Most elections bring some first-time breakthroughs for one party or another. The 2017 general election was relatively unusual in seeing both the main parties conquering some entirely new territory: for instance, Labour gained Canterbury and the Conservatives took Mansfield. When something like this happens, it suggests not only that something interesting is going on in the relationship between the parties and their traditional bases of support, but also that demographic change has brought some traditional strongholds to the point of marginality where they are at risk of switching sides.
Demographic change has always been affecting elections. Sometimes it is obvious and straightforward; the Conservatives lost the 1966 election badly but still held on to both Birmingham Handsworth and Manchester Moss Side—but could not do so for much longer because of ethnic change. Lichfield & Tamworth was Labour in 1959 but is now the basis for two pretty solid Conservative seats. Sometimes it is more complex, particularly given the way the housing market operates in big cities. To take one example, the Roehampton estate in Putney. Its construction helped to tip the seat to Labour in 1964 by increasing the working class population in this suburban seat; by the 1980s and 1990s the right to buy had converted many of the tenants into grateful Conservative voters. Another turn of the wheel since, and the flats are being let out to disgruntled renters on the private market and the ward—and nearly the constituency—has reverted sharply to Labour.
There is, at the moment, an asymmetrical relationship between demographic change and the direction of travel in electoral terms. Rapid local changes in the composition of the electorate will usually revolve around groups which are increasing in size, and these tend to favour Labour: black and minority ethnic communities, young people and students, graduates, private renters. Places that are trending to the Conservatives will often be those precisely where demographic change is working most slowly: rural communities, affluent anti-development suburbs, and older white working class towns and villages. The median age of the population in Manchester and Newcastle has dropped because of visible influxes of young people. The median age in, say, Forest of Dean or Tamworth has gone up because of more gradual differential migration as industries decline or the existing inhabitants have pulled up the housing ladder behind them.
In what follows, I shall examine five cases of demographic change affecting the electoral prospects in constituencies; a couple of these can be taken as representing some quite large categories of seat, while a couple are pretty exotic specimens.
The clearest cases of demographic change driving political change are those in which there is a shift in the ethnic composition of an area, particularly in the suburbs. The transition of a white middle class suburb into an ethnically diverse or majority-minority suburb will often lead to a rapid, huge swing towards Labour. Inner suburbs like Croydon North and Ealing North have gone from marginal to safe, and some outer suburbs like Harrow West and Ilford North are most of the way there.
Ilford North is one of the most straightforward examples of demographic change driving political change. It is a north east London suburban area along the loop of the Central Line around Barkingside and Hainault, and since 1997 parts of Woodford have joined the seat. Labour had previously won Ilford North only in huge national landslides (1945, 1997, 2001) and in October 1974, when the boundaries were more favourable and when its then-large Jewish community voted for Harold Wilson and local candidate Millie Miller.
When the Conservatives regained Ilford North in 2005 it was a Tory-inclined suburban marginal coming home, but huge demographic changes were already underway. Between 2001 and 2011 its 1930s suburban avenues became home to many families of Asian origin moving up from Newham and Tower Hamlets just as their Jewish neighbours had done before. The ward of Clayhall, for instance, saw its white British share of the population fall from 59 per cent to 29 per cent in the ten years from 2001 to 2011. Politically, Clayhall was safely Tory even at Labour’s peak in the 1990s but was Labour by a 17-point margin in the 2018 local elections. Ilford North had the largest Tory majority Labour managed to overturn in 2015, and Labour MP Wes Streeting won by nearly 10,000 in 2017 (his predecessor Linda Perham gained the seat in 1997 by a bit over 3,000).
The Ilford North story may seem to prove that demographics is destiny, but it is a bit more complicated than that. Political shifts often lag behind changing demographics, because newly arriving populations are usually younger (less inclined to vote) and less connected to local organisations including political parties. Part of the reason that Ilford North has swung so quickly is that Streeting and his colleagues are among Labour’s most industrious pavement campaigners, and by their efforts are bringing newly arriving Ilford North residents into voting Labour rather than passively waiting for demographic change to deliver the constituency.
