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4 June 2021updated 04 Sep 2021 1:25pm

How Labour’s vote has plummeted in England’s most deprived areas

In the poorest neighbourhoods the story is of Labour decline, not just Conservative advance. 

By Ben Walker

The local elections were an unmitigated success for the Conservatives:  in summary, a near-repeat of the 2019 general election. But when you drill down into what happened in individual neighbourhoods, Conservative advances in some of England’s most deprived areas appear smaller than in less deprived ones. 

Neighbourhoods in England are assigned a deprivation score out of 100, based on factors such as income, employment status, and local housing. Places with low scores are less deprived, those with higher numbers more so. In the top 3 per cent of areas in England for deprivation – places with high or very high levels of poverty – Labour’s vote fell by seven percentage points on average when compared to the previous election. The Conservative vote, however, rose on average by only six points.

The more deprived the neighbourhood, the more the Labour vote fell
Average change in support for party by ward and deprivation score (percentile) from the English Indices of Multiple Deprivation (2019)

This discrepancy might appear small but it is more sizeable in other instances. Brinnington and Central ward in Stockport is one such example. In this neighbourhood, which suffers some of the highest levels of deprivation in England, the Labour vote fell by 15 points compared to 2016, while the Tory vote only rose by eight points.

In Hull’s Docklands ward, meanwhile, Labour’s vote collapsed (by 16 points). The Tories, however, were not the main beneficiary: they fell back by five points, while the Liberal Democrats rose by 17 points. In isolation, these instances don’t mean much for the national picture, but in aggregate they tell an important story. 

Away from the extremes, in parts of England with average or above-average deprivation – including neighbourhoods in County Durham, Kirklees (and, yes, Batley), Basildon, Nuneaton and others – the Conservative vote rose by an average of 12 points compared to 2016 and 2017.

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[see also: Who will win the Batley and Spen by-election?]

What we can infer from this is that the link between the Conservative vote and deprivation is too nuanced for simplistic narratives and must be marked with an asterisk or two. Areas of extreme deprivation did not move towards the Conservatives by as much as those with less pronounced levels of poverty.

What did happen – across the board and most intensely in areas of extreme deprivation – was a dramatic fall in voter confidence in Labour. As a general trend, the less deprived a ward, the less the Labour vote fell. 

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In areas with the lowest levels of deprivation, the Labour vote was little changed compared to 2016, a reflection of the changing nature of the party’s support base. In fact, when set against the Tory vote in isolation, one could argue that in Britain’s least deprived seats, there was a marginal swing towards Labour. 

Such a data point might explain the gains for the party in south-east areas of England such as Chipping Norton and Canterbury. But these gains – welcome as they are for an opposition party – were too few and far between to compensate for the avalanche of losses in Red-Wall Britain. Labour’s new voters won’t propel the party to power unless it can somehow stem, and reverse, the losses among its traditional base.

[see also: Labour will never win again if it can’t acknowledge, let alone answer, the English Question