The case of the phantom majority?
The current narrative surrounding the 2019 general election is very similar to the one that was leading discussions at this point in April 2017. That is to say that the Conservatives hopes of a large overall majority lie in former industrial and mining communities in the midlands and the north, that voted to leave the European Union and have generally returned Labour members of parliament in the post-1945 era. Stoke, Workington, Coventry and Blackpool are all amongst the areas that look rife to a Tory challenge. Polling suggests that this is a realistic possibility but there has been a considerable amount of scepticism placed in polling following the 2017 result and Labour’s unexpected strength. A lot of pundits and reporters are using 2017 to drive their commentary and whilst that may be a wise move, it may prove to be a case of overcompensation. There is, however, a case to believe that Boris Johnson’s chances of an overall majority are being overplayed. The Liberal Democrats, the Scottish National Party and a stronger than expected Labour performance all place the Tories at a great risk. This article will look at the potential electoral mountain facing Boris Johnson in trying to win overall control of the House of Commons on 12th December and will analyse the possibility that the he currently sees the spectre of a phantom overall majority.
The electoral geography and demographic composition of the United Kingdom has shifted in such a way that makes it incredibly difficult for either of the major political parties to win an overall majority in the current context. Polling expert, Sir John Curtice, has projected that the minor parties could win around 100 parliamentary seats. First of all, evidence from Scotland suggests that the Tories are in trouble north of the border. In 2017, it was Ruth Davidson’s performance that kept the Theresa May’s party on the government benches. The Conservatives won 13 Scottish seats, a net gain of 12 and their best performance since the Thatcher era. Entering the campaign, at least six of these are looking likely to return to the nationalists with at least another four in play. On this basis, the Conservatives are already down to around 308 seats. On its own, this might not be game over for the party if they manage to put in a modest performance in the traditional Conservative-Labour battlegrounds. It is certainly not totally unimaginable for the Conservatives to gain 20 or so English and Welsh marginals from Labour. There is, however, a second front on which the Conservatives are on the defensive and that is with the Liberal Democrats. In 2015, when David Cameron won the first outright Tory majority in 23 years, he did so by smothering his former coalition partners. The Conservative gained 27 seats from the Liberal Democrats in that election, including all of the party’s former West Country seats. In 2017, five seats switched back from Conservative to Liberal Democrat whilst Southport went the other way and was gained by the Liberal Democrats. Additionally, Portsmouth South, which was won by the Liberal Democrats in 2010 and the Tories in 2015, was won by Labour in 2017. This means that in 2019, the Tories are entering the election with at least 22 seats that have got Liberal Democrat history in recent elections. Of the top 30 target seats for the Liberal Democrats, 22 were won by the Conservatives in 2017. The Liberal Democrat performance in the 2019 local and European elections suggests that the party has managed to shake off some of its coalition-era image and although there is a long way to go until polling day, they are currently polling around 18 percent. Whilst this support may appear to come from Labour, it is still the Conservatives that would have the most to fear from this kind of advance. At present, 11 Conservative- Liberal Democrat battles look set to break for the Liberal Democrats whilst several others look very close. Combined with the losses to the Scottish Nationalists, this would leave the Tories down at 297 MPs, way short of an overall majority.
In this case, which is definitely not the worst for the Tories, then Johnson would need to pick off at least 29 seats from Labour to win an overall majority. For a decent and sustainable majority that would last for a full five-year parliament, Johnson really would need to take a substantial number of seats from Labour. There are 89 Labour-held target seats on the Conservative battle board that would fall to the Conservatives on a swing of 10-percentage points, 47 of these end up in the Conservative column on a 5-point swing and 30 go on a 3-point swing. Of the 89 seats, 72 voted to leave the European Union and 60 are in the Midlands and the North of England. A further 10 are in Wales.
In the crescent of Labour seats that runs from Clwyd in the north-east of Wales, across the North West of England and into Yorkshire and the Humber, the Labour Party has been rooted as an institution for much of the post-1945 era. In these former industrial communities, the majorities of the Labour MPs may not be as colossal as their colleagues in the North East of England or in London, but many of the constituencies have been in Labour’s hands for a generation and the idea of them turning Tory would have been almost unthinkable just a few elections ago. That could all be about to change and the Tories may be set to make historic progress. Boris Johnson will almost certainly be hoping that his promise to deliver Brexit will resonate with working-class leave-voting Labour voters in these constituencies. He will also be hoping that Jeremy Corbyn’s unpopularity amongst this demographic will cause the Labour Party to wobble. Seats like Blackpool South, Rother Valley, Barrow in Furness, Delyn, Clwyd South, Don Valley and Scunthorpe are the kind of constituencies that the Tories are eyeing up. All of them have been held by Labour since at least 1997 but their majorities have been steadily reduced over the last few elections. This is the ‘red wall’, and the failure of the Conservatives to make progress in these seats in 2017 is the principle reason that they failed to secure an overall majority.
The much talked about constituency of Workington stands proudly as the 46th Tory target from Labour and 61st Tory target overall. The Conservatives require a swing of 4.71-percentage points from Labour to overturn Sue Hayman’s majority and gain the seat for the what would be the first time in Conservative history at a general election (the constituency did return a Conservative MP at a by-election in 1976). A recent constituency poll by Survation suggests that this is well in reach for the Conservatives, with a 10-point swing projected. Were as wing like that to be repeated across this type of constituency, the Conservatives would not only win the election, they would be motoring towards a majority north of 100 in the biggest Tory landslide since at least 1987. At that level, the Conservatives would be gaining seats across the Midlands and the North. Their 119th target (88th from Labour), Warrington North, which has not had a Conservative MP since the 1930s, would be within Boris’ cross-hairs.
