Most British voters vote to the left of the Conservative party, but because 82% of the seats in Parliament are in England, where they are divided between Labour and Liberal Democrats, the Conservatives usually win a majority in Parliament. Current polling suggests a collapse of the Conservative vote, making as least 16 of their seats vulnerable in the Eastern region. Tactical voting has worked in recent byelections; what might it achieve in the next general election?
Sixteen target seats
Opinion polls show that support for the Conservatives has been shrinking steadily since Spring 2020. In 170 polls since September the Labour lead has been consistently above 20 points. If, as a few commentators suggest, this gave them a larger majority than in the historic years of 1945 and 1997, then the Conservatives would lose most of their seats in the Eastern region. If, however, the gap narrows over the 18+ months before the election, where might we expect change?
The Eastern region, which has always been heavily Conservative, and even with a large swing, a lot of seats will probably not change hands. If these include the 6 won by Labour and Liberal Democrats in 2019, and the 33 where the Conservatives had an absolute majority of over 10,000, there will be 16 vulnerable Conservative seats.
Current polls suggest that 20% of 2019 Conservative voters will not vote Conservative again. If that happens, and nothing else changes, the combined Labour/Liberal Democrat vote would exceed the Conservative one in 9 of the 16 seats. If those Tory deserters vote Labour or Liberal Democrat, they would outvote the Conservative in all of them.
Constituency level polls
In a first past the post election, the number of seats won depends not on the overall vote share, but how they are distributed in constituencies. Pollsters have tried to find ways of estimating these effects. Britain Predicts, and Electoral Calculus, using different methods, both predict Labour taking more than 40 seats in the region. But in 3 of these the Liberal Democrats were well ahead of Labour in 2019, and in four more, the gap was less than 5,000. In those seats, the Conservatives will hope that Labour and Liberal Democrat split the opposition vote.
The “Blue Wall” effect
There are a set of constituencies, the “blue wall”, in the south of England, where the Liberal Democrats came second to the Conservatives in 2019, and the Conservative vote has been shrinking. In these places the general swing is amplified by the arrival of younger, progressive, remain-voting graduates moving out of London. Pollsters Redfield & Wilton have been regularly polling a set of 42 such “blue wall” constituencies, including 5 in the Eastern region. In these seats, half of voters say they would consider voting tactically to defeat a party they oppose, and 17% of 2019 Conservatives now say they will vote Labour.
This presents a promising picture for Labour, who have an overall lead of 10% in these constituencies. And the Labour vote also appears much more solid than the Conservative and Liberal Democrat. Here, almost all of Labour’s 2019 voters (86%) plan to stay with Labour, compared to barely half of Conservatives (56%) and Liberal Democrats (48%). The high proportion of Liberal Democrats prepared to switch suggests that they are the most open to voting tactically, which reinforces the view that some strong Liberal Democrat areas might swing to Labour.
Local government evidence
There have been local elections across the region since 2019, and these may give a better picture of current political sentiment.
Of the 20 District Councils in the 18 constituencies, only 6 are Conservative controlled. Five are in Liberal Democrat control and 5 have some form of alliance between Liberal Democrat and Labour. Meanwhile Labour controls three major urban areas – Norwich, Ipswich and Stevenage. Although the national pollsters suggest Labour wins across the board, the Liberal Democrats have a very strong base in local government in places like Chelmsford and Cambridgeshire. There are also pockets of strong Green support in Suffolk and Norwich, which could divide the opposition enough to let the Conservatives in.
The 18 battlegrounds
The table below shows the 18 seats with the smallest absolute Conservative majority in 2019 (i.e majority over all other parties). It also shows the Labour lead over Liberal Democrats in that election, and which party controls the relevant Local Authorities (A “Progressive Alliance” is a coaltion including Labour and Liberal Democrats)
In the first three constituencies, tactical voting in 2019 could have defeated the Conservative. In all of them, the Conservatives would lose if 20% of Conservative voters switch.
Unless a general election takes place before the end of October this year, the new boundaries will come into effect. This will create three new constituencies in the region – St Neots, Hitchin and Lowestoft. The national consensus is that the changes will marginally help the Conservatives, but this may not be the case in the East. Separating urban Lowestoft from rural Waveney may give Labour an opportunity, and changes in Cambridgeshire could strengthen the Liberal Democrats, who already control the County Council.
The divisions in the Labour Party in the last decade have shrunk local parties in some places, while the ageing of the Conservative membership is weakening their ability to campaign on the doorstep. The Liberal Democrats have a tradition of strong local campaigning in specific areas.
Occasionally, a local issue will stir strong feelings and affect the vote, though this is rarely enough to swing significantly against the broader trend.
It is likely that the Conservatives will suffer severe losses in the East in the next election, though improbable that they will lose the 40+ that current polling suggests. For Labour to get a Parliamentary majority, the Conservatives will have to lose a substantial number of the 16 battleground seats.
It seems likely that the result will depend on a degree of tactical voting in some of those seats. In most, the progressive choice is clear, but there are a few where Labour and Liberal Democrats risk splitting the vote and leaving the Conservative in place.
It is far too early for parties to begin any kind of backroom negotiation, but the local elections in May (when turnout will probably be down because of the introduction of Voter ID) may give us a clue of the way the wind is blowing.
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East Anglia Bylines exists to supplement, and offer alternative views to, local press and broadcasters across the region, (Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex, Hertfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Bedfordshire), But we are a small team of volunteers, and do not have local knowledge in every area. So we are keen to recruit more volunteers, especially from these battleground constituencies. If you would be interested in writing about the area and its politics, or just in telling us what is happening on the ground, please get in touch: [email protected]
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