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Moving the dial. How Britain swung last year

March 13th, 2018

Mansfield, Kensington, Canterbury and Stoke-on-Trent South: when political commentators wanted to demonstrate the weird and conflicting swings that took place at the last general election, that quartet’s names kept being brought up. That’s all well and good, but there has been surprisingly little interest in the broader picture.

So I have taken the time to put together a map of the swings in Britain, which you can see above. It is interactive, so you can zoom in on specific areas where the seats aren’t easy to see otherwise (like London or the Scottish Central Belt).

I hope that it is fairly intuitive. The key is as follows:

A – no swing (less than 1% either way)
B – swing of under 5% to Labour
C – swing of 5-10% to Labour
D – swing of over 10% to Labour
E – swing of under 5% to the Conservatives
F – swing of 5-10% to the Conservatives
G – swing of over 10% to the Conservatives
H – swing of under 5% to the Lib Dems
I – swing of 5-10% to the Lib Dems
J – swing of over 10% to the Lib Dems
K – swing to the Greens
L – swing to others

The map, as you can see, looks very different from the traditional political map that we are familiar with. The map is dominated by the pink colour indicated by a 1-5% swing to Labour: that is to be expected, since the national swing was just over 2% to Labour. Nevertheless, the predominance of pink should not be overlooked. Perhaps the swings in 2017 weren’t that weird after all.

Both main parties seem to have been pretty inefficient in targeting last time, spending a lot of time preaching to the choir. The Conservatives didn’t need a 5% swing to themselves in Boston & Skegness and Labour already had an iron grip on York Central without a 10% swing on top. If either main party was effectively focusing on winnable seats, it’s not obvious from this map.

You will note that I have no code for swings to the SNP. None was needed. As can be seen from the map, the story was one of carnage for them, with 10% swings in favour of both the Conservatives and Labour quite routine. Labour benefited in the Central Belt while elsewhere the Conservatives dominated in Scotland. The SNP need to work out how to stop the rot.

You can still see London on the map. It’s that angry splodge of deeper red shades in the south east. London Conservatives will be hoping that it’s fixable and related to the concerns of youngish Londoners about housing. Personally, I can’t see why housing should have been the vote driver. It looks much more likely to be anger about Brexit. That, awkwardly for the Conservatives, is much less fixable given it’s their main policy plank.

There are just 19 seats south of the Severn and the Wash that saw a meaningful swing to the Conservatives. Of those 19, six were seats where a former incumbent from the Lib Dems or UKIP hadn’t stood again. It seems that the Conservatives found a message calculated to undermine their stranglehold in the south. The Conservatives should be very worried about that rash of deeper red in urban seats around London. It looks as though a clutch of seats are acting as exurbs of London, particularly north and west of the capital and on the south coast. The alarm bell should be sounding loud.

Immediately north of the Severn-Wash line and it’s a different story. (Bear in mind that there was a national swing to Labour, so even seats with no swing represent relative outperformance by the Conservatives.) In a band that stretches from the northern fringes of Birmingham to the Lincolnshire coast, the Conservative message obviously fared better. Even the People’s Republic of South Yorkshire found more people willing to mark the blue box (if not fly the blue flag).

North of that, the story flips back. You could walk on a band of seats that meaningfully swung to Labour from Anglesey to the North Yorkshire coast with particularly heavy swings south and east of Manchester and around Leeds. But in the most northernmost English seats, the trend is once again towards the Conservatives. Forget a north-south divide, England has swung in stripy way (largely to Labour’s benefit).

Wales is a microcosm of England. South Wales swung very like southern England while North Wales swung very like Lancashire and North Yorkshire (in Labour’s favour in both cases). Meanwhile, the mid-Welsh seats behaved more like the English midlands. The net balance greatly favours Labour.

It’s important not to get too carried away. Many of the unusual swings were recorded in safe seats. Labour are not imminently going to take Huntingdon and Bolsover looks like a big ask for the Conservatives next time too. Much of the shifts are caused by erstwhile Lib Dems and kippers getting behind whichever of the big two they like the look of best. Often the other main party saw a rise in vote share even as they saw a swing against them.

Nevertheless, the patterns on this map might suggest how Britain’s electoral landscape might be evolving. The battle for 2022 will need to factor them in.

Alastair Meeks

PS – Many thanks to PBer Viewcode for their assistance in creating the above map.