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Where the votes switched – and why: the key lessons for the parties

Robert Ford was one of the team of psephologists that sent shockwaves around the country at 10pm on Thursday

Ed Miliband, David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage. Photograph: Linda Nylind and Rex/Shuttrstock
 Ed Miliband, David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage. Photograph: Linda Nylind and Rex/Shuttrstock


The traumatic 2015 results threw the fractures in the contemporary Labour party into sharp relief. The more a seat looked like London – young, ethnically diverse, highly educated, socially liberal, large public sector – the better Labour did, on the whole. Yet this is the electorate of the future; most of Britain doesn’t look like London yet, and a coalition of Londoners isn’t enough to win elections.

Labour fell short with voters outside this “London core”, leaking support in multiple directions. The aspirational voters of suburban England – middle-class seats with falling unemployment and rising incomes – swung behind the Cameron-Osborne “long-term economic plan”, while Ukip surged in seats with large concentrations of poorer, white working-class English nationalists, many of whom sympathised with Labour’s economic message but not the people delivering it.

At the other end of the social spectrum to Ukip, many of the social liberals deserting the Lib Dems opted for the Greens rather than Labour. Meanwhile, in Scotland, the SNP decimated Scottish Labour by claiming to be the true party of leftwing politics.

The way forward for Labour is not clear, as the different groups that shunned the party in 2015 make contradictory demands for change. Those wanting to win back middle England will want to emphasise economic competence and rewarding aspiration, while Scottish Labour will want to reclaim Labour’s mantle as the party of the NHS, public services and redistribution. The “blue Labour” thinkers who have long recognised the threat Ukip posits to white working-class support will want a more socially conservative stance, particularly on immigration and Europe, but adopting such a position could put at risk the gains Labour have made with its “London core”.

The choice is hard: any shift to appeal to one group risks alienating others. Yet attempting to offer something to everyone, as Ed Miliband’s Labour often seemed to do, risks satisfying no one.


The Conservatives’ remarkable success in converting coalition into majority government is down to two factors: this was the first governing party to increase its vote share after a full term in office for more than a century and it succeeded in concentrating that vote increase in the seats where it counted. The vote increase was modest – just under 1% – but well focused.

The Tory vote went up four points in the key marginals it was defending from Labour and in the marginals it was looking to win from the Liberal Democrats. Both factors were crucial in building a majority – the Conservatives suffered virtually no net loss to Labour, with 10 losses offset by eight gains, and gained 26 seats as their former coalition partners collapsed.

The Conservatives gained ground by consolidating their support from aspirational “middle England”. While they lost ground in seats with high concentrations of working-class voters, or those with no cars and poor health, they gained 2 percentage points or more in English and Welsh seats with the highest concentrations of middle-class professionals, car owners and those in good health. Both the decline in unemployment and the cuts to the public sector may have helped the Tories, who did better in seats with lower unemployment and fewer public sector workers.

The Conservatives’ success is impressive, but structural weaknesses remain. Conservative support was flat or falling in areas with large concentrations of ethnic minorities and students, and in the poorest parts of England and Wales. The party did less well in London, Yorkshire and north-west England.

Political divides by ethnicity, age and geography remain deep and the Conservatives still struggle to connect with groups whose numbers and political influence will grow. The new government’s majority is also smaller than the outgoing coalition’s and the party’s leaders will face a growing challenge from rebellious backbenchers, just as John Major, elected in similar circumstances, did after 1992.

Liberal Democrats

The Liberal Democrats went into this campaign believing that popular local incumbents and powerful electoral machines would enable them to hold back the tide of national unpopularity.

Their faith was misplaced – Lib Dem vote share fell only slightly less in seats they were defending, nowhere near enough to save most Lib Dems from a 15 percentage point national decline. Even long-established incumbents with powerful local machines such as Simon Hughes and Vince Cable could not undo the damage done by going into coalition. The election also ruthlessly exposed the Lib Dems’ lack of a loyal demographic core. Seats with large concentrations of the most traditionally Lib Dem-leaning groups – students, university graduates, middle-class professionals – saw even larger swings against the party.

The arguments that Nick Clegg and his colleagues made for coalition – the virtues of compromise, pragmatism and moderation – failed to convince many former Lib Dem voters, who seem more motivated by left liberal idealism or anti-establishment protest. In middle-class and university seats such as Cambridge and Bristol West, the Greens capitalised on the Lib Dems’ decline. In poorer northern England urban seats such as Redcar and Hull, disaffected working-class voters deserted the Lib Dems as the local opposition to Labour, opting instead for Ukip.

The Lib Dems could not prevent the Conservatives advancing in the key Lib Dem-Con marginals and were also unable to defend themselves from multiple challenges everywhere else. The large contingent of Scottish Lib Dems was, like Scottish Labour, swept away by the SNP tidal wave.

The road back for the Lib Dems is very hard because their collapse has been so complete – in many places the party collapsed from first or second place to fourth or lower. The party managed only about 55 second places in England and Wales, limiting its ability to appeal to disaffected voters. Ukip – with 120 second places – is in a stronger position to make that argument in many areas now.


In terms of vote share, election night was a huge success for Ukip – it won 13% of British voters, comfortably vaulting past the Lib Dems into third place on votes cast. However, in terms of seat share its night was an unmitigated failure – the party’s only MP is the Conservative defector, Douglas Carswell. All the other Ukip challengers, including party leader Nigel Farage, failed. Their problem is the mirror image of the Lib Dems – while Clegg’s party could not retain enough local support to offset national unpopularity, Farage’s was unable to concentrate votes to convert a national surge into local success.

The Ukip electoral coalition is familiar from opinion polls over the last few years. Ukip’s advance was strongest in seats with the largest concentrations of white voters, working-class voters, voters with no educational qualifications, and where opposition to immigration and the EU was highest. The strongest Ukip advances came in the seats along the east coast and in declining northern towns, where such factors came together. The party won shares of 25% or more in places such as Grimsby, Hartlepool, Thurrock and Boston and Skegness. Ukip’s performance also confounded those who argued that the party would primarily hurt the Conservatives – Ukip’s advance was slightly larger in Labour-held seats and Labour did four points worse in the areas where Ukip advanced most, compared to a 2-point Tory drop.

Ukip’s most significant achievement was its silver medal count: the party came second in 120 seats, both Labour (44) and Tory (76). The party can now campaign as the most viable local opposition in these seats, looking to win over a broader coalition of voters angry with the government. Yet if it is to convert these silver medals into seats, it has to work out why its target seat campaigns this year were a total failure. Several factors may have played a role – inexperienced and poorly resourced local party organisations, a lack of local credibility, and the party’s polarising national image. Whoever succeeds Farage will need to solve the problem that felled him – turning Ukip votes into Ukip seats.

 Rob Ford is senior lecturer in politics at the University of Manchester


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