Ready for another general election? The last one was less than two years ago but with a hung Parliament dealing with a hugely controversial central question, the threat of another constantly hangs over us. Personally, I very much doubt whether we will see one before the due date in 2022 but as any Boy Scout would tell you, we would do well to be prepared.
In theory there should be a boundary review implemented in this Parliament. That never looked particularly likely when the make-up of the new Parliament became clear and with party discipline breaking down, the chances of MPs voting the changes through now look slim. So it seems that the next election will be fought on boundaries that were last reviewed for the 2010 election (2005 in Scotland).
Anyway, let’s start with the election as it looks for the party of government, the Conservatives. At the moment, the Conservatives look to be ahead in the polls. Poitics is, however, particularly volatile right now. So let’s assess it from both directions.
The result last time was incredibly close in more than one way. The Conservatives held 17 seats with a majority of less than 1000 and missed out on 19 seats by a similarly close margin. A tiny swing either way and the Conservatives would either have had a clear overall majority or would probably have been out of power.
Let’s not confine ourselves quite so closely. There are 44 seats that the Conservatives would lose on an adverse 3% swing and 37 that they would gain with a 3% swing in their favour. These 81 seats will determine the fate of the government.
Overlaying all of this, of course, is Brexit. A seat like Kensington that voted strongly to Remain in the EU seems unlikely to swing in the same way at the next election as a seat like Dudley North that voted strongly to Leave the EU, even though the Conservatives will need just 25 more votes to take each. I suppose that you could argue that Brexit is already priced into the 2017 result and therefore can be discounted as a cause of additional swing. I don’t buy that, myself.
How should we look at these seats? I have compiled a map, set out at the top of this page, that divides these 81 seats into eight groups. Brexicity is based on the estimated Leave vote share. I have arbitrarily assumed that a seat with a Leave vote share of more than 60% is strongly Leave and that a seat with a Leave vote share of under 40% is strongly Remain.
We can see pretty quickly that even in 2017 Brexit wasn’t everything. Some of the Conservative targets are seats that they lost despite being stuffed with staunch Brexiteer voters. Peterborough and Crewe & Nantwich stand out in this regard, but Ipswich, Bedford, Lincoln and Derby North all voted Leave in 2016 and all left the Conservative column in 2017. Labour’s focus on other topics in the election proved more important in those seats. Equally, the Conservatives made good progress in Scotland even in strongly Remain-voting seats like Stirling and Gordon where their stance on the union proved more important.
There is a fairly even scatter of Remain and Leave-voting seats in this set. If this card is to be played by either the Conservatives or Labour, they are going to have to be prepared to lose as many seats as they gain by the gambit, unless they can do it with a bit more subtlety. Perhaps, as last time, the Conservatives can campaign on Brexit in England and Wales and on the union in Scotland. It didn’t work very well last time, mind.
The next thing that stands out to me is how small-time this battleground is. There are ten seats in London but the metropolitan areas of Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Bristol, Sheffield, Hull, Cardiff, Swansea, Glasgow and Edinburgh are represented by just four seats: Edinburgh South West, Bolton West, Dudley North and Wolverhampton South West. The election is going to be won and lost in small and medium-sized towns. Labour has spent a lot of time talking about its policy for these places. This is why.
The Conservatives should be thinking very carefully about London. They have seven seats to defend in the capital and all of those seats voted Remain. Are they going to abandon them or how are they going to tailor their message to these seats, bearing in mind that Iain Duncan Smith, Theresa Villiers and Zac Goldsmith, all strident Leavers, represent three of them?
The Conservatives have traditionally been strongest in the area south of the line between the Severn and the Wash. But just 12 of their 37 easiest targets are in that area this time. They are going to have to go outside their comfort zone if they are to make progress.
North of that line, just two seats on the list outside Scotland voted Remain: Pudsey and Westmorland & Lonsdale. The north midlands and Yorkshire look to be central to the next election result. If the Conservatives are going to play the Brexit card, they should be doing so with a northern accent.
Conversely, 23 of their 44 most vulnerable seats are south of the Severn-Wash line. Labour should and will be thinking about how it talks to that audience. The battleground seats in this area are much more evenly divided between Remain and Leave. Last time they did well by simply shifting the conversation away from Brexit completely. They are no doubt intending to do the same thing again this time too.
To sum up, the Conservatives will win or lose the next election in small and medium sized towns. Brexit doesn’t look as if it will be a magic bullet for them and may lose as many key seats as it gains for them. Two things might give them hope: new policies that appeal to local England and their opponents’ ability to alienate the voting public. Right now, the second looks a more reasonable hope than the first.