The north/south electoral divide – myth or reality?
January 27, 2011
A relative sense of electoral complacency may be the order of the day in the Westminster village even amidst a succession of by-elections. After all, provided the coalition gets its way over constitutional reform many reckon on our still being over four years away from the next General Election.
But the imminence of a day of reckoning with the voters makes for very different sentiment away from SW1. On 5 May our Party faces Scottish Parliamentary, Welsh Assembly and widespread English local elections. 30 unitary and 126 district councils are up for full elections, whilst 36 Metropolitan Boroughs, 20 Unitaries and 68 district councils will choose one-third of their representatives.
As part of the post-mortem to both of May’s elections and this month’s contest in Oldham East & Saddleworth many political commentators have stressed again the conventional wisdom of a North/South electoral divide. The joint narrative has been ‘Cameron fails to make headway in the North’ alongside ‘Labour’s southern discomfort’. But the facts tell a different story. Indeed it might come as a surprise to many Conservatives that the vast majority of those seats recaptured by our Party last May which had been lost to Labour in or before 1992 lie north of Birmingham.
Carlisle (Labour held since 1964), Dewsbury (1983), Weaver Vale, Crewe & Nantwich, Pendle, Rossendale & Darwen and Sherwood all lie in this category alongside the West Midlands cluster of North Warwickshire, Cannock Chase and Nuneaton. In fact of the now Tory-held seats we had last won in the 1980s only Ipswich, Kingswood and Thurrock can really be regarded as in ‘the South’.
By contrast seats such as Exeter, Southampton Test and both Luton constituencies, resolutely Conservative up until 1997, were not regained this time round. The same applies to no fewer than nine constituencies in London (granted that two sets of boundary changes in the interim make absolute comparisons an inexact science).
Needless to say Scotland remains the other key exception that proves the rule! Having held eleven seats north of the border (out of 72) in 1992 we have won only three contests there in the past four General Elections. This time out not only were we unable to add to our solitary seat (out of 59 under current boundaries) but in virtually every target seat whether challenging Labour, Lib Dem or SNP incumbents our position deteriorated.
So the North/South partisan electoral political divide has (in England at least), if anything, slightly reversed over the past 20 years and as a London MP I recognise that this phenomenon has been especially pronounced in the Capital. Indeed the 2010 General Election was the first contest since 1951 that the Party securing most seats in the country did not also do so in the Capital. Whilst in 1992 when we were some seven percentage points ahead of Labour nationally, we also ‘won’ London by 8% (even in 1992 London proved a relatively disappointing Tory battleground – at that election 10 seats were lost to Labour, in six of which we are today languishing in third place).
Yet in 2010 with an almost identical seven point lead nationally, we trailed Labour in London by two percentage points. In short, over the past 18 years there has been a five percent swing in the Capital from Conservative to Labour. Instinctively I believe that this demographic shift is, if anything, accelerating as the population in the suburbs become as hypermobile and hyperdiverse as the city centre. It also has profound implications in predicting the political battleground that will face us in London during the 2010s and 2020s.
Even amongst seats that Conservatives won in 1992 there is a group on current boundaries that must now be regarded as beyond our reach. Hayes & Harlington, Edmonton, Mitcham & Morden, Croydon North and Ilford South (the latter pair were notional Tory holds in 1992) were already in this category before 6 May last. In all candour we should now probably add Ealing North, Brent North and possibly Harrow West (although all three of these seats have had negative boundary changes they would still have been comfortably Tory-held in 1992 but have seen swings of between 13 and 17% to Labour since then) to the list.
Naturally we reap the upside rewards of this rapid urban population change in our enhanced electoral performance in Hertfordshire, Essex and North Kent, as well as in Warwickshire and several seats, either side of the Pennines, for example. But we may need to accept in a hard-headed way that demographic change is something of a one-way street in London as well as other urban centres.
The more accurate partisan-political divide is perhaps between urban and non-urban. This also applies to Greater Manchester and in cities such as Leeds, Sheffield and Newcastle where we clearly have gone backwards in the past two decades. Whilst it might otherwise be too soon to suggest that the Conservatives are on the road to recovery ‘back in the North’, our overall regional position is in fact showing distinct signs of improvement.