Will the 'volatile voter' be the key to General Election?

Allegra Stratton

Former National Editor

  • Video report by ITV News National Editor Allegra Stratton

The battleground we’re looking at is a slightly different one this time: not a geographical place but instead people themselves. We’re familiar with the idea of the ‘floating voter’ but now there are many more than ever before.

Professor Jane Green, ITV’s election analyst, shows us how since 2010 almost half of voters have voted in different ways from one election to the next. She calls this ‘voter volatility’.

In her crunching of the British Election Study, Professor Green has found the largest amount of switching in modern times - even more than when Tony Blair won his 1997 landslide. This reached a high in 2015 when 43% cast their vote in that election totally differently from the election before. At the last election, 2017, this was slightly down as people went back to vote for one of Tories or Labour. But even so, it was still high.

People are less and less likely to have a set go-to party they vote for time and time again - she calls this 'partisan dealignment' but I inelegantly call it 'the end of tribal politics'. For me, and my generation, it doesn't feel that unusual an idea but I know from reporting on politics around the country for many years that a lot of people are very committed not to just to how they voted in elections before, but their parents and grandparents too.

Jeremy Corbyn message on working practices is getting through. Credit: PA

Alongside this decoupling, people then respond unpredictably to abrupt changes in the status-quo. Professor Green has five of them: an increase in immigration after 2004 is the first shock; then the 2008 economic crash; next the Lib Dem-Tory coalition and then the fall-out from two referendums: first Scotland’s, then Brexit.

This was certainly stood up when we talked in depth to people at a hustings on Tuesday night at Portsmouth University. In Portsmouth South – after steady periods returning Conservative MPs and then Lib Dems since 2010 it’s gone three ways: Lib Dem, Tory and then Labour. We showed them the five shocks.

Yusuf voted Labour at the last election because of their generous tuition fees policy, but he was now going to be voting Conservative on account of Brexit. Even though he stood to lose money if he didn't get a Labour government pledging to help him pay for his education, Brexit was now uppermost in his mind.

Boris Johnson is winning voters on Brexit. Credit: PA

Ollie used to vote Lib Dem but said he couldn’t after they went into coalition with the Conservatives. Ever since then he has been in a quandary and at the election coming expects to vote Labour.

Lastly Sheena had been a Lib Dem voter and indeed a candidate but the most important shock for her was the increase in immigration after 2004. That set her off on a journey via UKIP, Conservatives and now maybe the Brexit party even though she described herself to me as a “socialist”.

That’s just three and before that, we met many more people who seemed genuinely interested in the idea of the ‘volatile voter’. Normally when you do voxes (my producer Nathan will vouch for the fact there is not a single vox I do not haunted by Brasseye's ‘speak your brains!!’), people are wary they will end up on national TV sounding gormless (we really try hard not to do this). But when we explained our idea this time around, people were really engaged. They seemed grateful to be told it wasn’t just them - that many more people out there switched wildly between parties, supposed to be opposites.

Stephen Morgan won the last election in Portsmouth South. Credit: PA

What happens next? Professor Green wasn’t sure whether the volatility will continue into this election. You might expect it to - culturally we all shop around in so many aspects of our lives - but you can't rule out that a political party that responds best to policy challenges of the next few years could build a new tribal loyalty - the Labour Party is connecting well with people over the insecurity of the modern workplace; Boris Johnson with people over Brexit.

Looking at the immediate poll, the debate for us is whether people who were going to change their vote after Brexit already did so in 2017 or whether the effect of that particular shock has still not fully played itself out. Will we see many more Remain voters change their party and indeed will all those Labour leave voters - who the Tories are so monomaniacal about - finally make the leap?

Finally, what about the politics of Portsmouth South? It's the Tories target seat No 22 on the list. On both sides of the divide the Labour and Tory votes could both be diluted: we met naturally Labour supporters who were going to go Lib Dem because of Brexit… and Tories who will go for the Brexit party. People thought the Labour MP Stephen Morgan was very well regarded and he could hold on but then along from his constituency office I went into a garage where all five men manning the phones and the till, some of whom had been Labour voters, said they were going ‘Boris’. At least they were clear.

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