- There are 84 parliamentary constituencies in the South East of England. Going into the General Election, the Conservatives hold 74 of these, including the (notionally Conservative) Speaker, with Labour and the Liberal Democrats each holding four and the remaining two split between UKIP and the Green Party.
- Despite their dominance in the region, this is an area where the Conservatives could have done even better in a year when they won an overall majority: several of Labour’s handful of seats in places such as Southampton were held by only slender margins, and others that seem reliably left-wing, such as Slough or Brighton Pavilion, were Tory until 1997. The great majority of the party’s constituencies here are rock-solid, so this campaign will most likely focus on minimising Labour progress in their relatively small clutch of attack seats whilst trying to keep UKIP down.
- This is not a good area for Labour, which after 2010 was left with only four seats, none of which were really safe. Moreover, the solidity of the Tory majorities across most of the region leaves the party with a relatively narrow band of attack seats, of which we have picked out the most likely looking prospects below. On a good night Labour could double their representation in the South East, and they will be hoping that the threat of UKIP serves to divert the Tory machine and divide the centre-right electorate as much as possible.
- The Liberal Democrats had a mixed night here in 2010, taking Eastbourne from the Conservatives but losing high-profile MP Dr Evan Harris to the Tories in exchange. Since then their band of four MPs has been reduced by the suspension of Mike Hancock, the scandal-ridden incumbent in Portsmouth South, although they managed to see off the Tories and UKIP to hold Eastleigh in 2013. This will most likely be a defensive election, with all but Norman Baker’s constituency of Lewes being losable, but the party must be tempted by Nicola Blackwood’s majority of 176 in Oxford West & Abingdon.
- UKIP apparently have quite a large number of seats to focus on in this region, including the likes of Aylesbury, Thanet North, Portsmouth South, and Sittingbourne & Sheppey. They also came a close second in the Eastleigh by-election and will surely be trying to build on that. However all else pales in comparison to the battle for South Thanet, upon which Nigel Farage’s leadership of the party (and thus the future direction of UKIP) depends. The recent apparent fall in UKIP support will likely have narrowed the focus of the party’s regional campaign onto this seat, which has shaped up to be a tightly-fought three-way marginal with Labour and the Conservatives.
- Caroline Lucas made history as the first Green MP and she looks set to keep her seat this time around, despite the well-publicised travails of Brighton’s Green council. As all of the Green Party’s other attack seats, such as Norwich South and Bristol West, are in other regions the Green campaign here will be almost entirely defensive, for all that it is standing candidates in seats it did not contest last time.
The South East has relatively little by way of a distinct ‘regional’ agenda,with national issues such as jobs, healthcare, education, and the economy front and centre in most cases. However, some of the issues evident in the local campaign are:
- Development: There is high demand for housing in the South East, and the politics sections of local papers such as the Reading Post and Portsmouth’s The News feature regular housing stories. Preventing development of local Green Belt land is also mentioned by several candidates on their websites.
- Minor Parties: South Thanet really could be a make or break moment for the People’s Army. If Nigel Farage is elected his authority as leader will be cemented, and he will have secured increased access to the media for at least the life of the next Parliament. However, if he falls short – as polling suggests he might – he has pledged to resign, which will have profound implications for a party split between several sharply divergent factions. Similarly, whilst polls suggest she’s on track to hold onto her seat, Caroline Lucas losing Brighton Pavilion is not outside the realms of possibility and would be a sharp blow to the Greens, especially after the so-called “Green surge”.
Battleground rating: 4/10
Targets by party: (NB These are our own suggestions of potential attack seats for each party – including those officially designated as targets and others where the incumbent has a relatively small majority, or local factors are at play which may open the seat to change.)
