Professor Anand Menon is Director of the ’UK in a Changing Europe’ project and Professor of European Politics and Foreign Affairs at Kings’ College, London.
Applications closed at the end of October for several campaign manager jobs advertised by the Conservative Party. Nothing exceptional in that, you might think. But what was interesting about the jobs was their location: Birmingham, the Black Country, Leeds, Leicester, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham and Sheffield. This is Labour territory. While pundits and the press have focussed on the threats posed by the Liberal Democrats and UKIP to the two major parties, Theresa May’s Conservative Party has embarked on its own attempt to redraw the political map of the UK.
Give or take possible disagreements over the boundaries of the Black Country, the areas identified in the job specs cover 70 parliamentary seats: 27 in Greater Manchester; nine in Birmingham; five each in Leeds and Sheffield; four in Liverpool, three each in Leicester, Newcastle, Nottingham and Wolverhampton; two each in Dudley, Walsall, and West Bromwich; plus Halesowen and Rowley Regis and Warley.
Of these 70 seats, all but nine are currently held by Labour. And the 61 Labour seats include some of the party’s most solid ‘heartland’ constituencies – places like Ashton-under-Lyne, Leigh, Makerfield, Stalybridge and Hyde, and Wigan, all held by Labour since 1945 or earlier. The 61 also provide Labour with some of the party’s biggest majorities outside London, such as in the four Liverpool seats, which all returned Labour margins of over 20,000 in 2015.
But the list also includes some seats where Labour cannot feel at all secure. In some cases, the most immediate threat is from the Conservatives. Labour snatched Wolverhampton South West back from the Tories in 2015, but only by 800 votes. In Walsall North, Labour maintains a majority over the Conservatives of under 2,000; and there are two Birmingham seats – including Gisela Stuart’s Edgbaston constituency – where Labour’s margin over the Conservatives in 2015 was less than 3,000. Twelve of the 61 Labour-held seats covered by the Conservative campaign jobs are among the Conservatives’ top 75 UK-wide target seats, with a shortfall in vote share compared to the 2015 winner of around 15 points or less; five seats are in the top 50, with a percentage point difference of below ten.
In other cases, Labour’s challenge is UKIP. Of the 61 Labour-held seats covered by the new Conservative jobs, UKIP came second in 2015 in 12. In a further 14, UKIP was third by only two or three percentage points. Looked at another way, of the 44 UK seats where UKIP came second to Labour in 2015, over a quarter are among these 61. A 2015 analysis of Labour’s ‘missing’ marginals identified the North West, for example, as a region where there is a concentration of 2020 Labour target marginals, where the loss of voters to UKIP is a major factor making or keeping currently non-Labour seats marginal, and where winning those voters back is necessary (although not necessarily sufficient) for Labour to have a hope of regaining office at Westminster. In other words, for both the Conservatives and Labour, in many of the seats covered by the new Conservative campaign jobs it is 2015 UKIP voters who are in play for the next General Election.
This is not to say that the Conservatives would find it easy to pick up former Labour supporters. In current circumstances, UKIP would often be likely to be more instinctively appealing than the southern English ‘establishment’, status quo party, whereas persuading traditional Labour voters in the Midlands and north of England to vote Conservative would often be likely to be an uphill task. According to the September YouGov polling, 79 per cent of 2015 Labour voters would still not consider voting Conservative, with only 14 per cent open to the possibility. And among 2015 Labour voters who backed Leave, 67 per cent still ruled out a possible Conservative vote, with 22 per cent saying they would consider it. A ‘Leave’ vote still appeared more likely to drive former Labour voters to UKIP than the Conservatives: among all 2015 Labour voters, just 12 per cent said they would consider voting UKIP, whereas in the Leave-voting sub-group, the share rose to 33 per cent. In any case, only 14 per cent of 2015 Labour voters had definitely decided to abandon the party for any of the alternatives.
However, recent analysis has suggested that if UKIP were to become a non-option for whatever reason, the Conservatives would benefit far more than would Labour. Without UKIP among the options, the Conservatives gained five points in headline voting intention, and Labour just two. This is mirrored in the findings of my colleague Matthew Goodwin, who has argued that, in the (not implausible) event that UKIP disintegrates or is paralysed by in-fighting, more of its voters will defect to the Conservatives than to Labour – at the 2014 European elections, one in every two UKIP voters had previously voted Conservative. He lists a number of constituencies where this could have a material bearing, where the number of UKIP voters was grater than the margin of victory Labour candidates secured over their Tory opponents.
At a moment when the current Labour leadership is uniquely ill-suited to appealing to voters in these traditional Labour areas, there is much to play for. Reading between the lines of what the Conservative Party is doing, it has realised this and seems poised to try to fundamentally alter the political geography of this country.