GE2019: Can the Tories take Blackpool South?

November 21, 2019

Along the Fylde coast is one of Britain’s most famous seaside towns, Blackpool. Instantly recognisable from its tower, three piers and illuminations, the ‘golden mile’ finds itself within the Blackpool South constituency. Having been held by Labour’s Gordon Marsden since 1997, Labour’s majority in the constituency has been steadily reduced from 22.6-points to 7.2-points in 2017. Sitting at number 33 on the Tories’ list of target seats from Labour, the constituency is one of many north-western Labour seats that forms the ‘red wall’ from Clwyd, through the North West and into to Humberside. If the Tories gain Blackpool South, they will very likely be on course for a level of success not seen in a generation in the Midlands and the North of England. They will also probably be on course for a very healthy parliamentary majority, having off-set their losses to the Nationalists in Scotland and Liberal Democrats in the South. For a government of nine years to be eyeing up this kind of seat is quite unprecedented and whilst Theresa May tried and failed the ‘blue collar conservative’ strategy in 2017, Boris Johnson has clearly decided to adopt the same strategy. Whilst Theresa May failed in Blackpool South, the warning signs that things may not be so easy going for Labour loom very large, like a spectre over Jeremy Corbyn and his team. The 2017 Tory result here was the party’s best since 1992 and was higher than the Labour vote in either 2010 or 2015. The seat will be very hardly fought, and after a strong performance by the Brexit Party in the European Parliamentary elections, Boris Johnson will be hoping that he can move the Golden Mile back into the blue column for the first time in 27 years. 

Away from the bright lights, smell of fish and chips and the typically British glitz of the seafront, Blackpool is a town that has suffered in recent years. During the late 19th and early 20th Century, Blackpool was a popular place for families to holiday during ‘wakes week’. A fortnight during which the Cotton Mills and factories across the industrialised North West of England would shut down and their employees would head to the seaside for a holiday. The coming of the railways had connected Blackpool to the network and made it a destination for many working-class people in Lancashire for their annual summer holidays. This continued through the early 20th century but like many of Britain’s other seaside towns, Blackpool was hit by the package holiday boom that began in the late 1960s and 1970s. With the advent of short-haul flights to the Mediterranean and other parts of Europe, holidays abroad to sunnier climes suddenly became accessible to the working class for the first time. The halcyon days of there not being an empty room in the hotels that lined the seafront and the endless rows of guesthouses of the backstreets are long since over. Some of the once thriving hotels now lie empty, dilapidated, boarded up and slowly crumbling away. Many of the guesthouses have been converted to HMOs, houses in multiple occupation, offering cheap bedsits. The decline was exacerbated by the global financial crisis and the austerity that followed. Cuts to local government budgets cost many public sector workers their jobs. An increasingly high level of unemployment, particularly out of the holiday season led to the town scoring very high on the Public Health England deprivation scale. 

Once upon a time, Blackpool was a something of political town. It often hosted party conferences for both the Conservatives and Labour. Again, those days are long gone. The last time the Tories used Blackpool for its conference was 2007, whilst the Labour Party was last in town in 2001. The Tories have taken to holding their conferences in Birmingham and Manchester whilst Labour have alternated between Liverpool and Brighton for the last few years. This movement away from Blackpool as a party conference destination almost symbolises the fact that the town, and many others like it across the Midlands and the North, have been left behind by the political establishment in recent years. In the television sitcom Porridge, prison guard Mr MacKay jested that Cumbria was ‘two weeks away from Euston’. Whilst that might be a slight exaggeration, Blackpool’s woeful rail connectivity is almost a metaphor for the disconnect between London and Britain’s towns. 

Whilst the rise of the package holiday was one reason for Blackpool’s decline, the other is the decline of the number of industrialised working-class jobs in the region and across the country. As this demographic shrunk following the 1980s and 1990s, what was left of Blackpool’s traditional holiday trade transformed into shorter breaks, day trips and stag and hen parties. Away from the seafront, Blackpool’s residents were slowly being left behind. The economy does not work for small towns like these. Most residents do not really get to see or feel the benefits of the European Union or feel particularly valued by Britain’s politicians in London. With little to lose, it is certainly no surprise that voters in Blackpool South took a gamble and voted to leave the European Union. The leave vote was a whopping 67.8 percent and in 2015, UKIP polled a respectable 17 percent of the vote. Blackpool and towns like it certainly fall into the category of ‘left behind’. The faded signs and rusted windows on the boarded-up hotels perhaps echo the rusted factories in America’s ‘rust belt’ and the high number of predominantly white working-class voters certainly share many of the same concerns. 

In 2016, President Trump successfully appealed to this demographic in the upper-mid western swing states. He was able to comfortably carry Ohio and Iowa, whilst narrowly pulling off wins in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. On their own, these were enough to swing the electoral college to Trump despite a 3-point popular vote deficit. Trump stood on a populist platform, which resonates well with this demographic. Ultimately, a voter that has seen their quality of life and standard of living reduced could scarcely be blamed for taking a punt on someone that professes to understand their struggle and offer a clear solution. At the 2019 European Parliamentary elections, the Brexit Party won 43.5 percent of the vote, smashing the established political parties. Just three weeks prior to the European Parliamentary elections, Labour and the Conservatives won a combined vote share of 84.5 percent in Blackpool’s local council elections (Blackpool’s other constituency- Blackpool North and Cleveleys is within the council area). At the European Election, with Farage’s populism on the ballot, the combined Labour-Tory vote share fell by 57.3-points, to just 27.2 percent.     

