Thursday, 12 October 2017

General Election 2022: the open battlefield

So. Let’s pick up the threads then, shall we? Not because we really want to, or because measuring the height of Britain’s present tsunami of political untruth and incompetence gives us much pleasure. But because what is there to do, if you’re a contemporary historian or political scientist, but to map and measure the precise depth of the hole we’ve gotten ourselves into? So, with something of a heavy heart, let’s start this year’s efforts with a little underarm bowling: after the unexpectedly close result of this year’s UK General Election (above), how does the electoral landscape lie?

Here’s the headline: it’s really, really open. Next time is likely to look much more like a war of manoeuvre than a grit-your-teeth battle in the trenches. There are more seats with tiny majorities than there have been for many, many years. Not only that: under the surface, the composition of the two major parties’ coalitions is changing quite rapidly, shifting on the basis of age, social attitudes and cultural change reflected in, not just caused by, the great Brexit crisis that is still breaking upon us. There are quite a few Labour seats that are gradually going blue, and many, many Conservative MPs should be looking over their shoulders at an opposite and (at the moment) even greater red tide.

In an age without much in the way of clear-cut class profiles, how you vote seems less and less related to your wealth and work. Those categories are outdated, in any case. Who’s to say, for instance, that a precariously-employed computer coder is any more or less part of that sloppily-conceptualised and now hard-to-define group 'the working class' than a self-employed carpenter or plumber? Many blue collar workers outside of South-East England will have much, much higher disposable incomes than young and apparently thriving professionals in London. Whose thinking is really, really ‘Labour’? The seventy-year-old ex-factory worker in Lincolnshire who owns his own house outright, or the thirty-year-old graduate mortgage broker renting out a tiny room in South-East London? Who’s got more, well, capital? Who’s more likely to look upon the status quo with some favour? The question answers itself – one area among quite a few where the Corbynites have a point.

It's all eerily reminiscent of the politics of the United States, which has similarly shifted over the past two or three decades from economically-motivated voting to values-based political choice. Once, that big splash of red that Donald Trump slapped all over the Upper Midwest would have been pretty unthinkable outside a really huge wave year like 1984. Lose Wisconsin? Michigan? Pennsylvania? They hadn’t been prised out of Democrats’ hands in presidential elections since the 1980s. But wrestled away they still were in 2016, partly because of… you guessed it, older white voters who had become very, very unhappy with immigration in particular, and cultural change in general. On the other side, one day pretty soon growing suburban (and highly-educated) white enclaves in the South are going to unite successfully with African-Americans and Latino voters in Georgia, Arizona and even Texas to form a powerful new element in American politics. They’re going to push those states strongly towards the the Democratic column.

It’s all going to look the same in Britain, if we keep going down this path. If liberal, cosmopolitan, younger Remainers continue to pour both out of London and into the Labour camp, while more conservative, more nationalistic, older Leavers bring the shutters down in the towns and villages of Middle England, much of England's non-metropolitan North might keep on going blue, while the towns and cities in a great big circle around the nation’s capital get redder and redder. In this respect the openness of the electoral battlefield right now might only be a passing fizzle: one day both Reading seats could be rock-hard Labour, while Ashfield goes true-blue Conservative.

By way of example, let’s zoom in and take a look at one cluster of working class Labour seats that used to have really big majorities: Don Valley’s Caroline Flint saw a swing of nearly five per cent against her last time, and it was a similar story in nearby Bassetlaw (4.3 per cent), Chesterfield (4.9 per cent), Rother Valley (6.3 per cent) and Bolsover (7.7 per cent). The contrast with Sheffield Central, just a few miles away, is striking: here there was a 7.1 per cent swing to Labour, not to the Conservatives. Many mid-sized towns with relatively high numbers of left-behind voters and older people are trending towards the Conservatives; anywhere where there are cities full of younger people, students and thirtysomethings, Labour is growing like topsy.

In a strange way, polarisation around age and social attitudes, as opposed to social class, is making the electoral playing field flatter. Older (or younger), and socially conservative (or liberal) voters are less tightly clustered together than working-class or wealthier Britons. Combine that with the near-irrelevance of the Liberal Democrats in some areas, and you have a First Past the Post 'balance' that looks like a Buckaroo pony made of Jenga.

So just a one per cent swing to Labour will see them capture twenty-one more seats. That would almost certainly put them in office (though perhaps not in power) given that thirteen of those gains would be from the Conservatives: they and their Democratic Unionist allies would then represent ‘only’ 315 seats, not quite enough to cling to No. 10. But a mere one per cent swing to the Conservatives will on the other hand net them nineteen seats, fifteen of them Labour, and gift them an overall majority of 22 – easily enough to govern for another five years, especially with DUP support. So there are 41 seats on a truly thin knife-edge.

