- There are 59 parliamentary constituencies in the West Midlands. Currently the Conservatives hold 33, Labour 24, and the Liberal Democrats two.
- This looks like promising ground for the Conservatives: they have a broad selection of seats where they are within a few thousand votes of victory, and the local Tories are reportedly bullish about their chances of securing a handful of gains in seats like Solihull, Telford, Newcastle-under-Lyme and Birmingham Northfield. They are also confident about repulsing Labour in most of their defence seats (four of which are reportedly amongst the 40/40), and predict a small net increase in Conservative representation in the region on the night, driven by a tightly focused, data-led campaign.
- Labour, on the other hand, will be hoping that Electoral Calculus has called it: the site predicts an overall swing to Labour and a clutch of gains including Cannock Chase, Halesowen and Rowley Regis, Nuneaton, Wolverhampton South West and Worcester. Their list of potential attack seats is shorter than that of the Conservatives, and in 2010 they appear to have suffered when a string of formerly safe Tory seats captured by Blair in 1997 returned to the blue fold upon the Labour incumbent’s retirement. If these seats, and others where 1997 veterans are still in place, continue to return to the Conservatives then Labour’s long-term position in the West Midlands may be weaker than it presently appears, so they will be fighting hard to disprove that thesis in May.
- The West Midlands is not fertile territory for the Liberal Democrats: they hold only two constituencies and in 2010 were only even close to taking one more. With the Conservatives looking very likely to recapture Solihull from Lorely Burt the party’s efforts will most likely concentrate on trying to fight off Labour in John Hemming’s constituency of Birmingham Yardley. Constituency polling suggests he may hold on, although Labour will be targeting him hard.
- The evidence suggests that UKIP’s main task in this election will be to try to develop the local machine needed to nurture several potential wellsprings of support. In our battleground list below we pick out four constituencies where Lord Ashcroft’s constituency polls found UKIP surging in 2014 to levels that would, if sustained, put them into contention. However the local Conservatives report that a substantial element of UKIP’s 2014 support is returning to the Tories, and what LAPs there are from 2015 do reveal a pattern of diminishing UKIP identification which suggests that the party’s potential vote in the West Midlands is currently substantial, but soft.
- Two other small parties, both well to the left, hold out hopes of returning MPs in this region. In Birmingham Hall Green the Respect Party will be hoping to finish the work of Salma Yaqoob, their departed leader, and return the party’s second MP. Meanwhile Dr Richard Taylor, the previous two-term independent MP for Wyre Forest, is trying to retake that constituency under the colours of his new National Health Action Party, of which he is co-leader.
National issues such as employment, the economy, and healthcare are the dominant themes of the West Midlands campaign. However there are local concerns, which include:
- Policing: Both the Birmingham Mail and the Wolverhampton Express and Star have run items highlighting local demand for more police officers, with the Mail‘s local manifesto poll reporting that three quarters of respondents wanted levels restored to at least 2010 levels.
- Devolution: Whilst not going so far as the Yorkshire Post and demanding a regional ministry, the Mail’s opinion poll-based manifesto found that 40 per cent of respondents wanted Birmingham to have a similar level of local power to those the Conservatives have promised Manchester – with 17 per cent supporting an out-and-out federal solution with tax and local lawmaking powers passed either to the city or the West Midlands region.
- Minor Parties: With a relatively small Liberal Democrat footprint, the West Midlands very much resembles an old-fashioned two-party battleground. However Lord Ashcroft has discovered that, at least during the party’s boom year in 2014, UKIP is able to attract up to a third or more of the vote in a handful of constituencies held by both parties.
Battleground Rating: 8/10
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.)
