The Labour Party seems likely to win the next general election. Since September, their polling lead has been consistently above 20 points, and half of all voters now expect a Labour government of some sort. There is no sign of a substantial Liberal Democrat revival outside byelections, where the party traditionally does unusually well. However, with the next election still nearly two years away, much can still change.
The latest polls
While a Labour win is likely, the scale is less certain. Current polling reflects the chaotic performance of the Conservatives in the last year, and although the arrival of Rishi Sunak has not made a significant difference to the Conservatives’ overall polling, work by Best for Britain with Focaldata shows that most of the people saying “don’t know” at present, are disillusioned Conservative voters, who may well return to the fold when the election nears.
Certainly the Labour majority suggested by current polls would be astonishing, and historically unprecedented. A majority of over 250+ seats would be larger than Labour achieved in their peak years of 1945 and 1997.
The Eastern region is traditionally conservative, outside a small number of cities and major towns, and the planned boundary changes, which create three new seats, give them a further advantage. To gain a parliamentary majority (assuming an even swing across the country), Labour will need to win at least nine seats in this region.
The key nine
The nine most marginal constituencies in the region are (showing their majorities in 2019):
But these are very different places. Electoral Calculus uses 2011 census data to classify constituencies on eight demographic measures. On this basis, the nine constituencies fall roughly into 3 groups. The first includes the three constituencies of Watford, Welwyn Hatfield, and Colchester, which could be classified as ‘progressive’. Their populations are more left wing on economics, socially liberal, better educated, and healthier than the rest of the region. They are more global in outlook and more inclined to define themselves as British (rather than English). They are more likely to have been born outside the UK, and to have voted remain in the Brexit referendum (though none voted strongly for this).
Seven of these have had a Conservative MP consistently since 2010. The exceptions are Colchester, which voted Liberal Democrat in 2010, and Peterborough, which voted Labour in 2017. However, Labour MPs are not unheard of: during the 13 years that New Labour was in government, five of these seats were held by Labour.
The reverse is true of Rochford & Southend East, Thurrock and Norwich North. Here, people are more likely to identify as English, to have been born in the UK, to be socially conservative and nationalist, and to have voted leave in the Brexit referendum.
Peterborough shares a social conservatism and leave vote with the latter group, but people there are more likely to feel British and be born outside the UK, while Ipswich and Stevenage fall between the two extremes.
So, in the constituencies which are currently marginal, a progressive strategy may win some but lose others. But perhaps other factors, especially dislike of the Conservative government, may override this.
However, in September, when the pollster Find Out Now worked with Electoral Calculus to carry out an MRP poll (which provides data on voting intentions at the level of individual constituencies), they found the Conservatives likely to lose 10 more of their current seats in the region. That was the point when the national Labour lead reached 20%, where it has stayed since. The additional constituencies were:
How relevant is tactical voting?
National research suggests that the Labour poll lead reflects dissatisfaction with the government, rather than approval of the opposition parties. While most people who voted Labour in 2019 intend to do so again, the proportion of 2019 Conservative voters who say the same is much smaller at present. However, they have not moved to other parties, but to ‘don’t know’, and most of them say that they will definitely vote. So, they have not yet made up their minds, but it is quite possible that a more ‘moderate’ Conservative government will persuade them to return. Interestingly, the highest proportion of don’t knows in the country is in the “safe” Conservative seat of Clacton, where they outnumber all the parties, but where the Brexit Party was once strong.
For this reason, there have been campaigns in recent general elections to encourage tactical voting, asking voters to give their vote to whichever opposition party was most likely to unseat the Conservative in that constituency.
Although there has been no formal agreement, recent byelections suggest that this has worked informally, with significant movement of voters between those two parties. So, in Wakefield, a minimal campaign by the Liberal Democrats gave victory to Labour, while the reverse happened in North Shropshire and in Chesham & Amersham. In all three, the Conservative lost.
Whether tactical voting matters in the next General Election depends, of course, on how substantial the swing towards Labour is. If that were to be as large as current polls suggest, under our “first past the post” voting system, tactical voting would make little difference. The Best for Britain MRP polling suggests a Labour lead of under 60 seats. That would be comfortable, but if the gap narrowed further, tactical voting begins to be a serious issue.
Where might tactical voting matter in the East?
If tactical voting becomes important in the East, it will be in the seats where the combined Labour/Liberal Democrat vote share exceeds the Conservative one, but that opposition vote is evenly split between the two opposition parties. This applies in six seats, where the MRP poll suggests that the difference between Labour and Liberal Democrat vote share is less than 10%. These are:
- North Norfolk was taken by the Conservatives in 2019 when the long serving Liberal Democrat MP retired. The Liberal Democrats still control the Council. The polling shows the Conservatives 3 points ahead of the Liberal Democrats, but although there are no Labour Councillors, 13% still say they will vote Labour. If only a quarter of them switch votes, the Liberal Democrats would win the seat.
- Cambridgeshire South, Cambridgeshire South East, and the new constituency of St Neots are prime targets for tactical voting. However, Cambridgeshire will be affected by major boundary changes. The creation of the new constituency of St Neots involves major changes to three others. Across the county (outside the city) the three parties are polling at very similar levels, so the combined Labour/Liberal Democrat vote is substantially larger than the Conservative one. However, without tactical voting, a small swing could result in a win for any of the three parties in any of these seats.
- Hitchin & Harpenden This constituency will be reorganised. On the current boundaries it is predicted to vote narrowly for Labour, and the combined Labour/Liberal Democrat vote share (42%) comfortably exceeds the Conservative one (22%). However, the new Hitchin constituency will include large parts of Bedfordshire North East and Mid Bedfordshire, which are more Conservative.
- Chelmsford is another constituency where the combined Labour/Liberal Democrat vote (34%) easily exceeds the Conservative one (22%). The Liberal Democrats already control the District Council, but Labour is well ahead of them in the MRP poll. If one fifth of the Liberal Democrats were to switch to Labour, they would evict the Conservatives, but if they divide the vote, the Conservatives might scrape home.
The next big test
The Conservatives’ polling plunged during 2022, especially during the short Liz Truss premiership. They hoped that the arrival of Rishi Sunak would restore their fortunes. But so far, it has not made any significant difference, and it may be that public attitudes to the parties are now set for some time.
The first big test will be the May local elections which are being held in 42 Councils in the region. Twenty-two of these are Conservative controlled, 5 are Labour, 4 Liberal Democrat, and 11 have no overall party control.
In 23 Districts, the whole Council is up for election (13 Con, 1 Lab, 2 LibDem, 7 no overall control). Herethese, political control may change completely, and we are likely to see some major changes.
In the remaining 20 (9 Con, 4 Lab, 2 LibDem, 5 no overall control), one third of Councillors are elected each time. In these, the opportunity for change of control is more limited.
It is very likely that the next election will see a change of government. By 2025, the political landscape may look much more like it did during the years of the Blair government, with a much more substantial Labour presence across the region. If the polls continue to show a 20-point lead for Labour, the temptation to vote tactically will probably recede. But if they narrow significantly, we can now see which are the constituencies to watch. May’s local elections will probably point the way.