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Sun, 21 July 2024

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By Ben Guerin
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North West Could Become A "Sea Of Red" At General Election

Keir Starmer with Chris Webb, Labour's candidate for the Blackpool South parliamentary by-election (alamy)

5 min read

The North West could be transformed into a “sea of red” at the General Election as Labour looks set to dominate in the region of “bellwether” seats, according to electoral experts.

As well as the city seats around Manchester and Liverpool, a significant portion of which have been safe Labour seats for decades, there are swathes of seats in the region away from the cities that James Blagden, Associate Director at More In Common, believes are now behaving like “bellwethers”. 

A lot of focus was put on the so-called “red wall” at the 2019 general election, where a collection of seats across industrial areas in the north of England and Midlands that historically supported the Labour Party voted Conservative. The shift was largely in line with areas that had voted for Brexit in the 2016 referendum. 

But as we approach the next general election, which Prime Minister Rishi Sunak must call before the end of 2024, the political landscape once again seems to have altered with voters in rural areas appearing less reliably Conservative, and red wall seats leaning back towards Labour. 

Blagden told PoliticsHome that “the interesting thing about the red wall is it's become less interesting,” with voters in these seats usually inclined towards the party most likely to win. Labour has been significantly ahead of the Tories in the polls since 2022, and so far there has been little sign of the gap beginning to narrow. 

"What we've seen over the last couple of elections is places not becoming particularly Tory, but just becoming a bit less Labour,” he continued. This can in part be attributed to demographics, with voters in these seats tending to skew towards being older, homeowners, and in more rural or suburban environments, traits much more associated with Conservative voters. 

But these seats now seem to have demographic similarities with other bellwether parts of the country, such as Milton Keynes, where allegiances are less clear-cut. This does not however mean the Conservative dominance will be gone forever if voters in the rural north west back Labour at the election,. 

Blagden believes the Conservatives losing seats in the northwest “will look really bad” for the party due to the emphasis they put on levelling up at the last election which was “aimed at understanding this new political reality” by offering voters in that region a boost to local investment. But he also thinks it could be “reasonable to expect that some of these seats will return to the Conservative party when their national polling improves”. 

“As [the Conservatives] win back bellwethers, we might start to see them winning back these red wall seats as well, because they now act more like bellwethers”, he added. 

The renewed volatility of the northwest might not just benefit Labour. Blagden also described a sense of “Pennine Liberalism” with the potential for seats that the Lib Dems held in the 90s and noughties to come back to them again at the next election. 

Liberal Democrats are optimistic about their chances in the two seats in Stockport where YouGov polling has recorded a lead: Cheadle and Hazel Grove. 

According to highly localised Multi-level Regression Polling, measuring support in individual seats, the Lib Dems lead in Hazel Grove on 42 per cent, with the Conservatives on 22 per cent, while in next door Cheadle they are scoring 45 per cent to the Conservatives’ 25 per cent. 

One Lib Dem source previously described the areas as having a lot of similarities with "Blue Wall" seats in the Home Counties around London, a large swathe of traditionally Conservative voting areas which the Lib Dems are hoping to win at the election. They have so far found voters here are particularly receptive to campaigning around the NHS. 

In Cheadle Lib Dems believe that their support could be boosted by tactical voting, with people who may naturally support Labour deciding to back them instead as a way of keeping the Conservative candidate out. While the support for Labour in this area is stronger than in many more “traditional” Lib Dem areas in the south, it is thought that the tactical voting could be especially impactful.

“It’s overlooked because everybody looks at the Lib Dems in terms of the South East, Surrey and Sussex and Oxfordshire and then of course, the West Country, but really overlooked is the potential for them to gain a couple of seats in North West,” Blagden added. 

The other seats the Lib Dems look set to win in the North West is in Cumbria, where the Conservatives look set for electoral “wipe out”. 

According to the YouGov MRP, Labour will dominate in the county, and will hold all of the other seats in the area, apart from Westmorland and Lonsdale, which will likely be retained by it's current Lib Dem MP, the party's former leader Tim Farron. 

Chris Hopkins, political research director at Savanta, however, doubts that the North West will be the most electorally significant area for Labour, although he predicted the area could be a "be a sea of red with a grey patch in the middle for the Speaker" on the map. 

He thinks that there are "a multitude of reasons" Conservative voters are switching to Labour.

In 2019, he said, former Labour voters strayed to the Tories because of "getting Brexit done and the allure of Boris Johnson and the distaste of Jeremy Corbyn," whereas in 2024, those people will be more concerned about mortgages and immigration, both of which the current government is perceived to have failed on. 

"A lot of this has to do with this idea that the Conservatives are not competent and they don't deliver on their promises,” he added.  

“The demographic shifts I don’t think mean that the red wall is never going to be blue again. I do think it’s going to be difficult nationwide for those areas that do go red to forgive the Tories for a little while. 

“It’s not going to be a quick fix.”  

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