Birmingham Edgbaston: If any single seat provided a Basildon-style symbol of how the Conservatives fell short in 2010, the failure to overturn Gisela Stuart’s slender 2,349 majority must be in contention. However it was halved to just 1,274, and hoping to finish the job for the Conservatives is Dr Luke Evans, whose campaign is focusing on his medical background and local connexions. Electoral Calculus give him a 27 per cent chance of avenging the disappointment of five years ago, but two Lord Ashcroft Polls in May and August of last year found Labour comfortably (and increasingly) ahead. Local sources report that party modelling suggested Edgbaston has seen a further demographic shift away from the Conservatives since the last election.
Birmingham Erdington: Edgbaston is far from the only Birmingham seat where the Conservative position looks strong enough to win in a good year. Last election saw Jack Dromey, husband to Harriet Harman, suffer a crushing 10.4 point swing against him and his majority slashed from the 9,500 bequeathed him by outgoing MP Siôn Simon to one of just 3,277. Coming back for a second attempt, and hoping for a performance half as impressive, is Cllr Robert Alden, who since June last has led the Tory group on Birmingham City Council. Despite his track record, Electoral Calculus only give him a 17 per cent chance of being returned.
Birmingham Northfield: Lost by the Conservatives in 1992 after being thrice won by Thatcher, this is another relatively safe Labour seat in Birmingham which turned marginal in 2010: the BBC report that the Tories need just a 3.3 per cent swing to win here, and it is the only 40/40 seat in Birmingham. Trying to secure that swing is Rachel Maclean, who currently serves as a director of a charity she founded that provides young people with employment skills. Electoral Calculus, in line with its overall prediction of a shift to Labour, gives Maclean only a one in five chance but the West Midlands Conservatives are reportedly confident of a surprise win.
Birmingham Selly Oak: Finishing up the Birmingham set, Selly Oak was until 1992 a reliably Conservative constituency, represented during the Thatcher years by the famously pithy Anthony Beaumont-Dark. In 2010 the Tories cut the Labour majority from almost 9,000 to just 3,482. This time the party is fielding Alex Boulter, whose minimalist online profile focuses on her family’s connections to the local area. Another seat which might be favoured in other circumstances, Electoral Calculus gives Boulter only a 19 per cent chance of victory and Selly Oak appeared on the alleged ‘non-target’ list leaked by CCHQ.
Coventry South: This seat has only even gone Tory once, in 1959. Yet Labour incumbent Jim Cunningham’s majority has been steadily eroding since 1997, and after the last election it stands at just under 4,000. Standing for the Tories is Gary Ridley, a former local councillor selected in October whose profile on the Conservative website emphasises employment and the Government’s job creation record. Common to the local trend, Electoral Calculus give the Conservatives just less than a one-in-five chance.
Dudley North: Ian Austin held this seat for Labour by the razor-thin margin of 649 votes at the last election after the Tories mustered a swing of 4.7 per cent. Following the resignation of Tory candidate Afzal Amin amidst a bizarre conspiracy to stage and pretend to defuse an English Defence League rally, the blue standard will instead be borne by Cllr Les Jones, who contested Halesowen and Rowley Regis in 2001 and 2005 and was the Tory candidate for the West Midlands Police and Crime Commissioner. Alas for Jones two Lord Ashcroft Polls in May and December 2014 found that UKIP had knocked the Conservatives into third place here, and although Electoral Calculus give him a 28 per cent chance local Conservative sources suggest the party has written this seat off in the aftermath of the scandal.
Newcastle-under-Lyme: This seat last returned an actual Conservative in 1880, and hasn’t returned a Tory-aligned MP (a Liberal Unionist) since 1900. Labour have held it since 1922, but in 2010 the Conservatives cut their majority to just 1,552. Tony Cox, the candidate in 2015, is a former apprentice who has pursued a career in the automotive and aerospace industries. Electoral Calculus gives him a just over a one in four chance of being returned, but the local Conservatives tip this as one of the more likely gains in the region.
