By Stephen Lambert and Mark McNally
Last month, after electing a Labour MP since 1935, voters in the west Cumbrian seat of Copeland picked a Conservative MP for the first time. A staggering 7% ‘swing’ from Labour to Tory delivered success for the Government in power – unheard of in the last 30 years. If repeated at a future general election Bishop Auckland, Darlington and Middlesbrough South would fall to the Conservatives.
Yet what makes the punters do this? Why have more become ‘floating’ or swing voters and will the North East’s urban voters stick with Labour?
Since the evolution of modern parliamentary democracy in the 20th century the vast majority of people identified with a particular party. Most working-class voters backed Labour and most middle –class people supported the Conservatives. People learnt their voting habits through political socialisation via the family and personal experiences at the workplace.
For decades the sense of identity was strong. ‘Partisan and class alignment’ directly affected electoral behaviour both in the North and elsewhere in the country. The urban North East remains a Labour heartland.
Back in the sixties, about one in 10 voters would change which party they voted for according to the Oxford academic Jonathan Mellon. By 2015 that was four in 10! There’s been a dramatic increase in the number of swingers.
For political scientists the last three decades have been marked by a process of ‘partisan de-alignment’ and related ‘class de-alignment’. A recent poll by You Gov reveals that Labour trails behind both the Conservatives and UKIP when it comes to working-class voters. Labour claims to be the party of the working-class. But two-thirds of working-class blue –collar and blue-blouse workers are no longer Labour.
The changing class system with the demise of manual work coupled with the growth in education partly account for such behavioural patterns. For some sociologists a large section of the affluent ‘new working class’ has become middle-class in terms of life-styles, incomes and values. Known as ‘embourgeoisement’, these workers, living in out of town modern estates, are less ‘solidaristic’ and more concerned with material self-interest. In the eighties they backed Mrs Thatcher, with her promise to extend homeownership and ‘popular share capitalism’, in their droves. It was not until the arrival of the classless Tony Blair that they returned to the re-branded modernised ‘New Labour’.
For other pundits such as Martin Harrop voting in the 21st century is based on a rational choice. Voters, he maintains, have adopted a consumer based approach to voting with class, tradition and family background no longer important. For Harrop, ‘’most citizens treat elections like a shopping expedition: they are on the look out for fresh ideas and new parties as well as the old favourites.’
Political issues influence people’s preferences for a party. Of-course the issues may change, but they do reflect individual priorities and are a defining factor on the way people vote. In the 2001 election 73% cited health care and the state of the economy as key issues which determined the way they voted. In 2016 it was membership of the EU.
The impact of party leaders plays a pivotal role too. Perceptions of their strengths and weaknesses can shape floating voters and media attention tends to focus heavily on their personalities. The telegenic PM Tony Blair was well suited to the media age and remained popular for over a decade. Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband lost badly to David Cameron in the charisma stakes. Both were seen as weak leaders by a sizeable section of a volatile electorate. Jeremy Corbyn also trails very badly in terms of leadership of the Labour Party. Even fewer trust him to run the country.
Likewise, according to political scientist David Sanders, voters make a judgement about the overall performance of the government, and as recent by-elections have shown the official opposition too. Mrs Thatcher and Tony Blair’s administrations were seen as competent and were re-elected three times in a row. And Theresa May’s Conservative government is seen as capable by 43% of the public when quizzed.
Although the North of England has undergone both significant socio-economic and cultural change millions of the region’s voters are ‘cradle to grave’ with memories of industrial history nostalgically nurtured. While Tyneside, Wearside, Co Durham and south-east Northumberland are likely to stay Labour, the de-industrialised coastal town of Hartlepool is vulnerable to a UKIP resurgence, while the marginal Cumbrian seats of Barrow and Workington could fall to the Tories on a 2% swing in an early general election.
The North East still has a distinct political culture of class based voting and tribal loyalties to the Labour Party. The message to the rest of the UK may be ‘’you swing if you want – North East voters are not for swinging.’’