This short paper, based on data, examines how the marginal constituencies which will decide the next General Election voted in the 2013 local elections.
The 2013 elections took place for the most part in the least Labour-inclined parts of England. They were disproportionately southern and rural, and as well as being areas of traditional Labour weakness they are also – on the evidence of the local elections in 2011 and 2012 – where Labour’s recovery since 2010 has been weakest. The sample of marginal seats available is therefore going to produce a more pessimistic picture for Labour than a set of local elections like 2012 which were mostly in urban areas and represented the northern metropolises, even if no votes had shifted. Even in southern England, the areas where Labour is most powerful and best-organised – Reading, Southampton and Plymouth for instance – usually had a break from local elections this year.
While Labour scored a respectable number of gains of councillors (291) since the 2009 drubbing, and took power in Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire, its share of the vote was a lot lower than in 2012 and some of the county-level and electoral division level results were disappointing. Adding up the votes in the key parliamentary constituencies (see Appendix for the necessary health warnings about this exercise) shows a similarly mixed pattern.
I shall break the Labour performances down into four loose groups: the best, the adequate, the disappointing and the Kippered.
There are several very marginal constituencies where Labour opened up a large lead over the Conservatives, indicating that the political and organisational ground work has been put in and is paying dividends. Among these were the number one target from the Conservatives, North Warwickshire, where Labour did well in getting the core vote out in Bedworth as well as polling respectable voting numbers even in some quite Conservative commuter areas of the seat. Carlisle, Ipswich and Cannock Chase also posted double-digit swings since 2010, suggesting strong potential for 2015 Labour gains. Slightly smaller swings were enough to put Labour decisively ahead in other seats – Amber Valley, Lincoln, Hastings & Rye and Erewash. There were also a few seats further down the target list where large swings put Labour ahead in the votes cast in the county elections, such as North West Leicestershire and Gravesham, a tough target that was lost in 2005. Crawley, Redditch and Loughborough also came back to Labour (narrowly, with a high UKIP vote, in Redditch).
Perhaps the best performance of all was in the rather unlikely seat of Basingstoke, where a Conservative margin of 30 percentage points over (third placed) Labour in 2010 was slimmed down to only 4 points. As well as Basingstoke there were useful gains in some other non-target southern towns such as Banbury, St Albans and Salisbury.
A 5-point swing was about average, and what was indicated by the national equivalent vote share. This would equate to Labour being about three points ahead, on the cusp of being able to win a parliamentary majority if it applied uniformly.
Labour ‘won’ a number of seats where victory might be expected given such a swing, although sometimes with margins that were uncomfortably tight or a vote share eroded by UKIP or the Greens. Among these seats were Sherwood, Nuneaton and Lancaster & Fleetwood, but swings of this magnitude are not going to be enough to overcome larger Conservative majorities of the sort to be found in Stafford, South Derbyshire or Tamworth, all seats that Labour lost in 2010 and which were still Tory in 2013.
There were a number of highly marginal seats which, on the 2013 local elections, would have stayed in the blue column. In many cases it is possible to find reasons and excuses. Several of them (Waveney, Morecambe & Lunesdale and Stroud) were difficult seats where popular Labour incumbents were narrowly defeated in 2010 and Labour’s local government candidates have not done as well (in Stroud David Drew polled 5,000 more votes than his local running mates even in 2001). In some, such as Gloucester (and Watford, where the Lib Dems were ahead) Labour habitually does worse in local elections than it does in national elections. Some others, such as Rugby and Bristol North West, saw Labour do poorly in 2013 without obvious explanation.
Looking at some of the seats Labour won in 1997 and 2001, there were some very disappointing outcomes in places such as Hemel Hempstead, Braintree and Witham where Labour did not regain any council seats after being wiped out in 2009, and weak recoveries in places like Kettering and Wellingborough.
… And the Kippered
In 2012 the UKIP vote probably helped Labour score some victories by dividing the right wing vote. But the UKIP vote in 2013 was larger and drew less exclusively from dissident Tories – it absorbed quite a lot of voters this time who were opposition-minded yet chose the populist right rather than the centre-left. In Great Yarmouth UKIP went from helping Labour win the borough council in 2012 to winning the most votes in the seat as a whole, particularly from white working class and lower middle class people who would also have been wooed by Labour. Great Yarmouth was one of about 8 or 9 constituencies where UKIP took the lead in votes in May 2013. Four of them (Aylesbury, Worthing East & Shoreham, North Thanet and Bognor Regis & Littlehampton) but the other four have been contested between Conservative and Labour. Labour came close in Boston & Skegness in 1997, and has recently won South Thanet, Forest of Dean, Camborne & Redruth and of course Great Yarmouth.
The UKIP vote seems to have put a dent in Labour’s potential strength, particularly in the east of England and in coastal towns and New Towns, places which are key to building an election winning coalition of support.
What about the Lib Dems?
For the Liberal Democrats, the county council results were disappointing and they probably lost ground in Somerset and Devon because they have previously been seen as standing up for their interests against remote, centralised power in London.
Labour’s score-card against the Lib Dems is respectable: Labour would gain Burnley and Norwich South easily, and Cambridge respectably, but fall slightly short in Bristol West. Among Labour seats with small majorities over Lib Dem, there was a huge swing to Labour in Chesterfield but a comparatively small one in Ashfield.
The Conservatives and Lib Dems, on the basis of the county results, would have traded a number of constituencies between them without any huge trend. The Tories would have won three of the four Lib Dem seats in Somerset, but – other than Wells – not by margins that should give them much confidence in a gain. The Lib Dems would probably – although the arithmetic is dubious – have lost out in west Cornwall and Lewes as well. UKIP ran them close in Eastleigh, building on their strong by-election vote. But it was roundabouts as well as swings – the Lib Dems were ahead in some seats that were Tory in 2010, such as South East Cornwall, Oxford West & Abingdon, Winchester, St Albans, Watford and Harborough. They were also holding most of their ‘free standing town’ type of seats such as Cheltenham, Colchester and Eastbourne.
Overall, the success of UKIP in some previously Conservative/ Labour two party towns, particularly on the east side of England in a band from Scarborough down to Dover, complicates the message of the 2013 elections considerably. Some Conservatives see UKIP voters as a pool of right wing, Eurosceptic votes, but only a part of the vote they achieved in the county elections and in opinion polls is of this nature. Many of them, as Labour thinkers such as John Denham have noted, are profoundly dissatisfied with the way the coalition is leading Britain but have not been persuaded by Labour’s alternative yet.
Even leaving aside the UKIP factor, the results in 2013 were not as good as they might have been for Labour. In places where a direct comparison with the 2012 local elections is possible the Labour vote often fell slightly more than the Conservative vote, producing a technical swing to the Tories since last year. This was apparent in places such as Harlow and Redditch where there were strong UKIP votes, and also in Hastings and Nuneaton & Bedworth where there were not. The turnout in these county elections, languishing in the low-30s in many of these traditionally high turnout areas, as well as the results, show that these elections were not a vote of confidence in any party.