2017 Election: The state of play in the North East

Posted: May 7, 2017 in Politics

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The local and mayoral election results may carry many caveats about turnout and local issues, but there’s one clear trend that comes out of them. As projected by recent opinion polls, UKIP’s support is collapsing, and the vast majority of it is heading to the Conservatives. It’s difficult to scope out the exact extent of this, or if the way that collapse is spread around the country, but this is terrible news for Labour.

Recent opinion polls had been looking slightly more favourable for Labour, as they have been hovering around the 31% mark – the same percentage of votes they obtained in 2015. But the truth is the 2015 results always masked a significant right-wing majority in the votes, because it was split between the Tories and UKIP. With that now focusing on the Tories, it demonstrates the true scale of how badly Labour have been doing since well before Jeremy Corbyn became leader.

If there is any failing in the party at the moment, it is that they have been unable to win back the votes of former Labour supporters who moved to UKIP. But this was always going to be very difficult, because in many areas with high UKIP votes, the causes have been brewing for many years – often neglect during the Blair/Brown years and austerity measures from Labour-run local councils created resentment towards the party which was never going to be overcome by a move in any political direction or any political leader. It’s essentially an extension of the SNP surge in Scotland.

The big question now is whether it will be quite as dramatic as in Scotland two years ago – that vast swing required a huge turnout with more people engaged after the independence referendum. But there are many seats in England which barely require any swing at all to turn blue – all they need is for UKIP voters to move en masse to the Tories. We don’t need any polls here, because we can just look at the 2015 results to see where the threat lies.

Having already touched on this in previous articles, I am going to examine each region of England and break down exactly where the biggest threats to Labour lie, based on the 2015 results. The conclusion is that even if Labour stay on the same vote percentage as 2015, the Tories will still probably win a landslide on a scale similar to 1983, possibly greater.

In the North East, the result of the mayoral election for the Tees Valley was a major shock to a lot of observers last week, but the truth is this may have been coming for a while. The North East as a whole has received a lot of attention over the last two years for its big increase in the UKIP vote and voting to leave the EU last year, but it seems no one with a platform ever made the connection between this and the possibility of that UKIP vote shifting dramatically to the Tories, even though the polls were demonstrating it.

The truth is the region, considered a Labour heartland and included seats of several major New Labour figures in the past, may about to be flooded by a blue wave. In 2015, the Tories took just three of the 29 seats here. In 2017, they pose a threat in a further 16, possibly 17 on a particularly grim night for Labour.

There are nine seats where Labour almost certainly have enough in hand. In Easington, Gateshead, Jarrow, Middlesbrough, Newcastle Central, Newcastle East, North Durham, North Tyneside, and Washington and Sunderland West, they have a solid vote and the Tories are coming from way back, with the UKIP vote nowhere near enough to make up the difference.

However, there are four seats where the combined Tory+UKIP vote was larger than the Labour vote in 2015 – three of these are within the Tees Valley metro area:

Bishop Auckland: Helen Goodman had a majority here of 3,508 (8.9%) over the Conservative candidate, with UKIP in third on 7,015 votes (17.8%). This has been a Labour seat since 1935, and before that from 1918 to 1931, but this is an obvious Tory target – they need a swing of 4.5%.

Darlington: Formerly the seat of former Health Secretary Alan Milburn, this has switched back and forth between Labour and the Tories since the 1920s but has been held by Labour since 1992. But Jenny Chapman’s majority is just 3,158 (7.7%), with a UKIP vote here in 2015 of 5,392 (13.1%). A 3.9% swing to the Tories would give them the seat, and two-thirds of the UKIP vote would give them that.

Hartlepool: Peter Mandelson’s old seat saw one of the highest UKIP votes in the country in 2015, with 11,052 – 28% of the vote. Iain Wright held on with a majority of 3,025 (7.7%), having picked up just 35.6% of the vote. The Tories were third were 8,256 (20.9%), less than 6,000 votes behind Labour. It also had the highest Leave vote in the North East with 69.6%. Hartlepool has been represented by Labour in the Commons since 1964 and will have a new MP regardless as Wright is standing down. Labour’s Mike Hill has a tough task to fend off the challenge from the right.

Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland: This seat was created in 1997 and has been held by Labour ever since, but their majority has only once been over 10,000 (in 1997 itself). Its predecessor seats were marginally held by the Tories from the 1970s. Tom Blenkinsop’s majority in 2015 was 2,268 (5%), up from 1,677 (3.6%) in 2010. Both the Labour and Tory vote here went up in 2015, with UKIP moving into third on 6,935 (15.2%), roughly mirroring the Lib Dem vote in 2010. Just a quarter of the UKIP vote going to the Tories would be enough to give them the seat. Blenkinsop, a staunch critic of Corbyn, is standing down.

Beyond these four, there are a further 13 where the Tory+UKIP vote was still lower than Labour, but could still turn blue on a poor night with figures in the region of the worst polls we’ve seen so far (e.g. Tory 50%, Labour 25%):

– Blaydon: Labour 49.2%, Tory+UKIP 34.9%, notional majority 6,389

– Blyth Valley: Labour 46.3%, Tory+UKIP 44%, notional majority 883

– Houghton and Sunderland South: Labour 55.1%, Tory+UKIP 40%, notional majority 5,833

– Newcastle-upon-Tyne North – Labour 46.1%, Tory+UKIP 40.1%, notional majority 2,706

– North West Durham – Labour 46.9%, Tory+UKIP 40.4%, notional majority 2,791

– Redcar – Labour 43.9%, Tory+UKIP 34.6%, notional majority 3,800 (note: Lib Dems 2nd on 18.5%, held the seat 2010-15; Mo Mowlam’s former seat)

– Sedgefield – Labour 47.2%, Tory+UKIP 46.1%, notional majority 417 (note: Tony Blair’s former seat)

– South Shields – Labour 51.3%, Tory+UKIP 38.6%, notional majority 4,593 (note: David Miliband’s former seat)

– Stockton North – Labour 49.1%, Tory+UKIP 47.2%, notional majority 786

– Sunderland Central – Labour 50.2%, Tory+UKIP 42.5%, notional majority 3,182

– Tynemouth – Labour 48.2%, Tory+UKIP 45%, notional majority 1,699

– Wansbeck – Labour 50%, Tory+UKIP 40%, notional majority 3,867

The numbers indicate that any majority Labour has over the right coalition are particularly flimsy. These may sit like a house of cards. If Labour maintains its 2015 vote, they should hold most of them. If the UKIP vote holds up better than expected, that would also play into Labour’s hands. However, a 5-6% Labour-Tory swing on top of a big UKIP-Tory swing would put most of these seats in serious jeopardy.

One other point – in the past with general elections, we have looked to the first result for indications of what might happen, and that first result in every election since 1992 has been Sunderland South, now Houghton and Sunderland South. It should theoretically be a safe Labour seat, with UKIP moving into second in 2015 nearly 13,000 behind, and the Tories a further 1,000 back.

We should get this result about an hour after the close of the polls, and for once the result may hang in the balance. If Labour’s Bridget Phillipson can hold the seat comfortably, Labour should minimise their losses – although they still may be in for a rough night, it won’t be an apocalyptic one. If it’s very close, the Tories will be on course for a huge landslide. If they win the seat, on an 18% swing, Labour are going to be decimated.

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