Election 2017: Why does Plymouth have such marginal seats?

Plymouth Hoe
Image caption Plymouth, in south west Devon, is home to more than 250,000 people

In 2015, both Plymouth seats were won by Conservatives with a majority of less than 5%. Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport, won by just 523 votes, is one of the most marginal seats in the country. Why then, when other urban areas have strong party allegiances, is Plymouth a swing city?

"Plymouth is a city that's had quite a different history to many cities," says Mike Sheaff, Associate Professor of Sociology at Plymouth University.

"It has the social class composition of what you would expect to have a high Labour vote.

"But historically naval towns are more conservative than their class composition might suggest."

Plymouth boasts the largest naval base in western Europe, with 2,500 service personnel and civilians employed at Devonport.

Dr Sheaff says: "Apart from Michael Foot being MP for Devonport the constituency was conservative from 1955 to 1975, even though it's strongly working class.

Image caption Dr Mike Sheaff said there is a sense of "insecurity and anxiety" over changes in the city over the last 20 years

"That has now had grafted on it the impact of social change in the last 20 years.

"There is a push for younger people into higher education, and there is a smaller minority ethnic population than other cities. It makes the urban area more distinctive."

In the 1980s, 11,000 people were employed at the dockyard and there were less than 1,000 students.

There are now 25,000 students in the city, and 2,500 people working at the dockyard.

Image caption HMNB Devonport is the largest naval base in western Europe

Dr Sheaff says this is part of the city's unpredictability: "Things are changing - the dockyard is much smaller than it was 20 years ago - but there are still older people in the city who worked there.

"Young people are more likely to vote Labour than other groups, but they are also less likely to vote."

Andy Pearce and his dad Fred have both served in the Royal Navy, and they're concerned about the closure of Ministry of Defence sites in the city, such as the Royal Citadel and Stonehouse Barracks, which were announced last year.

They are currently home to 29 Commando Regiment Royal Artillery and 3 Commando Brigade Royal Marines respectively.

Image caption Andy Pearce (left) and Fred Pearce agree that the military needs more funding

Fred said: "29 Commando has been in the citadel for years. It's totally wrong. The whole of Plymouth are up in arms about it. I understand why the government are trying to save money but it's to the detriment of the services.

"I don't think we're going to get what we deserve in Plymouth. It used to be a naval port and now it's a university city."

The son of a miner, Fred said he has been a Labour voter all his life: "I watched the Thatcher era and the strikes and it was awful. Thatcher ripped the guts out of this country.

"The only issue I have with Corbyn is the Trident issue. We have to have some sort of nuclear defence."

Plymouth in 2015


The number of votes Conservative Oliver Colvile won by in Plymouth Sutton and Devonport

  • 1,026 The number of votes Conservative Johnny Mercer won by in Plymouth Moor View

  • Less than 5% The majority that either Plymouth seat had

  • 90,749 The total number of voters in both Plymouth seats


Andy added: "I understand austerity but when it comes to the defence of the realm I don't know why men are being put on the front line without the right funding or equipment.

"I don't believe what any politicians say. They say things to get a cross in a box. It's just lip service. It's all pre-election talk.

"How can Theresa May say she backs our military city? If they don't do it when they are in government they aren't going to do it if they remain in government. I don't trust either of them - Corbyn is a bit of a softy. He would rather talk to people than get stuck in and get the job done, and tell them how it's going to be.

"I'm undecided. But I've spoken to people of my generation and they know who they're going to vote for - generally Conservative. But a lot of my friends on social media are saying Labour - they tend to be northerners."

Image caption Will Stuttard, 21, will be voting at home in Falmouth, Cornwall

Third year environmental science student Will Stuttard, 21, said the date of the election has had an impact on where he will vote.

"I've been concentrating on my final exams, and it will be easier to vote at home as they will be over by then," he said.

"The student population seems quite separate in Plymouth. There are different priorities - this generation is a lot more environmentally focused than other generations."

Image caption Alex Moore, 19, believes her vote would have more of an impact in Plymouth

None of the students I spoke to were planning to vote in the city, changing the result by potentially tens of thousands of votes.

Nineteen-year-old podiatry student Alex Moore is also planning to vote at home in Somerset - a tactical Liberal Democrat vote to unseat her Conservative MP.

"I didn't know I could vote here," she said. "I've got my postal vote. But my vote would have had more of an impact down here.

"I want fees to be scrapped and bursaries to be brought back. I get patients of an older demographic who know that Derriford Hospital is stretched but they don't want to vote Labour.

"Because they've voted for Brexit they want to carry on with the Tories."

Image caption Megan Dalton, 20, has only met one person who said they would vote Conservative

Megan Dalton, 20, said she's only discussed the election with fellow students.

"Out of everyone that I have spoken to only one person has said he would vote Tory," she says. "And he's from Kent."

Image caption Sasita Sampson, 55, says her business is suffering since Brexit

Sasita Sampson, 55, runs a world food shop in the centre of the city, where she has lived for 35 years.

She says custom has gone down since Brexit, and the students, who are keeping her business going, are not in the city for four months of the year.

"I'm interested in small business issues like not much footfall and a quiet city centre. We have noticed that business has gone down since Brexit, and prices of our imports have gone up.

"By the end of the summer, with the students away business will be down by half. Migration brings money and when you stop it there's no money."

She's torn over who to vote for. Of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, she says: "He's suddenly come out of his shell.

"If he's for the poor and middle class I will vote for him. I've nothing against rich people, they work hard for it, but its not balancing out."

Image caption Luv Lallchand, 18, says he has discussed the election with a few friends but people are generally unwilling to talk about it

This will be 18-year-old Luv Lallchand's first general election, but he says the main parties' policies aren't clear, and a lack of discussion in the city hasn't helped him make up his mind. Perhaps this is the key to Plymouth's undecided electorate?

"It's quite a conservative place anyway and people don't like to discuss things out of their comfort zone," he said.

"It seems to be a taboo in Plymouth to talk about the election."

  • The full list of candidates in Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport is Oliver Colvile (Conservative), Luke Pollard (Labour and Co-operative Party), Sarah Bewley (Liberal Democrat), Daniel Sheaff (Green Party), Richard Ellison (UKIP), Danny Bamping (Independent) and in Plymouth, Moor View is Johnny Mercer (Conservative), Sue Dann (Labour), Graham Reed (Liberal Democrat), Joshua Pope (Green), Wendy Noble (UKIP).

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