Friday, 9 May 2014

Electoral geography could deny David Cameron the majority he craves

As the opinion polls tighten and the Conservative Party gets closer and closer to the main Opposition Labour Party's score, it becomes more and more likely that Prime Minister David Cameron will get another five years at No. 10 Downing Street. But he's unlikely to get there on his own, and he'll again need the help of the Liberal Democrats or smaller parties.

Why? Because the UK's rapidly accelerating economic growth is spread very unevenly - mainly in Scotland, London and some parts of the South and East. The jobs recovery is even more thinly spread, with London taking the lion's share of the improvement in the labour market. An unstable house price bubble, a run-down in the savings rate and just the beginnings of an industrial and investment pick-up are a witches' brew, unlikely to last for all that long. But they'll take the present government over the line a year from now, in the General Election of May 2015, so that's all we need to know for today.

The electoral impact is fascinating. It has led Labour down the dangerous road of ruthless targeting - of rail commuters (hello, Reading West) and privately renting tenants, both clustered in a series of winnable seats - in a recognisable but warmed-over parody of the Obama campaign's data-driven precision.

But the implications are more dangerous for the Conservatives. Organisationally and culturally, their roots have withered north of Birmingham and west of Swindon. They are clinging to outposts beyond those boundaries, even as they are led by a relatively popular and relatively plausible front man in Mr Cameron. What Welsh, Scottish and northern English voters would make of Boris Johnson as Conservative leader, I'll leave to your imagination.

The latest polls we have of northern English marginals show that the Conservatives will struggle to hold on to most of what (rather paltry) gains they made in the 2010 election. Stockton South, for instance, with a large Liberal Democrat vote for Labour to squeeze as they close in on the Conservatives' majority, must already be gone. All right, the Conservatives can hope to capture Berwick, especially as the long-standing Liberal Democrat MP, Alan Beith, is going to stand down in 2015. But insiders rightly believe that the Liberal Democrats are going to be much harder to dislodge than their national poll scores imply, partly because Labour-learning voters will assist them in holding on.

Then let's have a look at Wales, where the latest opinion polls imply that the Conservatives will lose two or three of the eight seats that they currently return MPs from the principality - so they'd be down to just five or six there. They might as well not bother with liberal, relatively affluent Cardiff North (majority: 194) for instance, and spend their money elsewhere. And Scotland? Okay, they might once more well be able to return one single MP, although if the Liberal Democrat vote collapses (and the last Scottish Parliament vote suggests that it might) Labour have a good chance of wiping them off the Scottish electoral map altogether.

It's a doleful picture, really - a Conservative-dominated government returned, possibly with a very similar number of MPs, but further weakened outside of southern and eastern England. A more disunited kingdom than ever, led by a party possibly propped up by one of Westminster's regional micro-parties. That's the thing about the maldistribution of wealth, opportunity and jobs that we've let ourselves be saddled with: sooner or later it was always bound to come back and bite those who helped cause it.

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