If a political sea-change happens in 2024, it could begin on the lower Thames
The sustained polling gap between the two main parties has held up for some time now. Recently it has led to a discussion about the historical template for what will happen in 2024. Will this election be a repeat of 1992, when long-running leads for Labour flattered to deceive? Or will it be more like 1997, when the electorate were as good as their word? One piece argued that the outcome could be even worse than this, from a Tory perspective – akin to Labour’s loss in 1931. More recently, commentators have begun to predict the opposite – that Sunak could rescue victory from the jaws of defeat.
This article isn’t seeking to put forward an alternate prophesy. Rather, it looks at a British sub-region which is itself, from an electoral perspective, deeply portentous: the Thames Estuary. If an earthquake is about to happen, then its first tremors could be felt there.
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‘Both harbinger and bellwether’
It was an Estuary constituency, Basildon, which foretold Labour’s disappointment in 1992. When it was announced that the seat had been held by the late David Amess at 11.22pm on April 9th of that year, it signalled the start of an unexpectedly bad evening for Labour. Indeed, Basildon’s nose for an electoral winner subsequently led the think tank Demos to publish a 65 page report in 2001, seeking to understand the town.
Five years later, Labour gains across north Kent and south Essex ensured that 1997 would not be a re-run of that night. Among the seats switching from blue to red was Dartford, the UK’s longest-running bellwether – which has voted for the winning party at every election since 1964. Even Castle Point shifted, albeit for just a single term, to Labour. Such results helped to deliver a thumping landslide for Tony Blair, and many of the other constituencies along the Estuary, like Chatham and Aylesford, stayed red for the precise length of time that Labour was in office – returning to the Conservatives in 2010.
I have spent a quite a bit of time in this part of the country. But I became interested in it from an electoral angle a couple of years ago, when I was asked to proof an article by geo-demographic expert Richard Webber (creator of the ACORN and MOSAIC segmentation tools). His piece, which is well worth reading in full, referred to the role of the Thames Estuary as “both harbinger and bellwether” – a phrase that stuck with me. It prompted me to see what happened if you traced things back further.
The chart below shows the result of doing this, depicting the swings to and from Labour and the Tories, during three seminal moments for post-war British politics: 1935-1945, 1974-83 (which I treat as a landslide in two parts) and 1992-1997. It takes the national swing, for each of these electoral shifts, and compares it to the swing in the Estuary sub-region.
(The Estuary swing is deduced by aggregating votes in the 10-15 seats in the area, effectively treating them as one constituency. The seats I’ve classified as ‘Estuary’ for each election are listed at the end of this piece, and generally run from Barking to Southend and from Woolwich to the Isle of Sheppey. I include only those constituencies which physically touch the Thames or its biggest tributary, the Medway, at the time of the respective votes. In a few cases the shifting boundaries mean there is not a perfect comparison of like with like, but the overall Estuary electorate is large enough that I think the outcomes hold up).
As we can see, at each of the three turning points the Estuary swung much more dramatically towards the eventual winner than the UK as a whole. In 1945, in particular, seats arrayed along the north and south banks of the lower Thames delivered a swing to Labour which was more than half again the national average. Estuary electors can take disproportionate credit for the landslide which Attlee, Bevan, Bevin and co were granted.
Fast forward to 1979 and 1983 and we see a curious reversal of this. Margaret Thatcher’s great success in those two elections was in winning over upwardly mobile voters in working-class constituencies. And nowhere was this more pronounced than on the Thames Estuary. Constituencies like Hornchurch – which at that point ran all the way down to Rainham Marshes and the river – saw successive shifts towards the Tories which eclipsed the national swings, pushing the Conservatives into new sociological territory.
Eighteen years later, this corner of England again changed its mind more fervently than anywhere else. The Estuary, it appears, was particularly swayed by the promise of Third Way social democracy. The electoral pen portraits who the New Labour project made famous (such as ‘Mondeo Man’) were, perhaps, particularly abundant on the lower Thames.
And nor does the story end in 1997. The EU Referendum result in 2016 arguably represents a fourth major sea change in post-war politics. It was a revolt against the forces of globalisation, a revenge for ‘left behind’ Britain, a rejection of the liberal norms in cities, or a plebiscite on immigration – depending on who you listen to.
Here, once again, the Thames Estuary presented to us in caps lock what the rest of the UK was quietly jotting down. As the chart below shows, the aggregate Leave vote, in the 12 local authorities downstream from the Thames Barrier, was 65% – 13 percentage points higher than the national figure.
The area therefore seems to have a sort of ‘kingmaker’ quality, its thumb wavering when the rest of the country has already made up its mind – impulsive and judicious all at once. It is no more beholden to one ‘side’ than the other, and is not a heartland for either party. As 1992 showed, the Estuary holds out later than other parts of the country; it requires more persuasion, its Tories are ‘shy’. But once it shifts it really shifts, stridently and without pausing further. With the polls poised as they are, this makes it an interesting place to think about.
