Tiverton and Honiton in Devon has long been a Conservative stronghold. But the Liberal Democrats believe they have a good chance of taking the seat in an impending byelection. The vote follows the resignation of former MP Neil Parish, who admitted to watching porn in the House of Commons chamber.
My research in the south-west of England suggests the party of government has every reason to be worried. The discontent and even resentment towards the political class have been palpable for some time.
Previous analyses of electoral geography 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’s clear from my interviews over the past few years that voters are looking for any opportunity to make their feelings known to the main political parties through protest votes.
The exceptional circumstance of the 2016 EU referendum is a case in point. Rural voters saw a unique opportunity to express their frustrations about years of local decline by voting against the government’s position on Brexit.
Overlooked and misunderstood
In the course of my research, I’ve interviewed rural voters, who often told me politicians think far more about London and the south-east than other parts of the country. They also felt national leaders have little understanding of the realities of rural life. One participant living in rural Cornwall told me:
London is a thousand miles away from me and it’s totally different. They haven’t got any idea of what a lot of the country needs or what they’re going through. It might as well be on a different continent or country.
Another – a farmer living in Gloucestershire – felt that political decisions sway more towards the needs of London, even though “all those people are spending quite a bit of the time in the Cotswolds” in second homes.
Even when there were warmer feelings towards a local MP, the people I interviewed generally felt that an MP’s party would still put urban areas first. As one participant told me:
I don’t think that rural areas are a priority in politics. Even when we have an MP from an area that is predominantly rural, they are a member of a political party that’s a city and urban-based party and that’s what their policies are driven by.
There was a widespread sensitivity to the idea that a local MP is largely influenced – and perhaps held back – by their party.
One participant from Somerset said the south-east of England “has been allowed to dominate” and “benefit” from Britain’s economy at the “expense of almost every other region”. He pointed to the development of the high-speed rail system planned as a link between England’s metropolitan hubs as an example and said he felt that “everywhere else is being left behind”.
He went on to tell me that, in fact, this sentiment was a large factor in his decision to vote Leave in 2016, even though his natural position had been to support remaining in the European Union. He said he felt ignored by his local MP when confronting him with issues of unemployment in the area. He told me:
At the end of the day I thought, well, you’re a 57-year-old. You just got this one protest, they don’t even answer your emails anymore. Protest. So I did.
Other participants told me the only time they felt their vote counted was in the referendum. Some said they also used vote swapping 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 on the understanding that a voter in another area would vote the way they chose as a way of having an impact in a safe seat.
When an ex-British Army soldier from rural Dorset identified differences between himself and his local MP, they were predominantly class-based. He described the MP as “a multi-millionaire” who “can’t identify with myself, who’s from a council estate and working class”. The interview said:
I don’t see how he has any idea how he can help me going forward … he’s not going to do nothing for me because I can’t identify with the bloke.
In the summer of 2020, one told me: “I’ve voted Conservatives for probably 80% of my life but recently I have questioned whether they’ve lost the plot.”
Will partygate affect the vote?
One of the key questions in the Tiverton and Honiton byelection is whether the vote should be treated as a referendum on the government after it was revealed that Boris Johnson and his staff were regularly attending social events during pandemic lockdowns. We can’t know for sure, but it was clear in my interviews that feelings were extremely negative in the wake of a similar scandal.
When Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s key adviser, was found to have broken lockdown rules in 2020, an interviewee told me “this is probably the worst bunch of politicians we’ve ever had in the history of our country”. That anger went all the way to the top:
This country is crying out for a strong leader, real strong leader, and we’ve not got one.
A longstanding decline in trust in politicians has shaped voting dynamics in the UK for some years. And in rural areas, a sense of being on the wrong side of a hostile rural/urban divide exacerbates that problem. Whichever way this next byelection goes, these deeper trends need to be addressed.