Tories fall at the post

July 4, 1997

Huw Richards talks to the new education shadows as the Tories slide off the road

William Hague and the Conservative party face an even more massive task in trying to overturn Labour's 179-seat majority than had been previously thought.

Research by electoral geographers at Bristol and Sheffield universities shows that Labour's systematic targeting of marginal seats has given it an enormous built-in advantage under the first-past-the-post electoral system.

Labour led by 13 percentage points, 44.4 to 31.3, at the May 1 poll. But even if the two main parties had split their share of the vote down the middle, winning just under 38 per cent each, Labour's success in the marginals means it would still have led the Conservatives by 89 seats and would have won an overall majority of 26.

Assuming a uniform national swing, the Conservatives would have to have led Labour by 8 per cent in order to have any advantage in seats, and would have needed a lead of almost 12 per cent to win a Commons majority.

Whereas in February 1974, when both parties won 37-38 per cent of the vote, Labour led the Conservatives by four and fell well short of an overall majority.

Ron Johnston, professor of geography at Bristol University, conducted the Economic and Social Research Council-funded work with Bristol colleagues David Rossiter and Danny Dorling and Sheffield geographer Charles Pattie.

He said: "Labour was extraordinarily efficient at targeting its effort. It was noticeable that where Labour were well ahead and did not need the extra vote, their vote did not pick up very much and turnout was often very low."

The Conservatives have already signalled their intention to match Labour's targeting effort, but Professor Johnston suggests that it will not be that easy.

"Our findings show the immense importance of local campaigning. Labour and the Liberal Democrats poured people into marginal seats and got results that way," he said.

He points to research by Sheffield University's Pat Seyd and Paul Whiteley showing that Conservative membership is in steep decline, and dominated by the elderly.

"William Hague is not much more than half the age of the average Conservative party member," he said and suggests that the Conservatives may not have enough people on the ground.

The full research will be presented at the annual conference of the Political Studies Association's elections, parties and public opinion group this autumn.

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