The nature of British urban life, particularly in the northern former industrial centres, has changed dramatically over the past few decades. The political consequences have been masked to some extent by the partisan continuity, but one sort of left culture has replaced another as the dominant political force. In the 1970s many core city seats were dominated by the sort of people who voted Labour in the 1970s—white working class families, council tenants, unionised workers. In the 2010s they are dominated by the sort of people who vote Labour in the 2010s—ethnic minority families, students and young graduates and the liberal professions.
The Sheffield Central seat that was created in 1983 (mostly from the previous Sheffield Park seat) was a hard-core working class constituency, with 62 per cent living in council housing including the older Manor estate and brutalist masterpieces like Park Hill and Hyde Park. Central was reeling from steel closures, unemployment was rampant at 23 per cent and unsurprisingly it voted Labour by a huge margin.
Thirty-five years on, Sheffield Central is barely recognisable. The city centre is somewhere people want to live, with new apartment buildings and conversions springing up and Park Hill being relaunched for the affluent by developers Urban Splash. Central is still something of a single-industry constituency, but rather than steel it is dominated by higher education. It hosts two universities and at the time of the 2011 Census it had the highest proportion of students in the country (38 per cent). Only 25 per cent of Central’s households were in social housing. The constituency has shifted a little to the west in boundary changes, taking more of the old west end areas like Broomhill and Sharrow, but there is no mistaking the main drivers of change.
Central was a near miss for the Liberal Democrats in 2010, as they fell only 165 votes short of toppling Labour—Nick Clegg represented a neighbouring seat and the Lib Dems did well that year among students and liberal professionals. The coalition, and the popularity of Labour with young people, killed this and in 2017 Labour MP Paul Blomfield was re-elected with a majority of nearly 28,000, on the face of it as monolithic as it ever was as the heart of the steel city. But the new electorate of Sheffield Central is more volatile than the old. In the 2018 local elections the Green Party won three of the five wards and narrowly outpolled Labour (boundaries do not match up exactly, but the party shares were about 42 per cent Green, 41 per cent Labour). The bonds between Labour and its new core constituency is weaker than it was in the days when Sheffield Central was a working class, council tenant citadel.
In some constituencies conflicting demographic changes seem to be holding the electoral balance of power in equilibrium. Perhaps the most acute case of this is Thurrock in south Essex, England’s approximate equivalent of the industrial New Jersey landscape across the Hudson from Manhattan. Thurrock consists of several unglamorous towns on the north side of the Dartford Crossing—Grays, Purfleet, South Ockendon, and probably the best known of them being London’s port town of Tilbury.
Thurrock used to be an entirely safe Labour seat, racking up majorities not far short of 20,000 in the two elections of 1974, but it fell to the Tories in 1987. This owed less to demographic transformation (though Right to Buy played a part in a seat that was 50 per cent council housing in 1981) than changing political attitudes among white ex East Enders. Labour regained it in 1992 but lost it again in 2010. It has not become a safe Tory seat, though, as their majorities have never reached four figures—92 votes in 2010, a princely 536 over Labour and 974 over UKIP in 2015 and back down to 345 in 2017.
There are at least three moving parts to what is happening in Thurrock. One is the continuing evolution of the political attitudes of the now-ageing white working class population, who have drifted to the Conservatives and UKIP. The Tory vote has trended upwards in the less-changed areas of the seat like Little Thurrock and Stifford Clays. Another is the large amount of privately developed new housing in Thurrock, particularly around Chafford Hundred; this initially favoured the Conservatives but now seems to have swung Labour (Labour won the South Chafford ward, which is all new housing, for the first time in 2018). This has gone alongside the area’s growing popularity for commuters. Yet another factor is the influx into a previously more or less all-white seat of a substantial BAME population, here mostly of African origin. Ethnic change in seats like this sometimes causes a short term shift to the right among the existing white population but over the longer term the fundamentals will decide the outcome. In the 2010s Thurrock has been a delicately poised marginal, but other things being equal it should probably tip decisively to the left in the next decade.
