- There are 29 parliamentary constituencies in the North East of England. Going into the General Election, Labour held 25 of them, the Conservatives two and the Liberal Democrats two.
- It’s fair to say the region is expected to see a low number of seats change hands – it has, so far at least, remained relatively untouched by the much-heralded breakdown of old party allegiances. That’s not to say it is immune, necessarily, but it’s yet to find a powerful voice.
- Labour will be confident of continuing their dominance in the North East in May. However, it’s worth looking behind the headline figures in the election results to explore the underlying trends. The 2004 Regional Assembly referendum showed that Labour writ does not automatically run here, and there is a growing sense of disgruntlement at the way Labour take the working class vote for granted.
- The Conservatives have two hard-fought marginal battles on their hands – Berwick and Stockton South. In the former they are hoping to crown years of hard work with a Tory gain from the Lib Dems. In the latter, James Wharton, the young MP who put forward the EU Referendum Bill, is engaged in house-to-house warfare against a union-backed campaign to overturn his slim majority. Contrary to some stereotypes, there are plenty of Tories here (not least your correspondent, who grew up in the Tynemouth constituency) and many more potential supporters.
- This is far from the only region where this is the case, but I’ll say it anyway: The Lib Dems face extinction in the North East. Both of their sitting MPs are standing down, and the polling doesn’t look good for either of their would-be successors.
- While UKIP don’t have any target seats here, they do have an MEP and a developing activist base. I’d expect that Farage will treat the region as a test bed for his secondary objective (after winning seats elsewhere) of coming second in a number of Labour-held constituencies. UKIP did achieve a second place in the South Shields by-election in 2013, and another in Middlesbrough in 2012, and they are keen to portray themselves both as the official opposition to Labour in the North of England.
- Jobs: The North East is a story of good news and bad news as far as the job statistics go. It has seen the fastest increase in employment of any region, clearly benefiting from the jobs miracle. But it also still has the highest unemployment rate of any region – even the soaring improvements of recent years have yet to overcome historic factors and the depth of the damage done in the recession. Everywhere in the UK wants more and better jobs – but the demand is more acute here than anywhere else.
- Look at Scotland: The closer you get to the Scottish border, the more people compare their lot with those of the Barnett-Formula-subsidised neighbours to the North. If the main parties are dishing cash and powers out to woo the SNP, then you can expect voters in the North East, which is poorer than Scotland, to wonder why they’re being ignored.
- The Northern Powerhouse: All too often “the Northern Economic Powerhouse” appears to refer to Leeds, Manchester and Liverpool. On the other side of the Pennines, where DevoManc and HS2 are not on offer, it’s still unclear how any party intends Newcastle, Durham, Middlesbrough and Sunderland to fit into the plan. For a part of the world that’s suffered too often from being left out by government plans that stop at York and being again at Edinburgh, it’s a big question.
Battleground rating: 3/10
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.)
Berwick-upon-Tweed: Alan Beith won the most northern seat in England for the first time in 1973 – and held onto it until his decision to retired at this election. Anne-Marie Trevelyan cut his majority to 2,690 in 2010, and is back to finish the job this year – indeed, she essentially restarted her campaign to take the seat very swiftly after the 2010 election. Lord Ashcroft’s polling last September showed a Conservative lead of three points, despite a significant UKIP surge. Sources on the ground report the Tories outfighting local Lib Dems by some margin, so that will hopefully have increased in the intervening nine months. This is far and away the best prospect for a Tory gain in the North East on election night.
Darlington: Held by Michael Fallon from 1983 to 1992, Alan Milburn turned it into a safe Labour seat with a majority of over 10,000 votes. When he left in 2010 there was an opportunity to seize it back, but his replacement, Jenny Chapman, held the constituency by 3,388 votes. The Tory candidate this time is local lad, crime policy specialist (and ConservativeHome contributor) Peter Cuthbertson. He’ll be seeking to narrow Chapman’s majority, but a good national swing will be needed to carry him close to Labour.
Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland: Held by Labour since the constituency was created in 1997, Labour have seen their majority decline at every election – first gradually, then precipitously when it fell to 1,677 votes in 2010. The Tory challenger this time round is Will Goodhand, director of a marketing firm. He’s been fighting the campaign for over two years now, so has had a good run to build name recognition. Crucial to the result will be how the 7,000 Liberal Democrat votes cast last time break between Labour and Conservatives. Also crucial is the performance of UKIP, as in 2010 this was a seat where the UKIP vote was larger than Labour’s majority.
Tynemouth: This seaside seat (and, to declare my interest, my home constituency) was solidly Conservative from 1918 to 1997, barring a flirtation with Labour in 1945. By 2005, Alan Campbell’s 1997 majority of over 11,000 had been cut by almost two thirds, and hopes were high for 2010. Unfortunately, Campbell unexpectedly increased his majority at the last General Election, and Labour have since taken back the directly elected mayoralty on North Tyneside Council. The Tory candidate, Glenn Hall, a Tyneside-born lawyer, is running a major campaign to take on Campbell on the ground, but with 7,845 Lib Dem voters potentially splitting to Labour it may be a bridge too far.
Stockton South: The must-watch North East battle for election night. In 2010, James Wharton won the seat for the Conservatives on a majority of 332 votes, one of the smallest Conservative majorities in the country. Wharton started his fight to retain the seat the day after polling day, and has been a beneficiary of the 40/40 programme, which has been focusing activists and resources into the constituency since it was set up. Popular as a local MP, Wharton also had the distinction of bringing forward the EU Referendum Bill after he won the Private Members’ Bill ballot. His opponent is Louise Baldock, a Liverpool councillor at the time of her selection, who has received substantial backing in terms of money and troops from Lord Oakeshott and the trade unions respectively. Huge amounts of deliveries and door-knocking is underway on each side, and while Lord Ashcroft’s polling has shown slim Labour leads I’d expect it to go to the wire.
Redcar: Lib Dem Ian Swales won Mo Mowlam’s old seat from Labour in 2010, unseating Vera Baird with a titanic 21.8 per cent swing. However, he has now decided to stand down after only one term – and coincidentally Lord Ashcroft polling from last year shows the Lib Dems collapsing into third, behind Labour and UKIP. Anything but a Labour gain this time round would be even more surprising than the news of the Lib Dem performance in 2010.
City of Durham: For years, the Lib Dems were a major challenger here, controlling the City Council at one point. In 2010 they came within 3,067 votes of unseating Labour’s Roberta Blackman-Woods, but they will fall back drastically from that this time. While technically a potential target on paper, the yellows will be focused on desperately defending Redcar and Berwick – and will struggle to do even that. The Conservative candidate, Rebecca Coulson, is of course a ConservativeHome columnist.