Solihull: Before Lorely Burt took this seat during the great Liberal Democrat surge in 2005, Solihull had been Conservative since its creation in 1945. Local sources report that the Party is throwing the kitchen sink at retaking it, and that compared to the region’s other target seats Solihull is practically overflowing with money and activists. The tip on this Tory spearhead is Julian Knight, a campaigning consumer rights journalist who worked for BBC News before joining the Independent as money and property editor in 2007. He has reasons to be cheerful: two Lord Ashcroft Polls in June and September of last year found the Conservatives with consistent nine-point lead over Burt, despite a substantial increase in the UKIP vote, and Electoral Calculus predict a Tory gain with 73 per cent certainty.
Telford: The last election saw the majority of David Wright, the Labour incumbent, cut to just 981. Thus the local Conservatives have high hopes that Lucy Allan, a former PWC accountant who later set up an employees’ advocacy and advice legal practice, can be returned here in May. She will have to overcome inauspicious augers to do so, however: a Lord Ashcroft Poll in May last found Labour enjoying a nine-point lead, and Electoral Calculus ranks Allan’s odds of success a few points south of one in three.
Walsall North: Since 1955, this seat has gone Tory just once: at a 1976 by-election sparked by the departure of a Labour MP, John Stonehouse, who had ended his days sitting as an English Nationalist. Yet in 2010 a safe majority of 6,640 was reduced to just 990, and hoping to unseat him is Douglas Hansen-Luke, whose campaign emphasises self-reliance, local businesses and the need for good schools. Unfortunately this is another seat where UKIP appear to have blossomed: a Lord Ashcroft Poll in May 2014 found them in second place with 30 per cent of the voting intention, just seven points behind Labour and nine ahead of the Conservatives. Electoral Calculus give the Tories a 28 per cent chance here.
Walsall South: A Conservative seat in the post-war era, this seat fell to Labour in February 1974 and they have held it since. Yet in 2010 incoming Labour candidate Valerie Vaz found her predecessor’s handsome majority of just under 8,000 to only 1,755. The Tory challenger this time out is Sue Arnold, a Lichfield councillor and Staffordshire’s deputy police and crime commissioner with a background in the local press who was selected in October last. Electoral Calculus estimates her chances at one in four.
Wolverhampton North East: This is another seat where a new Labour candidate lost the great bulk of their predecessor’s comfortable majorities: incumbent Emma Reynolds enters the coming election just under 2,500 votes ahead. Standing for the Tories is Darren Henry, a businessman with who previously pursued a long military career whose campaign focuses on employment, skills, and supporting families. Electoral Calculus gives Henry a 21 per cent chance, but it would be a surprise result if he won.
Birmingham Yardley: One of only two Liberal Democrat seats in the region, alongside Solihull, this was a close-fought Tory-Labour marginal right up until it moved solidly into the latter camp in 1997. John Hemming, having fought the constituency at every general election since 1992 (when the Tories lost control by just 162 votes), squeezed Labour out in 2005 and enters the coming election with a majority of 3,002. His Labour challenger is Jess Phillips, a Birmingham councillor and “dedicated community activist and equalities campaigner” who was first selected in June 2013. Whilst Electoral Calculus give her a seven in ten chance of success, and rank the Liberal Democrat odds as scarcely better than those of the third-placed Conservatives, a Lord Ashcroft Poll in November found Hemming maintaining a three-point lead over Labour.
Cannock Chase: One of 2010′s shock results, Aidan Burley secured an astonishing 14 point swing here to turn a Labour majority of over 9,000 into a Tory one of over 3,000. With Burley stepping down, he bequeaths this to company director and market research specialist Amanda Milling. Labour are fielding Janos Toth, an area fundraising manager for Macmillan Cancer Support. A Lord Ashcroft Poll in October found the Tories in a close-fought third position, with Labour in the lead and UKIP a mere two points behind them. Meanwhile Electoral Calculus has the Tories and Labour neck and neck at 47 per cent likelihood of success apiece.
