The rise of UKIP has turned the east of England into a political battleground. Though, to be fair, it already was one, featuring a string of coastal seats from Dover to Scarborough gained by Labour in 1997 and gradually taken back by the Conservatives in 2001, 2005 and 2010.
It was thanks to victories in places like Rochester and Strood that David Cameron came close to winning a majority – adding a remarkable 97 seats to the Conservative total. Of course, he still fell short by twenty (or nineteen, depending on definitions).
In a piece for the May2015 website, Harry Lambert assesses the likelihood of this deficit being made up at the next election. In doing so he draws upon Lord Ashcroft’s polling treasure trove. Lambert’s particular focus in on the Tory targets where Labour managed to cling on in 2010:
“The party fell 19 seats short of a majority in 2010 largely because they didn’t win in these battlegrounds.
“If they are to win a majority this time, they either need to hold onto all the seats they won in 2010 and pick up seats from the Lib Dems, or win some of these Labour-held seats.”
It’s not unreasonable to assume that any gains from the Lib Dems will be at least partially offset by losses to UKIP. Therefore, there can be no majority without progress against Labour. So, how do things look for us? “Bleak” is Mr Lambert’s reading:
“Ashcroft has polled the 12 most closely-fought Tory-Labour seats from 2010, and all but one of them have shown double-digit Labour leads in both late May and late August.”
The exception is an interesting one:
“Only Southampton Itchen initially seems to offer the Tories hope. After putting Labour ahead by 8 in the seat in May, Ashcroft’s latest poll in August showed a tied race.
“Itchen shows the impact of Ukip. They don’t look likely to win the seat – they are only polling at around 20 per cent – but they could hand it to either party.
“On the one hand, Itchen has been a Labour seat for 22 years: the fact that it’s tied suggests Ukip are helping the Tories. But a further rise in their support could help Labour.”
Of course, an even greater rise in UKIP support (and who knows what effect the Rochester by-election will have) could present a third possibility. This is a seat to watch.
However, for the moment, let’s return to the seats more typical of the main Con-Lab battleground. For the most part these are metropolitan rather than coastal in nature. Of the twenty most winnable Labour seats that the Conservatives failed to win in 2010, three quarters of them were in London or the six metropolitan counties (the West Midlands, Greater Manchester, Merseyside, South Yorkshire, West Yorkshire and Tyneside).
One might assume that these are the regions where marginal seats happen to be concentrated. But if you look at the seats that were gained from Labour within the same range of targets as the top twenty misses, only a fifth were in London and the metropolitan counties. Thus, overwhelmingly, it was in the suburbs and satellite towns of England’s biggest cities that the Conservative Party failed to win a majority in 2010.
Therefore, while we clearly have a UKIP problem, we also have an urban problem. But too many Conservatives seem to recognise one without acknowledging the other.
For instance, there are those, like Matthew Parris, who say the Conservative Party must build its future in metropolitan Britain – and not marginalised places like Clacton. The Conservative right has it the other way round, seeing salvation in a pact with UKIP.
Both sides are wrong. We cannot gain a decent majority by choosing between metropolitan and small-town Britain. To win, we need both.