The general election results in Lincolnshire were to some extent a microcosm of the country as a whole. The Conservatives failed to make gains where they hoped and lost where they were expected to hang on. In contrast, Labour held seats they were expected to lose and unexpectedly made gains from the Conservatives. The UKIP vote collapsed, in a what had been a regional stronghold, but this benefitted Labour at least as much as the Conservatives.
The collapse in the UKIP vote was perhaps the most significant feature of this general election. Contrary to expectations while this did see voters turn back to the Conservatives, it also benefitted the Labour Party. In 2015, UKIP came second in five out of the seven constituencies in Lincolnshire. In last week’s election, UKIP were beaten into third or fourth place across the county, with the Conservatives and Labour taking first and second place in all seven constituencies.
Although Labour only took one seat in Lincolnshire it is now in a stronger position to contest seats in the next election, which may not be very far away. The party also held onto seats in Scunthorpe and Grimsby where it was anticipated that UKIP voters might switch to the Conservatives.
Another interesting question posed by this election was what would happen to ‘remain’ supporting MPs in ‘leave’ voting constituencies. Results in this region demonstrated how ‘remain’ voting MPs from both parties held off the UKIP challenge. In Grimsby, in which an estimated 70% voted to leave the EU in last year’s referendum, Labour’s Melanie Onn held the seat increasing her share of the vote. More significantly in Boston and Skegness, the most Eurosceptic constituency in the country with three out of four voters backing Brexit, the UKIP leader Paul Nuttall was defeated by the ‘remain’ voting Conservative, Matt Warman.
The Conservative loss in Lincoln was the most dramatic result in this region and in a number of respects reflected the national picture. Lincoln has been held by the party in government since 1974 and is often presented as a bellwether seat, changing hands when the government does. This situation changed dramatically last week.
The Conservatives could be forgiven for thinking they could hang on in Lincoln. Although Lincoln is a marginal constituency the Conservatives managed to increase their majority in 2015 and were perhaps assuming they could increase it again this time. However, such complacency was a failing of the Conservative campaign nationally and was also evident in Lincoln. Karl McCartney’s reluctance to take part in head-to-head debates with the other candidates reflected Theresa May’s unwillingness to participate in TV debates with Jeremy Corbyn. Such debates are now an established feature of election campaigns. Whatever their objections to the format, candidates failure to engage with the media can easily be construed as a reluctance to engage with the electorate.
The Conservatives also failed to commit the kind of resources to the campaign in Lincoln that they had two years earlier. In 2015, a succession of Conservative frontbenchers visited Lincoln and David Cameron chose the city to launch his English manifesto. Lincoln did not, however, feature in Theresa May’s campaign trail this time. In contrast, both Jeremy Corbyn and the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell visited the city. The assumption that a seat in which the Conservatives had only managed to increase their majority by less than 400 votes in 2015 was now safe, was the kind of complacency which cost the Conservatives their majority, both locally and nationally.
Another feature of the national results which is likely to have had an impact in Lincoln was the dramatic increase in turnout amongst young voters. It is estimated that turnout amongst younger voters increased from around 40% in 2015 to over 70% this time. Moreover, in contrast to older voters, polls indicate that the 18-24 age group was much more likely to vote Labour than Conservative. This is a demographic that the parties have tended to ignore in the past because of the low turnout amongst young people, they cannot afford to ignore them in future.
In other constituencies with a large student population most notably in Canterbury, Leeds and Sheffield, the student vote appears to have had a significant impact. This also seems to have been the case in Lincoln. With two universities in the city, students comprise up 15% of the electorate in Lincoln. Significant efforts were made to get out the vote among students in the city. While not all of them would have voted Labour, a large proportion will have done. Labour’s position on tuition fees undoubtedly attracted support, young people are also likely to be opposed to the hard Brexit advocated by Theresa May, while Karl McCartney’s well-documented position on issues such as gay marriage is also likely to have alienated younger voters.
The 2017 general election was a salutary reminder of the importance of election campaigns and the dangers of taking the voter for granted. The Conservatives were complacent in calling an election which they assumed would deliver an increased majority, and both locally and nationally, underestimated the impact of UKIP’s decline and the increase in support for Labour among young voters. With another general election in the near future a distinct possibility, it is not a mistake they can afford to make again.
This post first appeared on the website of the Lincolnshire Echo.