Could suburban England provide the answer to Labour’s electoral woes in 2024?
Latest YouGov polling provides hope for Keir Starmer in trying to win over traditionally Conservative suburban seats | Illustration by Tracy Worrall
While much analysis of the next election focuses on what will happen in the “Red Wall”, there are another set of key marginal seats with different demographics that will be crucial to the outcome: formerly safe Conservative seats in suburban England.
Boris Johnson’s dismantling of the so called “Red Wall” was the headline event of the 2019 general election. Looking beyond the headlines however reveals that a key component of his own party’s electoral coalition has been shifting: suburban, middle class and previously safe Conservative constituencies have trended towards the Labour party. For either major party looking to take the keys to No. 10 in the next election, it is this “Blue Suburbia” which could play a crucial role.
We all know about the Red Wall: traditionally Labour constituencies located in small-town and semi-rural areas across the North, Midlands and Wales, made up of voters that are older, more working class, more likely to have voted Leave and less likely to have a university degree than the national average.
Blue Suburbia are constituencies that fall on the other side of the national average to the Red Wall. Located in urban and suburban areas, they contain voters that are younger, more middle class, more likely to have a university degree and more likely to have voted Remain.
It is a sign of the remarkable shifts in British politics over the last few years that Blue Suburbia constituencies such as Chipping Barnet, located on the outskirts of North London, will be competitive in the next election. It has been held by the Conservatives in its current and previous seat incarnations for 70 years, but now incumbent Tory MP, former secretary of state and Brexiteer Theresa Villiers, has only a small majority of just 1,212.
Like Chipping Barnet, most Blue Suburbia constituencies have been safe Conservative seats that didn’t flip even in the Labour landslide of 1997. However, they did see significant shifts away from the Conservatives and towards Labour in 2017, with Canterbury and Kensington the most notable examples and actually changing hands. Despite there being a large national swing to the Conservatives in 2019, the vote share between the two main parties in Blue Suburbia bucked the trend to stay largely the same.
A plurality of middle class ABC1 voters now say they will vote for Labour at the next election, while the Conservatives maintain a lead amongst working class C2DE voters
The current national average of polls has both major parties’ neck and neck at around 39%. Compared to 2019 this is an improvement for Labour of around 6-7 percentage points, and a 4-5 percentage point decrease for the Conservatives. If the election were held tomorrow, this would be a national swing away from the Conservatives and lead to many seats flipping to the Labour Party.
Looking past the headline numbers, the news is even brighter for Labour. A delve into the crosstabs of recent polling from YouGov reveals that Labour will likely be very competitive in Blue Suburbia constituencies in 2024. Under the leadership of Keir Starmer, much of the support Labour has gained has been amongst middle-class voters, 18-49 year olds, 2016 Remain voters and 2019 Lib Dem voters. Most notable of all is a reversal of the traditional class divide. A plurality of middle class ABC1 voters now say they will vote for Labour at the next election, while the Conservatives maintain a lead amongst working class C2DE voters.
So what would a 2024 breakthrough for Labour in these seats look like? We could expect Labour to gain other seats in London such as Chingford and Woodford Green (held by Iain Duncan Smith); Wycombe (Steve Baker) and Reading West (Alok Sharma) in the South East; Altrincham & Sale West (Graham Brady) in Greater Manchester; Shipley (Philip Davies) in West Yorkshire and Filton & Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) in the outer Bristol suburbs. Even Conservative-held suburban seats with sizeable majorities such as Rushcliffe (Ken Clarke’s former seat) and Outer York could become marginal.
Labour absorbing nearly half of the 2019 Liberal Democrat vote is a key reason for this shift in the polls. The Lib Dems managed to gain a large amount of support in many Blue Suburbia seats located in the South at the previous election. Yet such a drastic fall in support could see Labour overtake them in these constituencies and become the main challenger to the Conservatives – something that will provide a headache for the leader Ed Davey and his electoral strategy.
As for the two major parties, the dilemma will be to build a broad coalition: one that can deliver victory in demographically opposite parts of the country. Boris Johnson managed that successfully in 2019, but he will find it more challenging to hold Blue Suburbia next time around without the ‘bogeyman’ of Jeremy Corbyn. Keir Starmer has faced much internal debate and criticism about the party’s strategy to win back Red Wall voters, but with these other voter demographics he can have something positive to show for. Although the battle for the Red Wall is far from over, both major parties would be remiss if they weren’t plotting how to win over Blue Suburbia.
Joshua Martin is a Content Specialist for Dods Monitoring, focusing on parliamentary proceedings in Westminster and the Devolved nations.