All opinion polls currently suggest that, if a general election were to be held today, Labour would have a national majority of over 100 seats, and the Conservatives would lose half their seats in East Anglia. The election may be more than a year away, and the gap is likely to narrow, but to reverse this altogether would be unprecedented. A very clear majority of voters now want a change, and believe that Labour will form the next government. However, that could still be a Labour minority government. Is it likely?
A progressive alliance?
In recent general elections there has been much talk of a progressive alliance, between Labour, Liberal Democrats and, perhaps Greens, to remove the Conservatives from power. Some hope that Liberal Democrat influence would force a Labour minority government to change its position on issues like Brexit and proportional representation. However, as Labour’s fortunes have risen, the chances are diminishing.
The Labour Party is keen to quash any such ideas, and in the next general election, every voter will have the chance to vote Labour, even in constituencies where they stand no chance of winning. They have said that after the election if they are the largest party, but without an overall majority, they will not seek a coalition. Rather, they will form a minority government and try to carry out their programme, in the expectation that the Liberal Democrats and any Greens will vote with them on most issues, and not want to risk precipitating a general election.
However, it is clear that something more nuanced is happening. In recent by-elections, either the opposition parties have worked more closely together behind the scenes, or the voters have been making tactical decisions to defeat the Conservatives. In Somerton and Frome, there was a Labour candidate, but Labour put little resource into the campaign, while the reverse was true in Selby & Ainsty. And the Conservatives lost both seats disastrously. In Uxbridge, where Labour almost won a seat which has been Conservative since 1970, a fall of nearly 3,000 in the combined Green and Liberal vote again suggests that many voters were voting tactically, even if there was no collaboration between the parties.
Although the major parties usually contest all seats, they know that there are some where they stand no chance. So, they concentrate their campaigning in more promising places. Meanwhile, the smaller parties make maximum impact by focusing on a small number of seats, as the Greens have done in Brighton.
As part of its election planning, the Labour Party is identifying where to concentrate resources and they have recently issued a national list of 94 “non-priority” seats. Officially, these are simply seats where the selection of candidates is less urgent, but it looks very like a list of seats where they expect to lose. Almost all are held by Conservatives with majorities larger than Labour overturned in the Selby and Ainsty by-election in July, which saw the biggest swing ever in a by-election.
Predicting election results this time is more difficult, because the boundaries of Parliamentary constituencies have been redrawn. Because of population growth, East Anglia will have three more seats, and many constituencies will see some change. The biggest changes are in south Cambridgeshire, north Hertfordshire and around the Suffolk/Norfolk border. None of the new constituencies are on Labour’s non-priority list, presumably because of the need to reorganise on the ground, and we cannot predict how actively they will contest them.
Key constituencies in East Anglia
Current polling suggests that the Conservatives stand to lose more than half of their current seats in East Anglia, most of them to Labour.
However, of the 61 constituencies in the region, 19 seats are on Labour’s “non-priority” list. Even with a massive swing against the Conservatives, it is unlikely that Labour can win any of these. In 2019, 17 of them had Conservative majorities larger than 19,900, and they include five of the safest Conservative seats in the country.
In the remaining two, the Liberal Democrats are the clear opposition to Conservatives. They hold St Albans, where they also control the Council, with the Conservatives firmly in second place. They had held North Norfolk for 18 years before losing it to the Conservatives in 2019. So, quietly, in these two places, Labour is conceding the territory to the anti-Conservative most likely to win.
In Essex, Chelmsford, is a seat where a progressive alliance, formal or informal, might emerge. Here, in 2019, the Liberal Democrats came second to the Conservatives, who did not have an overall majority. Although the seat is not on Labour’s non-priority list, the Liberal Democrats control the Council, while Labour has no Councillors, which puts them in a weak campaigning position. Here, it would not be surprising if Labour voters switched tactically to the Liberal Democrat, even if the party does not officially recognise this.
Cambridgeshire undergoes major boundary changes, including gaining an additional constituency. The changes are unlikely to make a difference in the north, where the Conservative majorities look secure, or in Cambridge itself, with its Labour Council, Labour MP, and with the Liberal Democrats in opposition. But to the south and west of the county, the landscape is reorganised into three constituencies. Here the overall Liberal Democrat vote share was second to the Conservatives in 2019. All are high-income, highly educated remain-voting areas, and the Conservatives could be defeated in all three. Polls suggest that they will all be marginal, with a Labour win in St Neots and Mid-Cambridgeshire, and a narrow Conservative lead in Ely and East Cambridgeshire.
In South Cambridgeshire, the prediction is of a narrow Liberal Democrat win, but there the three parties are currently tied. In that situation a split in the anti-Conservative vote might give the Conservatives a win.
The new boundaries cross the Suffolk/Norfolk border. Here the Greens have been making serious progress. Since 2019, when the biggest Green vote share in East Anglia was 10% in Bury St Edmunds, their support has grown rapidly. This year’s local elections saw them double their number of councillors in the region, becoming the largest party on three councils, winning a County Council by-election, and strengthening their position as the official opposition in Norwich City.
Their biggest success was in Suffolk, where they took control of Mid-Suffolk Council (the first Green controlled Council in England) and became the largest party in neighbouring East Suffolk. So, they have serious hopes of winning the new Waveney Valley constituency, which overlaps those two Districts, and where their party’s joint leader, Adrian Ramsay is standing. Their chances are strengthened by the boundary changes which split rural Waveney Valley from urban Lowestoft – a new constituency where Labour stands a good chance of winning an additional seat.
In Hertfordshire the boundary review splits the Conservative held marginal seat of Hitchin and Harpenden into two new constituencies. Harpenden and Berkhamsted, adds areas from more conservative areas in South West Hertfordshire and polls suggest that the Conservatives will take the seat. Although Hitchin adds more conservative areas from Bedfordshire, polls suggest a Labour win, reflecting its more highly educated, remain-voting population.
Watford is also worth watching. Historically it has always sided with the party in government, and its current Conservative MP holds the seat with a majority of only 4,443 over Labour. However, although the Liberal Democrats came third in 2019, with only 16% of the vote, they control the Council. Were they to split the anti-Conservative vote the Conservatives might hold the seat.
A hung Parliament?
Some people hope for a hung Parliament, but under first past the post, nobody can vote for that, and at present it looks unlikely. What now seems very likely, however, is a dramatic change in the landscape, with a Labour majority, but a larger voice for Liberal Democrats and even the Greens, and a disastrous collapse of support for Conservatives. But the election could be more than a year away, and a lot can still change.