Berry last blog

Since newstatesman.com relaunched on 30 November 2006 Sian Berry has been a regular contributor on h

Yes, I know I promised to file a blog on eco-towns a fortnight ago. However, I have to confess I was tempted into moonlighting it away to the Telegraph, who are running a series of stories on what they are calling ‘Gordon’s poll tax’. So, for an update on the impressive number of campaigns that have emerged to oppose the fifteen shortlisted eco-town sites, you’ll have to read my article here.

In other news, therefore, the Greens have scored a second decent result in a by-election with our best ever mid-term Westminster score of 7.4 per cent and second place in Haltemprice and Howden.

Congratulations to Shan Oakes, who blogged her determined campaign for this site, and who worked incredibly hard to win many new voters in a seat we haven’t contested for many years.

This comes just two weeks after an excellent third place for our candidate Mark Stephenson in Henley, on an election stage that carried a full slate of parties, and where we beat a Labour candidate for the first time in a parliamentary election.

Interesting developments also in the Census Alert campaign to prevent arms company Lockheed Martin running the 2011 Census. No, not the response from the government to our petition, which we received this week. Their three paragraph missive said nothing much, other than they were getting everyone to sign agreements to look after our personal data properly, which is not particularly reassuring.

However, the Treasury Select Committee have been taking up the cause, rightly supporting our concerns about how the US Patriot Act (which forces US companies and their subsidiaries to hand over any data they hold that is deemed of interest to their country’s intelligence agencies) would apply to any work done by Lockheed on our Census.

In a recent report, the committee put in a strongly worded request for more work to be done, saying: “We remain concerned that the personal information gathered through the 2011 Census could be subject to the United States Patriot Act and therefore we ask the government to take clear legal advice and advice from the US State Department and to publish it in response to this Report.”

We’re now looking forward to reading this advice. If the legal position continues to be a grey area then, faced with the choice between breaking UK privacy laws and the Patriot Act, which government would Lockheed choose to ignore? The point of our campaign remains that it would be better to ensure the Census data is not allowed anywhere near Lockheed Martin by removing them from the procurement process altogether.

And finally, goodbye, as this will be my last blog for this site. From this week I will be going, if not undercover, then at least behind the scenes to work full-time in the Green Party press office. We have an extraordinarily important two years ahead of us, with European elections in 2009 followed (or possibly preceded) by a general election in which we have our best chance ever of making a breakthrough into Parliament.

With no elections I can personally fight until 2010 at the earliest, I have decided the best way I can serve my party is to help promote the excellent work of Greens around the country, and to help Caroline Lucas MEP make history by winning in Brighton Pavilion, where we already have a majority in local election votes.

Westminster elections are, of course, a world away from local polls, so winning there will be a tough and exciting challenge, but also a huge opportunity to make a real difference to UK politics which I am looking forward to with great relish.

I will miss the opportunity to blog here though. Not the angry and libelous comments I get in response, naturally, but it has been a privilege to be able to highlight the work of a wide range of campaigns and causes on this site. Over the past 22 months, lots of green issues have obviously had an airing, from the campaign to stop Heathrow expansion to the exploitation of Mongolia’s natural resources and the failings of the Tory Quality of Life review.

But I’ve also been able to bring up much wider issues, including local high streets, fair pay campaigns and free and open source software. I hope the New Statesman will continue to give all these issues prominence and trust it will find someone to replace me who has even more to talk about.

Sian Berry lives in Kentish Town and was previously a principal speaker and campaigns co-ordinator for the Green Party. She was also their London mayoral candidate in 2008. She works as a writer and is a founder of the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s
Cameron in Nuneaton. Photo: Getty
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Why fewer of us want a long-term relationship ... with a political party

In 2015, 38 per cent of voters backed a different party to the one they supported in 2010. So what does the rise of swing voters mean for British politics?

For decades political parties have competed furiously for one of the great prizes of British politics: the affections of the swing voter. It wasn’t that long ago that there were relatively few political swingers: until the 1990s, fewer than a quarter of voters would switch parties from one election to the next.