Dudley South: Conservative incumbent Chris Kelly captured this seat in 2010 by 3,856 votes, overturning the previous Labour majority of over 4,000. With Kelly standing down, local councillor Mike Wood is campaigning to retain the seat for the Conservatives. Seeking to retake the constituency, which Labour had held since its creation in 1997, is Natasha Millward, a full-time employee of the trade union UNISON. Her campaign emphasises her local roots and the allegation that the Government is harming local businesses in order to protect multinationals. Electoral Calculus predict a Conservative hold, albeit giving Millward a better than one in three chance of making it.
Halesowen and Rowley Regis: Yet another seat where Labour failed to hold on when an MP retired, Tory incumbent James Morris overturned a Labour majority of 4,337 to win by just over 2,000. Fighting to take it back for team Miliband is Stephanie Peacock, an historian and former secondary school teacher who now works for the GMB trade union. Two Lord Ashcroft Polls in October 2014 and March 2015 have found Labour one and two points ahead respectively, although interestingly the latter shows a marked retreat in UKIP support relative to October. Electoral Calculus give Labour a narrow edge in the odds, but local sources are more confident of a Tory retention.
North Warwickshire: Dan Byles unseated Mike O’Brien, a former solicitor general and minister in the Blair and Brown governments, by just 54 votes last time, overcoming a Labour majority of over 7,500. O’Brien was reselected in June 2013 and will be fighting hard to retake his seat. Following Byles’ decision to stand down his Conservative opponent is Craig Tracey, a local businessman and activist. Two Lord Ashcroft Polls in May and July of last year found Labour with leads of eight and 11 points, with UKIP emerging as a strong third force but not moving into contention. Both Electoral Calculus and local Tory sources predict a Labour gain.
Nuneaton: Labour from 1935 to 1983 and them from 1992 to 2010, Marcus Jones took this seat for the Tories by just over 2,000 votes in 2010. His Labour challenger in May is Victoria Fowler, a former local councillor who serves as a personal tutor at King Edward VI College. Two Lord Ashcroft Polls in October 2014 and March 2015 found Labour ahead by three and five points respectively, but whilst Electoral Calculus narrowly tip this as a Labour gain the Tories are also reportedly confident of returning Jones.
Warwick and Leamington: Before falling to Labour in 1997 this constituency had been Tory since January 1910, so when Chris White took it on his second attempt in 2010, by over 3,500 votes, he has cause to hope for a return to form. Taking up the Labour mantle in May is Lynnette Kelly, a former Coventry councillor whose professional background is in refugee issues. A Lord Ashcroft Poll in December found White four points ahead, and Electoral Calculus appear to have shifted from predicting a Labour gain to the narrow probability of a Conservative hold.
Wolverhampton South West: Tory from 1950 until 1997 and represented by Enoch Powell before his defection to the Ulster Unionists in 1974, Paul Uppal regained this seat at the last election by just 691 votes. Returning to face him once again is Rob Marris, a local solicitor who represented the constituency from 2001 to 2010. Evidence suggests that Uppal has a fight on his hands: two Lord Ashcroft Polls in May and July 2014 found Marris 13 and 16 points ahead, and Electoral Calculus predict a Labour gain with 60 per cent certainty. Local Tory sources predict a close race, and the constituency is one of the Party’s 40:40 defence seats.
Worcester: With the exception of a one-year flirtation with the Liberals in 1922, before 1997 this constituency had been Tory since 1885. Robin Walker (son of the constituency’s former Tory MP Peter Walker) squeezed out Labour’s Michael Foster in 2010 and enters the coming election with a majority of just under 3,000. His Labour opponent is Joy Squires, a former university lecturer whose campaign has education front and centre. Whilst a Lord Ashcroft Poll in October found her ahead by two points, a fresh survey in March found the Tories back in the lead by six points and a five-point drop in the UKIP share. Electoral Calculus has the odds as narrowly in favour of a Labour gain, and whilst not a national target Worcester is reportedly on the regional support list for the West Midlands Conservatives.
