. There are also a few ethnically diverse urban areas like Bradford, Leicester, Luton and Peterborough, and some idiosyncratic results affected by personal votes (Folkestone & Hythe, Blaenau Gwent) or successful Lib Dem squeezes on Tory votes (Westmorland & Lonsdale, North Norfolk).
At the other end of the scale, showing some very high pro-Conservative swings, there are also several recognisable groupings. The most striking is a band of urban and semi-rural territory in the Midlands, from Rugby and Redditch in the south to Staffordshire Moorlands and Bolsover in the north. This sub-region is rich in marginal seats (Cannock Chase, Nuneaton, Stafford, Loughborough, Erewash, Broxtowe…), and the Conservatives’ strong showing here has been instrumental not only in their surprise majority but also in the difficulty that Labour will face in winning enough seats to displace the Tories as the largest party. The next Labour leader will have to appeal to voters in this belt of seats in the suburban and non-metropolitan Midlands – success probably depends on winning either a very large national swing (a 10 per cent swing, such as Tony Blair won in 1997, would only just get Labour over the line starting from the 2015 electoral map) or crafting an appeal that works particularly well with the voters in these places.
There is a large apparent swing to the Conservatives in most of Scotland, although this is simply because in most of Scotland Labour had more votes to lose to the SNP. Other areas of strong Conservative gains relative to Labour since 2005 are in north Kent – a swathe of Labour gains in 1997 but which now have large Tory majorities; Wales, except the Cardiff-Newport area; southern cities; and the suburban rings around some large cities such as Leeds and Bristol. The above-average Conservative swings seem precision-targeted on where there are marginal parliamentary seats.
There has been a 5.1 per cent swing from Labour to Conservative in England since 2005. The Conservatives have gained 10 more seats than would have been expected from an entirely uniform English swing (plus some in Wales). There are 28 seats that would have been Labour on a uniform national swing from 2005 but which voted Tory in 2015 (these are Amber Valley, Bolton West, Cannock Chase, Carlisle, Crewe & Nantwich, Derby North, Elmet & Rothwell, Erewash, Gloucester, Ipswich, Keighley, Kingswood, Morecambe & Lunesdale, Morley & Outwood, Norwich North, Plymouth Moor View, Plymouth Sutton & Devonport, Pudsey, Reading West, Sherwood, Southampton Itchen, Stockton South, Telford, Thurrock, Warwick & Leamington, Warwickshire North, Waveney and Weaver Vale). There are 18 that the Conservatives would have gained on a uniform swing but which were Labour in 2015 (Birmingham Edgbaston, Bradford West, Brentford & Isleworth, City of Chester, Dewsbury, Ealing Central & Acton, Eltham, Enfield North, Gedling, Halifax, Hammersmith, Hove, Ilford North, Lancaster & Fleetwood, Westminster North, Wirral South, Wirral West and Wolverhampton South West).
This helps explain how the bias in the electoral system, which helped Labour in 1992-2010 to varying degrees, has switched to favour the Conservatives. It is not just that there is a mountain to climb; it is that the gradient of the mountain is much steeper than it used to be. The Conservative advantage will probably be boosted by boundary changes. I’ve done some work on this which will be coming out shortly.