Fri. Jun 21st, 2024

Where will the UK election be fought and won?

May 29, 2024

For Sir Keir Starmer to win a House of Commons Labour majority of just one, he must gain about 125 seats at the July 4 general election. Given the party’s record postwar defeat in 2019, that would be a big achievement.

Winning a large majority is a monumental task, requiring Labour to win seats across the country and for the Conservatives to crash from the highs they achieved under Boris Johnson’s leadership in 2019.

The election will be fought in four key campaign battlegrounds. In Scotland, Labour is locked in a fight with the Scottish National party, in what will be a pivotal election north of the border.

Starmer is hoping to rebuild his party’s northern “red wall”, once a Labour stronghold that was stormed by Johnson in 2019, and secure decisive gains in the traditional swing region of the West Midlands.

The fourth battleground is the South West, a wedge of seats running out from London to the West Country, where the Tories face a different challenge from the centrist Liberal Democrats.

Scrap for Scotland

Scotland was once the bedrock of any Labour majority at Westminster. The Scottish trade unionist Keir Hardie, after whom Starmer was named, was a Labour founder and the party has deep roots north of the border.

However, the SNP successfully changed all that in recent UK elections, using a call for independence to erode support for Labour, which was seen to have taken the country for granted for too long.

At the 1997 general election, Labour’s Tony Blair won 56 Westminster seats in Scotland, while the SNP won just six. At the 2019 election the tables had been turned completely: Labour won just one seat, while the SNP won 48.

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Starmer believes that recent scandals and crises at the top of the SNP, combined with fading prospects for an early independence vote, have given him a chance to strike back: the party hopes to win at least 30 out of a reduced total of 57 seats on July 4. 

“There is no change without Scotland, there is no Labour without Scotland, Scotland is central to the mission of the next Labour government,” Starmer has said.

John Swinney, the SNP’s new leader and Scotland’s First Minister, has claimed Labour and Conservatives are two sides of the same coin: anti-independence and pro-austerity.

Rebuilding the ‘red wall’

The red wall, a term coined by pollster James Kanagasooriam, is generally taken to mean a swath of working-class, traditionally Labour seats seized by Johnson at the 2019 election. 

Johnson smashed the red wall, an area that voted strongly to leave the EU, with his promise to “Get Brexit Done”. Voters in these areas also rejected the leftwing prospectus offered by the then Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.

Labour hopes to regain about 40 red wall seats that Johnson won last time, many of them close to the M62 motorway, the main east-west axis running from Leeds to Liverpool. Towns such as Leigh, Warrington, Bury, Dewsbury and Burnley are high on Starmer’s target list.

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Johnson’s stunning success in giving the Conservatives a “northern tilt” was also based on a promise to “level up” poorer seats, primarily in the north of England.

Many voters have become disenchanted with the Tories and some lament Johnson’s ousting as prime minister. Sunak’s first act during the election campaign was to switch £1.5bn of funds intended for deprived areas to pay for compulsory national service.

Redfield and Wilton Strategies have carried out polling in 40 red wall seats, and last month found that Labour was leading the Conservatives by 20 points.

Midland marginals

The West Midlands, centred around Birmingham, where Johnson made big inroads at the 2019 election, will be one of the most hotly contested regions in the country.

The region is varied, including poor industrial towns, prosperous suburbs and commuter settlements built around motorway junctions, reflecting the patchwork of modern Britain.

When Nuneaton MP Marcus Jones held his marginal seat in 2015, it was the moment that former Conservative prime minister David Cameron knew he had won the general election: like other Midlands towns, it was seen as reflective of the mood of the country.

There are 57 seats up for grabs in the West Midlands geographical region. The tough fight was presaged on May 3 when Andy Street, Tory mayor of the West Midlands, was narrowly defeated by Labour after a recount.

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At the last election, Johnson’s party won 44 seats in the region, compared with Labour’s 15, making important gains in the towns of the Black Country. When Tony Blair won in 1997, those figures were broadly reversed. 

Starmer’s route to power, if he is to win the election, will have to run through the Midlands marginals.

South West wedge

Southern England is the heartland of traditional Conservative support: a group of generally prosperous seats, mainly rural or suburban. The electoral map shows most of the south, outside London, as a sea of blue.

Although Labour hopes to win seats across the region, the Conservatives are facing a separate potent challenge from the Liberal Democrats, a centrist party that has its own strong traditions in the South West.

The pro-EU Lib Dems won only 11 seats at the 2019 election, but this time Sir Ed Davey’s party hopes to win at least 30 seats if the Conservative vote collapses. The West Country will be key.

Target seats for Davey stretch out from London’s south-west suburbs, places such as Esher and Wimbledon, down through commuter towns such as Wokingham and Godalming, the latter the seat of chancellor Jeremy Hunt.

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Recent successes in local elections in Somerset and Dorset have also shown a Lib Dem resurgence further west, buoyed by the arrival of professionals from London, driven out of the capital by high prices or looking to work from home.

Last year, after the Lib Dems won the Somerton and Frome by-election, Davey declared: “This stunning victory shows the Liberal Democrats are firmly back in the West Country.” Winning seats further west in Brexit-voting Devon and Cornwall could prove harder.

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