Tiverton and Honiton in Devon have long been a Conservative stronghold. But the Liberal Democrats believe they have a good chance of winning the seat in an impending by-election. The vote follows the resignation of former MP Neil Parish, who admitted watching pornography in the Commons chamber.
My research in the South West of England suggests that the government party has every reason to be concerned. Discontent and even resentment towards the political class has been palpable for some time.
Previous analyzes of electoral geography have identified rural and non-metropolitan areas as having higher levels of support for Brexit and populist parties, citing a backlash against the status quo for these trends. It is clear from my interviews over the past few years that voters seek any opportunity to make their feelings known to the major political parties through protest votes.
The exceptional circumstance of the 2016 EU referendum is a good example. Rural voters saw a unique opportunity to vent their frustrations over years of local decline by voting against the government’s position on Brexit.
Neglected and misunderstood
During my research, I interviewed rural voters, who often told me that politicians thought much more about London and the South East than other parts of the country. They also felt that national leaders had little understanding of the realities of rural life. A participant living in rural Cornwall told me:
London is thousands of miles from my home and it’s totally different. They have no idea what much of the country needs or what they are going through. It might as well be on another continent or country.
Another – a farmer living in Gloucestershire – felt policy decisions were geared more towards London’s needs, even though “all these people are spending quite a bit of time in the Cotswolds” in second homes.
Even when there were warmer feelings about a local MP, people I interviewed generally felt that an MP’s party would always prioritize urban areas. As one participant told me:
I don’t think rural areas are a priority in politics. Even when we have a member from a predominantly rural area, he is a member of a political party that is an urban party and that is what drives his policies.
There was widespread sensitivity to the idea that a local MP is heavily influenced – and perhaps restrained – by his party.
A participant from Somerset said the south east of England “has been allowed to dominate” and “benefit” from the UK economy at the “expense of almost every other region”. He cited as an example the development of the planned high-speed rail system as a link between England’s metropolitan hubs and said he felt “everywhere else is being left behind”.
He went on to tell me that, in fact, that sentiment was a big factor in his decision to vote Leave in 2016, even though his natural stance had been to support staying in the European Union. He said he felt ignored by his local MP when he confronted him about the unemployment issues in the area. He told me:
At the end of the day, I thought, well, you’re 57. You just got this one protest, they don’t even respond to your emails anymore. Demonstration. So I did.
Other participants told me that the only time they felt their vote counted was in the referendum. Some said they also used vote-trading websites in other elections to give themselves a sense of agency. This would allow them to offer to vote a certain way in their local contest, with the understanding that a voter from another area would vote in any way they chose in order to have an impact in a safe seat.
When a former British Army soldier from rural Dorset identified differences between him and his local MP, they were mainly based on class. He described the MP as ‘a multi-millionaire’ who ‘can’t identify with myself, who comes from a city and a working class background’. The interview said:
I don’t see how he has any idea how he can help me move forward… he’s not going to do anything for me because I can’t relate to the guy.
In the summer of 2020, one said to me, “I’ve voted Conservative for probably 80% of my life, but recently I’ve wondered if they’ve lost the plot. »
Will partygate affect the vote?
One of the key questions in the Tiverton and Honiton by-election is whether the vote should be treated as a referendum on government after it was revealed that Boris Johnson and his staff were regularly attending social events during pandemic closures. We can’t know for sure, but it was clear in my interviews that feelings were overwhelmingly negative following a similar scandal.
When Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s top adviser, was discovered to have broken lockdown rules in 2020, one interviewee told me ‘this is probably the worst bunch of politicians we’ve ever had in the history of our country”. This anger went all the way to the top:
This country needs a strong leader, a real strong leader, and we don’t have one.
A long-standing decline in trust in politicians has shaped voting dynamics in the UK for a few years. And in rural areas, the feeling of being on the wrong side of a hostile rural/urban divide exacerbates this problem. Regardless of the direction of this upcoming by-election, these deeper trends must be addressed.