UK General Election: the Midlands

This Guest Post was written by guest contributor Nathan Wurtzel

A deadly terror attack in Manchester and significant tightening in public polling have turned what appeared to be an easy, majority-padding snap election for Prime Minister Theresa May and the Conservative Party into an unknown endeavor that could threaten their once-commanding political position.

With the caveat that poll averages, while useful in eliminating house effects and sampling errors in individual polls, also are trailing indicators, the current average shows the Conservative Party has lost only about seven points from its lead of twenty, mostly due to Labour increasing its voting share. However, the most recent individual polls have shown closer margins, including the five-point margin recorded this week in the YouGov/Times poll.

Depending on the location of the swings, a margin of that relatively-small size could result in a hung parliament with Conservatives forced to bring in Northern Irish Unionists or go it along with a minority government.

Labour received additional good news as a poll indicated it had regained its traditional lead in Wales, if accurate a devastating blow to Conservatives envisioning historic gains.

“The tightening of the polls might be a function of the release of the Tory manifesto, reminding long-term Labour voters of the North and Midlands of the consequences of the austerity regime,” said University of Strathclyde professor Thomas Scotto an interview conducted prior to the Manchester terror attack.

“The Tories should be credited with presenting some honest proposals to the voters, but these may not be politically wise if the party wishes to obtain a 100+ seat majority in Westminster,” Dr. Scotto added.

Recent polling from YouGov also suggests manifestos may have played a role in the tightening of the race. Voters appear to remember more positive elements of the Labour manifesto, while the so-called “dementia tax” forced Prime Minister May to execute a now-infamous U-turn in health-care policy.

Concurrently, new polling shows the once-enormous personal preference gap between May and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, discussed in detail in our initial story about this election, had narrowed to single digits before the Manchester terror attack. The first post-attack data, however, shows her rebounding and Corbyn declining. Should control of the House of Commons fall into question, May’s personal lead may prove vitally important.

British data expert Ian Warren, who has worked for all three major parties, is of the view that “sharp polling movements are outliers. At present, the volatility [in the polls] isn’t reflective of the mood of the electorate. I don’t believe that a massive groundswell has happened or that the fundamentals have changed.”

Similarly, UK election analyst Matt Singh, who in 2015 correctly predicted the polling would be inaccurate, predicts a convincing Conservative win on June 8 and that recent local elections resulting in massive Labour losses could be a stronger indicator than polling, which still suffers from sampling issues.

So, UK election observers could be in for a long, interesting night in two weeks, or the Conservatives may still hold a commanding lead with the electorate. Much of that uncertainty could be decided in our next region to be examined, the Midlands.

The Midlands

It will come as no surprise that the Midlands stand between the heavily-populated South of England and the industrial North and rural Yorkshire (covered here in our last preview). Due to its location, the economy of the Midlands is varied between manufacturing, construction, food processing, and white-collar professional jobs. It has fared better than the North in recent years due to its broader economic and jobs base as well as its proximity to London and its suburbs.

Politically, the Midlands also swing between the traditionally Conservative South and traditionally Labour North and has often been the region that decides which party wins control of the House of Commons. In recent years, concerns about immigration and to a lesser extent, economic stability, has resulted in a renewed British nationalism. As a result, “LEAVE” received its highest vote shares in the two Midlands – East and West – while UKIP received some of its best results here in the 2015 election.

East Midlands

The East Midlands contains the cities of Derby, Leicester, and Nottingham, along with dozens of smaller towns. In the 2015 general election, it elected 32 Conservative Members of Parliament and 14 Labour Members, but Conservatives can still make significant gains on a big swing.

A modest swing of just over three percent from Labour to Conservative would convert Derbyshire North East and Gedling to Tory control. It would require a six percent swing to switch Mansfield (no Green candidate standing) from Labour red to Tory blue. Additional gains in Nottingham South, Bassetlaw (no UKIP or Green candidates standing), and Ashfield would require swings of eight to ten points. Leicester West, Derby South, and Bolsover are very long shots.

Should Labour run stronger than expected in this election, they could recapture Derby North (no Green candidate standing) and gain Lincoln and Corby.

The Liberal Democrats have no base or organization in the East Midlands and while UKIP scored a strong 34% second place in Boston & Skegness in 2015, they do not appear to be making a strong run at that or any other constituency.

Thus, the Conservative Party could net two to three East Midlands seats on a modestly successful night, nine on a wildly successful one, and in the case of an unexpected setback walk away emptyhanded or even lose as many as three constituencies to Labour.

 

West Midlands

The West Midlands contains the second-largest city in England, Birmingham, along with the smaller cities of Wolverhampton and Coventry, and many smaller towns. In the 2015 general election, the West Midlands elected 34 Conservatives and 25 Labourites to Parliament, some by very narrow margins. As a result, there still are some attainable seats for Tories to win to grow their majority.

With no UKIP candidate standing and only a few hundred swing votes needed, Newcastle Under Lyme appears to be ripe for an easy Tory takeover. Also, only small swings are required for Conservatives to capture Wolverhampton South West, Walsall North (no Green candidate standing), and Birmingham Northfield (no UKIP candidate standing). With no UKIP candidate standing and an overwhelming “LEAVE” vote of 71%, Stoke-on-Trent South appears very vulnerable to a 3.3% swing from red to blue.

In Tory control for 99 years before Labour MP Gisela Stuart won it in the 1997 Tony Blair landslide, Birmingham Edgbaston is the sort of seat Conservatives need to win if they want a big majority in Commons. Stuart is standing down this year, but with a “LEAVE” vote of only 47%, regaining it will remain a challenge. Tories need a swing of 3.4% to bring home their long-lost constituency, but as time passes it is growing more towards a demographic and ideological profile that better fits Labour.

Coventry South, Coventry North West, and Dudley North are seats the Conservatives can win with swings of four to six percent. Stoke-on-Trent Central, Stoke-on-Trent North (no UKIP candidate standing), Walsall South (no Green candidate standing), and Birmingham Erdington (no UKIP candidate standing) require larger swings and a very good night nationwide.

Labour has a small handful of opportunities, but all in the heavy “LEAVE” constituencies of Telford (no UKIP candidate standing), Warwickshire North (no UKIP candidate standing), and Halesowen & Rowley Regis. The 2015 bellwether seat of Nuneaton now appears out of reach.

The Liberal Democrats lost Birmingham Yardley to Labour in 2015 and do not appear to have recovered in sufficient force to mount a challenge to retake it.

Overall, the Conservatives are in position to gain a minimum of four seats and as many as nine with a strong showing in the West Midlands. A gain of thirteen is not out of the question, but requires a national landslide. Labour will consider itself fortunate if it loses fewer than four seats.

Nathan Wurtzel is a Washington, DC-based political consultant. You can follow him on Twitter: @NathanWurtzel