Like everywhere else, but more so…
Why are national shifts magnified on Thames Estuary? It is traditionalist, yes, but not so traditionalist as to be above unceremoniously ditching Winston Churchill in 1945. It is collectivist and working-class in many areas, too, but not so much so as to balk at voting for Thatcher’s brand of individualism. It is exercised in some quarters about immigration and English culture. But not so exercised as to turn its nose up at Tony Blair in 1997 – who at the time seemed enthusiastic about joining the Euro.
Even on Brexit, the area is hard to pin down. A recent MRP poll for Unherd suggested that Estuary seats are now, like most of the country, prone to ‘Bregret’ – despite, as we’ve seen, heavily backing Leave seven years ago. Dagenham and Rainham had an estimated Leave vote of 70%, for example, making it the 17th most Eurosceptic seat. Yet according to Unherd’s poll it’s now in the top half of UK constituencies for ‘Bregret’ (309th of 632).
Unlike Lincolnshire, and a scattering of socially conservative strongholds on the east coast – where buyer’s remorse is still in relatively short supply – the Thames Estuary electorate does not appear to have stuck to its Leave-voting guns. It is, perhaps, as unsentimental about Brexit as it was about the Attlee, Thatcher and Blair projects, once their times had passed. It will not, it would seem, be in this part of Britain that the Brexit flame is kept alive.
In a certain respect, the Thames Estuary is like the UK as a whole, only more so. Its experiences of World War Two were as acute as anywhere in Britain, for example, with the prevalence of munitions factories meaning that large areas further upstream were heavily bombed, and that communities downstream remain to this day punctuated with pillboxes and other concrete fortifications. You can understand why Attlee’s notion of ‘winning the peace’ might have been resonant for a part of the country which had been central to the war effort, and which had seen its population and landscape decimated. New Towns like Basildon and utopian architectural projects like Thamesmead epitomise, in many ways, the brave new world that followed.
The economic and industrial changes which Britain underwent in the latter part of the 20th century are also, for better and worse, very apparent in this area. Upstream, the Millennium Dome and Docklands are within touching distance. Downstream you find the remnants of the Ford factory and the port at Tilbury – not to mention an array of seaside towns and villages, the resilience of which has been severely tested by budget air travel.
This economic landscape may come with additional challenges, not currently faced in many northern or Midlands towns, thanks to a housing market and living costs which are broadly in line with London. Yet the story here is more complicated than in other industrial and post-industrial areas. Thatcherism gave to as well as took from Estuary communities; proximity to London and the new sectors opening up there meant a totally different experience of the 1980s to South Yorkshire or the Welsh Valleys. The result is that a large number of Estuary seats are what I termed in a previous piece ‘deprived bellwethers’ – places that have the socioeconomic profile you’d associate with Labour, but without a historic loyalty to the party. (In a certain respect these ‘deprived bellwethers’ are the opposite of the Red Wall – a term which, as Anthony Wells points out, was intended to denote areas that are “less Conservative than you would have expected given their demographics”).
Added to this, the Thames Estuary has seen some of the most rapid inward migration anywhere in Britain, during the past two decades – partly due to the expansion and expense of London. This has happened in places with non-diverse histories, and the radical or populist right has succeeded at points in using such changes to stir up local tensions. The BNP and UKIP gained the same fleeting traction, in parts of the Estuary, as other political movements had done beforehand here – rearing their heads and then fading away.
Still a harbinger?
Does this area retain its power to forecast? A brief Guardian article after the 2005 election described Gravesham as a ‘broken bellwether’, after the seat bucked the national trend for the first time in many years, and some might suggest more broadly that the Estuary’s time as an electoral compass has passed. Perhaps the Red and Blue ‘walls’ are now the primary sites of political interest.
Certainly, the swings required for Labour to win in some Estuary constituencies would be enormous. Dartford’s current Tory majority over Labour is 19,160, for example. Gravesham’s is 15,581. Yet this partly reflects the blunt fact that Labour spent so much of the 2010s so far from power. If the party is going to overturn a Tory majority of 80 within one term at the national level, as some are predicting, then this will involve dramatic swings in individual seats like these.
There are short-term elements to factor in here. Another Unherd MRP analysis, from just before Christmas, looked at agreement with the statement ‘I worry about affording basic necessities, such as food and energy’. Thames Estuary seats registered, almost without exception, amongst the highest levels of agreement in the UK. The deep economic challenges which this suggests the area is experiencing could push cultural questions like Brexit to the back of the queue, despite the best efforts of the Conservatives to keep these issues live.
