Willies now make up the bulk of the passengers on the East Coast trains that leave Edinburgh Waverley almost every half-hour. Photo: Getty
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Charting the rise of the new Willies

There are more people than ever who work in London but live in Edinburgh.

Everyone needs a Willie – that was Margaret Thatcher’s naive remark about how much she depended on her deputy Willie Whitelaw to keep her government out of trouble. Thirty-odd years later, the word has taken on a new connotation north of the border. A “Willie” is someone who “works in London [but] lives in Edinburgh” and their number is increasing.

The collapse of RBS and HBOS, two large banks headquartered in Edinburgh, as well as the economic downturn, has led to an increase in the numbers of people doing a 400-mile commute twice, or sometimes more, every week. After the takeover of NatWest by RBS in 2000 and the 2001 merger of Halifax and the Bank of Scotland, there was a significant transfer north of high-powered bankers. In 2008, many of them disappeared – some to admire their redundancy cheques; others back to London.

Willies now often make up the bulk of the passengers on the frequent early-morning flights from Edinburgh to London, as well as the East Coast trains that leave Edinburgh Waverley almost every half-hour and do the journey to King’s Cross in as little as four hours. The trains back on Thursday or Friday nights are like parties, the long-distance commuters celebrating the journey home with champagne and smoked salmon. Most have paid £229 for an East Coast Scottish executive return ticket, which gives them first-class travel and food.

Needless to say, it’s easier for single people such as Ed James. He was an RBS IT expert whose job moved from the bank’s Edinburgh headquarters to London in 2012. He began to commute each week from Drem, 20 miles east of Edinburgh. At first, he would take a taxi to Edinburgh Airport and then a flight to London City. As a long-time fan of police thrillers, he began trying his hand at writing them. James would start writing at 5.30am on Mondays in the taxi to the airport and would carry on as soon as he got through airport security; he continued writing all the way to his office as he travelled by plane, DLR and Tube. He says his editor could tell which bits he’d written in the taxi and which on a plane.

After three or four months of commuting by air, James, who describes himself as “comfortably built”, switched to travelling by train, which gave him more room and four hours to focus on writing. His ebooks, featuring DC Scott Cullen, proved so lucrative that he is now a full-time novelist. He says he is delighted with his new life, which he admits would never have begun if it wasn’t for his commute.

Some working mothers are also Willies. Jayne-Anne Gadhia is the chief executive of Virgin Money and one of the most influential people in the British banking sector. She lives in Edinburgh but mostly works in London. Gadhia, who reportedly earned more than £1m last year, regularly gets up at 3am to catch the 5.40am train out of Waverley, arriving at King’s Cross just in time for a 10am meeting. Gadhia is married with a 12-year-old daughter and insists she’d rather live in Edinburgh than commute daily from the Home Counties. She is fortunate that her parents live with her and can help with childcare.

The old Norman Tebbit exhortation to “get on your bike” to find employment works for Willies – but it helps if you can travel first class and have someone at home to hold the fort. I didn’t find any two-Willie households.

Alan Cochrane presents “Rise of the Willies” on BBC Radio 4 on 19 May at 11am

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Why empires fall

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.