UK 2017 General Election: the North of England

This Guest Post was written by guest contributor Nathan Wurtzel

Having examined Wales and Scotland, Decision Desk now moves to the Labour heartland of the formerly heavily-industrialized North of England: North West, North East, and Yorkshire and The Humber. Formerly the stronghold of blue-collar coal miners, steelworkers, factory laborers, and textile manufacturers, the North has struggled through technological, cultural, and demographic change since the Second World War, even affecting the performance of the region’s soccer clubs.

The political climate in the North is ripe for a change vote arising from its cultural and economic populism; thus UKIP finished second in 35 Northern seats in 2015 and received 15% or more of the vote in dozens more. UKIP’s share of the 2017 vote is plummeting in recent polling, and combined with the party’s decision to stand down in dozens of marginal races, the ultimate disposition of these voters is in contention.

“Predicting votes to seats is going to be really challenging,” says University of Strathclyde professor Thomas Scotto, postulating many Labourites in the North disgusted with Jeremy Corbyn who contemplated voting UKIP might go straight to the Conservative Party. But without UKIP as an option, argues British political consultant Ian Warren, “voters are almost being challenged to vote Tory. For many Labour voters, that’s still a step too far.”

Polling indicates at least some Labour voters may be ready to take that step. Projected swings from Labour to the Conservatives are amongst the highest in the North: 10% in the North East, 6.5% in the North West, and 6% in Yorkshire when compared with the 2015 vote. With dozens of Labour-held constituencies vulnerable to these swings, a Tory landslide would have to include significant numbers of pickups in this region.

On Brexit, the entire region voted LEAVE at a rate stronger than the national average, much more so in the towns and rural areas than in the REMAIN-inclined cities. Negotiating Brexit continues to be an important issue in England, but Lord Ashcroft notes it falls behind the National Health Service (NHS) and cost-of-living when voters are asked what matters to themselves and their families.

The North East contains the cities of Newcastle, Sunderland, and Durham, and includes the first constituencies to report results, to the delight of BBC watchers and psephologists. Labour has a long winning history here and currently holds 26 of the region’s 29 constituencies, with the remaining three safely in Tory control.

Four seats appear to be headed to the Conservative Party on swings of 5% or less: Bishop Auckland (no UKIP candidate), Darlington, Hartlepool, and Middlesbrough South & Cleveland East (no UKIP candidate). From here, the inclination of disgruntled Labour voters to vote Tory really comes into play as the seats of Tynemouth and former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair’s old constituency of Sedgefield can be won with swings of 8-9%. Durham North West, Stockton North, and Blyth Valley (no UKIP candidate) are longshots requiring swings of 11-12%.

No Conservative seats are in contention in the North East, nor do the Liberal Democrats have any chance at winning one. Conservatives should gain at least four constituencies, and as many as nine in a landslide. Anything fewer than four must be considered a disappointment for the Tories. Winning Sedgefield certainly would be an enormous symbolic achievement.

North West England contains the beautiful Peak District and Lake Country, and also the heavily Labour-controlled big cities of Liverpool and Manchester. Labour holds 51 of the 75 constituencies in this region, while the Conservatives control 22 and the Liberal Democrats represent the remaining two, including current party leader Tim Farron’s safe Westmoreland & Lonsdale. With polling showing potential average swings of 6-7%, the Tories have the opportunity for double-digit gains in the region.

With swings of less than 2% required and no UKIP candidates standing, the constituencies of Barrow & Furness, Chester City, Lancaster & Fleetwood, and Wirral West appear to be certain Conservative gains. Swings of 5% will add the constituencies of Blackpool South, Chorley (no UKIP candidate), Bolton North East, Hyndburn , and Bury South. An extremely strong performance with swings of up to 8% could add in Wirral South (no UKIP candidate), Workington, Ellesmere Port & Neston, Worsley & Eccles South (no UKIP candidate), Stalybridge & Hyde (no UKIP candidate), and Lancashire West (no UKIP candidate). Winning Heywood & Middleton would require an unlikely bank shot with a UKIP candidate standing.

In addition, the Liberal Democratic seat of Southport appears likely to be won by the Conservative Party. The Tories only a tiny swing of 1.6% to win the constituency and have a 17% 2015 UKIP vote to siphon from. The Green Party standing down here leaves the LDs with a small amount of hope. Liberal Democrats have a slim chance of regaining Burnley from Labour, but with a 65% LEAVE vote that scenario appears unlikely, and their chance of regaining Cheadle from the Conservative Party with no UKIP candidate standing must be regarded as faint.

While Conservatives hold a handful of marginal seats in the North West (Bury North, Bolton West, Weaver Vale, and Warrington South), they are expected to expand their margins in each one and none of these seats have a UKIP candidate standing. Conservatives are expected to keep their Copeland constituency won in a by-election earlier this year.

All told, Conservatives are expected to gain at least ten seats in the North West and as many as sixteen. Labour will do well to hold down their losses to four, with no real expectation of gaining any seats. The Liberal Democrats will be fortunate to end the night with the two seats they held going in, but it’s more likely they will be left with only one.

Yorkshire and The Humber contains a mix of historic and agricultural areas as well as the large cities of Leeds and Sheffield. Labour currently hold 33 of the 54 constituencies in the region, Conservatives hold 19, and Liberal Democrats are clinging to two seats. This election could result in the first Conservative majority in Yorkshire in many elections.

With only a small swing of 3% required to flip the seats, the Labour constituencies of Halifax, Dewsbury (no UKIP candidate), and Wakefield (no UKIP candidate) appear headed to Conservative control. Scunthorpe appears to be within range as well, with a 4.4% swing needed for Tories to win this Labour seat. If polling showing a swing of 7% or more is accurate, the constituencies of Batley & Spen (no UKIP candidate), Great Grimsby, York Central (no UKIP candidate), Penistone & Stockbridge, and Leeds North East (no UKIP candidate) will move from Labour to Conservative. Seats like Huddersfield (no UKIP candidate), Don Valley (no UKIP candidate), and Rother Valley require enormous swings of more than 10%.

Labour will make an effort to win both of the Liberal Democratic seats of former party leader Nick Clegg in Sheffield Hallam and Leeds North West, but are likely to fail as they are strong REMAIN seats. The Liberal Democrats had an outside chance of regaining Bradford East, but their former MP David Ward has been forced to stand down for reason of anti-Semitism. With Ward running independently, they have no chance.

Labour has an outside chance to regain the seat of Morley & Outwood, but UKIP is not competing in this 60% LEAVE constituency and it is difficult to imagine them winning with a lesser candidate than former Shadow Home Secretary Ed Balls.

In total, Conservatives stand to gain at least four seats in Yorkshire and The Humber and have a better than even chance of coming away with nine and the regional majority. A gain of a dozen or more would be an outstanding night. Labour would have a good night if they held their net losses to three seats or fewer.

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