In a more long-term sense, meanwhile, there may be deeper trends afoot, which could help the lower Thames to retain its ‘harbinger’ status. The factors which have given the Thames Estuary its seer-like qualities are, after all, heavily rooted in demographic shifts in and out of London – e.g. the settlement of pre-war Londoners to New Towns – and further such changes may be afoot.
A piece in 2018 by pollsters Ian Warren and Chris Curtis, for instance, described the voting patterns among ex-Londoners in the south of England as a “timebomb” for the Conservatives. The article talked partly of the Labourisation of leafier climes (such as the Remain-voting ex-Tory areas subsequently dubbed Blue Wall). But it also name-checked Thurrock, Medway and Dartford as areas experiencing among the highest influxes of former London residents. These often comprise pro-EU voters in white collar jobs – fleeing not the capital’s inner-city problems or rates of crime (which past generations might have moved to the Estuary to escape) but its high house prices.
To understand this better it’s worth reading the property pages as much as the politics sections. Zoopla published a list, immediately before the pandemic, of the ten ‘best value commuter towns’ near London – almost all of them on or near the Estuary. The comparative affordability of the area thus makes it an attractive proposition for older graduates and aspiring home-owners, unable to buy in the capital yet needing to work there. COVID-19, which introduced hybrid working to a whole range of new sectors, will surely have accelerated this – especially given the cost-of-living crisis and the state of the housing market. And more specific factors, from Southend being awarded City status to the Elizabeth Line opening a fast service to Abbey Wood, may have amplified it further.
All of this follows hot on the heels of the diversification of the lower Thames in the past few years, described above, meaning that the area’s social and economic profile will increasingly look Outer London in years to come. These factors could, taken together, contribute to yet another twist to the social and electoral story of the Estuary.
Demographics are not destiny, of course. And there is no preordained rule that any place should hold the fate of the UK in its palm. Perhaps 2024 will be the first time that Dartford and co find themselves out of kilter with everyone else. But, given past form, you wouldn’t bet against the lower Thames region again backing the winner.
Rishi Sunak was derided recently for his alleged mockney-isms. But perhaps he’s onto something. It may well be, after a period of intense focus on other areas as the barometer of electability, that 2024 will again be won by whichever party has the best grasp of Estuary English.
Seats used in the above analyses:
1935: ESSEX ROMFORD, ESSEX SOUTH-EASTERN, KENT DARTFORD, KENT FAVERSHAM, KENT GRAVESEND, ROCHESTER CHATHAM, ROCHESTER GILLINGHAM, SOUTHEND-ON-SEA, WOOLWICH EAST, WOOLWICH WEST
1945: BARKING, BEXLEY, DAGENHAM, DARTFORD, ESSEX HORNCHURCH, ESSEX SOUTH-EASTERN, ESSEX THURROCK, KENT FAVERSHAM, KENT GRAVESEND, ROCHESTER CHATHAM, ROCHESTER GILLINGHAM, SOUTHEND-ON-SEA, WOOLWICH EAST, WOOLWICH WEST
1974 (Oct): BARKING, BASILDON, DAGENHAM, DARTFORD, ERITH AND CRAYFORD, FAVERSHAM, GILLINGHAM, GRAVESEND, HORNCHURCH, ROCHESTER AND CHATHAM, SOUTH-EAST ESSEX, SOUTHEND EAST, SOUTHEND WEST, THURROCK, WOOLWICH EAST, WOOLWICH WEST
1983: BARKING, BASILDON, CASTLE POINT, DAGENHAM, DARTFORD, ERITH & CRAYFORD, FAVERSHAM, GILLINGHAM, GRAVESHAM, HORNCHURCH, MEDWAY, ROCHFORD, SOUTHEND EAST, SOUTHEND WEST, THURROCK, WOOLWICH
1992: BARKING, BASILDON, CASTLE POINT, DAGENHAM, DARTFORD, ERITH & CRAYFORD, FAVERSHAM, GILLINGHAM, GRAVESHAM, HORNCHURCH, MEDWAY, ROCHFORD, SOUTHEND EAST, SOUTHEND WEST, THURROCK, WOOLWICH
1997: BARKING, BASILDON, BEXLEYHEATH & CRAYFORD, CASTLE POINT, CHATHAM & AYLESFORD, DAGENHAM, DARTFORD, ERITH & THAMESMEAD, GILLINGHAM, GRAVESHAM, HORNCHURCH, MEDWAY, ROCHFORD & SOUTHEND EAST, SITTINGBOURNE & SHEPPEY, SOUTHEND WEST, THURROCK
2016 (local authorities): BARKING AND DAGENHAM, BASILDON, BEXLEY, CASTLE POINT, DARTFORD, GRAVESHAM, HAVERING, MEDWAY, ROCHFORD, SWALE, SOUTHEND-ON-SEA, THURROCK
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