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BfB Election Monitor. Tories on a cliff-edge

the next General Election
Written by Graham Gudgin

In this first of our election monitors we use current opinion poll data to predict the number of seats likely to be won by each party in the next General Election. Assuming uniform swings across the country the outlook for the Tory party is dire, with Labour potentially achieving the largest majority since the National Government of 1931 during the Great Depression.

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*featured image copyright thetimes.co.uk

BriefingsforBritain published a series of articles prior to the 2019 general election predicting the likely outcome. These predicted a comfortable Tory majority of 51 or more seats with an effective majority of 8. This was based on uniform swings across the country but the article foresaw that stronger swings to the Tories in pro-Brexit areas like Ashfield in Nottinghamshire (won by Lee Anderson) could easily raise the margin of victory.

Now that we are in the run up to the next general election, likely to be held in October 2024, we are repeating the exercise. The task is complicated by a huge redrawing of constituency boundaries since 2019. Most constituencies have new boundaries. Some have been abolished and replaced by entirely new constituencies. As a result, sitting MPs have had to opt for one or other part of their newly divided constituencies or have had to seek new homes. Many have decided to drop out of politics.

The panoply of new boundaries makes it difficult to judge how national swings in political support will impact individual areas. Helpfully, BBC, ITV and Sky News together with the Press Association have produced estimates of what the 2019 votes would have been under the new set of constituencies. The work was done by the electoral experts Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher of Nuffield College Oxford and Plymouth University using local government election results and other data. The results of this exercise and a commentary by Michael Thrasher can be obtained here.

The availability of estimates of the 2019 general election results for the new constituencies allows us to project what the latest national opinion poll results would mean for the division of seats if the election were held today. In this article we first consider this week’s poll from YouGov which puts Labour on 45% and the Conservatives on only 19% closely followed by Reform on 15%.  We will also analyse Politicos Poll of Polls results. These are a little more favourable to the Tories, perhaps because they cover a greater span of time. They put the Conservatives on 24% and Reform on 12%. Labour is still far ahead at 43%.

The YouGov results, ignoring the ‘Don’t Knows’ are in the following table.

2019 Actual 2024 YouGov
Labour 32.9 44.5
Tory 44.7 19.0
LibDem 11.8 9.0
Green 2.8 8.0
Reform (Brexit) 2.1 15.0
SNP 4.0 3.0
Plaid Cymru 0.5 0.5
Other 1.2 1.0

 

This outcome would be shockingly bad for the Tories who are projected to lose well over half of their 2019 votes with roughly half of the defectors moving to the Reform Party which is the successor to the Brexit party of 2019.

To estimate what implications these poll estimates would have for the number of seats in a general election, we can simply assume that the changes from 2019 are uniformly reflected in each constituency. This is possible where parties contested seats in 2019 but does not work where seats were uncontested. This mainly affects the Reform Party since the Brexit Party stood aside in the large number of areas in order not to reduce the winning margin of the pro-Brexit Tory Party.

In 2024 there will be no similar agreement and we need another approach to estimate Reform party votes in each area. We have thus assumed that Reform gain the Brexit Party votes from 2015 plus half of the fall in Tory votes in each area. This is enough to give Reform its predicted 15% level of support across Great Britain as a whole. (Northern Ireland is treated separately).  In the relatively small number of constituencies where the Greens did not stand in 2019 (mainly in Scotland), or where the Liberal Democrats stood aside for the Greens, we have assumed that the same situation applies in 2024.

The outcome from applying these assumptions to the 2019 estimates are in the table below.

2019 Actual 2024 YouGov
Labour 203 456
Tory 365 95
LibDem 11 33
Green 1 5
Reform (Brexit) 0 0
SNP 48 41
Plaid Cymru 4 2
Other 0 0

 

The UK’s first-past-the-post system translates any majority in votes into an exaggerated majority of seats. In this case, Labour’s 45% share of votes becomes a huge 76% share of seats. The Conservatives 19% share of votes is diminished to 15% of seats. The real losers under this system are the smaller parties and especially Reform which gains no seats despite its 15% share of votes. The Green’s projected 8% of votes gains it only 5 seats or 1% of seats. As well as Brighton which the Greens already hold, the projection is that they would gain both seats in the Isle of Wight plus two in Suffolk where the Greens control their only local council.  The LibDems would also be under-represented but nevertheless would triple their number of seats despite a significant fall in their vote share. The reason is the fall in Tory votes in seats where they came second in 2019.

The collapse of the Conservative vote share is projected to lose them 270 seats with only 95 Tory MPs remaining in place. The overwhelming Labour majority, projected at 269 seats, would be much larger than Tony Blair’s victory in 1997 and indeed larger than any majority since the National Government of 1931. Under this scenario the Tories become a southern English rural regional party with no seats in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland and only 6 out of 154 in northern England, all in rural Yorkshire including the PM’s seat in Richmond in the Yorkshire Dales. Shockingly, there would also be no Tory seats in London. Labour would regain all of the ‘red wall’ seats won in 2019. The map below shows the remaining Tory seats,  with marginal seats (majorities of less than 1000) marked in orange).

MapChart Map tory

Another consequence of this Tory debacle would be that around half of current cabinet ministers would no longer be in Parliament. A record number are already standing down including recent Chancellors Nadhim Zahawi and Sajid Javid and possibly also Jeremy Hunt who could easily lose in Godalming and Ash.  Among the likely losers would be Mordaunt, Dowden, Mitchell, McVey, Shapps, Stride, Prentice, Chalk, Glen, Jack, Harper Hart and Davies. Survivors would include leadership potential Badenoch and also Sunak, Gove, Cleverly, Heaton-Harris, Tugendhat, Donelly and Frazer as well as non-cabinet member Liz Truss.

Most Tory seats would become marginals,  with over a quarter having slender majorities of less than 1000 votes. This would expose the Tories to further future losses although perhaps not to the wipe-out scenario akin to Canada in 1992 that some Tories fear. Only ten seats would have majorities of over 5,000 with Brexiteers Whittingdale and Hayes, and Remainer Hoare in the three safest seats.  We have not considered tactical voting in this article, but with so many narrow majorities there is a danger for Conservatives that tactical voting by Labour, LibDem and Green voters could easily lead to the loss of even more seats. Nor have we considered the possibility that a substantial proportion of 2019 Tory voters would abstain in 2024 rather than actively voting Labour, Libdem, or Green. which would help to save a few Conservative seats.

Is this Tory apocalypse really likely? Perhaps not if the economy picks up a little as seems currently likely with a couple of small reductions in the interest rate. A period of calm after the political shocks of Brexit, Covid and the Ukraine war would also help the Tories. Politico’s poll of poll results are also not as bad for the Tories. In these, Labour would still have a very large majority. At 141 this would be closer to Tony Blair’s 1997 victory and the Tories would retain 167 seats. Hunt, Mitchell, McVey and Dowden would all retain their seats with small majorities but not Mordaunt.  Even, under this scenario a period of severe Tory reflection would be necessary.

Dr Graham Gudgin is the co-author with Professor Peter Taylor of ‘Seats, Votes and the Spatial Organisation of Elections’ republished in 2012 by the European Consortium for Political Research as an ECPR Classic.

 

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Graham Gudgin