Swing High

3 August 2023

Swing High

by J.R. Thomas

Sometimes you have to laugh at the national press.  There they were, all ready with articles about the imminent demise of Toryism, the certain ousting of Rishi, and the rise and rise of Starmer’s Labour, when on Friday 21st July the roof fell in.  Well, maybe sagged along the ridge rather than falling in, but nevertheless reality rather got in the way of media mainstream opinion.  The Conservatives held Boris’s old seat at Uxbridge! Labour won Selby! The LibDem’s took Somerton!  This was too complex for some commentators who just tweaked their original prognostications of Tory doom and published anyway.  But a few moments consideration of the actual results reveal that all is not quite what it seems.

Interpretation of election results is cursed by Peter Snow, that otherwise delightful political commentator, now retired.  Every election night, there he was, rumpled and wild haired but indefatigable in the TV studio, with by his side a large arrow, the swingometer, home made in the early days but electronic later, which would show the swing, adjusted as the results came in.  The swing was Conservative to Liberal, or Labour to Conservative, or Screaming Lord Sutch to Monster Raving Loony.  The swing was the thing.  Right from the first results the rampaging arrow would start to predict the outcome of the electoral struggle.  Very rarely did it get the majority forecast correct, and most times the prediction of a majority in the hundreds would end up with an actuality much less (Tony Blair in 1997 was a rare exception). But it always got the trend.

Snow did not invent the swing; he was merely a talented mesmerising operator of the arrow.  The concept was invented, or at least popularised, by David Butler, a distinguished Oxford academic and psephologist who died last year aged 98, and thus had seen a lot of elections and studied many of them.  The “swing” was a piece of shorthand he suggested to indicate how the votes were moving from one party to another and which could thus be used as a predictor of electoral outcomes.  It caught on rather more than it should and now every journalist, whatever their insights into political behaviour, goes with the swing.  We are all swingers now, you might say.

Except the swing is often misleading in the extreme.  It suggests that the population often changes its voting habits from one party to another.  But research belies that (research in this area is notoriously difficult because of the secrecy of the ballot box and the public’s tendency to be tight-lipped or even fib about their voting habits); but not many people do actually change their party loyalties, and if they do, it tends to be permanent. There are certainly by-elections where voters wish to register a protest, so desert their traditional party loyalty and vote for, usually, the candidate of another party judged most likely to win.  Amersham two years ago was an example of that, where a safe Tory seat went LibDem as a protest against Tory planning policies and particularly the devastation of the Chiltern landscape by the construction of HS2.  (Worth a visit to the area to see that devastation even today.)

But generally, people do not change their party loyalties; what they do is to stay at home and not vote.  Selby is a prime example of this; Labour won with a majority of just over 4,000 votes.  The swing was 23% which sounds resounding.  But Selby (a market town in Yorkshire) is a large rural seat and usually safe for the Conservatives.  In the 2019 general election 56,000 voters turned out and 34,000 of them voted Conservative, who won with a majority of 20,000.  Labour were second with 14,000 votes.  This time Labour won the seat with 16,000 votes, just 2,000 up on their total in 2019, the Conservative turnout was 12,000.  No other candidate had more that 1,800 votes (the Green).  The LibDems sank from 4,600 to just under 1,200. No evidence of a LibDem revival there and all the signs are that the Conservative voters were on the beach or stayed in to watch cricket. 

At Somerton, a market town in Somerset, also with a large rural spread, the picture was the same, except this time with a LibDem victory.  The LibDem vote went from 17,000 in 2010 to 21,000 this time.  The turnout dropped from 2019’s 64,000 to 38,000.  The Conservative vote fell from 36,000 to 10,000 (29% swing against).  The Greens were third with 4,000; Labour fell from 8,000 to 1,000.  That is not a result Keir Starmer is going to treasure.

But Mr Sunak might, if properly advised on the meaning of those two by-elections, be feeling not too bad.  His voters are not going somewhere else, but simply voting with their feet – by not using their feet.  It’s a Tory protest but not a robust one.  In a general election a lot of those stay-at-homes will tick Conservative. The trick is to maximise those returnees – either by giving them a positive reason to vote Conservative, perhaps by reverting to more traditional Conservative policies of smaller government, lower taxation, a more traditional approach to education and social matters, emphasising defence, maybe even filling in a few potholes; that sort of thing; or by making them frightened of the alternative.  

This column has long argued that Keir Starmer is a more impressive than the mainstream media will often admit; and as the next general election date approaches, he continues to do the right things for a Labour victory.  But can he keep control of his party?  Or might he suffer the same defenestration suffered by Andrew McIntosh which brought Ken Livingstone to control of the Greater London Council in May 1981?  It is not impossible and might well frighten many Tory voters into getting back with Rishi. Livingstone is 78 now but Jeremy Corbyn is a youthful 74 (just remarking). We discount any LibDem threat until they find a leader whose name somebody, anybody, can remember.

But… but Uxbridge.  A Conservative victory; and a sort of consolation for the departed Mr Johnson, not so detested by his electors as some thought, perhaps.  The Conservative vote fell from 25,000 to just under 14,000 (swing against 7%); Labour’s from 18,000 to 13,400. Nobody else scored anything significant and Laurence Fox beat the LibDem (both lost their deposits). The turnout was down from 48,000 to 31,000.  The reason surely for the outcome was a special factor protest – against the bizarre strategy of Mayor of London Sadiq Khan determined in his intention to charge a daily fee for older and cheaper motor vehicles in Greater London– that’s not how he sells it but that’s what it is – in spite of evidence that it will make little or no difference to pollution, and that it is hugely unpopular.  Keir may sort that one in time for the next election (hopefully he noticed the leader of the local Labour Party resigned immediately after the by-election, calling for the return of Jeremy Corbyn).  But Rishi needs to grab the initiative in his appeal to the seething suburbs.  Maybe follow Mrs T’s bold example and get rid of the pointless Greater London Authority (ex Council) again?

All in all, disappointments all round and no enthusiasm for any party. Certainly, not a disaster for the Tories; more of a formal warning.  Will Rishi heed it?

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