- There are 75 parliamentary constituencies in the North West of England. Currently, Labour hold 47 of them, the Conservatives 22, and the Lib Dems 6.
- The region sends some big names to the Commons – Andy Burnham in Leigh, George Osborne in Tatton and Tim Farron in Westmorland and Lonsdale, who may well succeed Nick Clegg as Lib Dem leader.
- The North West is a microcosm of some of the Conservative Party’s biggest electoral challenges, including a total absence of Tory councillors in Manchester and Liverpool and a growing ethnic minority population among whom Labour enjoy a strong lead.
- Lancashire and Cheshire are the major battleground territories – returning MPs in the big cities remains a longer term project.
Among the big issues at play in the election campaign in the North West are:
- HS2: Unpopular as the line may be in the areas through which it runs, the Coalition are gambling that it will win votes at and around its destinations – namely Manchester, in this case. We simply don’t know whether the project will deliver votes – and if it does, whether they’ll be in the marginals.
- The rise of UKIP: If Nigel Farage’s threats to become the official opposition in the North of England are to be sustained, his party will have to do well in a range of seats in the North West. They came second in the region in last year’s European election, and ran Labour very close in the Heywood and Middleton by-election in October. Paul Nuttall MEP, one of their main spokesmen, has closely identified himself with their prospects in his home region – will their claims be sustained on the night?
- Shale gas: The North West is home to a large chunk of the UK’s shale gas reserves, which are estimated to be vast and extremely valuable. Cuadrilla’s applications to explore those reserves in Lancashire are still the subject of official reviews and popular debate. Which way will the parties fall on the topic, and will the battle be about fears of environmental impact or hopes of thousands of new engineering jobs?
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.)
Bolton West: Labour’s Julie Hilling won the seat in 2010 by an extremely narrow margin of 92. As a result, the seat is close to the top of the attack list. The Conservative challenger is Chris Green, an engineer, who wrote about the doorstep issues (immigration control, extraditing criminals, welfare reform, fuel bills, the EU) – in the constituency for us here. Encouragingly, he will have been in place as the PPC for more than two years by election day, giving him a good run at Hilling’s job.
Wirral South: With a majority of 531, Alison McGovern only just held the seat for Labour last time round. Her opponent is John Bell, a retired teacher and lecturer who grew up in a working class family in Liverpool. Like Green, Bell has also had a decent amount of time to get stuck into campaigning – he was originally selected in February 2013 – but Lord Ashcroft’s snapshot from May 2014 showed a sizeable swing towards Labour, helped by the Lib Dem retreat and the rise of UKIP.
Chorley: A Conservative seat until 1997, Labour MP Lindsay Hoyle has seen his majority of almost 10,000 whittled down to 2,593 over the three elections that followed. Rob Loughenbury, the Conservative hopeful, was selected in February 2013 and works in property development. He’s campaigning on school places, job creation and for an extension of Help to Buy among other things. However, UKIP did relatively well here in 2010, winning 2,021 (4.1 per cent) – it’s worth watching to see whether they help Labour to hold the seat.
Cheadle: Lost to the Lib Dems in 2001, Cheadle is a strong prospect for a Tory gain this year. Even after years of digging in by the Yellow Peril, 2010’s Cleggmania only saw them achieve a 3,272 vote majority. Mary Robinson, the Conservative candidate, is a stalwart of South Ribble Conservatives and runs a family business. Her campaign places particular focus on road safety, free parking and the local environment. Ashcroft polling last summer found significant advances by Labour and UKIP, leaving the Lib Dems four points ahead of the Tories (both on a lower vote share than 2010).
Blackpool South: Taken by Gordon Marsden in 1997 on an 11,000 vote majority, his lead was squeezed down to 1,852 in 2010. The Tory challenger is Peter Anthony, who was selected last summer and has lived and worked in Blackpool for 30 years as a hotelier, cafe owner and entertainer. He’s placed a campaigning emphasis on English Votes for English Laws in recent weeks.
