Friday, May 21, 2010

What happened in Exeter at the General Election?

Before the election, the Conservative candidate Hannah Foster said "The Exeter seat decides the country. If Exeter changes hands, the country changes hands, and if it doesn’t, it probably won't."

It turns out she was perceptive, and my expectations were wrong. The results in Exeter showed a big increase in the Conservative vote, but not enough to take the seat. The Labour vote decreased, but by not quite as much as it could have done. The LibDem vote, at one time expected to be much higher following the first television debate, stayed much the same.

Candidate Party


Ben Bradshaw Labour 19,942 38.2 43.6
Hannah Foster Conservative 17,221 33.0 24.9
Graham Oakes Liberal Democrat 10,581 20.3 20.2
Keith Crawford UKIP 1,930 3.7
Chris Gale Liberal Party 1,108 2.1
Paula Black Green 792 1.5
Robert Farmer BNP 673 1.3

Notional 2005 figures from UK Polling Report

National, regional and marginal opinion polls during the campaign showed a much higher LibDem vote than this, for a few days showing a LibDem win. So what happened?

Firstly, in line with the national trend, I think that the closer it got to election day, the more people reverted to tactical voting in order to either keep the Conservatives from winning, or to ensure that Labour lost office. I'm sure that the relentless smear campaign by the right-wing press had an effect, and numerous other factors played a role, but I think this classic "squeeze" of the third party in the First-Past-The-Post voting system was a key factor.

Secondly, Hannah Foster for the Conservatives was clearly a strong candidate. On the liberal wing of the party, clued up on climate change, personable, experienced in politics, extremely well-funded, with visits from Shadow Cabinet members and assisted by a young energetic team, Hannah was formidable. Without the boundary changes that moved the Conservative-leaning Topsham and St Loyes wards out of the Exeter constituency (to the East Devon constituency), Hannah could well have won.

Thirdly, Ben Bradshaw for Labour also ran a great campaign. A blizzard of leaflets almost matched the Conservatives in number and production values. He wisely persuaded party managers to let him stay to defend Exeter rather than tour other constituencies and the television studios, as had been expected of him as a media-friendly Cabinet Minister. There more hustings than ever before, and his doorstep charm was undiminished. Most significantly, his campaign put out the message that the race was neck-and-neck between Labour and the Conservatives. This claim became self-fulfilling, because many of those inclined to vote LibDem, Green or Liberal did not want to risk a Conservative win, and so reluctantly voted Labour tactically.

Graham Oakes therefore did brilliantly to maintain the LibDem vote share. In fact, despite the squeeze, there was a slight increase in the total number of LibDem votes over the 2005 notional figures. This was despite having nowhere near the funds to match Labour or the Conservatives. As the third party in the constituency, the LibDems could not afford to fight as Labour and the Conservatives could. Many Exeter LibDem activists had to be deployed elsewhere in Devon, defending sitting MPs against the Conservative onslaught. Labour could bring in reinforcements of volunteers from London; the LibDems could not. Labour and Conservatives sent waves of high-profile front-benchers into the campaign; the LibDems could not.

The coverage in Exeter Express & Echo showed the usual bias towards the Conservatives, with some fawning this time also towards Ben Bradshaw, as the Cabinet Minister responsible for the media. This bias was matched in the national press, as illustrated by this article in the Daily Mail by the right-wing journalist Quentin Letts.

So how did votes change?

As can be seen in the table above, the Conservative vote increased by 8.1%, the Labour vote decreased by 5.4%, while the LibDem vote stayed much the same. So it was the collapse in the smaller parties that explains the difference between the Conservative increase and the Labour decline. The best news of the election is that the BNP came last.

In the absence of further evidence, my guess is that there were a few people who switched directly from Labour to Conservative, but a more common route was a switch from Labour to LibDem, combined with big tactical "stop the Tories" voting by those inclined to vote Green, Liberal and LibDem.

What were the key issues? It's of course difficult to say. Many different issues were covered in the debates, by the media, at hustings, and on the doorstep. Labour's leaflets tended to emphasise the government's record on the economy, the NHS and schools. Conservative leaflets tended to focus on David Cameron as the person to sort out the deficit, help working families and increasing employment. The LibDem leaflets emphasised the four steps (fairer taxes, fair chance for every child, fairer economy, cleaning up politics) and attacked Labour's record on Iraq, taxation, and the moving of cancer surgery to Plymouth.

Despite tough questioning at the hustings, I'm not sure how much voters were actually swayed by MP's expenses, unitary local government, foreign affairs or climate change.

It will be interesting to see what happens at the next general election in Exeter. Ben Bradshaw's majority is now down to 2721, which the Conservatives could take on a swing of just over 3%. However, assuming the coalition government survives for the next 5 years as planned, there are plans for constituencies to be resized, and for there to be a vote on changing the First-Past-The-Post voting system to AV. Either of these plans could have a profound effect on the Exeter battle.