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What can we learn from the 2015 General Election?

The collapse of the Liberal Democrat vote in the 2015 General Election brought a rare moment of clarity to British politics. With the Liberal vote leaking to the Tories in wealthier, more suburban seats and to Labour in poorer, more ethnically diverse, urban areas the result laid bare the core appeal of both Labour and the Conservatives. As the graphic below suggests the biggest predictor of voting Labour – more than any other variable measured and available by constituency – was benefit spending. The relationship between expenditure on Job Seeker’s Allowance (JSA) and the Labour vote share was remarkably strong at a correlation of 76%. Today’s contenders for the Labour leadership are acutely aware of the strength of this link, and the limitations it places on Labour becoming a movement of broad electoral appeal again. It’s not surprising therefore that the centrist contenders for the leadership have intimated the need to make overtures to voters who have limited contact with the welfare state.

Labour vote vs JSA

The challenge for the Conservatives was, and still is the opposite of Labour’s. David Cameron acknowledged this the morning after his victory with a promise to govern for “one nation”, and embrace “blue-collar Conservativism”. The “Summer” budget constituted the detail behind this aspiration, with the Chancellor firmly positioning Tories as the “party of workers” with an effective 40% rise in the minimum wage by 2020 to £9.20 and a rise in the National Insurance threshold. Behind this attempt to reposition the Tories for middle-income, working voters is an acknowledgement of their reputation as the party of the rich. Voting patterns from the election validate this impression. The biggest predictor of the Conservative vote share in any given constituency was the number of “Managers, directors and senior officials” in it. This group of managers and executives effectively comprise the richest decile of the UK working population. The strength of the relationship mirrored that between Labour and JSA spending at a correlation of 76%.


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.

The 2011 Census gave the median employment rate (full time and part time taken together) as 62.2%. In 2015 the Conservatives won only one in five seats (and a net gain of 6) in that half of the country below this median level and four out of five seats (and a net gain of 18) where the level was above it. More than two thirds of the 27 gains the Tories made from the Liberal Democrats were in these higher employment areas.

Cons vote vs employment

Three key questions

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.

The maps below show the 282 Tory seats (light blue) and 251 non-Tory seats (light red) correctly identified. Of the 49 Tory seats not picked up by this simple algorithm (dark red), 32 of them (two thirds) are in the outer London and the South East. Of the 50 non-Tory seats incorrectly identified as Conservative (dark blue), 37 (three quarters) are in central London, Scotland or the North West.

Constituency map 1

Conservative issues in Scotland, London and the North West 

The 50 seats which passed the 3 question test but failed to stay or to turn Tory can broadly be divided into three groups:  a clutch of rural Scottish seats that have long since turned Liberal Democrat before then turning SNP; a cohort of urban seats in London, some of which were lost to Labour in the recent election; and seats primarily in the North West where the Labour vote remains sticky even when demographic indicators on wealth, health and rates of home ownership would  in other parts of the country turn them Tory. Some of these seats, particularly in the North West are marginal, and they correspond closely – perhaps fortuitously – with those areas set to benefit most from the multi-billion pound investment in HS2 and George Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse plan.

Constituency map 2

Constituency map 3

Labour issues in outer London and the South East

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.

David Racadio

David is responsible for Populus's industry studies, which help clients in a range of sectors, including banking, insurance, food manufacturing, pharmaceuticals and retail, to benchmark their corporate reputations and understand the attitudes of key stakeholders that impact on their industry.

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