Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Labour voters in the south of England – missing or voting tactically?

The East Anglian experience

Last week, I looked at the apparent extent of tactical voting in Devon, Dorset and Somerset by comparing results in the 1992 and the 2010 elections. I came to the surprising conclusion that while there was some evidence of tactical voting in Devon and Somerset at first blush, if it was taking place in Dorset, it was well hidden and that in all three counties the apparent extent of tactical voting was much less than I had expected.

How can we look behind the raw data in these three counties? At some point, I shall get to look at the demographics, but for now I want to try to compare the experience in these three counties with the experience in other counties where we can rule out tactical voting with some confidence.

As Mark Senior rightly noted in a comment to my last article, the voters in each county will have changed substantially over time – some will be dead, some will have moved away, some will not have been old enough to vote in 1992 (and a few will not even have been born then). It is a demonstrably false assumption that the replacement voters would behave exactly as the former voters would have behaved at each election. But for all that, it's a convenient starting point.

No two constituencies are exactly alike, never mind whole counties, so we need to be very careful not to over-interpret. However, Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire (East Anglia for short) have some similarities with Dorset, Devon and Somerset. All six counties are southern English and predominantly rural. It's safe to say that Labour has never looked on any of these counties as their heartlands and it does not win and lose elections here. So, with the exception of a handful of seats, it doesn't have much cause to make much effort in any of these six counties. So the rise and fall in its vote will reflect long term trends - and the success of the Conservatives and the Lib Dems in persuading its voters to defect to them for principled or tactical reasons.

In stark contrast to Devon, Dorset and Somerset, the East Anglian counties are and throughout the last twenty years have been almost completely lacking in traditional Lib Dem/Conservative marginals. Only North Norfolk even remotely fits the bill, and Norman Lamb now holds this with a massive majority. In the other two seats that the Lib Dems now hold, Cambridge and Norwich South, Labour were the previous holders and remain to this day firmly in contention in both (Labour are now a close third in Cambridge, but were second before the last election). The Lib Dems are not breathing down the Tories' neck in any seat in these three counties. So we should not expect to see any significant amount of tactical voting anywhere in East Anglia.
What do we see? In 1992, Labour held Cambridge, Ipswich and Norwich South: three out of the 20 seats in the area at the time. They did so with a total vote share of 28%. So the first thing to note is that for an area not thought of as a Labour heartland, Labour actually polled rather well, considering - its share of the vote in that election nationally was 34.4%. This is well above the level found in Devon, Dorset and Somerset at that time.

And indeed, Labour built on that success. As well as the three seats that it won in 1992, Labour subsequently held at various times Peterborough, Norwich North, Great Yarmouth, North West Norfolk, and Waveney (and came within an ace of taking Bury St Edmunds in 1997). Labour has been a strong and recent presence in these three counties.

But what of 2010? That election can only be described as a disaster for Labour in these three counties. It now does not hold a single seat in any of them (it managed to keep a foothold in both 1983 and 1987), and there are now 23 seats, owing to the population growth in the area. And it took a mere 18.8% of the vote in these three counties. Nationally, its share of the vote was 29% in 2010. Even without a calculator, it is easy to see that there has been a big falling off as compared with 1992.

If we had been looking at these figures in the south west, we would have been readily assuming that tactical voting had been taking place. We would be strongly thinking about attributing the excess swing against Labour to voters who had decided to throw their lot in with the Lib Dems to stop the Conservatives. But we know that can't be happening in East Anglia, because there are no such seats. Yet the swing is greater in East Anglia than in the south west.

Are there any special cases? Well, you might want to take North Norfolk out of the equation in 2010, where the Lib Dems have been strengthening throughout the intervening period and opposing the Conservatives without Labour featuring. And you might want to take both North West Norfolk and South East Cambridgeshire out of consideration, because the Labour candidates in 2010 both in those seats disgraced themselves. If we also strip out the seats where Labour was in serious contention in 1992 and 2010, we find that Labour polled 18.4% in the remainder of this area in 1992, but that this fell to 15.3%. This is an only slightly greater fall than the difference in the national shares between 1992 and 2010, and an entirely expected result.

A smaller swing against Labour overall in the south west between 1992 and 2010 masked a larger swing against Labour in the seats where Labour was out of contention. So that does tend to suggest that tactical voting in the south west did make a bit of a difference. But only a bit.

In East Anglia, the opposite happened. Labour suffered big falls in support in the seats where it had previously been in contention. In every seat in the area other than Ipswich, turnout increased in 2010, so it doesn't seem to be the case that Labour voters sat on their hands. They turned out to vote for other parties. In other words, it seems as though Labour really were as unpopular in East Anglia in 2010 as the raw data suggests.

We do need to look at demographics next (in both of these areas). This may shed a quite different light on the extent of any tactical voting.

In the meantime, if I were a Labour supporter I would be wondering what has happened to the Labour support in the south. "Tactical voting" is a convenient but inadequate explanation in the south west, as my last article suggests, and as we have seen, completely fails to explain what happened in East Anglia. Deeper thought is needed as to how to turn this around.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...


This is very interesting, antifrank - thank you.

I am still inclined to think that a lot of the north/south divide in party support reflects background cultural differences rather than being policy-based.

In my experience the normal manners in the north tend to be more robust or brusque than in the south; whereas what I as a southerner consider "normal politeness" has been categorised by northerners as "smarmy".

It seems to me that what makes the "obnoxious" wings of all parties objectionable is their difference from the prevailing manners of the area. Thus, I've wondered why Labour harbours such obnoxious thugs, whilst it doesn't surprise me in the least that the Conservatives harbour such obnoxious snobs - the "obnoxious snobs" being much closer to my own background culture than the "obnoxious thugs".

My apologies: I haven't explained my meaning very clearly, but perhaps you can see what I'm getting at.