Unlike most of the country, the main action in the south west is between the Conservatives and the Lib Dems. Proportionately fewer people voted for Labour in the south west in 2010 in a three horse race than voted for the Conservatives in Scotland in a four horse race. And the Lib Dems have not just supplanted Labour in many areas in second place, they have established local strongholds. They hold all bar one of the seats in Somerset. They hold half the seats in Cornwall (and held them all in 2005). They hold at least one seat in every county in the region. Labour are irrelevant in large swathes of the region.
So the fight in 2015 will have an entirely different dynamic from that elsewhere in the country. The 5.3 million people in the south west who next year will mainly be choosing between the Conservatives and the Lib Dems might as well be taking part in an entirely different election from the 5.3 million people in Scotland who will mainly be choosing between Labour and the SNP.
Why are there so few Labour voters in the south west? Are they voting tactically for the Lib Dems or are they simply not present? I had a look at this in 2011:
As you can see, Labour have polled appallingly in Devon, Somerset and Dorset for at least a generation. There seems to have been some increase in tactical voting, but it's not overwhelming (and do note the correct comment by Mark Senior after the end of the post). As I noted in that post, there comes a point where a Labour tactical voter is indistinguishable from a lifelong Lib Dem voter.
At that time, I concluded that to lose more than 10 seats, the Lib Dems would have to lose long term Lib Dem voters as well as reds in yellow clothing. Right now it seems as though that is indeed what is happening. Their vote share is so low that uniform national swing doesn't work mathematically, as I have previously noted here:
If so, the Lib Dems are going to struggle to do as well as uniform national swing would imply in the seats that they hold. One in seven votes for the Lib Dems was cast in the south west region and a quarter of their seats are here. The Lib Dems are going to have to hunker down.
So what stands out about this region? Here is an ONS chart of the region:
As a region, it's older than the national average and the economy is doing well. It has a low crime rate, low unemployment and a highly educated workforce. But this masks quite a lot of intra-regional variation.
Cornwall is much poorer than the average in the rest of the south west. Its GVA per head (which is closely related to GDP per head) was £13,848 in 2011, compared with a national average of £21,368 and an equivalent figure for the south west as a whole of £19,093. Swindon's GVA per head is more than twice that of Cornwall and the Scilly Isles.
Let's look at the seats in play:
I have opted again to put together a Conservative battleground (largely because the constituency odds on the Conservative side generally compare a bit more favourably with the odds on the Conservatives getting an overall majority or being largest party, as compared with the Labour counterpart odds), with the one Lib Dem/Labour marginal at the end.
As previously, the third column reflects the effect on the majority in Labour/Conservative marginals that would be had by allocating a quarter of the 2010 Lib Dem vote to Labour (the figure is derived by assuming that half will leave the Lib Dems and that these will break for Labour rather than the Conservatives in a 3:1 proportion).
Surprisingly, UKIP don't really feature in the markets yet in this region. In 2010, three out of the four seats where UKIP finished third were in the south west: North Devon, West Devon & Torridge and North Cornwall (the fourth was the Speaker's seat in Buckingham, which arguably doesn't count in the same way). But apart from Camborne & Redruth, they are not as short as 10/1 in any constituency in the region. I don't list parties on my table at longer than 33/1 for reasons of time and space, but some of the longshots on UKIP in the southwest are worth backing. Given that Cornwall in particular is one of the poorest areas of the country, I would have thought this was fertile ground for the purple team. In an area rich with Conservative/Lib Dem marginals, UKIP's target in many constituencies is closer to 35% than to 50% for gaining a seat. Five out of six of Cornwall's seats are marginals (and the sixth is not exactly safe).
If, as I expect, UKIP do well in the impending European elections and local elections, their prices are likely to come in wherever they perform strongly. There's every reason to expect that one of the regions where they will perform strongly is the south west. Even if (like me) you don't believe that UKIP will break the mould next year, there should be some form of trading opportunities in the wake of a good electoral performance later this month. As always, buy the rumour and sell the fact.
As usual with seats where the Lib Dems feature strongly, no one really knows anything. Out of 55 seats in the area, 16 have the favourite priced between 1/2 and 2/1. That has not, however, led to many underrounds, mainly because so far Ladbrokes have not been followed into many of these seats by other bookies. That will probably change in time, so these seats are worth watching closely. There's a minuscule underround in Truro & Falmouth and a slightly bigger one in Bristol West. If you ignore Labour (which seems safe enough to me), there's a minuscule underround in Torbay as well. In these must-bet seats, my take is that the value is betting against the Lib Dems. It's my point about uniform national swing not working. That doesn't yet seem fully factored into the markets.
Elsewhere, the 1/3 on the Conservatives in Mid Dorset & North Poole and the 2/5 on the Conservatives in Somerton & Frome both look like good short-priced bets. Quite apart from the ethereal majorities that the Lib Dems are defending, both have popular incumbents who are standing down. These would be tough for the yellow peril to retain in current polling conditions in any case, but look a far greater challenge than those odds would suggest without the present incumbents.
If you want to bet on the Lib Dems, the 1/2 in North Devon is worth considering. It has been held by Nick Harvey since 1992 and from 1959 to 1979 by Jeremy Thorpe, so it has a long Liberal tradition. Note, however, just how hard Labour has been squeezed in the past: it barely kept its deposit in 2010. This may be a warning sign that the Lib Dem vote that year contained a higher than usual number of those left-leaning voters who have since been so dissatisfied.
Given Swindon's current prosperity, the 8/11 on the Conservatives retaining Swindon South looks good value. I also like the look of the 8/11 on the Conservatives in Bristol North West. Labour would need to come from third and get a swing of 6% to take the seat. With the Lib Dems in clear second, that looks too challenging to me.