Labour chalked up a comfortable win in yesterday’s Oldham West and Royton by-election. To what degree, if at all, was it a victory for the party’s moderate and local candidate, Jim McMahon, rather than Jeremy Corbyn? Where does UKIP go from here in the north (and elsewhere)? How did the non-Muslim vote break down, given that Pakistani and Bangladeshi-origin support – which makes up some 18 per cent of the borough’s population – stayed solidly with Labour?
These are some of the questions that are being asked in the wake of the result. Here’s another. Why should the Conservative Party settle for coming third in Oldham? Are the Party’s ambitions in the urban North and Midlands so withered that it is prepared to cede second place to UKIP? We were second in the seat as recently as 2010. Last May, we were pipped at the post by UKIP. Yesterday, the Conservative vote fell from 8187 to 2,596. Sure, turnout in the by-election was down. But UKIP now has the chance to squeeze Tory support in 2020. It is far from certain that it will flunk it.
The General Election result was part of a pattern. There are no Conservative seats in Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham, Newcastle, Leeds, Sheffield, Nottingham, Leicester and Coventry. To be sure, there are Tory constituencies on the edge of these cities. In Greater Manchester, for example, the Conservatives added Cheadle, Hazel Grove and Bolton West to Altincham and Sale, and Bury North last May. However, the shrinkage over the last 50 years is striking. As Lewis Baston wrote recently on this site:
The largest loss is the seats that Gordon Brown’s Labour won in 2010 but Harold Wilson’s Labour didn’t in 1964. There are 46 of these (and would be 68 if one adjusts for the national swing). The bulk are inner suburban areas – three in Edinburgh, four in Birmingham, five on Merseyside, and nine in London. Most of the larger cities have such a seat (e.g. Leicester South), although some of them have swung past Labour and voted Liberal Democrat in 2010 (Bristol West, Manchester Withington). A fair amount of this reflects the suburbanisation of the ethnic minority population, but it is also to do with the alienation of the public sector and liberal professions from the Conservatives during the 1980s.
It may be argued that seats such as these are now beyond the Party’s grasp. But if so, where is a workable Tory majority going to come from? Ruth Davidson’s leadership may help to win a few seats for the Party in Scotland in 2020. Stephen Crabb’s work leaves it in a promising position in Wales. None the less, sizeable gains are impossible without more progress in England. And south of Coventry, the electoral map is already a mass of blue. There simply aren’t enough seats to win there to make that comfortable majority possible.
Here is a list of urban and suburban seats in the Midlands and North that the Party has either held within the last 25 years or in which it is now a reasonable second (or both): Batley and Spen, Birmingham Edgbaston, Birmingham Erdington, Bishop Auckland, Blackpool South, Bolton North-East, Bury South, Coventry South, Chorley, City of Chester, Darlington, Dewsbury, Dudley North, Gedling, Great Grimsby, Halifax, Hyndburn, Leeds North East, Leeds North West, Lancaster and Fleetwood, Middlebrough South and Cleveland East, Newcastle-under-Lyme, Sheffield Hallam, Southport, Wolverhampton South West and Walsall North.
Some of these constituencies now look very difficult – such as Batley and Spen and Leeds North-East. Others are traditionally Labour: Birmingham Erdington, Bishop Auckland, Newcastle-under-Lyme. All will have seen boundary revision. And if the reduction in the number of Commons seats takes place, all will see significant electoral change – to the point in some cases of being transformed beyond recognition, or of being broken up altogether. None the less, they are some of the seats that potentially make possible a Conservative Government with a workable majority.
- CCHQ should identify short-term target seats for 2020 in the North and Midlands. (All those we lost to Labour should fall into this category, boundary changes allowing: Dewsbury, Lancaster and Fleetwood, Wolverhampton South-West.)
- It should also find some medium-term development seats. Some of them may not be on the list above at all. Others may be. There may be long-term factors are work in seats such as Birmingham Erdington and Bishop Auckland that are helpful to the Party. In Newcastle-under-Lyme, a Labour seat for time out of mind, that party’s majority is only 650.
- Finally, money and resouces for those latter seats needs to be ring-fenced. It cannot all be expended on the target seats – vital though these are. The medium and long-term matter as well as the short. To ensure this ring-fencing, CCHQ should be split in two, with one half dealing with short-term campaigning (i.e: advertising, telephone canvassing, online activity, Facebook, Twitter, action days, by-elections, rapid response, opposition attack, propagating the message) and the other half dealing with long-term campaigning (i.e: building up support among ethnic minority voters, students, business, the professions, universities, trade union members, development seats etc). This proposal was backed by this site’s Party member readers in a recent survey on this site by 50 per cent to 30 per cent.