In search of the Red Wall (1)

The next few posts are going to include a lot of maps; specifically, constituency maps. By way of introduction and caveat, this post is about misreading constituency maps.

Political commentators, particularly at the TV news end of the trade, routinely talk about constituencies being “won” and “lost”, or “going” Labour or Conservative. Constituency maps play into this way of thinking, of course. For example, here’s High Peak constituency:

Here’s High Peak from 1997 to 2010, and again from 2017 to 2019:

And here’s High Peak from 2010 to 2017, and again (oh noes!) from 2019 to the present:

The message you get from those images is that everyone, the length and breadth of this large, irregularly shaped tract of land, was Labour during the first two time periods, and that everyone was a Tory in the second two. Or if not everyone, certainly an overwhelming majority – enough people to set the tone firmly and consistently, and to make it chancy to strike up a conversation for anyone who wasn’t on the right team. Some places are like that, admittedly – in the Liverpool Walton constituency in 2019, Labour took 84.7% of the vote – but it’s not the way to bet. In High Peak specifically, 45.4% of the vote went to the Tories in 2017, when Labour won; in 2019, when the Tories won, Labour took 44.8%. Considered as an area where people live, High Peak didn’t in any meaningful sense “go Conservative” in 2019; it wasn’t in any meaningful sense “Labour” from 2017 to 2019. (If the residents of a street between them own nine cats and ten dogs, and a family moves in with two cats, has the street “gone cat”?)

What is meaningful, of course, is that this area on the map returns one MP to Parliament, elected by a simple plurality – and it elected a Labour MP in 2017 and a Tory in 2019. But I think we should resist the siren call of common sense for a bit longer. We – for values of “we” including political commentators – do tend to talk as if a constituency electing one MP rather than another amounts to a root-and-branch transformation. It’s shorthand at best, an error at worst, and either way it’s helped along by visual aids like constituency maps.

I don’t think the underlying motivation is just convenience, either. Think of how it feels to win a vote in a meeting: it’s great when 70% or 80% of the room is with you, but there’s a different kind of satisfaction in winning a vote by the narrowest possible margin, right down to 50% plus one. You put the motion, we voted, the motion was carried – that’s the end of it! Let’s move on! This branch (now) supports Jeremy Corbyn/an all-out strike/free broadband, and there’s nothing the opponents of the motion can do about it. Doesn’t matter if the vote was won by a single vote, doesn’t matter if four people who would have voted the other way got to the meeting a minute late and were refused admission; the vote’s been taken, it’s done, and that’s our policy. Boom!

I’m not saying we shouldn’t get a kick out of those times when we manage to stitch up the Right instead of getting stitched up by them – I’m not a complete spoilsport – let alone that we shouldn’t do it; “but today the struggle” and so forth. But I do think we should be aware of the bad faith involved – or, if this isn’t too meta, that we should be aware that we are aware of the bad faith involved. When we win by pulling strokes, we say we’ve won fair and square; when we focus (or are made to focus) on the strokes we’ve pulled, we say the other side does worse, and anyway it’s time to move on to the next battle. We do know what we’re doing, though – and we get a bit of a kick out of getting away from it.

Which, getting back to my subject, is also how the “Labour Takes The North” / “Labour’s Strongholds Crumble” stories work, emotionally speaking. We know perfectly well that very little has actually changed when a constituency goes from a 48/45 Labour/Tory split to 44/45; and we know that an electoral system with plurality-based single-member constituencies offers democratic representation only to a minority of voters. We also know (or can find out very easily) that 20 of the 27 general elections since 1918 have given a single party a two- or three-figure majority of MPs, and that three-quarters of the twenty have produced a Conservative majority. All of this suggests that there’s something unsatisfactory about claiming that High Peak “went” Conservative in 2019 – particularly considering that the “defeated” Labour candidate took more votes than the winning candidate in any of the elections from 2001 to 2015. But no – those are the rules, the vote was won fair and square, that’s the end of it! Move on! There’s a sneaking satisfaction in the unfairness of the result, and in the perversity of insisting on treating it as fair and valid – not just for Tories (in this instance), but for anyone who’s got a professional or personal investment in this (freakishly antiquated, absurdly unrepresentative) electoral system.

So don’t listen – or listen with a large pinch of salt – when you hear that the Tories are making inroads into Labour’s heartlands; or that they’re laying siege to Labour strongholds; or that the Red Wall is crumbling.

Apart from anything else, what Red Wall?

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