Would Labour gain more by targeting Liberal Democrat or Tory voters? A new study by Lewis Baston sifts the evidence
Over the summer a debate took place within Labour circles about electoral strategy. Put simply: where should the party be focusing its energies in expanding support from the low share of the vote that it gained in 2010? Where did the voters who left Labour’s coalition during its time in government go to? And what is the best way of getting them back? The debate is ill-served by the simplistic polarisation between those who focus on the ‘missing five million’ votes that Labour lost between its landslide in 1997 and defeat in 2010, and those who argue for the party to focus on the swing voters who left Labour for the Tories in 2010. A successful strategy should use both sets of insights, complex though it is to synthesise them.
Proponents of the ‘missing millions’ thesis are right to note that, of that five million votes lost by Labour, three million people simply stopped voting, 1.5 million defected to the Liberal Democrats and only 1.1 million to the Conservatives. However, opponents of the ‘missing voters’ argument can, with some justification, point out that many of the missing voters since 1997 have been in parts of the country where there are no marginal seats. However, the following analysis focuses rigorously on the marginals that made the difference between the 358 seats and majority of 66 that Labour won in 2005 and its 2010 defeat.
Assuming there will be no boundary review before 2015, let us examine the 100 top marginal Conservative- or Liberal Democrat-held seats that Labour needs to gain relative to 2010 in order to win, and look back at the difference between the 1997 and 2010 results in these seats.
The first table opposite shows the net changes in vote between 1997 and 2010 in these constituencies, and breaks them down into the 88 Conservative and 12 Liberal Democrat marginals. Figures are rounded to the nearest thousand to reflect the imprecision that the 2005-10 boundary changes introduce.
Looking only at the 88 Conservative-Labour seats, it is clear that net additions to the Conservative vote have played a relatively small part in the Conservatives’ gains – what has happened is a slump in Labour votes, even in the constituencies where one might most expect a significant move to the Conservatives. Indeed, the Liberal Democrats have gained more votes in this group of seats than the Tories, while the gain for ‘Others’, excluding Eurosceptic parties, is nearly as big as the gain for the Tories. The biggest rise is, of course, in the number of abstentions. Among the 12 Liberal Democrat seats in the sample, there is a much clearer pattern of a direct switch from Labour to Liberal Democrat than in the Tory seats.
One can put all of this into percentage terms broken down nationally and by the top 100 marginals (see opposite). Compared to the national changes in voting behaviour, the main difference is that the Labour vote dropped rather more in the marginal seats. The benefits of this for Labour’s opponents in the Tory-Labour marginal seats were scattered between the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and abstention. In the Liberal Democrat-Labour marginals the third party gained more votes from Labour and also managed to take votes from the Tories and slightly reduce the losses to abstention. The Conservatives gained a bit more in the Tory-Labour marginals than nationally, but not hugely so – the bigger difference was in the Labour change. These numbers therefore suggest a complex pattern of loss for Labour in the Conservative-Labour marginal seats, although probably a fairly straightforward switch in the seats where Labour needs to win against the Liberal Democrats.
Let us do a little thought experiment looking at each of the Conservative-Labour constituencies. What if in each constituency the Conservative share of the electorate falls back to where it was in 1997 (remember, in terms of share of the electorate this is not a big decline) and Labour gains by the same amount? And what if we do the same in the Tory-Labour seats to the rise in the Liberal Democrat vote since 1997? Which helps Labour more in these Conservative-Labour marginals?
The answer is that the effect is pretty much the same. Thirty-four seats would fall as a result of the Tory switchers (who are fewer in number, but they ‘count double’ in gaining Tory seats as a direct switch signals one fewer for the Tories and one more for Labour), and 34 as a result of Liberal Democrat switchers. In addition, the Liberal Democrat switch would win nine of the 12 Liberal Democrat seats.
Interestingly, quite a few of the Conservative-Labour seats involved are different in each scenario, and different marginals will likely react differently to alternative political strategies. The marginal seats Labour needs to gain from the Conservatives divide into two, and possibly more, groups. There are those in which the loss of the seat does seem to have had a lot to do with people voting Conservative in 2010 who did not in 1997. From this one can reasonably conclude that regaining people who have switched to the Conservatives is a good way of winning back these seats, although there may be other movements going on, such as a move from Labour to abstention netting off against Conservatives who sat out the 1997 election but who came out to vote in 2010.
But there is another group of Tory-held seats where even if all the Conservative increment since 1997 swings over to Labour, it still would not be as useful as picking up Liberal Democrats – constituencies like Brentford and Isleworth, Gloucester and Watford, for instance. In some of these places the Conservative share of the electorate actually declined between 1997 and 2010.
There are also a considerable number of seats where the Conservative gain in votes since 1997 is either non-existent or a minor factor compared to additional votes gained by the Liberal Democrats. These seats are at the easier end of the spectrum for Labour to gain and the bulk of them are suburban areas dependent on big cities, such as Broxtowe and Pudsey. Additionally, there are a number with many new developments, like Milton Keynes South and Warrington South, and a few metropolitan liberal enclaves, such as Hove and Lancaster. These losses may be easier to recoup, as they are political rather than demographic in origin.
A very high proportion of the constituencies where the Conservatives did better at winning votes in 2010 than in 1997 fall into a few groups socially and geographically. These include: Midlands working-class town and semi-rural areas located in a central belt across Warwickshire, Staffordshire, Derbyshire and Leicestershire; traditional working-class southern seats like Chatham, Dover and Thurrock; the New Towns; and semi-rural Welsh seats.
The extent of Conservative gains in votes since 1997 in these seats reflects a couple of factors. One is that these areas have a lot of swing voters and the parties devote resources to them. Here one will find many people who wanted a Labour government in 1997 and a Tory government in 2010: places like Cannock Chase, Leicestershire North-west and Dudley South often exceed national average swings. Another is social and demographic change. Some of these seats have been trending Tory for a long time, and many of them, like the semi-rural Midlands and the New Towns, have seen new, more Conservative-inclined areas built around an older Labour core, such as Church Langley near Harlow. Electoral change resulting from social change is not easily reversible; the electorate in many of these seats is not the same as it was in 1997.
The constituencies where Conservative switchers appear to make the difference sit lower down the list of marginals than the ones that would be won by simply recouping all the Liberal Democrat gains, which suggests that merely holding Liberal Democrat converts is good enough to make it impossible for the other parties to form a non-Labour government but not enough for Labour to win a working majority. To do this the party requires voters from somewhere else, either winning Tory switchers back or recovering voters from abstention.
Numerical analysis indicates that the ‘missing millions’ problem is just as severe, if not more so, in the key marginals than it is in the country as a whole. This is somewhat unexpected, given that the hypothesis that there would be more switchers and fewer missing voters in the marginals seems a rational one. There is, then, no arithmetical reason to reject a ‘missing voters’ approach, but the issues and trade-offs involved are complex. However difficult, a synthesis between an approach which focuses on those voters Labour has lost to the Tories, Liberal Democrats and, indeed, those who have ceased to show up at the polls, remains the best way forward.
Lewis Baston is senior research fellow at Democratic Audit
Conservatives, election 2010, election 2015, Labour, Lewis Baston, Liberal Democrats