Sean Fear’s Friday Slot

Sean Fear’s Friday Slot


    Focus on the South West

The counties of Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, Somerset, and Avon will generate some of the most interesting contests at the next election. This is because each of the three main parties is well-represented in this region, and because so many of the seats are marginals. Unusually, there is considerable support for UKIP here, who saved their deposit in 15 out of 38 seats in 2005.

In 2005, the Liberal Democrats achieved pole position here, with 15 seats. The Conservatives had 14, and Labour 9. Cornwall, Devon, and Avon are each allocated one extra seat in the boundary changes. The Conservatives have every reason to be delighted with the work of the Boundary Commission. They gain the extra seats in Devon and Avon, Somerset North East (formerly Wansdyke) is converted from a Labour marginal to a Conservative marginal, Bristol NW is converted from a safe Labour seat to a highly marginal one., and the new Cornish seat, St. Austell and Newquay, is also a key marginal. The notional results on the new boundaries would be Conservative 17, Liberal Democrat 16, Labour 8.

In the rural parts of the region, politics often bears little relation to national trends. Liberal (and Liberal Democrat) MPs such as David Penhaligon, Paddy Ashdown, and Jeremy Thorpe were able to build up huge personal followings in their constituencies. Likewise, well-regarded Conservatives such David Heathcote Amory and Anthony Steen were able to survive the landslide of 1997, when colleagues representing much “safer” seats were swept away.

Cornish politics is now dominated by the Liberal Democrats, in a way it has not been since the 1920s. They won all five seats in 2005, and are virtually certain to win five out of six next time, namely Camborne & Redruth, South East Cornwall, North Cornwall, Truro and Falmouth, and St. Ives. But St. Austell and Newquay has a notional Liberal Democrat majority of only a few hundred, plus a large vote for UKIP which the Conservatives could squeeze. If the Conservative vote rises well at the next election, then this should be a gain.

In Devon, South West Devon, East Devon, and Tiverton and Honiton will be safe for the Conservatives. Torridge & West Devon should be held fairly easily, now that Geoffrey Cox has had the chance to build up an incumbency vote. Totnes will provide another tight and exciting contest. For three elections in a row, Anthony Steen has held onto this seat by his fingernails, despite there being a big vote for UKIP, of nearly 4,000 in 2005. He will be aided by boundary changes which increase his lead by a few hundred. In the new seat of Devon Central, the Conservatives have a notional lead of less than 2,000 over the Liberal Democrats, and the fight for this seat will be intense. The Liberal Democrats themselves should hold North Devon, and Newton Abbott without too much difficulty, but Torbay will be another matter altogether. P B Com regular Marcus Wood has a large UKIP vote to squeeze, for the Conservatives, but in turn, Adrian Saunders has a large Labour vote to squeeze, for the Liberal Democrats. Labour will hold Plymouth Moor View, and Exeter (where boundary changes favour them) easily enough, but will lose Plymouth Sutton and Devonport (which is virtually the same as the existing Plymouth Sutton) if the Conservatives are heading for an overall majority.
In Somerset, the Conservatives will retain Bridgwater & West Somerset, Somerset North (formerly Woodspring in Avon) and Wells, and the Liberal Democrats will retain Yeovil. That will leave two tight contests in Taunton Deane and Somerton & Frome, both held by the Liberal Democrats, although the former was won by the Conservatives in 2001. Each constituency has solid blocs of support for both the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, and neither party has won decisively since 1997. If the Conservatives perform well at the next election, then in all likelihood, they’ll gain both, but not by much. Somerset North East has been converted into a notional Conservative seat, and it is very hard to see its incumbent Labour MP holding on to it.

In Avon, there are extensive boundary changes. Thornbury & Yate (formerly Northavon) becomes much safer for the Liberal Democrats, but this is actually bad news for them, as they need more of their voters in the new seat of Filton & Bradley Stoke, which is a genuine three way marginal, though notionally Conservative. If there is a swing to the Conservatives, the party should hold this without too much difficulty. The Conservatives also benefit in Bristol North West, which is transformed by the arrival of two ultra-safe Conservative wards from Bristol West. The Conservatives will be favourites to gain this seat from Labour. Bristol West will remain a tight contest between Liberal Democrats and Labour, although the Conservatives are completely out of contention, now. Bristol South and East will remain safe for Labour. Kingswood is more marginal, and witnessed a big swing to the Conservatives in 2005, but should only be lost if Labour suffers a 1987-type defeat. Bath should remain safe for the Liberal Democrats.

Finally, Dorset is relatively unaffected by boundary changes, and retains eight seats. Bournemouth East, Poole, and Christchurch will remain safely Conservative. In all likelihood, Oliver Letwin’s seat of West Dorset will be retained as well, given that the Liberal Democrats were unable to dislodge him in 2001 or 2005. Robert Walter nearly lost North Dorset to the Liberal Democrats in 2005, but will be delighted by boundary changes that add 2,000 votes to his majority. Bournemouth West, on the other hand, sees the Conservative lead cut to around 2,500 votes, and this seat must be treated as a marginal for the first time. Jim Knight did outstandingly well to win South Dorset for Labour in 2001, and to increase his lead in 2005, but I can’t see him bucking the trend for the third time, and I expect the Conservatives to win this. On paper, Mid Dorset and Poole North looks fairly safe for the Liberal Democrats, but I am advised that they consider it vulnerable, and so should be treated as marginal.

There were two by-elections last night. In Welwyn & Hatfield Borough, Welham Green, the result was Conservative 539, Lib Dem 484, BNP 214, Labour 88. Conservative hold. This represents a huge swing to the Liberal Democrats, (as well as a large BNP vote), compared to May, but almost certainly reflects the fact that the outgoing Conservative councillor is alleged to have committed a serious criminal offence.

In Cambridgeshire County – Roman Bank and Peckover the result Conservative 897, Labour 380, UKIP 192. Conservative hold. Oddly, the Liberal Democrats didn’t field a candidate in a seat where they won over 40% in 2005.

Sean Fear

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