Eastbourne: Aside from a brief dalliance with the Liberal Democrats at a 1990 by-election, this seat was continually Conservative for the full century between 1910 and 2010, when the Liberal Democrats took it again. Incumbent Stephen Lloyd enters this election defending a majority of 3,435, and hoping to overturn it is teacher, local councillor and Tory candidate Caroline Ansell, whose slick website and early selection in February 2013 suggest the party is taking this fight seriously. The augurs are mixed, however: Electoral Calculus puts the odds of a Conservative gain at roughly two in three, but a Lord Ashcroft Poll in September 2014 found the Lib Dems comfortably ahead, with Lloyd’s vote share scarcely scratched and UKIP taking a substantial chunk of Tory voters.
Eastleigh: Falling into third place in the 2013 by-election here (providing a right-wing equivalent to the SDP/Liberal split that let William Hague hold Richmond in 1989) was one of the moments that brought the seriousness of the UKIP threat home to the Tories. Yet that result only leaves them about three thousand votes behind Liberal Democrat incumbent Mike Thornton, and the party will hope that the recent falling back of UKIP support might allow them to attract enough centre-right swing voters to put them over the line. The Tory candidate is Mims Davies, a media professional and local councillor who has replaced Maria Hutchings, the candidate at the by-election and the previous general election. Two Lord Ashcroft Polls in June and September 2014 found the Liberal Democrats with comfortable leads of 12 and 15 points, but both showed the Conservatives back in second place.
Portsmouth South: Tory from 1918 until 1997 (barring a short stint following a 1984 by-election when incumbent MP Mike Hancock was first returned for the Social Democratic Party), Hancock captured it for the Lib Dems in the Conservatives’ annus horribilis and has held onto it since. Following a string of scandals including an affair with a young Russian researcher and, more seriously, unwanted advances on a vulnerable constituent, Hancock is now fighting the seat as an independent. Fighting the blue corner in this multi-way melee is Flick Drummond, a former insurance broker and school inspector who campaigned for John McCain whilst living in America. Electoral Calculus predicts a Lib Dem hold, albeit with the Tories in close contention, while a Lord Ashcroft Poll last November found the Conservatives five points ahead of the Liberal Democrats.
Rochester & Strood: In 2010 the Conservatives carried this newly-created constituency with a majority of almost ten thousand votes, before it followed its incumbent MP, Mark Reckless, to UKIP at the 2014 by-election. Reckless enters the coming election defending a by-election majority of a shade under three thousand, and faces a rematch with is by-election Tory challenger Kelly Tolhurst, whose campaign emphasises infrastructure, housing and the local hospital. Once optimistic about holding this seat, Reckless’ position is now in doubt following the apparent ongoing wane in UKIP’s fortunes in the course of the election campaign. Electoral Calculus put Tory chances at a crushing 71 per cent, which seems out of line with other forecasts.
Southampton Itchen: The Tories fell short of unseating John Denham by just an eye-watering 192 votes here in 2010. He is standing down, and the party will be hoping that the loss of his personal vote will help them offset the general rise in Labour’s fortunes and allow them to see off Rowenna Davis, his would-be successor. Returning to fight the seat for the second time is Royston Smith, the leader of the Conservative group on the City Council and a former leader of the council with a background in the RAF and British Airways. Three Lord Ashcroft Polls in May and August of 2014 and March 2015 have found the Conservative position fluctuating: eight points behind Labour in May, tied on 34 per cent apiece in August, and then eight points behind again in March. Electoral Calculus project Smith has a 33 per cent chance of winning.
Southampton Test: This seat has fluctuated between the two main parties since the 1950s, and 2010 was the first time it didn’t go with the winning party since 1979. The Conservatives fell 2,413 short here last time, and coming back for a second try is Jeremy Moulton, the deputy leader of the Conservative council group, whose campaign emphasises policing and education. Electoral Calculus only gives him a 21 per cent chance of victory next month.
Brighton Kemptown: Prior to 1997 this was a dependably Conservative seat, and Simon Kirby recaptured it in 2010 with a 1,328 majority. Aiming to win it back for Labour is Nancy Platts, a local campaigner with a background in the third sector. A Lord Ashcroft Poll in October last year found her four points ahead of the Tories, with the Liberal Democrat vote squeezed, UKIP rising into a strong third place and the Greens coming from not standing to 10 per cent of the voting intention. Electoral Calculus predict a 58 per cent chance of a Labour gain.
