Tiverton and Honiton in Devon have long been a Conservative stronghold. But the Liberal Democrats believe they stand a good chance of winning a seat in the upcoming by-election. The vote follows the resignation of former MP Neil Parish, who admitted to watching porn in the House of Commons.
My research in the southwest of England shows that the ruling party has every reason to be concerned. Discontent and even hostility towards the political class have been palpable for some time.
Previous analysis of electoral geography has shown that rural and suburban areas have higher levels of support for Brexit and populist parties, citing backlash against the status quo of these trends. From my interviews over the past few years, voters are looking for every opportunity to communicate their feelings to the mainstream political parties through protest votes.
A case in point is the exceptional circumstance of the 2016 EU membership referendum. Rural voters saw a unique opportunity to express their dissatisfaction with years of local decline by voting against the government’s position on Brexit.
Missed and misunderstood
In the course of my research, I have interviewed rural voters who have often told me that politicians think much more about London and the South East than about other parts of the country. They also felt that national leaders had a poor understanding of the realities of rural life. One participant living in the Cornish countryside told me:
London is a thousand miles away from me and it’s completely different. They have no idea what most of the country needs or what they are going through. It might as well be on another continent or in another country.
Another, a farmer living in Gloucestershire, believes that political decisions are more responsive to the needs of London, although “all these people spend quite a lot of time in the Cotswolds” in second homes.
Even when the local MP was treated more warmly, the people I interviewed generally assumed that the MP’s party would still put urban areas first. As one participant told me:
I don’t think rural areas are a priority in politics. Even when we have an MP from a predominantly rural area, they are members of a political party that is urban and urban and that is what drives their politics.
There was a widespread sensitivity to the idea that the local MP was largely influenced by—and perhaps held back by—his party.
One participant from Somerset said that the south east of England was “allowed to dominate” and “benefit” from the British economy “at the expense of almost every other region”. He pointed to the development of a high-speed rail system planned as a link between England’s metropolitan hubs as an example, and said that he thought “everything else is being left behind”.
He went on to tell me that in fact this opinion was an important factor in his decision to vote to leave in 2016, even though his natural position was to support retention in the European Union. He said he felt he was being ignored by his local MP when he faced unemployment problems in the area. He told me:
At the end of the day, I thought, well, you’re 57 years old. You just got this protest, they don’t even answer your emails anymore. Protest. So I did.
Other participants told me that the only time they felt their vote was counted was in a referendum. Some said they also used vote-sharing websites in other elections to give themselves a sense of agency. This would allow them to propose voting in a certain way in their local contest, on the understanding that a voter in another area would vote the way they chose to influence the safe seat.
When a former British Army soldier from rural Dorset identified differences between himself and his local MP, they were predominantly class-based. He described the deputy as a “multi-millionaire” who “cannot identify himself, comes from the municipality and the working class.” The interview said:
I don’t understand how he envisions how he can help me move forward… he’s not going to do anything for me because I can’t identify with this guy.
In the summer of 2020, one of them told me, “I’ve voted Conservative for probably 80% of my life, but recently I’ve been wondering if they’ve lost the conspiracy.”
Will partygate affect voting?
One of the key questions in the Tiverton and Honiton by-elections is whether the vote should be treated as a government referendum after it was revealed that Boris Johnson and his staff regularly attended public events during the pandemic. We can’t know for sure, but it was clear from my interviews that the feelings after such a scandal were extremely negative.
When Dominic Cummings, a key adviser to Johnson, was discovered in 2020 to have violated quarantine rules, one interlocutor told me that “this is probably the worst group of politicians we have ever had in the history of our country.” This anger has reached the very top:
This country needs a strong leader, a really strong leader, and we don’t have one.
A long-term decline in confidence in politicians determined the dynamics of voting in the UK for several years. And in rural areas, the feeling that they are on the wrong side of a hostile division between rural and urban areas exacerbates this problem. Whichever way these next by-elections go, these deeper trends need to be addressed.