Tiverton and Honiton in Devon have long been a conservative stronghold. But the Liberal Democrats believe they have a good chance of taking the seat in an impending by-election. The vote follows the resignation of former MP Neil Parish, who has admitted to watching pornography in the House of Commons.
My research in the south west of England suggests that the ruling party has every reason to be concerned. The dissatisfaction 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 setback against the status quo for these trends. It is clear from my interviews over the past few years that voters are looking for any opportunity to express their feelings to the main political parties through protest votes.
The exceptional circumstances of the 2016 EU referendum are an example of this. Rural voters saw a unique opportunity to express their frustrations over years of local decline by voting against the government’s position on Brexit.
Ignored and misunderstood
In the course of my research, I interviewed rural voters, who often told me that politicians think much more of 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. One participant living in rural Cornwall told me:
London is a thousand miles away from me and it’s completely different. They have no idea what much of the country needs or what they are going through. It could just as well be on another continent or country.
Another – a farmer living in Gloucestershire – felt that political decisions swung more towards the needs of London, even though “all those people spend quite a bit of 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 do not think 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 is an urban and urban party and that is what drives their policies.
There was a widespread sensitivity to the idea that a local MP was largely influenced by their party and might be held back.
One Somerset contestant said the south-east of England was “allowed to dominate” and “benefit” from Britain’s economy at the expense of almost every other region. He cited as an example the development of the high-speed rail system which was planned as a link between England’s metropolitan hubs and said he felt that “everything else was left behind”.
He went on to tell me that this sentiment was in fact a major factor in his decision to vote Leave in 2016, even though his natural position was to support staying in the European Union. He said he felt ignored by his local MP when confronted 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 received this one protest, they are not even replying to your emails anymore. Protest. So I have.
Other participants told me the only time they felt their vote was counted was in the referendum. Some said they also used voting exchange websites in other elections to give themselves a sense of agency. This will enable them to offer to vote a certain way in their local competition with the understanding that a voter will vote in another area as they have chosen as a way 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 class-based. He described the MP as “a multi-millionaire” who “can not identify with myself, who is from a council estate and working class”. The interview said:
I do not see how he has an idea how he can help me forward … he’s not going to do anything for me because I can not identify with the guy.
In the summer of 2020, one told me, “I probably voted 80% of my life conservatives, but I recently questioned whether they lost the conspiracy.”
Will party holes affect the mood?
One of the key questions in the Tiverton and Honiton by-elections is whether the vote should be treated as a referendum on the government after it came to light that Boris Johnson and his staff regularly attended social events during pandemic restrictions. We may not know for sure, but it was clear in my interviews that feelings were extremely negative in the wake of a similar scandal.
When it was found that Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s key adviser, had broken the lock-in rules in 2020, an interviewer told me “this is probably the worst bunch of politicians we’ve ever had in the history of our country”. That anger went up:
This country is calling for a strong leader, really strong leader, and we do not have one.
A prolonged decline in confidence in politicians has shaped voting dynamics in the UK for several years. And in rural areas, a sense of on the wrong side of a hostile rural / urban divide exacerbates that problem. However this next by-election goes, these deeper tendencies need to be addressed.