100 Years Ago (3)

In the last post I discussed a narrative of Labour decline – particularly in predominantly white working class communities – which got a lot of exposure before the Oldham West and Royton by-election. The idea was that Labour was losing the white working class and plugging the gap by appealing either to well-meaning middle-class liberal types or to local ethnic minorities – both of which tactics could only work temporarily, as they would both repel the white working class even more. One exponent of this theory, Stephen Bush, went so far as to apply it directly to Oldham West and Royton, although when asked he explained that he was referring to the General Election result in the constituency:

In Oldham West and Royton, Labour sought salvation in the seat’s Asian vote – but white working-class constituents defected in large numbers, to Nigel Farage’s party, or simply by staying at home.

Is that the kind of thing that’s been happening? Let’s look at some figures. Here’s the vote share in Oldham West and Royton, going back to 1997.

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Note the steady decline in vote share through the New Labour period, following the national trend. (If ever there was a time when the working class was being told Labour wasn’t all about them…) Also note the big third- and fourth-party votes; never, since Nick Griffin stood for the BNP in 2001, have Labour and the Tories together taken as much as 75% of the vote in this constituency. (There was even a couple of percent each for the Socialist Labour Party and the Referendum Party in 1997.) There’s a sizeable sod-the-lot-of-’em vote in Oldham West – and a lot of those people aren’t too fussed about not being called racists.

Now look at the last three results – the 2010 and 2015 General Elections and then the by-election. Do you see white working-class constituents defect[ing] in large numbers from Labour to UKIP, or from Labour full stop? No, me neither. Between the two General Elections, two big changes seem to account for almost all the other differences. Firstly, the BNP didn’t stand, for the first time since 1997: cue a windfall for UKIP. Secondly, a previously strong Lib Dem vote collapsed almost to nothing, as it did in so many other places; most former Lib Dems seem to have gone to Labour, but some to UKIP. Add a little Tory-to-UKIP switching and you’re basically there. I’m not saying there was no Labour-to-UKIP traffic – masked by larger flows into Labour from the Lib Dems – just that this doesn’t seem to have happened on a large scale. My analysis depends on a third or more of the Lib Dem vote going to UKIP, but it’s not as if that’s hard to imagine; as anyone who’s read local election literature knows, local Lib Dem campaigners are adept at picking up protest votes and attracting people who are disaffected with both the major parties. (That’s the polite version.)

As for the by-election result, this looks even simpler: the Lib Dems stayed irrelevant and both Labour and UKIP put on voters at the expense of the Tories, Labour more successfully than UKIP. This doesn’t necessarily mean that there were any vote shifts at all: what may have happened is that UKIP and Labour mobilisation kept turnout relatively high, while Tory apathy, incompetence or simple lack of feet on the ground permitted the turnout of their voters to plummet. (If we compare the numbers of votes cast in the two elections, Labour and UKIP were both down about 27%; the Tory vote was down 70%.) Either way there is – once again – no obvious evidence for the two shifts Stephen Bush wrote about – from Labour to UKIP and from Labour to abstention. It looks more like straightforward polarisation, with Labour and UKIP fighting over Tory votes in much the same way that, seven months earlier, they’d fought over the spoils of the local Lib Dems.

Can we make Stephen’s model work? Voters only have to vote – there’s no requirement to fill in a form detailing their previous voting history; three- and four-way shifts are increasingly common, making a mockery of simple ‘swingometer’ pictures of vote movements. We know what the headline figures look like, but is it possible that the process Stephen describes was going on in Oldham West and Royton, in May 2015, in December 2015 or both? If it’s going to work at all, in fact, it does need to work for both elections: nobody has suggested that the supposed disaggregation of the Labour base is something that wasn’t happening at all before Corbyn was elected leader, still less that Corbyn’s election stopped it happening. These are long-term trends which, it’s generally agreed, haven’t been rectified by Corbyn’s election, and may even have been exacerbated.

If they exist, that is.

The next bit involves numbers, so buckle up. The proposition we’re testing is “white working-class constituents defected in large numbers”, from Labour to UKIP and from a Labour vote to abstention. I’ll define ‘large numbers’ as 5% of the turnout: Labour losing 2-3% of its support would hardly qualify as a trickle turning into a flood (and I think a party attracting voters in ‘large numbers’ would be able to keep its deposit!). So that’s 2,000 people in the General Election, 1,400 at the by-election. I’m also assuming that, when Stephen wrote that Labour voters defected (in large numbers) “to Nigel Farage’s party, or simply by staying at home” the implication is that large numbers of voters did both of these things: 2%-worth of UKIP switchers would look more like a trickle than a flood, even accompanied by 3% abstention.

