Sunday, 21 February 2016

How Labour lost Middle England

Ah, Middle England. A mythical place of cafetieres, Scandinavian mini-series and pilates. Where Nissan Qashqais roam the land, carpets are shoe-free zones, and the wine rack is always full of reasonably-priced supermarket reds.

The place - legend has it - where general elections are won or lost.

I grew up in Middle England. At least, I was always pretty sure I had. Detached house in semi-rural Lincolnshire. Went to school at a good local comprehensive. Played cricket and tennis as well as football. That sort of thing.

But perhaps you think you also grew up in Middle England, and perhaps your experience was quite different to mine. That's the problem with Middle England: it's so bloody ill-defined. We all think we know what it is; we just never actually spell it out.

These days it doesn't really matter. We don't need to compare notes from school days, or the labels on our clothes. Demographic data is plentiful, and easy enough to analyse. We can measure the middle of England - and in very precise terms.

Middle England, then, is not a mythical concept at all. It's a mathematical one. Middle England becomes Median England, or Modal England, and there's nothing very mysterious about that.

Let's say Middle England really does decide elections. What did it think in 2015?

First let's get our parliamentary constituencies in some sort of ranked order, from most to least affluent. There are various ways of doing this. For now, let's use a simple measure: house prices, which are available for constituencies here.

Do this, and something immediately becomes apparent: London's housing market is ridiculous and skews the figures dramatically. Nineteen of the 20 constituencies with the highest median house prices in 2014 were in the capital. In Kensington, the average house price was an eye-watering £1.2million.

So we'll leave London out of it.

That leaves us with 460 English constituencies, from Esher and Walton in Surrey (median house price: £465,000) to Liverpool Wavertree (median house price: £78,000).

You'd probably expect the richest areas to vote Conservative. You might not realise the extent to which that happens. In 2015, 34 of the 35 constituencies with the highest median house prices voted Tory.

The one that didn't? Cambridge.

Similarly, 42 of the 43 places with the lowest median house price voted Labour. Pendle, held by the Conservatives' Andrew Stephenson, was the exception.

What, then, of Middle England?

To visualise what happened, let's divide the 460 non-London English constituencies into ten groups of 46. The wealthiest areas, in terms of house price, will be group one. The poorest will be group 10.

Here's what happened at the general election:

What's potentially concerning for Labour here is that even among the seventh group, a majority elected a Conservative MP.

If we take Middle England to be groups 4, 5, 6 and 7, the Tories won 143 seats in Middle England. Labour won 37.

In the old days, of course, Labour didn't really need to win Middle England. It had Scotland, too, where it always did disproportionately well compared to the Conservatives. The SNP wipeout last year had removed that particular crutch. There's no suggestion in the polls it's coming back any time soon.

Labour still does well in Wales, with its 36 MPs, and London, with 54. But if the party doesn't need to win Middle England outright, it certainly needs to be fighting for it.

In 2015, that was a fight Labour lost - and lost badly.

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