Brighton Pavilion: From 1950 until 1997 this seat had returned a Tory MP, but it made headlines at the last election when Caroline Lucas became the first Green Party MP by 1,252 votes. The Labour candidate this time out is Purna Sen, an Indian-born third sector professional whose campaign centres on education and the diversity of Brighton as well as her history of campaigning for left-wing causes. Two Lord Ashcroft Polls in June and December 2014 found the Greens extending their lead, however: Labour went from being one point up in June to ten points behind in December, and Electoral Calculus only give Labour a one-third chance of winning.
Hastings & Rye: Conservative MP Amber Rudd took this seat by just under 2,000 votes in 2010, unseating Michael Foster who had held it since 1997. Her Labour challenger this time is Sarah Owen, a local candidate with a background as a carer who works for Lord Sugar, of Apprentice fame. A Lord Ashcroft Poll in October last year found Labour nine points ahead, with the Liberal Democrats almost entirely squeezed out and UKIP rising to a strong third. Electoral Calculus predicts a close-run contest but a Labour gain.
Hove: The Conservatives fell just 420 votes short here in 2005, allowing Mike Weatherley to finally take it on a 2.2 point swing in 2010. He is standing down, however, and seeking to retain this seat is Graham Cox, a long-serving police officer and local councillor. Labour are fielding Dr Peter Kyle, a Hove-based former policy worker for the Cabinet Office who once founded a local video game company. Two Lord Ashcroft Polls in October 2014 and April 2015 have found Labour slowly clawing their way to a three- and then six-point lead, with the latter poll finding the smaller parties squeezed hard. Electoral Calculus give Kyle a 56 per cent chance of being returned next month.
Oxford West & Abingdon: Nicola Blackwood unseated well-known Liberal Democrat incumbent Dr Evan Harris by only 176 votes in 2010, and she has been fighting very hard to keep hold of it throughout this parliament. Hoping to recapture it this time is Layla Moran, a maths and physics teacher who now works for a social enterprise that provides exam preparation for the International Baccalaureate. Two Lord Ashcroft Polls in June and September 2014 found the Liberal Democrats slowly shaving points off a sizeable Tory lead: from 11 points in June down to eight points in September. Electoral Calculus predict a Conservative hold with 83 per cent probability.
Portsmouth South: The Liberal Democrats held this seat by 13 points in 2010, and despite their ongoing problems with Mike Hancock they are still in contention here. Their candidate this time is Gerald Vernon-Jackson, who was the leader of the City Council for ten years and whose campaign is built on his record in that position. A Lord Ashcroft Poll in November last found the party in second place, five points behind the Tories and an equal distance head of Labour. Electoral Calculus gives the party 51 per cent odds of holding on.
Eastleigh: UKIP came frustratingly close to winning this seat in the 2013 by-election, and Nigel Farage probably rues his decision not to be the party’s candidate and make maximum use of his star power. By-election candidate Diane James is not standing this time and the party are fielding instead Patricia Culligan, who made national headlines recently when she attacked an HIV-positive Lib Dem candidate over the cost of his treatment. The 2013 high tide appears to have receded somewhat, and two Lord Ashcroft Polls in June and September found the party above 20 per cent but in third place.
South Thanet: This is the big one. Matthew Goodwin, one of the academic duo who have transformed the commentariat’s understanding of the UKIP phenomenon, pegs the battle for South Thanet as a three-way marginal, and with Farage’s leadership hinging on the outcome UKIP strategists will be deeply concerned at their failure, even with a star candidate, to break away from the pack in this seat. The most recent Lord Ashcroft Poll, conducted in November 2014, found UKIP slipping into second place behind the Conservatives in a three-way fight with Labour, having enjoyed a four-point lead in July, whilst Electoral Calculus pegs the Tory and UKIP chances at 45 per cent apiece. Hoping to inherit Laura Sandys’ 7,617 majority and hold here for the Conservatives is Craig Mackinlay, a senior accountant, local magistrate and – unusually – a former leader of UKIP.