James Blagden is Chief Data Analyst at Onward and author of their new report Another Brick in the Wall: Where is the battleground at the next election?
Politics has rarely been more volatile. A year ago, the Conservatives held a double digit poll lead and people talked of Boris Johnson being in power for a decade. Today, the party sits several points behind Labour, with an MRP analysis over the weekend suggesting that half of the Cabinet could lose their seats if an election were held today. The pendulum may well swing back and forth again before the next election.
The challenge is to step back from the day-to-day froth and understand the deep currents reshaping British politics. These forces were exposed in 2019, when the Conservatives won a historic victory on the back of the fall of Labour’s “Red Wall”, overturning decades – in some cases even a century – of Labour dominance. It was a seismic realignment of the British electorate that delivered a historic fourth Conservative term and plunged Labour into existential crisis.
It feels like a long time ago now. With the Conservatives slumping in the polls, a cost of living crisis, and ‘partygate’ eroding trust in the Government, it is the Conservatives who are in crisis. Commentators are getting excited about the prospect of the Tories losing the next election. And following the shock loss of Chesham and Amersham, the focus has started to turn to the traditional Tory heartlands in the South where the Liberal Democrats hope to turn the ‘Blue Wall’ yellow.
In Onward’s latest report, published today, we analysed voting and demographic data from 2019 to work out where the Conservative Party will be most vulnerable in the future, and where it might be able to make further gains given the right strategy. And the truth is that talk of a Southern collapse is premature.
Our analysis suggests that nearly two-thirds of future battleground seats are in the North of England. Only 20 per cent are in the South. So, while the concern over Esher and Walton, Guildford, and Wimbledon is understandable and real, it is also overhyped.
This is not to say that the new Conservative coalition is baked in. It is possible that millions of voters could switch back to other parties. There are 31 seats in the North, Midlands, and north Wales could fall to Labour if the party fails to deliver for those who ‘lent’ their votes to the party in 2019. And that is not counting the dozens of other marginal seats that the Conservatives could lose if their popularity remains low.
But the challenges of political realignment also present opportunities.
There are 36 constituencies in the North of England where the Conservatives under-performed demographic model predictions, suggesting that the Red Wall still has further to fall. This list includes high-profile names like Ed Miliband’s seat of Doncaster North and Yvette Cooper’s seat of Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford. These should be Conservative target seats at the next election.
In contrast to the widespread volatility in the North, continued realignment only puts 12 southern seats at immediate risk, including constituencies like Guildford and Hendon. This is because most Tory seats in the Home Counties are about as Conservative as you would expect given the demographics of the area. They have more homeowners than average, more older voters, are less urban, and so on. Other parties will struggle to make much headway here, without any swing against the Conservatives.
So, most of the action in 2024 will likely take place in the North and Midlands, rather than the South of England. The Government should focus its attention accordingly.
But this does not mean that the Conservatives can become complacent in the South. After all, taking their traditional voters for granted was Labour’s undoing in 2019. Over the longer-term, parts of London and the South East have been drifting away from the Conservatives for years.
The number of seats affected is substantial. There are 35 constituencies, for example, where the Conservative vote has fallen by 10 percentage points more than average since 2015. That’s about one in every ten Conservative seats. This ‘Blue Drift’ is greatest in the Home Counties, including high-profile seats like Witney and Maidenhead, both held by former Prime Ministers.
Some of this drift is a function of post-Brexit realignment. Seats like Dominic Raab’s Esher and Walton have only recently turned away from the Tories, where the Liberal Democrats gained an astonishing 28-points in 2019. We see a similar pattern across most of Surrey, Berkshire and Oxfordshire.
The other half of this story is actually part of a 30-year trend. That the Conservative Party has been polling steadily worse in London and Merseyside is well-known. But Conservative support in areas like East Sussex and Cambridgeshire has been slowly ebbing away since the late 1980s.
If these trends continue, dozens of Conservative strongholds in the South East of England will become more marginal over time.
Could the Conservatives be outsmarted by a Lib-Lab pact? Both Keir Starmer and Ed Davey have suggested they would be open to an informal arrangement. But our analysis shows it would not on its own be enough to ‘get the Tories out’, because of the low starting position both parties find themselves in.
Even if a pact played out perfectly based on existing vote share – so, in seats where Labour came second, all Liberal Democrat voters backed the Labour candidate, and vice versa – the Conservatives would still win 321 seats. The Conservatives would still be by far the largest party in Parliament. It might actually leave the Tories a small working majority, depending on the number of abstaining Sinn Fein MPs.
The combined strength of Labour and the Liberal Democrats in this scenario would only by 257, which is worse than Jeremy Corbyn achieved on his own in 2017. So those who think that tactical anti-Conservative voting is the key to Labour’s victory are just plain wrong. To get anywhere near Number 10, Keir Starmer would need to win back voters in the Red Wall and focus less on the progressive left.
A bigger threat to the Conservatives would come from a resurgent ‘NewKip’ right-wing populist party. Research has already shown that the Brexit Party cost the Conservatives 25 extra seats in 2019 by siphoning off voters that would have otherwise voted Conservative. In effect, if the Brexit Party had stood down in more Leave-voting Labour seats, Boris Johnson’s majority could have increased from 80 to an eye-watering 130.
Looking forward, what could be the impact of disaffected 2019 Conservative voters switching to a new party that occupied the same political niche as UKIP or the Brexit Party? We used our 2019 election survey to work out where in the country this NewKip party would be strongest and how many votes that would cost the Conservatives.
At worst, ‘NewKip’ would cost the Conservatives 53 seats, which would completely wipe out their majority and deliver a hung parliament. The Tories would lose some of their more iconic 2019 gains like Dewsbury, Bridgend and North West Durham, as well as some marginal seats in the South. So, although a credible challenger has yet to emerge – Reform UK are only polling at three per cent – the Tories should watch that space with a keen eye.
If the Conservative Party wants to win again in 2024, the immediate focus should be cementing their gains in the North and Midlands and delivering on promises made at the last election. By leaning into the political realignment, and continuing their advance northernwards, the Conservatives could manage to stave off a disastrous 1997-style defeat.