The Importance of Leeds
One favourite piece of lazy journalism is to assert that â€œthe Conservatives have no MPs/Councillors in the main Northern citiesâ€ and that, without these, they cannot win a Parliamentary majority. In fact, there are hundreds of Conservative councillors in the urban North, and the main Northern cities usually cited, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, and Sheffield are irrelevant to the Conservativesâ€™ Parliamentary chances.
The Conservatives could win an overall majority of 100, without coming close to winning a constituency in any of those four cities.
Where there is truth in this clichÃ©, is in relation to Leeds. Leeds has eight Parliamentary constituencies, seven of which are held by Labour, and one by the Liberal Democrats. The Conservatives need to win at least three, and better still four, if they are to win an overall majority.
This should be achievable. Leeds is a prosperous city, with a substantial middle class. At the same time, outlying rural and suburban areas fall within the boundaries of the city, which should boost Conservative chances. Their prospects, however, do not look encouraging.
Labour lost overall control of Leeds City Council, for the first time in twenty five years, in 2004. However, they remain comfortably the largest party on the Council, and the Conservatives have no more than twenty two seats, out of ninety nine. By contrast, from 1976 to 1979, they held outright control. What is more, in only one of their targets, Pudsey, have they achieved the sort of lead in local elections that implies victory at a subsequent general election.
Four of Labourâ€™s seven seats are safe; Leeds Central, Leeds East, Leeds West, and Morley and Outwood. In the first three, Labour holds substantial majorities, and had comfortable leads over the Liberal Democrats in this yearâ€™s local elections. In both Leeds Central, and Leeds West, the Conservatives are very weak, and were beaten into fourth place by the British National Party this year.
Morley and Outwood, Ed Ballsâ€™ seat, which includes two wards from Wakefield, is a rather more unusual. It is less safe than the other three, and at local level, produces substantial votes for both the British National Party (21% of the total, this year) and a local party, the Morley Borough Independents (26%) who also control the local Town Council. Labour themselves only won 26% of the vote this year, although, in all likelihood, could expect to hold the seat in a general election.
Of the Conservativesâ€™ targets, Leeds North West looks increasingly out of reach. It is a typical example of an urban intellectual seat which turned against the Conservatives in 1997, and then turned against Labour (but to the Liberal Democrats) in 2005. In last yearâ€™s local elections, the Liberal Democrats led the Conservatives by 3%, and pushed this lead up to 10% this year. Labour have fallen into a very distant third place, in local elections, and would appear to have no chance of recapturing this seat.
Leeds North East, Sir Keith Josephâ€™s old seat, now seems fairly secure for Labour. Labour led the Conservatives across the constituency, this year, at a time when the Conservatives had a projected national lead of 13-14%. Only one of the four wards, Allwoodley, looks solid for the Conservatives now.
Elmet and Rothwell ought to be a better Conservative prospect. It includes the rock-solid wards of Harewood and Wetherby, each of which produced Conservative votes of more than 4,000 this year. Despite this, the Conservatives only managed a lead of 4% over Labour, across the seat, in this yearâ€™s local elections, and Labour must be regarded as favourites to hold the seat in general election conditions.
The one seat where the Conservatives are generating the sort of lead that implies a gain at the next election is in Pudsey, where they led Labour by 13% in 2006, and 16% this year. But then, Pudsey is the sort of seat the Conservatives should probably never have lost in the first place.
There were two local by-elections last night:-
Tower Hamlets LBC, Shadwell. Respect 1512, Labour 1415, Conservative 476, Lib Dem 98. Respect Hold. This was an extremely hard fought contest, which saw a turnout of 40%, remarkable for August. Although there was a swing to Labour, Respect managed to hold their vote share, and have shown they have strong support in the borough.
Elmbridge BC. Walton Ambleside. Con 310, Walton Society 252, Labour 60, UKIP 33, Lib Dem 26. Conservative hold. This seat has only recently been won by the Conservatives from the Walton Society, so they did well to hold it.
Sean Fear is a London Tory activist