During the campaign both Labour and the Conservatives made pledges designed to extend their appeal beyond their natural bases. Labour made several commitments towards a timetable on deficit reduction not dissimilar to the Tories, whilst the Conservatives found an extra £8bn a year for the NHS and pledged 30 hours a week of free childcare for all three and four year olds. So despite all the rhetoric and political cross-dressing of the campaign why did the Labour and Conservative vote appear to follow such well-established demographic patterns?
Part of the answer lies in the demise of the Liberal Democrats as a significant force in British politics. Historically there was great diversity behind what a Liberal Democrat voter or seat looked like. The party held a kaleidoscope of seats ranging from university cities, rural south western towns, and Scottish and Welsh communities with a great history of non-conformism to urban seats in the north. This election voters were offered a stark choice between an identifiably right wing Conservative government with perhaps opportunistic support from the DUP and/or UKIP and a Labour government abetted by the SNP. Liberal Democrats weren’t really considered as part of either the left or the right’s retail offer to the electorate. With no natural demographic constituency to fall back on the Liberal Democrat vote was largely re-allocated to Labour or the Conservatives on the basis, principally, of a latent prosperity fault-line.
Although the Liberal Democrat vote broke in all directions, the Conservatives were much more efficient at turning these new votes into seats. In 53% of the UK’s 632 seats the Liberal Democrat swing to Labour was bigger than the Liberal Democrat swing to the Conservatives. However, the Tories picked up 27 2010 Liberal Democrat seats to Labour’s 12. The Conservatives took Liberal Democrat votes where it really mattered, often in seats in which they had come a well-placed second in the 2010 Election. Net movements aside, their majority strategy was built principally on maintaining the status quo against Labour in the majority of seats and eating up their junior partners’ seats in the South West.
The key to understanding this latent prosperity fault line is the relationship between rates of employment and voting behaviour. The Conservatives won only 3 seats out of 67 (4%) where employment (full-time and part-time taken together) is under 55%. By contrast they won 101 out of the 112 seats (90%) where the employment rate is over two thirds. Of the remaining 11 “high” employment seats not won by the Tories, 4 of them are in Scotland; where decades of Conservative decline and a nationalist earthquake precluded any gains.
If you took any constituency in mainland Britain and asked the following questions:
Is the employment rate above average?
Are there an above average percentage of senior managers in the constituency?
Is the percentage of voters who live in rented, social accommodation below average?
You would be able to guess the political complexion of the seat after the 2015 General Election on more than four out of five occasions. The Tories won 85% (282) of the 331 seats where the answer to least two of these questions was “yes” and lost 83% (251) of the 301 seats where that was not the case.
Three patterns emerge from observing those 49 seats which failed the three question test but which Labour also failed to hold or gain as a result: they are located disproportionately in outer London and the South East; a majority of these seats are located on the coast; and the extent of Labour’s decline in these places since its landslide victory in 1997 is dramatic. Between 1997 and 2015 the average swing from Labour to the Conservatives in these seats was 14% against 9.5% nationally. These 49 seats also highlight the extent to which UKIP is a problem for Labour beyond the Northern heartlands; in 35 of them (71%) UKIP scored a higher share of the vote than the 12.9% it won nationally. Labour will have to address this if it is to gain seats that are currently Conservative, even though their demographics and failure to benefit fully from a broad-based recovery suggest that they shouldn’t be.