Hazel Grove: With the incumbent, Andrew Stunell, stepping down, the Lib Dems would be justifiably nervous about hanging onto their 6,371 majority here. UKIP did perform relatively well in 2010, polling 5.1 per cent, which complicates things, however. William Wragg, the Conservative candidate, is a local lad and has experience of fighting and beating Lib Dems in the constituency. Lord Ashcroft’s polling in November found the Lib Dems still ahead, if by a much-reduced margin of six points. The poll here looks a lot like that in Cheadle, where UKIP and Labour are up but not (yet) in contention for the seat, posing the real likelihood that a constituency where the winner polled 49 per cent last time might be won in 2015 by someone with around a third of the vote.
Southport: Held by the Lib Dems since 1997, and by the current MP John Pugh since 2001, the Conservatives are seeking to overturn a majority of 6,024. The Tory candidate, Damien Moore, was selected in the autumn, works in the retail sector and grew up Cumbria before moving to Lancashire in 2002. Lord Ashcroft’s round of constituency polling in November showed the complexities of the seat – the Lib Dems were down 13 on 37 per cent, but the Conservatives were down 12 to 24 per cent, and UKIP are apparently up to third place on 21 per cent. The 2010 majority is relatively large on paper but this new multi-party dynamic means it’s set to be an interesting battle.
Bury South: Held by Ivan Lewis, the Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, with a majority of 3,292, on paper the Conservative swing required to take it isn’t that large. However, voters abandoning the Lib Dems may swing Labour’s way. Daniel Critchlow, the Conservative candidate, may be known to some readers as the Church of England minister who fought the Wythenshawe and Sale East by-election.
Hyndburn: Boundary changes (and Gordon Brown) helped to make the seat more marginal in 2010, with a Labour majority of 3,090. That said, Graham Jones, the Labour incumbent, is a first term MP, which reputedly brings some benefits when seeking re-election. His Conservative opponent, Kevin Horkin, is a local candidate and involved in business as well as local government – however, he was selected last month, which obviously limits the time available to build up name recognition.
Lancaster and Fleetwood: Eric Ollerenshaw won the seat for the Conservatives in 2010 on a 333 vote majority, overturning what was a notional 8 per cent Labour majority in the newly-created constituency. The prospect of UKIP eating into the Tory vote while Labour devour the Lib Dems only makes his job of defending it harder – Ashcroft polling in May and July last year suggested a sizeable Labour lead. Ollerenshaw’s opponent, Cat Smith, is a Unite rep.
Blackpool North and Cleveleys: Another new constituency in 2010 where the Conservatives won despite a notional Labour majority, the seat is held by Paul Maynard with a majority of 2,150. ASHCR In October, an Ashcroft poll found Maynard to be three points ahead of Labour. His opponent, Sam Rushworth, is a University tutor and participant in the Labour Left Platform.
Carlisle: John Stevenson took this seat in 2010 on a swing of 7.7 points, a majority of 853 votes. In August, Lord Ashcroft found the Conservative vote falling to 30 per cent and Labour up four points to 41 per cent. Really the campaign is a battle to win Lib Dem votes, while each of the main parties tries to protect its base from UKIP. The strength of the respective parties on the ground will be crucial. The Labour candidate, Lee Sherriff, spent much of her career in retail before moving into mental health and disability support services.
Wirral West: Labour would dearly love to overturn Esther McVey’s majority of 2,436 here – but the local Conservative machine is fighting hard on the ground, and McVey has a personal following. Lord Ashcroft’s October 2014 polling placed the Tories and Labour neck and neck, despite a sizeable UKIP surge – giving McVey a good chance of holding on. Margaret Greenwood, her opponent, is a web consultant and former teacher who has attracted the backing of a number of trade unions in her campaign.
Bury North: Having stood unsuccessfully in 2005, David Nuttall was rewarded in 2010 with a 2,243 vote majority. His strong euroscepticism (he heads the Better Off Out group in parliament) might hold down the UKIP numbers on the day, but in October Lord Ashcroft’s snapshot found a nine point lead for Labour, with UKIP snapping up 20 per cent. His opponent, James Frith, is a former Labour staffer and Bury councillor who has founded his own social enterprise.
