Saturday, May 07, 2005

Interesting Times

A few months ago I posted on why the Tories were going to be in a mess in this election. Well, I was right and wrong.

I was wrong in that the Tories have done a very good job of gaining seats at the expense of Labour. So good news from them there. I was right, however, in that they haven't increased their share of the vote at all. I've posted an update of the graph I posted before, combining General Election results with Mori Polling Records. For a larger size, click on the graph.

On the face of it, this is mixed news indeed andI think it's far less positive than Tories would like to think. A closer look at a number of seats across GB and one finds that, although the Tories gained from some canny targetting of marginals, they largely gained from a switch from Labour to the Lib Dems.

Reading East, for instance, was a Conservative Gain, with Labour losing its 5,588 majority and the Tories getting in on a 475 majority. Now, Reading East is admittedly a special constituency, with all sorts of internal problems in the local party (which led to Jane Griffiths being de-selected). Nevertheless, it's pretty obvious that Tony Page, the popular local councillor, didn't retain the Labour seat because just over 2500 people switched from Labour to the Lib-Dems, just a hundred fewer than switched towards the Conservatives. If 20% of the Lib-Dem switchers had voted Labour, Page would have won the seat.

My guess is that people had seriously entertained a Tory victory, many of them would have voted Labour. In other words, they couldn't stomach voting Labour this time and with Blair's large majority, they felt secure in switching to the Lib Dems. Next time, however, they may regard the election as less of a referendum on Blair and more as an opportunity to express simple preferences between Labour and the Conservatives. Which would be bad news for both the Tories and the Lib Dems. The Tory vote might hold, but the Lib Dem vote would fall as people switched back to Labour.

Given the UK's unfair electoral system, and if the Reading phenomenon is generally true, then this election could represent a peak in the number of Tory seats.1

One thing is certain. This time around, roughly 60% of people who voted opted for either Labour or the Lib Dems. The Conservative problem is that not many of these people might not be available to vote Conservative. And once the election becomes a real contest between the two main parties, people will switch back to Labour.

1There's a whole load of riders to this. First, the election is a long way away and we just don't know what the issues will be by then, or what the economy will be doing. Second, I haven't examined very many constituencies, so don't know exactly how widespread this phenomenon is. Third, the Tories might get their act together, reform their leadership election system, and get someone in power who can combine Howard's ruthlessness with just a smidgen of charisma.

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