There’s an even more precarious electoral balance when you consider that there are another twenty six seats – nine under attack from the Conservatives, and seventeen by Labour – within the range of change given just another one per cent swing. So the two main parties are looking at a grand total of 67 seats precariously placed just a two per cent swing away from them. By way of contrast, there were only 33 such seats leading up to the 2017 election. Some of these (eight within the one per cent range) are in Scotland, partly because Scottish seats are quite small, with a rather low 2017 turnout, but also because some of them are a four-way fight where the gap between first and second is partly governed by the distance between second and third, or even third and fourth. But most of these constituencies are in England. Right now, we wouldn’t want to say what would happen to many of them. Just a tiny move, in one direction or the other, could change everything.

Some very crude targets do, however, emerge from this analysis. There were pretty massive swings to Labour in Chipping Barnet last time, taking the London Labour effect right out into the suburbs. Labour did extraordinarily well in Norwich North, too, as the whole of that city gradually turns red. It must be pretty likely that those seats will go Labour next time. On the other hand, the Conservatives should be taking aim at the (aforementioned) Ashfield as well as Bishop Auckland, where they made up absolutely miles on the red team last time, getting very close to previously hard-to-see gains in those supposedly ‘Labour’ parts of Nottinghamshire and County Durham.

In the short-term, these trends probably favour Labour. They’ve got some really massive majorities to fall back on in the ex-industrial, low-income heartland seats where this effect is geared at its highest. The Conservatives didn't get very far in many areas (parts of Wales, for instance) that could well be described in just that way, though polls taken before their campaign fell apart suggested that they would. The extra Brexit rocket fuel enjoyed by Conservatives in these areas might fade if leaving the European Union goes really wrong: many Leavers were not habitual voters anyway, and the failure of many of them to turn up again in 2017 really hurt the Conservative cause. Labour’s newly-socialist image might give them some extra margin for error here, at least until the reality of Labour’s programme in government is revealed as basically lots more spending on universalist welfare programmes popular with those southern middle-class voters who found them so alluring last time.

And, of course, there’s the point that Labour’s polling position has continued to get a little bit better since the election – at least relative to the Conservatives. The Tories' apparent obsession with Brexit isn't going to help them win back those open, internationalist, relaxed under-50s with whom Labour seems fairly popular. More tactically, Labour's also got lots of new, and usually local, MPs in place in their own marginals, while most of the Conservatives on this chessboard are longer-serving Parliamentarians who won’t be boosted by voters’ new familiarity with second-timers. In that situation, you’d expect the two massive heavy dancers of British politics to pass each other at different speeds. Labour, simply put, has a bit of momentum. Yes, they’ll do relatively badly in some older manufacturing towns and mining areas, but that won’t matter as the rising tide lifts all their boats (or, in this painfully extended metaphor) prevents them listing too dangerously.

Next time, we’re going to look at all the reasons why a Corbyn government, or at least a Corbyn-led government, now looks rather likely. It’s certainly in way below a 50/50 shot right this minute. Look a little closer at the polling data, and for instance ICM’s most recent cross-breaks (opens as PDF) do indeed show Labour piling up votes in its new marginals, while the Conservatives fall back a little in seats where they have very, very little margin of safety. And London’s demographics will continue to scatter Labour voters far and wide until large numbers of houses-for-rent get built there (so: forever).

Such trends won’t last for all time. Yes, cities such as Bristol and Exeter are probably lost to the Conservatives for a long time to come. Their denizens’ entire outlook on life, including their social mores, are just too far distant from an ageing and distrustful Conservative selectorate’s core principles, barring some sudden eruption like a Ruth Davidson leadership. But elsewhere? Before long, the slow remorseless crawl that’s been so noticeable over the last decade or so could well just keep on going. Working class Britons, particularly those angry or sceptical about immigration, increasingly look to the Right: social liberals, as well as graduates and professionals, are more and more attracted to the Left. Lots and lots of the likely Labour gains at the 2022 General Election would be vulnerable to a quick snapping-back of stretched ideological sinew. Look across southern England: the Swindon and Southampton seats, which we’re picking here pretty much at random, could well be the subject of a complex demographic tug-of-war for years to come. This battlefield could be very, very open for a decade or more.

For now, the main message is this: get ready for some apparently ‘strange’ results next time. That chequerboard of 67 very marginal seats? It could look like splatter from a Jackson Pollock paintbrush come 2022. Labour’s going to grab the imagination of some really quite wealthy places full of young people, social liberals and graduates. All things being equal, and assuming that their recent collective panic doesn’t gain a real hold, the Conservatives could well continue to make progress amidst all those many Britons who don’t much care for the new urban renaissance. You might well sit there on election night saying ‘What’s going on? Truro and Falmouth has gone Labour and loads of South Yorkshire’s going Conservative’. If you’ve read and pondered all of the above, you’ll be forewarned – and forearmed.

Please note: given present workloads, ‘Public Policy and the Past’ will appear only monthly during the academic year 2017/18. Hopefully, we can go back to writing a little bit more frequently in 2018/19, and heaven knows there’ll probably be enough to write about. We’ll try to write at a little bit more length than in recent years, trying to get our teeth into some really big issues at greater length. No guarantees on that front, though, unfortunately. In the meantime, let’s just hope we don’t have a referendum or an election for twelve months, eh? It doesn’t seem too much to ask.