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Topline Analysis

It is often said of constituencies across the North East of England that a monkey in a red rosette would be returned as the MP. Only three of the seats north of the deep blue of North Yorkshire all the way to the sea of SNP yellow in Scotland are represented by Conservatives, and the Liberal Democrats are nowhere to be seen after their electoral collapse in 2015. However, British politics has changed considerably since the last general election, and the Labour Party would be unwise to take its traditional northern strongholds for granted. The 2017 General Election will be fought against the backdrop of Brexit, and the North East voted by a decisive 58% to leave. The Labour Party will have to rely on tribal loyalty in the region to maintain seats as their confused stance on Brexit, and unpopular leader, could make them vulnerable to Theresa May’s Conservatives.

North East in Numbers

In Depth

Traditional industry such as coal mining and shipbuilding used to dominate the North East of England, and as a result this is a part of the country where for many, a vote for the Labour Party is often more about tradition and loyalty than a leader or set of policies. The 2017 General Election is markedly different from previous elections, however, and these differences could see the Conservatives make significant inroads in a number of battleground seats that have traditionally been Labour.

Labour stronghold Sunderland is always the first to declare on election night, usually giving an early lead to the party. On the 23rdJune however, the City of Sunderland became the first area of the country to declare its vote to leave the EU. This marked a break in opinion between the Labour Party and a city which has historically been loyal to them. Labour will be hoping to convince voters that the party has a plan for Brexit, but as UKIP’s fortunes have faded after the referendum, the Conservatives with their unapologetically pro-Brexit stance are well placed to take traditional Labour votes. UKIP came second in seven seats across the region, so if UKIP voters and Labour leave voters go en masse to the Conservatives, then majorities as large as 8,000 – 12,000 could soon evaporate.

Locally, if the Conservatives can capitalise on the support for the Government’s efforts to secure the future of the Nissan plant in Sunderland which employs nearly 50,000 people through its entire supply chain, then the party might be able to consolidate support. If the Conservatives can win in this part of the country then they can win anywhere.

In Newcastle-upon-Tyne, a different Brexit battle is likely to rage at this election.  This is the only part of the region that voted to remain (50.7% remain) and the Liberal Democrats had a strong presence in Newcastle-upon-Tyne for several years, controlling Newcastle City Council from 2004 until 2011. Newcastle Central MP Chi Onwurah and Newcastle North MP Catherine McKinnell both voted against the triggering of Article 50, but they may not be able to convince remain-voting Geordies that they can provide adequate opposition when faced with the relentlessly anti-Brexit Liberal Democrats. The Liberal Democrats will also be looking to regain Redcar from Labour, although a 66.2% leave vote in the constituency might prevent them retaking the seat they held from 2010 to 2015.

In terms of the battle between May and Corbyn, the Conservatives will be hoping to avoid comparisons to Margaret Thatcher who remains deeply unpopular across the region, while Labour will be hoping that Corbyn proves especially popular in the former mining areas of County Durham and Northumberland, not least in the constituencies of strongly pro-Corbyn MPs Graeme Morris (Easington) and Ian Lavery (Wansbeck). This is one region where the May vs Corbyn rhetoric could work in Labour’s favour.

Elsewhere in the region, the Conservatives will be looking to ensure DFID Minister James Wharton is no longer the only Conservative MP in Teeside. The seats of retiring Labour MPs Tom Blenkinsop (Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland) and Iain Wright (Hartlepool) are ripe for the picking. The results of the Tees Valley Mayoral election should provide a good indication of how the Tories will fare in this part of the region, but early indications spell trouble for Labour.

Seats in focus

Sunderland Central

Incumbent

Julie Elliot (Lab)

2015 Majority

11,179

EU Referendum Result

61.3% leave

This would be an unlikely gain for the Conservatives at first glance, but it is a seat which will have been on the Conservative’s radar since its creation in 2010. Sitting MP Julie Elliott took over the new constituency created from parts of the former Sunderland North and South constituencies. This means that the traditionally Conservative areas of the city, the Fulwell and St. Michaels wards, are consolidated within the seat, where previously they were separated. Brexit will be the determining factor for many in this election, especially in a city that has become synonymous with the decision to leave the EU. Brexit may convince voters in Sunderland to abandon the Labour Party in favour of Theresa May’s decisive Brexit position and hardball negotiating tactics. UKIP won 7,997 votes in the seat in 2015, so if the UKIP vote collapses in favour of the Conservatives then a relatively small number of defections from Labour leave voters could see Julie Elliot’s 11,179 majority disappear.

Hartlepool

Incumbent

Ian Wright (Lab) – Retiring

2015 Majority

3,024

EU Referendum Result

69.6% leave

Following the decision of Iain Wright, the BEIS Committee Chair and MP since 2004, not to stand again this election, Labour’s 3,024 majority looks particularly vulnerable. In 2015, UKIP came second in Hartlepool with a 21% increase in vote share, pushing the Tories into third. Last year, Hartlepool voted 69.6% to leave the EU making it one of most anti-EU constituencies in the country. As such, Hartlepool will be a target for both UKIP and the Conservatives this election. UKIP leader Paul Nuttall has already highlighted the seat as a target where the party will ‘campaign hard’. However, a recent YouGov poll suggests over half of 2015 UKIP voters have ditched the party for the Conservatives, which combined with the rise of Tory popularity in the region and the loss of Wright’s personal vote, paves the way for a win in Hartlepool. If the Conservatives win the seat it will be politically significant for two reasons. Firstly, it will show that UKIP couldn’t capitalise on their 2015 election results even in one of the most pro-Leave constituencies. Secondly, the loss of Hartlepool would be symbolically devastating for Labour, who have held the seat for over fifty years, with MPs including Labour grandee Peter Mandelson.

What to watch for

As well as Sunderland, the Conservatives could conceivably win in Bishop Auckland, Darlington and even Tony Blair’s former seat of Sedgefield. If they take any of these seats then they could be on course for a historic victory. If Labour can hold onto Conservative targets such as Hartlepool and Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland, they will be significantly outperforming the polls and Theresa May’s majority will likely be much smaller than currently expected. The Liberal Democrats will be looking to re-take Redcar which they held between 2010 and 2015, and will additionally be hoping to make inroads into remain voting Newcastle, if the fightback is truly on.
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