Hereford and South Herefordshire: This is not going to be an election where the Liberal Democrats are on the offensive, but in ordinary circumstances Jesse Norman’s 2,481 majority would surely present a tempting target. They have selected as their challenger Lucy Hurds, the secretary of the West Midlands party and their candidate for North Herefordshire in 2010. Electoral Calculus gives her only an eight per cent chance, and the local Tories predict that Norman will be returned with an increased majority.
Cannock Chase: In what will become a pattern for the region, this is a constituency where a Lord Ashcroft Poll, this one in October 2014, has reported UKIP surging from a very low 2010 vote into close contention for the lead on voting intention. In Tory-held Cannock Chase the poll found them on 30 per cent, only two points behind Labour and having knocked the Conservatives into third. Their candidate is Grahame Wiggin, a semi-retired septuagenarian with a background in construction. As with all the seats on this list, it appears to be a question of whether the party had the local machine in place to solidify this surge in support, rather than have it recede before the general election.
Dudley North: UKIP only polled nine per cent here in 2010, yet two Lord Ashcroft Polls conducted in 2014 found Nigel Farage’s party surging to a strong second place, closing the year only three points behind Labour and a full ten ahead of the Conservatives. Their candidate is Cllr Bill Etheridge MEP, who has represented the West Midlands in the European Parliament since the 2014 elections. He defected from the Tories, along with his wife, after both were photographed with golliwogs on their Facebook profiles to protest political correctness. Electoral Calculus only give him a five per cent chance of winning, but with UKIP keen to demonstrate their potency against Labour this could be one to keep an eye on.
Walsall North: Despite Electoral Calculus only giving the party an outside five per cent chance of capturing this constituency, there is clearly potential for UKIP here: a Lord Ashcroft Poll in May last year found the party on 30 per cent (up from five per cent in 2010), only seven points behind Labour. The bookmakers give their second-time candidate, Elizabeth Hazell, odds scarcely longer than the Conservatives’ David Hansen-Luke, but unless her campaign has defied the local receding of UKIP’s fortunes this seat is likely beyond their reach, this time.
Wyre Forest: In November 2014 a Lord Ashcroft Poll found UKIP in second place in this constituency, with 27 per cent of the voting intention and only five points behind the incumbent Conservatives. This seat has a history of independent-mindedness, and from 2001 to 2010 it was represented by independent MP Dr Richard Taylor MBE, whose National Health Action Party (NHAP) are also targeting it as detailed below. The UKIP candidate is Michael Wrench, a local district councillor.
National Health Action:
Wyre Forest: This seat has an unusual history: comfortably Conservative until 1997, if fell to Labour in that year only to be won by Dr Richard Taylor, an independent campaigning for a local hospital, by a huge majority of 17,630 in 2001. Taylor held on by over 5,000 in 2005, becoming the first two-term independent since 1979, before Tory Mark Garnier took the seat on his second attempt in 2010. Now Taylor is back for another attempt as co-leader of the National Health Action Party, a left-wing group whose supporters include comedian Rufus Hound. However local Conservatives think that without the pressing local issue that initially drove Taylor’s election (the fate of accident and emergency services at Kidderminster Hospital) Garnier should be safe, and a Lord Ashcroft Poll in November 2014 found the ‘Others’ polling a mere 13 per cent of the voting intention, well behind both Labour and UKIP.
Birmingham Hall Green: Once a safe Conservative seat, Labour won here in 1997. Whilst in 2005 the Conservative vote showed signs of recovery, in 2010 they were pushed into fourth place behind Salma Yaqoob of the Respect Party and the Liberal Democrats. Yaqoob, a former Birmingham City councillor and leader of Respect, has since resigned from the party after disagreements with George Galloway, and the party’s candidate this time is Shiraz Peer, an immigration and human rights lawyer who also hosts a programme focusing on migration issues on the BEN TV network. Respect are not a national force, and with no local polling it will be down to the party’s ground campaign to overturn Labour’s majority of almost 4,000 and provide one of the night’s surprises.