Yet that once relatively rare breed is becoming increasingly common, which means party campaigners are going to have to come up with new tactical thinking. The British Election Study survey panels, conducted episodically over the last fifty years, are unique in that they are able to track the same voters from one election to the next, unlike more conventional opinion polls that only look at a snapshot of voters at a given time. Using these studies, you can identify the percentage of voters who switch their vote from one party to another between each pair of elections since 1966 when such data was first collected.

In 1966 only around 13 per cent of voters had changed their minds since the previous election in 1964. Since then, the proportion of swingers has been steadily increasing, and by 2015, 38 per cent of voters backed a different party to the one they supported in 2010.

The increase in swing voters is pretty consistent. The only exceptions are between February and October 1974, when (understandably) fewer voters changed their minds in eight months than switched in the preceding four years, and between 1997 and 2001, when the electoral dominance of New Labour under Tony Blair held back the tide for a time. These two exceptions aside, the increase has been constant election-on-election.

A lot of vote shifting can go on even between elections where the overall result remains stable. In 2001, for example, more people switched votes than in any election before 1997, with a surprising level of turmoil beneath the surface stability. While these largely cancelled out on that occasion, it set the stage for more dramatic changes in the parties’ votes later on.

So British voters now seem more likely than ever to jump from party to party. But who exactly are these swingers? Are they disillusioned former party loyalists? Or have British voters simply stopped getting into a serious relationship with the parties in the first place? We can get some insight into this using data from the yearly British Social Attitudes Survey, looking at the number of respondents who say that they do not identify with any of the political parties (party identifiers tend to switch much less often) when they are asked ‘Generally speaking, do you think of yourself as a supporter of any one political party?’ and then ‘Do you think of yourself as a little closer to one political party than to the others?’ if they say no to the first question. The graph below combines data from 1984 to 2013. Each line represents people who were born in a different year. Higher lines mean that there are more people who do not identify with a political party. So, for instance, voters born in 1955 started with very low levels of non-identification (22 per cent), which have gradually risen to 44 per cent in the latest survey. Most of the lines on the graph go up over time, which shows that almost all generations are falling out of love with the parties.

However, an acquired taste in swinging among the older generations is dwarfed by the promiscuous younger generations – shown by the dashed lines – most of whom never form an attachment to a party at all. Each generation in the data has been less committed to the parties than the previous generation was at the same age, with around 60 per cent of the youngest generation – those born since 1985 – expressing no attachment to any political party.

Since most of this change has been a generational shift, it may be a long road back for the parties. Loyalty to parties is often handed down in families, with children inheriting their parents’ commitment to a party. Now that this process has broken down, and younger generations have lost their attachment to parties, they may in turn pass on this political detachment to their children.

The majority of younger voters have simply never grown up with the idea of getting into a long-term relationship with a political party, so they may never settle down. Many Labour MPs were outraged when it turned out that lots of the new members who joined up to vote for Jeremy Corbyn had voted for the Green Party just a few months before, but this may simply reflect the political approach of a generation who see parties as needing to earn their vote each time rather than commanding lasting, even unconditional loyalty.

If Britain’s newfound taste for swinging isn’t going to disappear any time soon, what does it mean for party competition? In the past most people had settled partisan views, which seldom changed. General elections could be won by attracting the relatively small group of voters who hadn’t made up their minds and could very easily vote for either of the two main parties, so political parties based their strategies around mobilising their core voters and targeting the few waverers. While they worried about traditional loyalists not turning up to the polls, the parties could be assured of their supporters’ votes as long as they got them to the voting booth.

Nowadays, swing voters are no longer a small section of the electorate who are being pulled back and forth by the parties, but a substantial chunk of all voters. This helps to explain why politicians have been so surprised by the sudden rise of new parties competing for groups previously thought to be reliable supporters. The new parties that have entered British politics have also allowed voters to express their views on issues that don’t fall neatly into traditional left– right politics such as immigration (UKIP) or Scottish independence (the SNP). This in turn has posed a dilemma for the traditional parties, who are pulled in multiple directions trying to stop their voters being tempted away.

This may just be the start. If the number of swing voters stays this high, the parties will have to get used to defending themselves on multiple fronts.

This is an extract from More Sex, Lies and the Ballot Box, edited by Philip Cowley and Robert Ford.