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By Lord Watson of Wyre Forest
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Major Parties Braced For "Three Way" Battle For The South West At The General Election

Lib Dems celebrate a by-election win in Somerton and Frome in 2023 (Alamy)

7 min read

The South West is gearing up for a tight “three-way contest” between Labour, Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives at the next general election, as both opposition parties seek to oust incumbent Tories.

Several pollsters have predicted that the region could become a “patchwork” of Tory blue, Labour red and Lib Dem yellow seats after the election, creating a “very different” picture to that of current Tory dominance.

In a region that stretches west from the Cotswolds, down to Cornwall in the far southwest corner of England, and takes in cities such as Bristol, Exeter and Plymouth, as well as rural counties including Somerset, Devon and Dorset, the electoral map was a sea of blue after the 2019 general election. The Conservatives won 48 of the 55 seats available, compared to Labour’s six and the Liberal Democrats’ one.

But five years later, the Conservatives’ dominance has started to dwindle, after Labour won a by-election in Kingswood in February, and the Lib Dems won by-elections in Tiverton and Homerton and Somerton and Frome.

With national polling showing a significant steer away from Conservative voting intention, it is widely expected that the by-election losses won't be the last seats the Tories lose in the region. According to an MRP poll released by YouGov this week, Labour is set to gain 14 seats from the Conservatives across the South West at the general election, which must be called this year, and could knock out Conservative heavyweights including Jacob Rees-Mogg and Robert Buckland. The Liberal Democrats are set to gain 13 from Rishi Sunak’s Tory party, from Cornwall through to the Cotswolds. 

Patrick English, director of political analytics at YouGov told PoliticsHome that he expects “there to be more of a patchwork quilt of colours coming up in the South West after this election to that we’ve been used to seeing for maybe the past two of our three elections”. 

“There aren’t a lot of three-way contests within constituencies, but the region itself is certainly a three-way contest,” he added.  

Chris Hopkins, political research director at Savanta, agreed that the South West would be a target for both Labour and Lib Dems. 

“If current polling holds, we’re going to see a very different looking South West,” he said.  

The Liberal Democrats have won two by-elections in the South-West in the last two years –Tiverton and Honiton and Somerton and Frome – and party figures believe they could be set for a local “resurgence” after suffering a wipe-out in the region at the 2015 general election. 

The party was able to win back Bath in 2017 and they now hope any successes in this year’s local elections, taking place across England on 2 May, could act as a “springboard” in the areas they are eyeing up come the general election. 

This week’s YouGov MRP poll indicates the Lib Dems could win in the newly created Glastonbury and Somerton seat, West Dorset, and numerous other seats including Yeovil, which was represented by former party leader Paddy Ashdown from 1983 to 2001. The party also have high hopes in Cheltenham, currently represented by Conservative Justice Secretary Alex Chalk, and is also targeting areas across Dorset and Somerset where they have had a slew of local elections successes in recent years. 

Hopkins believes that the broader swing away from the Conservatives could “bring seats into play” for the Lib Dems “that perhaps they hadn’t been considering” previously. 

English said that in the noughties, the party were “killing it absolutely through the South West” and were “capturing” a “South-Westerly identity” in parts of a “dynamic” patch that has lots of distinct areas and needs; “areas of deprivation, areas of urban sprawl, versus areas of countryside”. 

The fortunes of the party now led by Ed Davey turned during the coalition years in which they governed alongside David Cameron's Tories from 2010-2015. In the 2015 general election, the Lib Dems lost 49 seats, and were left with just eight MPs in the Commons. They now have 15 seats, and Hopkins believes “there is a real opportunity for them to get a really strong foothold back here”. 

Areas like North Cornwall, St Ives and Torbay – all predicted to turn yellow in the MRP – will be competitive for the Lib Dems, he thinks, while areas like Tiverton and North Devon that are “very very rural” tend to “lend themselves much more to a Conservative vote,” English said. 

Richard Foord, who won the Tiverton and Honiton by-election for the Lib Dems in 2022, will face off against another sitting MP, Conservative Simon Jupp, in the new Honiton and Sidmouth seat, which is currently projected to be a Tory win in the YouGov MRP. 

Labour will be looking towards areas like Truro and Camborne and Redruth in Cornwall to make gains, as well as Bournemouth, which currently has two Tory MPs. They are also “competitive” in Plymouth, where they already hold one of the two seats and are up against minister Johnny Mercer in the other, and dominate in Bristol. 

Hopkins said that he wouldn’t describe the South West as “key for the Labour Party”, with their support concentrated in more urban and suburban areas. “There are far more seats Labour are likely to gain in the Red Wall and other parts of the Midlands and north that they don’t currently hold," he said. “But that’s not to say that they won’t make gains in the South West.” 

Among the South West seats Labour have in their sights are the seaside pair in Bournemouth East and West, neither of which have ever had a Conservative MP, and in Swindon, where they took control of the council last year. 

YouGov’s MRP also predicts Labour wins in North East Somerset and Hanham, the new seat where Jacob Rees-Mogg is standing. 

Whereas electoral maths has previously priced Labour out in a lot of rural areas dominated by villages and small towns, the party now believe there are votes to be won in these areas that could bring different types of seats into play for them. 

While issues that affect farming and fishing communities such as post-Brexit subsidies will be important to many rural seats, Labour is also hoping to cut through on issues in these communities that are usually more common in urban areas, such as unaffordable housing, transport issues and pressure on health services. 

But Hopkins suspects that like other parts of the country, the Reform UK party could prove to be a big influence on electoral outcomes if they are able to eat into Conservative vote share, even if they do not win any seats. 

Across the South as a whole, Reform is polling at 16 per cent, according to the latest YouGov voting intention data from the end of March. 

“Reform do to some extent hold a bit of a key to this,” Hopkins explained. 

“They are taking polling votes away from the Conservative Party. That’s not necessarily to say that if all of them went back to the Tories, the Tories would hold the seat, but if a significant proportion of them were to vote Conservative instead that might mean we’re have a lot more Conservative holds than perhaps we’re currently looking at. 

“Labour and the Lib Dems are possibly taking some of these seats relatively narrowly, so it would only take a bit of a swing back to the Conservatives to maybe shore up some of those seats for the Tories.” 

“The outcome of the next election isn’t going to be decided in the Red Wall," English said.

"It’s going to be decided in the Midlands and it’s going to be decided in the South in those constituencies that Labour need to win, but they haven’t been competitive in since 2005. That will tell us who’s going to win."

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