Northern seats are 'pivotal areas'

Political experts point out the northern constituencies to watch in the general election

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The leadership contest between Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn may not be the chief factor in the decision over which box to cross at the polls tomorrow.

According to Andrew Russell, professor of politics at Manchester University, by fixating on the party leaders “we lose the constituency context”.

Russell said May’s election strategy has been like that of a presidential campaign, with the focus being on her team. However, “voters make up their mind less about the leader and more about their MP”, he added.

“You may be a Labour supporter, not liking Corbyn, or you might think the local Conservative has done well.”

Russell warned against over-confident predictions for the election, saying the forecasted result in 2015 had been wrong. The 2017 election has shown a “strange and unpredictable pattern”, he said. “What looked like a foregone conclusion has closed so dramatically.”

“If the Conservatives want a convincing majority, they would need to win the metropolitan seats.”

He said North West areas to watch include Bury, which has one Conservative and one Labour MP, and Bolton, which has two Labour and one Conservative MP.

“If the Conservatives want a convincing majority, they would need to win the metropolitan seats,” he said.

Russell also pointed to Cheadle and Southport as North West seats to watch. A test of the Lib Dems’ standing will be whether Mark Hunter can regain Cheadle, which he held from 2005 until losing out to Conservative Mary Robinson two years ago.

In Southport, longstanding Lib Dem John Pugh is standing down and the Conservatives only need a small swing to take the seat. But Labour claims to be in with a chance too.

With the polls on their side at the start of their campaign, the Conservatives believed they could win seats from Labour in the north previously seen as relatively safe, such as Chorley – where Lindsay Hoyle, Deputy Speaker of the House of Commons, has a majority of 4,530 – and David Crausby’s Bolton North East seat, which has a similar majority.

“The way Theresa May first visited Bolton North East was not defensive – she was pitching her tent,” said Jon Tonge, professor of politics at Liverpool University.

Tonge pointed to marginal seats in the north such as Chester as “pivotal areas for the election”.

Labour’s Chris Matheson took the seat from Conservative Stephen Mosley by just 93 votes – the third smallest majority in the UK in 2015. Last week Steve Coogan came to the city to add his support for Matheson, because of his work on the Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee scrutinisng phone hacking, and the Greens are not standing a candidate so as not to split the progressive vote. But the Tories remain confident of re-taking the seat.

Tonge said Labour won another marginal, Wirral West, “against all odds” in 2015

Tonge said Labour won another marginal, Wirral West, “against all odds” in 2015, when Margaret Greenwood edged out Ester McVey with a majority of just 417. McVey is now Tory candidate in Tatton, George Osborne’s former seat in Cheshire. But with northern marginals being so closely competed, “traffic is unlikely to be all one way”, he added.

Tonge said the key issues for 2017 are mostly the same as in 2015 – party leadership, the economy, immigration and the NHS. “Labour are traditionally most trusted on the NHS,” he said. “But to compete with the Conservatives, they would need to make advances on one of the other issues.”

Two critical variable factors in northern seats will be the youth vote and Ukip supporters.

A recent poll by ICM for anti-racism campaign Hope Not Hate suggests that turnout among young people may not be as low as some pundits suggest.

It found that 63 per cent of 18-24 year-olds say they are “absolutely certain” to vote in Thursday’s election. Forty per cent of them said that living in a marginal constituency would make them more likely to vote.

Following the 2015 general election, UKIP were the third biggest party after securing 12.6 per cent of the vote. But one recent poll put Ukip’s support down to 4 per cent and, before the election was called, they had lost their only MP in Douglas Carwell, who left the party.

Where the Ukip vote will go is important in the north, according to Tonge and Dr Andy Price, head of politics at Sheffield Hallam University, who said: “Out of the 14 constituencies in South Yorkshire, Ukip came second in 10 of them at the last general election.

“If, as happened in the local elections in May, these Ukip votes were to jump ship to the Conservatives, then they could be pushing Labour hard in one or two constituencies.

“If the Ukip vote does collapse, where would these votes go?”

“But the other story of 2015 is the Ukip vote was made up of a lot of former Labour voters. If the Ukip vote does collapse, where would these votes go?”

But if some Ukip voters do go back to Labour, there is also the question of a “shy” Tory vote. Just as in 1992, some voters might be too embarrassed to admit to pollsters a preference for the Conservatives but then choose them at the ballot box.

In a survey by behavioural science firm Decision Technology 26 per cent of people said they would vote Conservative when asked directly. But the firm also showed respondents a series of statements, asking how many are true for them but not which ones. It claims this protects anonymity and reduces the instances of lying due to social taboos, and produced a higher figure of 31 per cent.

Henry Stott, Decision Technology director, said: “Given the predictions of a landslide Tory victory when the general election was first called, some were suggesting that the taboo around voting Conservative had decreased and even speculated that we may see a ‘shy Labour’ effect this year.

“But our research demonstrates that this is far from true. Although there may be fewer people voting Tory than in previous years, the embarrassment factor has grown.”

Read more of our general election coverage at 

Photo: Theresa May meets staff at missile manufacturer MBDA in Bolton after launching the Conservative Party’s manifesto (Stefan Rousseau/PA Images)

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