Britain’s electoral map is changing in this too-close-to-call election, writes Sunder Katwala. Our fragmenting party system and shifting electoral geography has made the 2015 General Election a battle on many different electoral fronts. One thing that has been less noticed is that the geographic frontlines of the battle between the two major parties has also shifted considerably too from a generation ago.
Our new analysis, revealing the ‘Kingmaker’ seats that could decide who becomes PM next month, also shows how the changing nature of British society may be reflected in our politics too. The election will no longer be decided by ‘Worcester Woman’, the median voter on whom parties focused their attention in general elections from 1997 to 2010, but by voters in a broad range of seats that cover north and south, urban and rural, and with voters who are socially liberal and conservative, young and old, white and from ethnic minorities. The identity of our prime minister looks set to be decided by a group of seats that is much more representative of modern Britain in its entirety – and a party seeking to govern the country will need to find a way of finding common ground across as many of these different voters as possible.
Our Kingmaker seats analysis took a snapshot of the election battleground on April 15th 2015, after the publication of the party manifestos. Betting odds mirrored the polls, where David Cameron and Ed Miliband virtually neck-and-neck, with each party the local constituency race favourite in 277 and 274 seats. Most commentators agree with YouGov’s Peter Kellner that the complex political arithmetic of a hung parliament suggests that the Conservatives are likely to need a 20-seat lead in order to lead the next government. David Cameron would need to take eight of the seats currently tipped to go to Labour to have a viable chance of surviving a confidence vote.
This analysis uses Ladbrokes betting odds to identify the dozen seats where the two parties are hardest to separate: the dozen Tory-held marginal seats in which Labour is most narrowly the favourite over the Conservatives. In each of these seats, constituency polling by Lord Ashcroft has shown narrow Labour leads the last time there was a seat-specific poll, which the Conservatives will hope to overhaul by election day in constituencies that all look ‘too close to call’.
These Conservative-Labour marginals count ‘double’ in the tally between the other parties. Both parties do certainly face significant battles on other fronts – such as the SNP threatening to sweep almost every Scottish seat, and several Conservative-LibDem marginals, particularly across the south-west – yet the party politics of a hung parliament look set to make those races less directly influential than the blue versus red marginals over whether a minority government or coalition could survive its first confidence vote.
So what are these dozen ‘Kingmaker’ seats that will decide who ends up in No.10?
- Harrow East (Con 45.7% to win, Lab 50.7%): The only Conservative-held seat in which most voters are ethnic minorities, and one where a third of voters are under 34.
- Wirral West (Con 45.4% to win, Lab 52.8%): This leafy and affluent north-west constituency is 95% white British. Employment minister Esther McVey must battle to reverse a five-point poll lead for her Labour opponent Margaret Greenwood, a former teacher.
- Northampton North (Con 44.5% to win, Lab 48.6%): The East Midlands seat has voted for the winning party in every General Election since 1974. This urban constituency, containing the new university, is now 15% non-white: nearly 10,000 minority voters make it the 150th most ethnically diverse seat in Britain.
- Cannock Chase (Con 32.9% to win, Lab 38.2%, UKIP 27.9%): The intervention of UKIP, polling nearly a third of the vote, has made this 97% white British seat an unpredictable three-way contest.
- Ipswich(Con 44.2% to win, Lab 51.4%):A third of voters here are under 34 and there are just under 9,500 ethnic minority voters.
- City of Chester (Con 43.3% to win, Lab 54.4%): The market town on the Welsh border is 96% white British and has often returned a Conservative MP, though a recent constituency poll showed an 8.5% swing to Labour.
- Stockton South (Con 43.3% to win, Lab 54.5%): Stockton South in the north-east of England has voted for the governing party in the last six general elections since 1987, by just 332 votes in 2010. Lord Ashcroft’s latest poll showed a 5% Labour lead.
- Ealing Central and Acton (Con 43.1% to win, Lab 54.2%): Potentially the King of the Kingmaker seats: at number eight in the Kingmaker list, the voters of West London could be the ones who give David Cameron the 19-20 seat lead that he needs to stay in No10, or who tip the balance in favour of his Labour challenger Ed Miliband. With over one-third of voters from an ethnic minority, it is the sixth most ethnically diverse Conservative-held seat. 13.4% of the electorate is Muslim.
- Brighton Kemptown (Con 40.7% to win, Lab 54.8%):Kemptown, which has voted for the winning party in every General Election since 1979, is believed to be the seat with the largest number of gay voters in the country. The affluence of the constituency makes it a Conservative-held marginal seat targeted by Labour, one which also has a significant Green presence around Falmer University.
- Nuneaton (Con 40% to win, Lab 55.6%): At around 1am on May 8th, Nuneaton, in the heart of England, is expected to be the first marginal seat to declare a result. David Cameron and Ed Miliband will be watching closely to find out whether or not the exit polls are correct.
- Keighley (Con 42.7% to win, Lab 52.1%): This Yorkshire Moors seat with a sizeable Pakistani Muslim community has sometimes had tense race relations. The BNP targeted the area over the last decade – and its political demise will not be regretted.
- Croydon Central (Con 40% to win, Lab 57.3%): The fifth-most ethnically diverse Tory-held seat with over 18,000 black voters and over 10,000 Asian voters. Conservative Gavin Barwell has been a vocal advocates of his party’s need to engage with ethnic minorities but faces a tough challenge against Labour’s Sarah Jones if polling, suggesting a strong London swing leftwards, is borne out on May 7th.
What do the Kingmaker seats tell us about the election? The list comprises a remarkably varied group of swing constituencies and the challenge for the competing political parties is therefore to broaden their appeal beyond existing partisan support, in these local races as well as nationally.
Young, first-time voters might particularly matter to leaders who are trying to break a stalemate. So might ethnic minority voters, who have moved from the margins to the mainstream: five of the twelve Kingmaker seats are among the country’s most ethnically-diverse constituencies, not least the pivotal Ealing Central and Acton.
Yet a party seeking to govern will need to have a broad appeal, across seats that are highly diverse and also those with little diversity at all. The shifting political centre-ground means that a wider range of voters than a generation ago might find themselves being courted by the political parties – perhaps better representing the country they are seeking to govern.
There will be many other constituencies where leaders and candidates will be biting their nails on election night. Through the twists and turns of the final weeks of the campaign, the political party which does find an appeal to secure the Kingmaker seats can expect to find itself leading Britain’s next government.
Read the full background briefing note here.