The politics of place: The upcoming UK general election

The Caledonian Mercury, an online Scottish newspaper, has put up a great piece by John Knox on the importance of geography to an understanding of the upcoming general election in the UK. Electoral geographers have long argued for a place-based approach to analysing electoral behaviour (something all two of us in this department have shown on this blog!), but it is interesting to see the political media discuss it. Interestingly, Knox argues that voters ‘relearn’ the politics of place during an election campaign, resulting in the concept of ‘constituency’ (this election will be fought in 650 constituencies) becoming much more important. Over the next three weeks, MPs will leave the parliament behind to travel around the UK on the campaign trail. People start talking about ‘communities’ and local political issues, such as those based on schools, hospitals and crime, gain an increased importance. National media will follow the current politicians and new candidates and report the response they get from the doorsteps. Observers are shown that different places in the UK, because of their histories and varying linkages to other places, are very different. Contextual theories of electoral behaviour would suggest that political identify varies considerably across space or between places because of this phenomenon. The fallout from the economic downturn in the UK, for example, has not been evenly distributed across the country. Voters in some places have suffered more than those in others and this may have an effect on the geography of the vote in certain constituencies.

Party strategists have taken geography into account when planning their campaigns. The key places for them in terms of canvassing, as Knox points out, will be the marginal wards in the marginal constituencies. Given that the UK uses the single-seat ‘first past the post’ electoral system, even a small number of votes could be vital in these constituencies. All eyes will be on Chorley constituency in north-west England. The seat has gone to the party which eventually formed the new government in every election since 1964.

Knox accurately sums up the article when he says that the election on the 6th of May “may be fought in the air-waves but it will be won the ground”. National averages, such as those found in the wave of opinion polls being released, hide numerous localistic nuances and deviations from the norm. The electoral behaviour that emerges will be built from the ‘bottom-up’ and not from the ‘top-down’.

The Times Online has a brilliant interactive map page that illustrates current party support patterns based on polls and outlines the key seats.

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