Will the North East see continued Labour domination in the 2015 General Election?
(28 April 2015)
In a nutshell, yes it will says Dr Gidon Cohen, School of Government and International Affairs, but there are a number of interesting anomalies.
The North East is the smallest of England’s regions, and its strong regional identity is closely connected to the Labour party movement. Famously Durham was the first County Council which Labour won (in 1919) and for the majority of the period since 1945, Labour have dominated the seat count. This trend includes its rural areas, which in other parts of England provide the Conservative Party with solid support. In the North East, the countryside contains the Durham and Northumberland ex-coalfields and hence some of Labour’s safest seats.
In the Labour landslide of 1997 Labour won all but two of the regions seats. In the period between 1997 and 2010 many leading figures in the Labour governments held safe seats in the North East. Even with the national retreat in the 2010 General Election, Labour still won 24 of the 28 North East seats.
However, within this solidly Labour heartland, there a several anomalies.
Although Conservative support has risen by less in the North East than in many other parts of the England, there are two Conservative mps in the region. They currently hold Hexham and Stockton South.
James Wharton won the Stockton South seat in 2010, with a majority of just 332. The question of whether the Conservatives can hold on pits any benefit which James Wharton will gain against a national swing to Labour. Even a modest swing will see Labour take the seat, but present estimates make this a very marginal calculation.
Although the Liberals were very strong across the region in the interwar years, they were wiped out after 1945. They didn’t seriously contend for a seat until a 1973 by-election when Alan Beith, (standing down in the 2015 Election), won Berwick-upon-Tweed. The SDP held Stockton South from 1983-7, but despite very considerable strides forward in local government elections across the region, the Liberal Democrats did not manage to further add to their seat total before 2010. However, in 2010 they had a very dramatic win in Redcar, with the largest swing in the election. This was largely due to discontent with the then Labour Government’s handling of the closure of the Corus steelworks (based in Redcar) and the loss of 1700 jobs.
As we head to the 2015 General Election, the seats which seem most likely to change hands are the two held by the Liberal Democrats.
In the South of the region, Labour is looking to retake Redcar against a Liberal Democrat majority of 5,214. That is a decent sized majority and in normal circumstances we would also expect there to be a benefit from incumbency to be factored in. Further, there has been some very substantial infighting in the local Labour Party, with the deselection of the council leader and subsequent resignations leading to the loss of Labour control. Nevertheless, the Liberal Democrat vote across the country has taken a substantial hit, and this combined with the very specific reasons why they took the seat in 2010 means it’s not clear that the local infighting will be electorally consequential. Taking all this into account it seems likely, but not certain, that they will lose it this time round.
Berwick, where the Conservatives are challenging and the Liberal Democrats have a majority 2,690, is also hard to call but the personal vote which Alan Beith has built up is substantial, and without this it is difficult to see the Liberal Democrats holding on.
Aside from these three seats and the safe Conservative seat of Hexham, Labour holds all of the rest of the seats in the region, and Labour in England is likely to make modest gains. Labour’s most marginal seat is Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland, which Tom Blenkinsop won in 2010 with a majority of 1,677 after the sudden death of the previous Labour MP, Ashok Kumar. A swing of less than 2% would see the Conservatives win the seat. Nevertheless, with a new MP and a national movement towards, rather than away from, Labour it would be a major shock if this were anything other than a hold.
There is an influential narrative held by many in the North East that it is an area largely ignored by the Westminster elite (particularly in comparison to Scotland) and as a result, does poorly on funding and resources. This might create the possibility that other parties, particularly those positioning themselves as anti-establishment, could do well. UKIP came second to Labour in the 2013 South Shields by-election and they seem to be polling best along coast. From their own accounts they are particularly targeting Hartlepool where they have won a couple of council seats. The Greens are also campaigning hard and have a current councillor in Middlesbrough, although it is difficult to see them coming second in any of the region’s seats. Irrespective, likely levels of support for these parties won’t change the seat complexion, or indeed have the effect of increasing the number of closely contested seats. The votes going to the minor parties seem to be coming disproportionately from challenging parties, and the effect of splitting the opposition parties vote is more likely to make safe seats safer without increasing the winning party’s vote share.
There are then important contests which may see seats change hands in Berwick-upon-Tweed, Redcar and Stockton South. However, the most likely picture after the election will be continued one of Labour domination, with the Liberal Democrats losing their two seats with one to Labour and one to the Conservatives.