Manchester Withington: Currently held by Lib Dem MP John Leech with a 1,894 vote majority, it’s hard to see the seat staying yellow in May. An Ashcroft poll in June 2014 found Labour on a stonking 56 per cent, and the Lib Dems slumping to 22 per cent – less than half their 2010 result. Jeff Smith, the Labour candidate, is a former events organiser who has spent recent years as an Executive Member on Manchester City Council.
Morecambe and Lunesdale: David Morris won the seat for the Conservatives in 2010 with a slim majority of 866. Lord Ashcroft’s polls in July last year saw Labour with a three point lead – and UKIP on 18 per cent, a level that the Conservatives will be hoping to squeeze. Amina Lone, the Labour challenger, is the founder of the Social Action and Research Foundation.
Pendle: Another Tory gain at the last General Election, Andrew Stephenson won Pendle with a 3,585 vote majority. Despite Labour and UKIP’s best efforts, an Ashcroft poll in December found the Conservatives in the lead by 3 per cent. The Labour candidate, Azhar Ali, is a full-time councillor, former leader of Pendle Council and an ex-adviser to the last Labour Government. He was Unite’s preferred candidate for the seat.
City of Chester: Stephen Mosley took the seat from Labour in 2010, winning a Conservative majority of 2,583. An October 2014 Ashcroft poll suggested the seat was a neck and neck battle between the Tories and Labour – the Lib Dems took 19 per cent last time round, so the direction of their former voters could be decisive. Chris Matheson, Labour’s candidate, is a Unite official.
Warrington South: Continuing the trend, this is another of the seats Labour lost at the last General Election, when David Mowat built a 1,553 Conservative majority. Ashcroft polling last summer found Labour in the lead on the back of a 5.5 per cent swing. Mowat will be defending the seat against Nick Bent, the former Labour SpAd and charity founder whom he defeated in 2010. The Lib Dems came a relatively strong third last time, so there are a lot of potential floating voters up for grabs
Weaver Vale: Another first-term Tory MP, Graham Evans is defending this seat with a 991 majority. Lord Ashcroft’s polling in August 2014 gave Labour a nine point lead, helped by a UKIP surge to 18 per cent. Julia Tickridge, the Labour candidate, spent much of her career working in Further Education.
Rossendale and Darwen: Jake Berry won the seat in 2010 with a 4,493 vote majority, on an above-average swing of 8.9 points. Berry is a popular local MP, but with up to 8,000 Lib Dem voters set to stray and the uncertain source of the UKIP vote, the outcome could be quite volatile. Will Straw of IPPR, the son of Jack Straw, is the Labour candidate.
South Ribble: Lorraine Fullbrook won South Ribble in 2010, her second attempt, with a decent 5,554 majority. However, she’s standing down, which may explain Labour’s decision to place it on their target list. The new Tory candidate is Seema Kennedy, a businesswoman and councillor who settled in Lancashire after fleeing Iran with her family after the revolution. Her opponent, Veronica Bennett, is a parliamentary staffer for a Labour MP.
Burnley: A Lib Dem gain in 2010, Gordon Birtwhistle holds the seat with a majority of 1,818 votes – which Labour took as an affront, having previously held the seat since 1935. In November, an Ashcroft poll showed the Lib Dems in third place, UKIP leaping into second on 25 per cent and Labour out in front on 38 per cent. Julie Cooper, the Labour PPC, is the former Leader of Burnley Council and enjoyed Unite’s backing in the selection.
Crewe and Nantwich: Seized from Labour in the 2008 by-election, Edward Timpson secured a 6,046 vote majority here in 2010. Before 2008 it was historically a Labour seat, but Timpson has a reputation for on-the-ground campaigning. As ever, the candidates’ success in wooing the Lib Dem vote (which is slightly larger than Timpson’s majority) will be important. The Labour candidate, Adrian Heald, is an NHS doctor.
Heywood and Middleton: A key indicator of UKIP’s success in Labour strongholds will be their performance here – in last year’s by-election, Labour’s Liz McInnes only fended off a massive UKIP surge by 617 votes. John Bickley, the UKIP challenger, hopes to go one better in May – ultimately it will rest on a combination of the success of Farage’s air war and whether the ‘People’s Army’ have converted their vote last year into a lasting activist structure on the ground.