In the context of the 2019 European Parliamentary election, with anger amongst leave voters bubbling on, it is easy to see why the ‘big two’ political parties were punished. It also proves that when a populist option was available, voters were prepared to take the plunge. But in the 2019 general election, the old rules are still somewhat in pace. Whilst the Brexit Party is on the ballot in Blackpool South, and across the much of the ‘red wall’, their chance of winning any of these seats is about as close to zero as you can get. Without sounding like a Lib Dem bar-chart, only Labour or the Tories can win in Blackpool South. Whilst Brexit is undoubtedly going to be a major issue in the mind of some voters, it will certainly not be at the forefront for quite a few others. Voters in these communities may look at Boris Johnson as the best man to deliver Brexit, and they might despise Jeremy Corbyn but when it comes to it, the big unknown is whether when faced with the choice of which party they want to lead the next government, they simply refuse to put their cross next to the Tree and back the Tories. After all, a lot of their plight in the post-financial crash era has been down to a central plank of Tory policy, austerity. 

Provincial England, small towns and former industrial communities have simply not kept pace with metropolitan England in the last few decades. They were hit hard by the global financial crash and they suffered the brunt of austerity. Whilst Boris Johnson may appear to be a populist and may resonate with some voters across this kind of Labour seat, it must be remembered that Theresa May successfully pulled off some very good, and in some cases historic, performances in these seats in 2017. A great deal of that is likely to have been down to some Labour-leave voters moving across to the Tories, whilst remain voters coalesced behind the Labour Party. In short, there are less Labour-leave voters for Boris Johnson to win, because Theresa May hoovered a lot of them up in 2017. 

The other problem for the Tories is that fundamentally, they are not a populist party and although the populist message resonates well with the ‘left behind’ voter, it is unclear how the fact that Boris Johnson is an establishment figure will be received. Whilst leave voters may back the Tories on Brexit, there are still very raw feelings towards the party after the decimation of industry in the region during the Thatcher years and then during the austerity years. Certainly, Boris Johnson’s response to the flooding across the North of England during the first week of the election campaign will not have been particularly popular and simply highlights the disconnect between the Westminster Bubble and the kind of constituency that the Tories are targeting. Had Blackpool South fallen to the Tories in 2010, along with the Town’s other constituency of Blackpool North and Cleveleys, which saw a swing of 6.9 percentage points from Labour to the Tories, nobody would have been surprised given Labour’s national decline. Nine years into government, it almost seems absurd that the possibility is being explored. 

Of course, Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party is likely to take votes from both the Tories and Labour. They could very easily match UKIP’s 2015 performance of 17 percent of the vote and given their European Parliamentary election performance, they could very well improve on it. Whilst some of commentators in the media seem to be resided to the fact that this means its game over for Labour, it must be remembered that with a strong UKIP performance in 2015, Ed Miliband’s Labour still secured some pretty comfortable victories across the ‘red wall’. In 2017, the same commentators said that the UKIP vote would now move to the Tories en-masse and lock out Labour, but Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour still secured victories across the ‘red wall’. What might, however, do it for the Tories is the renewed strength of the Liberal Democrats. In 2015, whilst UKIP were strong, the Liberal Democrats were wiped out. In Blackpool South, their share of the vote fell by 12.2 points and was left at a paltry 2.3 percent. In 2001, 2005 and 2010, it is quite clear that the Liberal Democrats successfully won much of the ‘none of the above’ protest vote in Blackpool South and in similar seats only for that to evaporate following their decision to enter government as part of the coalition with the Tories. 

This time round, the Liberal Democrats have renewed purpose with their stance on Brexit, to revoke Article 50 without a referendum. Whilst this will not appeal to all remain voters, it is not difficult to imagine enough subscribing to the idea to cause Labour a problem. Whilst the remain vote in Blackpool South was only around 32.2 percent, that is a substantial minority and given Labour’s 2017 strength amongst remain voters, a reversal amongst this group could be fatal for the party. Paradoxically, if two or three thousand remain voters were to abandon the Labour Party in favour of the Liberal Democrats, and the Tory vote remains united, the Tories could easily come through the middle and win the seat. This means Boris Johnson could win a fairly big majority without winning a single extra vote in seats like Blackpool South. There simply is not really a precedent for constituencies to have two smaller parties that are both in contention for a significant number of votes. Whilst the Brexit Party may poll a decent number of right-leaning leave voters and damage the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats are also a threat to Labour with remain voters. Ultimately, the effect of this double split is an unknown quantity and there are an awful lot of questions to be asked. How well can Labour see of the double threat of the Liberal Democrats and the Tories? Can the Tories minimise their losses to the Brexit Party? Will the traditional left-right political spectrum and cultural dislike of the Tories across the ‘red wall’ take precedence over the leave-remain divide in the minds of voters?

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