Friday, 23 May 2014

Vote 2014: smash your swingometers

For many years after the Second World War, you could represent British politics as a linear to-and-fro on a swingometer (above). You can see it in action here, from the first 1974 General Election (when Labour did much better than forecast). Sometimes Labour would be on top. Sometimes there would be a surge in the Conservative vote. There were 'floating voters' in between, who'd often vote in a few Liberals too, but in general you were Labour or you were Conservative, and Britons who were prepared to move between those two parties were electoral gold dust.

Now? Not so much. For the (very) preliminary results from last night's local council elections in England gives us a much more complicated picture. Forget all the journalistic fluff about a 'breakthrough' for, or an 'earthquake' involving, the United Kingdom Independence Party. Yes, their performance was remarkable - especially in turning votes into actual seats in council chambers. Everywhere there are lots of older male voters, whether they are prosperous post-mortgagees or poorer council estate residents, that party has surged ahead. But that's not a winning electoral coalition: Ukip are still decisively the fourth party in terms of seats and councils run.

The more important thing to look at, at least as far as the Westminster election that's just over eleven months away, is what Ukip's rise is doing to the electoral landscape. It's distorting and twisting it, so like it looks like one of those puzzles for the eye in which you can never tell where the staircases all end. In London, Labour has done very well indeed, picking up Redbridge, Merton, Hammersmith and Fulham, and the like. Outside, especially in its northern heartlands.

Let's zoom on a case study, shall we? We like those here. In Essex, Labour retreated a bit in the swing Parliamentary seat of Harlow, in the face of a strong Ukip challenge. And they lost control of Thurrock, a must-win seat in 2015. But the Conservatives have got a big old headache here, too, losing control of Castle Point, Basildon and Southend - all clear demonstrations of what happens when right-wing voters defect and split the vote at 'their' end of the ideological spectrum. Doubtless we could give hundreds more examples.

What it all means so far is this: the age of two-, three-, or even four-party politics is over forever. What we're going to be looking at is a kaleidoscopic and balkanised electoral landscape. Labour and the Conservatives are going to face off in the inner suburbs of the big cities. There are going to be Liberal Democrat 'fortresses' (or, more realistically, holdouts) where they are going to cling on, and where they may prove impossible to shift in any circumstances (hello, Eastleigh and Sutton). Ukip are going to fight for the far suburbs and some rural areas with the Conservatives, and in white working-class estates with Labour. The Greens are going to continue to do quite well in urban metropolitan areas. In Scotland and Wales, Nationalist parties are going to be a potentially decisive presence - in Scotland, probably winning a lot of ex-Liberal Democrat voters in the Highlands and Islands when we come to the General Election next year.

For political anoraks, statisicians, numerical modellers, psephologists? A dream. For everyone else? A headache.

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