Across the midlands, there are a further chunk of Tory targets, 21 to be precise. Some of these areas, such as those around Stoke, Ashfield and Bolsover, share many demographic characteristics with the ‘red wall’ seats. Stoke was the scene of a by-election back in February 2017, where Labour held on thanks to a split opposition vote and strong second place from UKIP. If the ‘red wall’ is broken, the Tories will certainly be looking at picking up seats like Ashfield, Newcastle-under-Lyme, Lincoln, Bassetlaw and Bolsover, to add to their haul of ‘blue collar’ gains. Others, such as those in Coventry, Birmingham and Wolverhampton are similar in terms of the fact that they are post-industrial areas, but given Labour's growing metropolitan strength in recent years, they are likely to be harder for the Tories to pick off. Coventry, for example, has not returned a Conservative MP in any of its constituencies since John Butcher won the now abolished Coventry South West constituency in 1992. In its history, Coventry has only ever had two Conservative MPs and whilst the city voted to leave the European Union, Labour has continued to perform well in local elections since 2017 and with a good turnout from the student population, the two Tory targets should be relatively safely held by Labour.
In 2017, Theresa May put a lot of energy and effort into winning these constituencies, from the ‘red wall’ and down into the Midlands. At the start of the campaign, it looked like things might be about to change with Labour’s win in the February 2017 Copeland by-election confirming that the Labour Party was suffering in these former heartlands. With the constituencies posting a strong UKIP showing in 2015, many expected the Tories to unite the leave vote and snatch great swathes of these seats from Labour. In the event, Labour’s vote proved more resilient than anyone could have expected. Labour successfully defended virtually all of these seats, losing just six to the Tories. Whilst many Labour majorities were reduced, they still hung onto the seats, although there were some very close calls. Whilst historic apathy towards the Tories in these communities may have started to fade, there is a good chance that the Tories reached their ceiling in these areas in 2017, stealing some Labour-leave voters whilst Labour squeezed remain voters and held onto enough leavers to win. On this basis, the Tories really need the Liberal Democrats to hurt the Labour remain-vote more than it hurts their own remain vote and for pro-Brexit voters that were gained in 2017 to stick with them. Whilst there is some argument that the Brexit Party will hurt Labour, it must be remembered that for every vote they took from Labour, UKIP took three from the Conservatives and this may dampen Conservative hopes with the Brexit Party hurting them enough for Labour to remain the dominant party in these seats.
Ultimately, what will happen in the ‘red wall’ is currently unclear. The Tories may make a historic breakthrough, but it is far from a certainty and it is also difficult to imagine a government of nine years to make enough gains from the principle opposition party to offset the losses that it is likely to suffer elsewhere. Indeed, there are some rich pickings for the Tories in these communities and they may well gain them without gaining any votes at all if the Labour vote remains as fragmented as the opinion polls currently suggest. If the 2017 Labour vote re-unites come polling day, and the threat of a hard-Brexit Tory majority may be enough to persuade some wavering Liberal Democrats to return to Labour, then it is very difficult indeed to see the Tories breaking through the ‘red wall’ in the way that is required for Boris Johnson to win an overall majority in the House of Commons.
In Tory target 44 (33rd from Labour), Blackpool South, it is very difficult to see what benefits local people have had from the last nine years of Conservative government. If the Tories manage to gain Blackpool South, they are almost certainly past the 326 mark and in overall control of the House of Commons. The constituency was gained by Labour’s Gordon Marsden in 1997, and has stayed loyal to the party ever since with Marsden’s majority progressively reduced from 22.6-points in 1997 to 5.3-points in 2010. In 2015, it inflated to 8-points before a slight reduction to 7.2-points in 2017. Voters here opted to leave the European Union with a whopping 67.81 percent voting for Brexit. The constituency contains the famous ‘golden mile’ with three piers, the tower and all of the traditional seaside amenities. Gift shops, fish and chips, hotels, and endless amusement arcades. Behind the glitz and bright lights of the sea front lies a town that was hit hard by the credit crunch, and has progressively seen an increase in poverty. The package holiday boom of the late 1960s and early 1970s started Blackpool’s long and slow decline. The days of workers in industrial towns coming to Bed and Breakfasts for a two-week holiday were over. The global financial crash provided another punch and Austerity was another killer, as public sector services had to be rolled back due to the cuts to local authority budgets. It’s no surprise that residents here took the opportunity to kick back against the status quo and voted to Leave. In 2017, they remained loyal to Labour but the Tories increased their vote to 43.1 percent, the party’s best showing in the constituency since 1992. If there is a large-scale collapse in the Labour vote here, then it is likely that Boris Johnson has broken through the ‘red wall’ and has won an overall majority. Whilst it is possible that the Tories may do it, there is still a very good chance of voters here keeping the faith with Labour, they did in 2010 when Labour suffered a national routing and they did in 2017 when everything pointed to a Tory victory.
As a closing thought, the framing question of the next few weeks should be ‘can Gareth Snell, Ruth Smeeth, Cat Smith and other Labour MPs in former northern and midlands industrial and mining communities see off the Tories on a cold wet, December night?’ If they can, and Labour pulls off wins in other constituencies with a similar demographic composition, then the Tories may well struggle to make it to the magic 326 and there isn’t a particularly large buffer before Boris Johnson’s party moves from government to opposition for the first time since 2010. Unlike Labour, the Tories are very unlikely to have the ability of forming a government if they fall short. Winning ‘just’ 318 seats is simply not enough as was the case in 2017 for Theresa May and with the Tories almost certain to suffer losses to the Scottish National Party and Liberal Democrats, it could be that Boris Johnson’s parliamentary majority is actually something of a phantom majority as Labour voters in the ‘red wall’ could prove harder to shift than the Tories imagine.