Can Labour Retain the North Kent Marginals?
One of the funniest sights at the last election was watching Bob Marshall-Andrews conceding defeat in Medway, only to find out later that heâ€™d retained the seat by 223 votes. This set the pattern in North Kent, as Labour managed to cling on to the marginal seats of Chatham & Aylesford, Sittingbourne & Sheppey, Gillingham, Dartford, and, of course, Medway.
In four of these seats, the Labour majority was less than a thousand. Paradoxically, their safest seat in the area, Gravesham, was lost. Up till then, Gravesham had voted for the winner in every general election since 1951. Although the average rise in the Conservative share in these six seat, 2.3%, compared favourably with the national average, 0.5%, it wasnâ€™t quite enough to win them.
Historically, the Thames Estuary has always been hotly contested by Labour and the Conservatives, save for Gillingham, which was thought to be safely Conservative up until the earthquake of 1997.
While all these seats have prosperous, and rural, areas that provide a reliable Conservative vote, they also much more working class and industrial than the typical Home Counties constituency, which generates a solid Labour vote.
It is no surprise that these seats are so fiercely disputed by the big two parties, or that the Liberal Democrats perform very poorly in this area.
My guess is that David Cameronâ€™s brand of liberal Conservatism will prove less popular here than in, say, Central London. As against that, it would take only a very slight swing to deprive Labour of all but one of the seats it is defending here.
Boundary changes marginally favour the Conservatives here. Anthony Wells projects that both Sittingbourne & Sheppey, and Gillingham, would both move into the Conservative column by tiny margins (although Rallings & Thrasher believe Gillingham remains Labour). In Dartford, the Labour majority is reduced by a fraction, to 583. Rochester & Strood (as Medway is renamed) moves quite strongly to the Conservatives, who are projected to have a 1,500 majority, while Chatham & Aylesford moves decisively to Labour, whose majority rises to 4,800. Gravesham sees its small Conservative majority unchanged.
In general, these seats tend to vote for the winning party in the general election. However, the Conservatives could now win all the seats apart from Chatham & Aylesford, and not come close to winning the election. If however, they do take that seat in addition, which has a percentage Labour majority of 12% now, then they will, in all likelihood, have won an overall majority.
There were two by-elections last night:-
Cumbria CC â€“ Castle: Lib Dem 653, Labour 222, Conservative 117, Green 29. Lib Dem hold. This was a strong performance for the Lib Dems, and a very poor one for Labour, who ran them close in 2005.
Calderdale MBC: Illingworth & Mixenden. Labour 1,104, BNP 1,034, Conservative 525, Lib Dem. 150, Independent: 68. Labour hold. As expected, this provided the nightâ€™s excitement. Labour pulled out all the stops to hold this seat, and had great success in persuading enough voters to back them to stop the BNP from winning. This was similar to the outcomes in the Keighley West by-election, last year, and Barking & Dagenham, Village, in 2004, where very strong BNP challenges were kept at bay by tactical voting for the Labour candidate. It is, however, debateable whether the same tactic will work in all out council elections, particularly as Labour will be seeking to defend 3,000 seats in May, compared to a handful being defended by the BNP. Also notable is the fact that after one of their councillors was found guilty of housing benefit fraud, and one of their local activists was found guilty of sending hate mail to Muslims, the BNP should still have increased their vote share, marginally, to 36%.
Sean Fear is a London Tory activist