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Changing Geographical Patterns in British Elections?

Submitted by on April 25, 2013 – 2:14 am 13 Comments |  
Britain 2010 Election Wikipedia MapAn interesting article in this week’s Economist examines Britain’s north/south electoral divide. The south, baring London, habitually votes for the Conservative Party, whereas the north generally opts for Labour. The article, quoting John Hobson, traces the division back to the 1800s, when a “southern ‘Consumers England’ of leisurely suburbs” was opposed to “a northern ‘Producers England’ of mills and mines.” The author claims that regional political disparities were reduced from the 1920s to the 1960s, but subsequently strengthened again. As the article notes:

The return of the split reflects the diverging economic experiences of the two halves of the country. Beginning in the 1960s changing industrial fortunes drove a wedge between the manufacturing-oriented north and the services-heavy south.

Over the years the Conservative Party has been expelled from most of the north of England (and almost all of Scotland). Labour has been virtually driven from the south. … The differences between them now go beyond economic circumstance—their cultural and political identities are ever more distinct. This represents a daunting but inescapable political challenge.

Britain 2010 Election Map CartogramOn a conventional electoral map, the north/south division outlined in the Economist article is rather vague. In recent elections, the Conservative Party has indeed carried most of the south, but it has also won many constituencies (as British electoral districts are termed) in northern England, some by strong margins. This pattern is clear on both the Wikipedia map posted above and the Electoral Geography 2.0 map posted here. Note that these figure, like most British electoral maps, use red for the left (Labour Party), blue for the right (Conservative Party), and yellow for the vaguely centrist (left-libertarian? center-left?) Liberal Democrats. On the Electoral Geography 2.0 map, purple indicates the Scottish National Party, and green the Welsh Nationalists (Plaid Cymru). The Green Party, which took one constituency, gets a different shade of green.

The general geographical patterns of the 2010 general election are clear. Labour was victorious in much of metropolitan London, in south Wales, in the industrial cities and mining areas of the Midlands and the north, and in the Scottish lowlands. The Liberal Democrats did well in the Scottish Highlands, in parts of central Wales, and across much of southwestern England, especially Cornwall. The Scottish Nationalist Party took a few areas in northwestern and northeastern Scotland, just as the Welsh nationalists took a few in western Wales. In England as a whole, and especially in the southeast, the blue hue of the Conservative Party dominates.

Britain 2010 Economist Election MapBut as The Economist article explains, such mapping can be misleading, as it does not take into account population disparities:

On ordinary electoral maps the north-south divide is not as plain as it might be. Rural British constituencies are both big and nearly always represented by a Conservative or a Liberal Democrat. Thus swathes of the country will appear blue and yellow come what may. And Northern Ireland is represented by parties not seen elsewhere. If you look just at the mainland, though, and equalise the size of the constituencies, the binary reality becomes obvious (see map). Save for a belt of Tory hills and dales across North Yorkshire and the Lake District, the north is red—as are, barring nationalists, Wales and Scotland. The south is deep blue, strikingly so in the surrounds of London (it gets more Liberal Democrat to the west). Only in London and the Midlands do the parties seem to be in real competition.”

The Economist maps the demographically weighted electoral returns by transforming constituencies into hexagons of equal area. The map is effective,* but it does not fully capture regional demographic disparities, as constituencies vary in population from under 60,000 to over 80,000. The electoral cartogram found in the second figure above, entitled “General Election 2010: The True People’s Vote Map,” is perhaps more effective in this regard. Here it is clear that if one disregards greater London, southern England, and especially the southeast, is Conservative territory.  The few exceptions are not surprising: Luton, a traditional center of automobile manufacturing; Oxford, a University and industrial city; and the central urban areas of Bristol and Southampton. Unlike Oxford, the more high-tech-oriented university city of Cambridge went for the Liberal Democrats

Britan 1955 1966 ection mapsOverall, I am not fully convinced by The Economist’s argument that British regional voting disparities lessened significantly from the 1920s to the 1960s. In examining the maps posted on Electoral Politics 2.0 that go back to 1955, I am rather struck in by the consistency of the pattern, at least in England. (In Scotland, on the other hand, the Conservative vote, once pronounced in the south and north, has indeed collapsed, replaced by votes for the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish nationalists.) In England, to be sure, some elections trended in the Conservative direction (1987) and others in that of the Labour (1966), but “blue” constituencies tend to remain blue, just as “red” ones generally remain red. A few exceptions can be found; Merseyside (greater Liverpool) is definitely more Labour-oriented now than it had been in the 1950s. But overall, England shows little variation in electoral geography over this period.

