UK General Election: the South of England

This Guest Post was written by guest contributor Nathan Wurtzel

With the general election only nine days away, we have covered areas containing approximately 350 of the House of Commons’ 650 seats. In previous installments, we have looked at competitive seats in the traditionally strong Labour areas of the North and the highly-contested Midlands of England, as well as in the countries of Scotland and Wales. Our focus now moves to the South of England (separate from London, to be covered later this week), an enormous area in both land and population and one where Conservatives currently hold an astonishing 182 of 197 constituencies, yet have opportunities to win more.

East

The East of England sits north and east of London and includes the capital city’s exurbs. There are no major cities in the region, but it includes university towns like Cambridge and seaside resorts and fishing towns like Southend. The region has a diverse economic base including manufacturing, agriculture, and technology. It has the lowest unemployment rate amongst all the regions of the United Kingdom.

Politically, the East has always been a Conservative Party bastion, but the 2015 election turned it into an almost solid Tory blue wall. Conservatives hold 52 of the 58 seats in the East, with Labour reduced to four, the Liberal Democrats one, and UKIP holds a notional seat won in the 2015 election.

With such an enormous majority, Conservatives only have a few conversion opportunities. Clacton, formerly represented by Tory/UKIP/Independent MP Mark Reckless, is now an open seat notionally held by UKIP. Without Reckless, it is a certain Tory gain on June 8.

Conservatives also have a reasonable chance of defeating long-time Liberal Democrat MP Norman Lamb in Norfolk North. Lamb has a good connection with his voters, but as a “REMAIN” proponent in a 62% “LEAVE” constituency, the two may have grown apart. UKIP has declined to field a candidate in this constituency. The Green Party also declined to field a candidate, which might help Lamb survive.

Tories would need a very large swing to win Labour-held Luton South and even more to win Norwich South (no UKIP candidate standing) or Luton North.

Liberal Democrats’ best conversion opportunity in the entire United Kingdom is the Labour-held seat of Cambridge. With 74% voting “REMAIN,” the fundamentals line up well for them to retake this seat. They do not appear to have a good chance of regaining Colchester (no UKIP candidate standing) from the Tories.

Labour could win a handful of Conservative seats with small swings, but the fundamentals are not in their favor. While they only need a tiny swing in Thurrock, the 33% UKIP vote of 2015 is expected to fracture heavily in the Tories favor. Bedford is a better bet for Labour, but UKIP has declined to field a candidate, which could provide critical votes to the Conservatives. Peterborough (no UKIP candidate standing) and Waveney are longshots on the Labour wish list.

Thus, Conservatives could emerge with a net gain of two or three seats on a good night, or come out about even otherwise. Labour could lose a seat or two or possibly gain one. The Liberal Democrats could gain or lose a seat, or swap one for another. Basically, not much will change in the East of England.

South East

The South East is the most populated region in the United Kingdom. It nearly surrounds London from the east, south, and west, and includes the cities of Portsmouth, Brighton, and Southampton, as well as university towns like Oxford, rural villages, and seaside resorts. The South East is the wealthiest region in the UK and thrives from industry, services, and tourism.

Politically, the South East is a solid Tory blue wall. Conservatives hold 77 of the region’s 83 seats, along with the notionally Conservative seat of Commons Speaker John Bercow (The Speaker of the House of Commons becomes nonpartisan upon ascension to that office). Labour holds four South East seats, while the Green Party’s lone seat is located there.

The Tories’ best chance to win a Labour seat is in Hove. They only need a swing of 1.3% from Labour, but this is a strong “REMAIN” constituency that demographically is moving away from the Conservatives. Neither the Greens nor UKIP are standing here. It would not be a surprise if Labour retains this constituency.

Southampton Test requires a swing of 4.5% from Labour to turn blue. It is a better demographic fit for the Tories, but the gap simply may be too large, though they will be assisted by the lack of a UKIP candidate. A Conservative gain of Slough would require a national landslide.

Labour has its best opportunity in the United Kingdom to win a Conservative seat in Brighton Kemptown, a seaside “REMAIN” constituency similar to nearby Hove. The Green Party is not standing here. Southampton Itchen appears to be moving the Conservatives’ way and is an unlikely target for Labour to regain ground.

The Liberal Democrats have good opportunities to regain Eastbourne and Lewes, seats they very narrowly lost to the Conservatives in 2015, but neither are hardcore “REMAIN” constituencies and both have some UKIP votes that might bolster the Tories.

Green Party leader Caroline Lucas appears as if she will have no trouble retaining her constituency of Brighton Pavilion, especially with the Lib Dems not running a candidate there. Former UKIP leader Nigel Farage ran close to the Tories in Thanet South in 2015, but the party appears content to let the Conservatives retain that seat in 2017.

Overall, the Conservatives could gain a seat or two in the South East if everything goes right for them, but it’s more likely they stand pat or even lose a small amount of ground. Labour could end up one seat ahead or one seat behind, or win one and lose one. The Liberal Democrats have a good chance to finish the night ahead a seat or two.

South West

England’s South West encompasses a larger land area than the South East, but with barely more than half the population. The major city in the region is Bristol, but there are scores of smaller cities and towns like Plymouth, Bath, and the university center of Exeter. Unemployment in the South West is the second-lowest amongst the regions of the United Kingdom, as high-tech manufacturing, agriculture, and tourism provide a balanced economy, but relatively rapid population growth and increased immigration has led to increased British nationalism.

Historically the base of the Liberal Democratic Party, in 2015 the South West saw the complete wipeout of their fourteen MPs at the hands of Conservative candidates. In an interview, University of Strathclyde professor Thomas Scotto notes in 2017 they could have made themselves a powerful conduit for the 20-25% of voters who are resisting Brexit, but they have failed to do so.

Conservatives now hold 51 of the 55 Commons seats in the South West. Labour holds the remaining four.

Bristol East is the lone Conservative target in the region. They would win it with a 4.4% swing from Labour and do have a significant 2015 UKIP vote to siphon from with no candidate standing. Exeter and Bristol South appear out of reach.

Bristol West, the remaining Labour-held seat, is the target of the Green Party, which finished second here in 2015. With “REMAIN” scoring a resounding 79% in this constituency, they are concentrating all their resources on this seat, but Jeremy Corbyn’s leftism plus the presence of a Lib Dem candidate make the task difficult.

Labour needs only small 1.3% swings away from the Tories to win Plymouth Sutton & Davenport and Plymouth Moor View, but both are “LEAVE” seats with large 2015 UKIP votes to draw from. Stroud requires a larger swing of 4%, but the “REMAIN” vote there was strong and the UKIP presence weak, so it is worth noting as a longshot.

Liberal Democrats have several opportunities. Thornbury & Yate (no UKIP candidate standing), requiring a swing of only 1.6% from Conservatives, is their top target. While Bath is further down the list by pure numbers, needing a swing of nearly 5%, the high “REMAIN” vote and very low UKIP presence makes it a better conversion opportunity.

Lib Dems also have opportunities in Torbay and St. Ives (no UKIP or Green candidates standing). In the latter, former Lib Dem MP Andrew George, who learned to speak Cornish to better fit his constituency, is standing again. Both constituencies have a large 2015 UKIP vote for Conservatives to try to appropriate. Cheltenham, Yeovil, and Wells represent opportunities only if there is an unexpected Lib Dem surge in the South West, as UKIP is not running a candidate in any of them.

In all, Conservatives may gain a seat in the South West, but are more likely to lose somewhere between three and five. Labour may lose a seat, but could also gain one or two. The Liberal Democrats have nothing to lose, and could gain one to four.

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