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A leading pollster has warned that the route to a Labour majority could be “essentially blocked” if the party does not succeed in winning back seats in the Midlands at the next general election as Keir Starmer faces an electoral test in the region with the Tamworth by-election next week.
By-elections will take place in Tory-held seats in Tamworth and Mid Bedfordshire on 19 October, with Labour hoping that gaining both would show they were on course to sweep up Conservative constituencies and form a majority government. The next general election is due to be called before the end of 2024.
According to Patrick English, Associate Director in Political and Social research at YouGov winning Tamworth is “much more important” for Labour than Mid Bedfordshire. He believes that a mobilisation of the Conservative campaign in the marginal Midlands could prevent Starmer achieving a majority, whereas the Tories could already expect to retain many of their seats in the south east.
Speaking at a panel event with think-tank Labour Together at the party’s conference in Liverpool earlier this week, English described the electoral geography – looking at election results in the context of their location and how that might affect results – for Labour at the upcoming election as “atrocious”.
He felt the “efficiency of the Conservative 2019 voter coalition”, one that attracted pro-Brexit voters, many of whom voted Tory for the first time, as “extraordinary”, and that winning back seats that switched from red to blue in 2019 would not be enough.
“These constituencies, these old bellwethers in English politics, the Conservatives are currently sat on majorities of 20 to 30 per cent,” English explained.
“Tamworth, which has a by-election very soon – is much more important than Mid Bedfordshire – Rugby, Nuneaton, Stevenage: these are the constituencies Labour has to win in order to win a general election.”
The Tamworth by-election is considered to be a two-way fight between Labour and the Conservatives, whereas in Mid-Bedfordshire the Liberal Democrats have mounted a significant campaign to create a three-way contest. Local councillor Andrew Cooper is the Conservative candidate in Tamworth, while union organiser Sarah Edwards is standing for Labour.
The Tamworth seat, vacated by disgraced former Conservative MP Chris Pincher, is a bellwether constituency. It has been Conservative since 2010 with a majority that has increased at every election since, but was Labour under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.
The seat, then known as South East Staffordshire, switched from the Conservatives to Labour in a by-election in 1996, one year before the General Election that saw Tony Blair win a landslide. In 1996, a Conservative majority of 7,500 was turned into a Labour majority of more than 13,500.
According to House of Commons Library data, in 1997 Labour won 43 of the 59 seats in the West Midlands, and 30 of the 44 in the East Midlands, while the Conservatives were on 14 in each region.
By 2010 the Conservatives had 31 of 46 seats in the East Midlands, and 33 of 59 seats in the West Midlands, and in 2019, the Conservatives had 38 seats in the East Midlands to Labour’s 8, and 44 in the West Midlands to Labour’s 15.
Labour campaigners in the Midlands point to a number of areas where they feel they should be claiming seats back if they are to be on track for a majority, places such as Stoke on Trent, Wolverhampton and West Bromwich, that have seen seats switch since 2017.
However, areas such as Nuneaton and Tamworth present a different task in that they had switched from Labour to Conservative more than a decade ago, long before the Brexit question that was credited to motivating so many switching voters in recent years.
If Labour does win in Tamworth, they would be overturning a Conservative majority of more than 19,500. That may not be out of the question, however – in a by-election Selby and Ainsty, North Yorkshire earlier this year they flipped a Conservative majority of 20,000.
“Those majorities are huge and that is a massive task,” English said.
“If [Conservatives] can turn out your base in the Midlands marginals, Labour’s path to a majority is essentially blocked.”
Those out knocking on doors in Tamworth for Labour believe the vote will be tight, given the size of the majority in the town. Campaigners are focussing their attentions on voters who currently respond with ‘don’t know’ when polled, and that includes those who aren’t sure if they will vote at all.
A voter type identified by Labour Together in the south – ‘Stevenage woman’ – could also be the key to any party’s success in Tamworth. She is characterised as “young, hard working, but struggling to get by,” and her support could “hand Labour a stable, working majority at the next election,” according to the think tank’s Red Shift report.
English agreed this voter type was likely to be influential in Tamworth. “These constituencies are stacked with Stevenage Woman, and what Stevenage Woman really cares about is economic insecurity, and cares about being given an offer by the Labour Party on how they’re going to get through the cost of living crisis,” he said.
“So if Labour wants to target those areas and target those voters it needs a concrete offer to them to say this is how we are going to deal with the issues you care about.”
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