Britain 1979 1987 election mapsIn the 2010 election, the parties that placed fourth and fifth by total votes, the UK Independence Party (UKIP) and the British Nationalist Party (BNP), did not win any constituencies, and hence are not represented on the map. The fast-growing UKIP, an anti-EU organization usually described as “right-wing populist” or “right-libertarian,” took 3.1 percent of the vote countrywide, while the far-right British National Party took 1.9 percent. Both parties had done much better in the 2009 European Parliament election, when UKIP astoundingly bested not just the Liberal Democrats but Labour as well, scoring 16.5 per cent of the total vote. In the same election, the BNP took 6.2 percent of the vote, while the Green Party gained 8.1 percent. Protest votes were no doubt important in this election.

Britain 1997 2010 election mapsThe geographical patterns of the two anti-EU rightwing parties in the 2009 European Parliamentary election are intriguing. As can be seen in the paired maps posted here, the hard-right BNP won most of its votes in traditional Labor strongholds, doing particularly well in such places as Stoke-On-Trent (“the Potteries,” a ceramic manufacturing district) and in the area immediately east of London. UKIP, on the other hand, did better in traditionally Conservative and Liberal-BNP UKIP 2009 Vote MapDemocratic voting areas, such as those to the west of Birmingham and those in southwestern England. Neither party did well at all in central London, while both did well in the far eastern reaches of the London metropolitan area.

Most opinion polls looking ahead to the 2015 general election put the Labour Party in first place, ahead of the Conservatives by some six to eight percent. Most also put UKIP ahead of the Liberal Democrats, albeit by a narrow margin. In local council races to be held this May, many traditionally Conservative districts are expected to vote instead for UKIP. Conservative party leaders are evidently very concerned about the rise of this new rival to the right.

* The green color used for “other” parties in The Economist map is potentially misleading, as it covers both the Scottish and Welsh nationalist parties and the Green Party.  As mentioned above, the Greens took only once constituency—Brighton Pavilion in southeastern England. What then does the green hexagon in the western part of the Yorkshire-Humber region indicate? All other maps that I have examined indicate that the three major parties carried all of the constituencies in this region in 2010.



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  • I believe you have your colours reversed in paragraph 2.

    • How did I miss that? Many thanks for the correction — it is now fixed.

  • TimUpham

    If the United Kingdom can have separate parliaments in Belfast, Edinburgh, and Cardiff, then why cannot they also have separate parliaments in Douglas and Truro? Because the Cornish and the Manx, want their political representation along with their cultural identity, just like the Irish, Scottish, and Welsh.

    • Um, the Isle of Man is a self-governing British Crown Dependency and as such isn’t a part of the United Kingdom. It also has its own parliamentary legislature called the Tynwald, which is amongst the oldest such bodies in the world to be in continuous existence.

      Further, there’s hardly the demand for autonomy in Cornwall as there has been in other parts of the UK. Mebyon Kernow, for example, is the only ‘mainstream’ political party demanding an equivalent to a Cornish Assembly and they’ve only got 6 councillors (out of 123) on the County Council.

      And as much I hate to be pedantic I have to point out that there is no ‘parliament’ in Cardiff or Belfast – it’s the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly respectively.

      • Thanks for your clarifications, Keith!

      • Good points. It might be worth writing a post on Menyon Kernow, its split from the Cornish Nationalist Party (and the eventual demise of the latter), as well as the “Devonwall” controversy. Asya and I would certainly enjoy writing about the Cornish language revival, as well as the on-going issues about the standardization of spelling in the language .

        • Yes, a post on Cornish revival would be great.

          • TimUpham

            Bloodh vy yw tri ugens ha pemp.

            Yth ero’vy den bohojek an puskes.

            My a wrug deskl Kernowek y’n temyn my a veu maw.

            My a veu dhe mor gans sira vy ha pemp den may y’n kok.

            My a wrug skant lowr klowes udn ger Sowsnek kowsys y’n kok rag seythen war-bath.

            Ny wruga vy byskath gweles lyver Kernowek.

            My a wrug deskl Kernowek ow mos dhe mor gans tus koth.

            Nyns eus moy avel pajar po pemp y’n drev ni a yll klappa Kernowek lebmyn,

            pobel koth pajar ugens bloodh.

            Kernowek yw oll nakevys gan pobel yonk.