There are a number of constituencies where economic change is creating a new political environment almost by stealth, particularly in the hinterland of cities that cannot accommodate all the demand for housing and jobs within their limits. The outward push from London is changing many towns around it, but there are other examples. Cambridge has enjoyed a sustained boom thanks to its strength in higher education, medicine, technology, culture and life sciences. The city itself has absorbed some of the population increase but scope is limited and the effects have spilled over into the surrounding region. Towns such as Haverhill and Bury St Edmunds have become Cambridge commuter areas, and the surrounding countryside has gradually become more and more built-up, village by village and latterly with a whole new town at Cambourne, while science parks and the like have sprung up near the city. The number of households in the rural area around Cambridge has increased by around 50 per cent since 1991 and will continue to grow.
The demographic changes have already been dramatic. This was farming country until comparatively recently, but by the time of the 2011 Census South Cambridgeshire was near the top of the charts for people working in education (the 9th highest nationally) and well-represented in terms of professionals, scientists and people working in the information sector. Although it looks rural, in terms of its people South Cambridgeshire has more in common with, say, Kingston-upon-Thames than it does with truly rural areas like Lincolnshire.
Politically, South Cambridgeshire has long been a Conservative seat and its relatively liberal Tory MP Heidi Allen still had a large majority in 2017. The last time the area went against the Conservatives in a general election was in 1945, when Labour won Cambridgeshire with the votes of agricultural workers. Cambridge city has swung a long way left since it last voted Tory in 1987, a process that has probably reached its limits, and the future of what is essentially Cambridge-2 could well see a similar story unfold. The Lib Dems won a sweeping victory in the local elections here in May 2018.
The English countryside has, in general, favoured the Conservatives over Labour. The main exception has been the part of rural and small town England where coal has been mined and the class composition and cultural legacy is shaped by this. However, after the pits went, the demographics of mining country tended to shift and undermine the Labour vote over the decades.
South Derbyshire was a reasonably safe Labour seat, represented by George Brown, for a while after 1945 but since 1964 it has gone with the national winner in every general election. The Conservative majority in South Derbyshire was nearly 12,000 in 2017, suggesting that the marginal days have now come to an end in this former Midland coalfield seat. It started to slip from Labour because of new middle class suburban development that was outvoting working class mining villages and the grimy town of Swadlincote, but the Conservative trend now goes even deeper. The mining industry, and the solidarity and community that its workers experienced, is now a receding memory and the area has started to become more like any other sort of countryside as houses are bought up and towns regenerated and improved. The development pressure continues—South Derbyshire added another 15,000 households between 1991 and 2018 and looks set to continue to grow, mainly from owner-occupied, working, car-driving families.
South Derbyshire is near the end-point of a long transition from mining country to commuter country, from Labour to Conservative except in a very good Labour year. Its neighbour North West Leicestershire is very similar, and a bit further behind on the road are other former mining seats in the Midlands such as North Warwickshire, Amber Valley, Sherwood and North East Derbyshire. These seats could withstand a bit of encroaching middle class suburbia—Dronfield and Coleshill had been changing since the 1970s—but what Labour could not survive was the collapse of the traditional vote as ex-mining communities aged, class solidarity and turnout fell, and people started turning to the right in the form of the Conservatives, UKIP or even the BNP. A few bits of northern ex-mining territory have started to change too, with new suburbs springing up on the sites of coal mines, and the traditional vote withering away, in places like Morley & Outwood where Labour’s Ed Balls lost in 2015.
Constituencies that are undergoing demographic change that sets them apart from the national trend do tend to respond with unusual electoral movements. Some of these are rapid and are reflected in sudden sharp changes. Others are more gradual, like the slow slide of the former coalfields towards the Conservatives.
Anticipating demographic change can generate political predictions; I have made a few here, like Thurrock going Labour and South Derbyshire still being Tory when Labour next forms a government. But demographic change interacts with the political strategies of the parties, locally and nationally. Local activism can accelerate the political effect as it has done in Ilford North. National politics can negate promising looking local demographics if the party alienates some of its natural supporters, as the Conservatives have done in Battersea for instance.
As well as the facts of demography, one has to look at how parties and the political system mediate its effects in order to look forward with any clarity.