With under 100 days to go until the 2015 general election, here are three lessons from our marginals.
Small parties will disrupt outcomes
Nationally, UKIP are polling at 15% and the Greens around 10%. Labour and the Conservatives are neck and neck with approximately 30% each. Of course, patterns vary widely between constituencies, and will change before the election. UKIP led Lord Ashcroft’s most recent polls in Thurrock and South Thanet; though whether this will translate into an outright win is highly uncertain. But a tiny increase in support for a small party can completely change the outcome of a local contest, if the difference in popularity between the leading parties is marginal.
In 2010 there were 42 UK constituencies with majorities in or below the 100s. The smallest margin outside Northern Ireland, in Hampstead and Kilburn, was also just 42. Although constituency populations vary widely, the average number of voters in each is around 68,000. It would only take a tiny swing from one of the major parties to UKIP or the Greens – in the region of 1 percent in many cases – to change a seat’s outcome. Even if small parties don’t gain seats in 2015, their increased prominence and potential for volatile changes in support will significantly disrupt both local election narratives and the final result.
Incumbency works both ways
There’s a large body of academic literature on the advantages of incumbency when contesting an election, particularly with reference to the United States. The evidence is hardly counterintuitive. Local MPs enjoy the resources that come with their office: the publicity attached to official functions, automatic invites to more community events than they can attend, name recognition and the experience of having successfully stood in the most recent election. MPs are more likely to have been active in the local area for a longer period of time — for example through community surgeries and participation in events that put them in the national spotlight.
But casting our thoughts back to the early years of this Parliament, MPs have been dogged by expenses scandals; Liberal Democrat MPs — many of whom had their first taste of national office in 2010 — have eroded their core vote by joining the coalition; members of the governing parties are associated with austerity; and official duties can impede campaigning, with PPCs often free to devote their working week exclusively to electioneering. Both incumbents and candidates from the major parties have the added disadvantage of association with the “Establishment” — a dirty word for 2015 which has become a major driver of UKIP support in some areas. Incumbency will be an important factor for each local contest, but whether it manifests itself as an advantage or a disadvantage will vary across the country.
Local factors can tip the scales
Local and national discourses around election time inform one another: failings at one hospital or care home can ignite a national debate about the state of the NHS, and ongoing debates about national immigration can cause opinion and voting shifts in constituencies almost untouched by immigration. We all know that perceptions of leaders, the state of the national economy and views on Britain’s relationship with the EU — among a multitude of important national narratives — will matter in 2015. But each region and each seat has idiosyncracies which, where the margins are small, can easily nudge the balance one way or the other.
In Scottish constituencies, local support for the SNP in areas which voted Yes in 2014 has not abated. Across Wales, responses to the Labour-run Welsh Government are intermeshed with perceptions of Westminster parties. In constituencies like Birmingham Edgbaston the NHS is a large employer as well as a public service and symbol of Britishness. Across several of our constituencies, local planning and infrastructure dominates political discussion. Drastic changes — or absence of positive change — in local environments provide an ongoing source of controversy. Local politicians tend to be deeply implicated, either personally or by party association, in past grievances and future proposals. Local issues often have an immediate and clearly discernible impact on voters’ lives which some of the national headlines lack.
Looking forwards, drilling down
With less than 100 days to go, it’s become roundly accepted that the jury is out on 2015’s result. Fragmentation is rapidly becoming the byword for 2015, the product of which may be impossible to forsee. But understanding the electorate’s volatility in 2015 requires a grasp of factors that go beyond discussions of the national mood — and expose the often quite disconnected narratives that aggregate to form a trend.