          • TimUpham

            English translation:

            I’m sixty-five years old.

            I’m a poor fisherman.

            I learnt Cornish when I was a boy.

            I was at sea with my father and five more men in a fishing boat.

            I barely heard a single word of English in the boat for a whole week.

            I have never seen a Cornish book.

            I learnt Cornish going to sea with old men.

            There are no more than five or four in our village who can speak Cornish now,

            old people, eighty years old,

            Cornish is all forgotten by young people.

  • karlspage

    Really enjoyed reading this post (as well as all your other posts), especially
    as I live in the UK. Re the green dot in the Yorkshire and The
    Humber region on The Economist map. My only thought is that it might perhaps be
    showing the Bradford West constituency, which although won by the Labour Party
    at the 2010 General Election, was won by George Galloway for the Respect Party
    at a 2012 by-election.

    Another reason why I think this map might not be
    showing the 2010 General Election result is the dots for the North West region. The
    only other UK by-election held since the 2010 General Election that has produced a
    change in the party holding the seat is Corby. After the 2010 General Election it was held by the
    Conservative Party, but became a Labour Party seat in November 2012. After the 2010
    General Election the Conservative Party had 23 MPs in the North West region. It
    had 22 following the defeat in Corby, and (if I’ve counted correctly) the map shows 22 blue dots.

    • Many thanks — this is very informative. I found it odd that the Economist did not include a date for the electoral map. Know I know why.

  • Chris

    Apologies if this comes through twice.


    This is fascinating stuff. I think I agree that there is
    more to the story than a deepening of the north-south divide in recent decades.
    In this context I found it instructive to compare the maps for the 1955
    election (Conservative win the election, with Labour winning 277 seats out of
    630) and 2010 (Conservatives are the largest party, Labour win 258 out of 650

    In 1955, Labour strength was concentrated in five areas. There
    is the central Scottish belt , the North East, the west of Cumbria, South and
    Central Wales, and then a ‘hook-shaped’
    belt similar to the top of a back to front question mark. This runs from
    Liverpool through Manchester and across the Pennines to the Yorkshire cities :
    then it moves down through the East Midlands (Nottingham, Derby) and then
    sweeps west into the west-midlands conurbation (Birmingham, the Black country).
    The interesting thing is that you can follow this belt from start to finish and
    hardly ever leave Labour territory. Taken together these five areas are Labour’s
    traditional industrial/mining heartlands. They also won a number of seats in London
    and a small clutch of seats outside of
    London and below the Severn-Wash line (if you’re not familiar with this aspect
    of UK geography, look at the link at the bottom of this post).

    By 2010 the general picture is similar, but there are a
    couple of key differences. Firstly, Labour’s support has held or strengthened
    in Scotland, the north-east and Cumbria. There is a smallish reduction in
    strength in Wales, partly to do with the rise of the Lib-Dems and the Welsh
    nationalists. As pointed out in the article Labout have nearly disappeared
    south of the severn-wash line (outside of London) but is should be stressed
    this was from a low base.

    The interesting change is in the northern-midlands ‘hook’. In
    some parts of the hook Labour is stronger i.e Liverpool/Merserside (as the
    original post points out) but the geographical contiguity has been lost. This
    is because of a reduction in Labour strength in East Midlands particularly, as
    far as I can tell, in the more southern areas around the city of Leicester (the
    city itself is still solidly Labour).

    This takes me back to one of the highlights of the 1992
    election. The Conservatives won narrowly and one of the iconic moments was
    their success at holding the seat of Basildon (just north-east of London). This
    was symbolic of the Conservative ability under Margaret Thatcher to capture
    large numbers of skilled working class voters i.e the ‘Reagan Democrats’ in
    American parlance. Important as Basildon was, what is less well remembered
    about 1992 is that the Conservatives also held onto significant numbers of
    marginal seats in the East Midlands, and I think this is borne out by the 1992
    and 2010 maps.

    So Labour has lost influence in the south (outside of London)
    since the mid-1950s, but you could argue that this didn’t matter a great deal
    because they only ever held a few seats in the south. What might be more
    significant, is the loss of influence in the East Midlands. If that’s the case
    then it doesn’t fit into a simple paradigm of north-south regionalisation as
    the East Midlands is, by no stretch of the imagination, part of the south.

    If I have time I can drill down into some of these local
    changes and submit another post.

    Thanks again for a fascinating entry.


    • Many thanks for the clarifications and additions — this is more informative than my original post!

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