So: between 2010 and 2015 Labour in Oldham West and Royton lost 2,000 votes to UKIP and 2,000 to abstention (but “sought salvation in the seat’s Asian vote”). Can this possibly be true?

The first problem here is that, between 2010 and 2015, the Labour vote rose by 4,000. (UKIP’s vote was up 7,500; the Tories were down 2,000 and the Lib Dems down 6,500, while the BNP (not standing) were in effect down 3,000.) Assume a 2,000-vote flow from Labour to UKIP and you have to assume that the Labour vote actually went up 6,000, presumably taking almost all of the Lib Dem vote. I don’t have any difficulty believing that the 2010 Lib Dem vote broke disproportionately towards Labour – it happened all over the country – but I do find it hard to believe it broke towards Labour by a factor of 12:1.

As for turnout, here we need to look at the demographics. “Around a fifth of the electorate is of Bangladeshi or Pakistani heritage”, said Rafael Behr. He may have better data than me, but the 2011 Census said that the population of Oldham is 80% White British and 13.5% Asian, which is a bit different. The Asian population of Oldham is concentrated in five wards, two of which are in the Oldham West and Royton constituency, so I wouldn’t expect the Census figures to be far out; I’ll work on the basis of 80% White British and 14% Asian, which is to say that there are approximately 55,000 White British people on the electoral roll and 10,000 Asians.

The contention we’re dealing with here is that White working-class Labour voters abstained in “large numbers” – say 2,000 of them, above and beyond any transfers between parties. So 2,000 White voters abstained, and their place was taken by 2,000 additional Asian voters. Instead of an overall turnout of 60% reflecting 60% turnout across all groups, turnout was lower among Whites and higher among Asians. 60% x 55,000 = 33,000; actual White turnout, without those 2,000 votes, would be 31,000 or 56%. And 60% x 10,000 = 6,000; actual Asian turnout would be 8,000… or 80%. As turnout figures go, that’s staggeringly high. As with the 12:1 split of Lib Dem votes to Labour rather than UKIP, it’s not outright impossible, but it’s very hard to believe without compelling evidence in its favour. (And in this case there’s basically no evidence in its favour, other than word of mouth from disgruntled Labour voters – a topic I’ll come back to.)

What really kills this theory, though, is the by-election. OK, so you’ve staved off disaster by replacing one lot of UKIP defectors with most of the Lib Dem diaspora, and another lot with hyper-mobilisation of the local Asian community: what’s going to happen next time? If “white working-class constituents” had “defected in large numbers” in May, there would have been absolutely no reason not to expect another tranche of defections in December; on the contrary, electing Corbyn to replace Miliband – who did at least look good in a suit – should have stepped up the defection rate. Let’s suppose that we start from the basis that everything happens in December just like it did in May, but on a 2/3 scale, as there’s a 40% overall turnout instead of 60%. So we’re expecting roughly 16,000 Labour votes, 6,000 UKIP and 5,400 Tory, on the basis of 38% White turnout and 54% Asian turnout (2/3 of 56% and 80%, respectively). In fact 17,000 people voted Labour, so we’ve got to gain 1,000 votes from somewhere. But – whoops – there go 1,400 White Labour voters, abstaining and being replaced seamlessly by Asian voters; turnout is now 35%, while Asian turnout has shot up to 74%. Perhaps that’s not outright impossible, but both the 2:1 disparity between communities and the figure of 74% itself would be very, very unusual, particularly in a by-election. It’s far more likely that Asian turnout would stay around about where it was, the White Labour abstainers would not be replaced – and the Labour vote would fall, instead of going up by 1,000. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, we’ve apparently lost another 1,400 Labour defectors to UKIP, so we’re short by 2,400 votes. Where are they going to come from? Not from the Lib Dems – we’re only expecting 1,000 of those to start with (which is also how many we got). Tory voters transferring to Labour – Corbyn’s Labour? Hardly.

In short, and with less maths, the “white working-class constituents defect in large numbers” story, in Oldham West and Royton, will hold up in the face of one good result for Labour – but only one. Those Lib Dem transfers and those newly-mobilised Asian voters are non-renewable resources: if the drift away from Labour had happened in May 2015 and then again in December, the Labour share of the vote would inevitably, necessarily have gone down. Even if the drift away from Labour had started after the General Election – which of course wasn’t what Stephen Bush was suggesting – the disappearance of local support for the Lib Dems would by now have taken away the only place Labour could get reinforcements. If “white working-class constituents” were “defect[ing] in large numbers” to abstention and UKIP, there is no way in the world that Labour’s share of the vote would not have gone down substantially at the by-election. And (new readers start here) it didn’t – it went up, from 55% to 62%.

In part 4: why? I mean, seriously, why?

 

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