CON psephologist, Lord (Robert) Hayward on how things are developing
One of the striking aspects of this year’s election is the different constituencies over which this campaign is being fought.
1997 was the last time there was such a new geography as Labour made massive incursions into Tory territory. I am not suggesting that there will be a similar landslide, just that for 20 years the battle has, essentially, been in London, the Midlands and the North West. Individual battles have generally been on the fringes of big cities, at the side of the motorways and in county towns.
In 2017 the battlegrounds are in very different areas of the country.
London and the West Midlands still have a concentration of the targets but this is, in part, because of the large number of seats in these two regions. Some of these have also been targets before e.g. Twickenham, Ilford N, Brentford & Isleworth in London and Wolverhampton SW, Birmingham Edgbaston and Northfield in the West Midlands.
At each General there have also been battles in the South West, particularly Cornwall and Somerset. These seats are clearly once more in play as are others which the Lib Dems fought to retain in 2010 and then lost in 2015.
All these are however part of the ‘long running political geography’ of the UK.
The new battlegrounds are in areas not often visited by political geographers nor, for that matter, by journalists!
There are several (and different) reasons for three areas now featuring in the campaign which are helping to shape this new political geography.
Many of the seats have seen the de-industrialisation that has previously been witnessed by the motorway seats of 2010. The mines, steel works and associated heavy industries have disappeared or diminished. The hold of the unions, and therefore the Labour Party, through work (and in many cases play-social/welfare clubs) has been broken, as the importance of single site heavy industry has diminished and has been replaced by non-unionised light manufacturing or service sector employment.
As others have observed, many of the seats of interest in this election had very high UKIP votes in 2015. The source for support in the seats of the Midlands, North and Wales was clearly former Labour supporters and in many cases was associated with the industrial change identified in (a) above. With UKIP apparently collapsing, the issue is therefore whether, based particularly on Brexit, these voters will complete the ‘passage’ to the Conservatives, stay where they are/abstain or return to Labour.
Not new but traditional loyalties
The third new battleground stems not from either demographic change nor UKIP but, ironically, a return to former loyalties.
The Three Regions
The north east of Wales and West Cheshire/Wirral has a collection of 8 constituencies which are of interest. Two, Wirral West and Chester, are recent battlegrounds which Labour gained in 2015 but there is now a more extensive amalgam of seats either side of the English/Welsh border. Wrexham, Clwyd South, Delyn, and Ellesmere Port & Neston are somewhat new to the ‘of interest’ category but form part of a contiguous group of constituencies stretching from the top end of the Wirral through Chester to south of Wrexham. (How many of this note’s recipients can even recall ever having been to Wrexham or Ellesmere Port?). These are typical of the ‘new political geography’, changing politics and possibly changing hands.
(The 8 are Wirral West, Wirral South, Ellesmere Port & Neston, City of Chester, Delyn, Alyn & Deeside, Wrexham and Clwyd South)
The next area of note is the north East Midlands through to Bradford. Ashfield, Mansfield and North East Derbyshire are witness to the demographic change I first identified as ‘motorway man (and woman)’ in 2010 and two (Mansfield and Ashfield) had substantial UKIP votes in 2015. Dewsbury, Batley & Spen and Halifax have seen marginal battles before but the aggregation of these seats with a series of other potentials such as Bradford South (scene of a striking Tory council by-election victory on May 4th), Wakefield and somewhat less probable Penistone & Stockbridge, Doncaster South and Rother Valley constitute the second area of the ‘new geography’. (Most of these seats are also on the M1/M62 and M18 corridors).
It is also worth noting that the seats in both regions are generally outside the major cities and are what might possibly be described as ‘unnoticed communities’.
The third and final new region has effectively been off the battleground map for over two decades. First the Lib Dems then, more recently, the SNP have driven the Conservatives out of contention in North East Scotland. Now, in the first serious threat (pace last year’s Holyrood election) to the SNP’s hegemony over Scottish politics, a whole new part of the UK has become politically significant. The results in Scotland on May 4th were spectacularly good for the Tories. They notionally put a whole region, from Stirling/Perth north eastward to Aberdeen and beyond, in play. In this case, unlike the other two areas this is a potential reversion to old electoral habits rather than a development of new ones. It is also politically significant not only because of the impact on the General Election but also on the debate around Scottish independence.
In this region the Tories will now have to decide whether they fight for every seat or are more selective in their targeting. The defeat of both Alex Salmond and Angus Robertson may however be too attractive to disregard.
There are of course other marginal/in play seats across the country but, at this election, outside of London, the West Midlands conurbation and south west England, the nation’s political battlegrounds will be different from those of yesteryear. They are also all to the north of a line from the Wash to Cardigan Bay. Gains in any, or all, of these regions will not only add to the Tory majority but also shift the orientation of the Government, if that is what it is to be, away from the area to the south of the Wash to the Severn and make the Tories a more national party. On June 9th we will know whether these areas are of passing or more long term interest.