South West in Focus
The 2015 General Election saw a changing of the tide in the South West, with the Conservatives wiping out the Liberal Democrats in the region and taking all but 4 of the 55 seats. Labour’s stronghold remains Bristol, where they hold all three seats, and Exeter which Ben Bradshaw is attempting to defend amidst a sea of blue.
At the beginning of the campaign, the story was of a Lib Dem fightback, with a number of 2015’s defeated Liberal Democrat MPs contesting their former constituencies. As the campaign has developed however, and the national fightback has failed to emerge, Liberal Democrats here have found themselves fighting single issue, locally focused campaigns in a region that rejected their pro-Remain stance decisively.
South West in Numbers
The Liberal Democrats began this election campaign confident they could regain many of the 49 seats they lost across the UK and in particular the 15 seats they lost in the South West, in 2015. However they have found themselves fighting a campaign focused on holding a second vote on Brexit in constituencies which primarily voted to leave. A Conservative candidate in the West Country told the FT this week: ‘The Liberal Democrats are the dog that didn’t bark, they haven’t got out of their basket. Brexit simply wasn’t the issue they thought it was going to be.’
While many of the names seeking election this time around are familiar, such as Andrew George, the Liberal Democrat MP for St Ives between 1997 and 2015, voting behaviour in these constituencies has shifted significantly. In the South West, voting Liberal Democrat has historically been a form of protest vote against the main two parties, also exemplified by the growing UKIP vote between 2010 and 2015 in these seats. However, the strength of the Conservative vote in 2015 is an indication these seats could have moved away from protest voting. The Conservatives’ successful warnings of a ‘coalition of chaos’ in 2015 appear to be resonating strongly again this time around.
As well as a lack of a Lib Dem resurgence, the Conservatives are also likely to benefit from a UKIP collapse in these seats. Most Tories look safe this time around, especially in Labour/Conservative marginals. Johnny Mercer, the incumbent MP for Plymouth Moor View, won his seat from Labour against the odds in 2015. The constituency was not one of CCHQ’s 40/40 targets, and he fought an independent campaign. Despite his majority of 1,026 votes looking slim on paper, Mercer is likely to retain the seat due to the Conservatives’ strong position nationally, as well as his personal popularity locally.
As hopes of a resurgence across the South West fade, the Lib Dems will be pinning their hopes on some symbolic wins in the region. On paper, Bath offers the best hope: the seat was first won by the Lib Dems from Chris Patten in 1992 and by 2010 was the party’s third safest seat. A university town where 68 per cent of the population voted Remain and where the Conservatives have a majority of under 3,500, it should be a straightforward win for the party; YouGov’s Election Model has the seat as a likely Lib Dem gain. However, the contest for the West of England Metro Mayor, which the Tories won, showed a mixed picture for the party in the seat, with Lib Dems coming third. As the seat shouldering the Lib Dem hopes in the region, it will be the challengers who will be most nervous watching the result.
Labour’s reach in the South West is limited to the more urban areas of Bristol and Exeter where the candidates face different challenges and are responding in different ways. The Green Party are hoping to gain their second MP in Bristol West at the expense of Labour’s Thagnam Debbonaire, who won the seat in 2015 from the Lib Dems, and believe that the seat’s strong Remain credentials will help them overturn a 5,000 vote deficit. Faced with a challenge from the left, Debbonaire’s response has been to emphasise Labour’s national campaign and the focus on traditional left wing issues. In contrast, in Exeter where Labour is defending a majority of 7,000, the candidate Ben Bradshaw has published his own ‘personal manifesto’ and sought to reassure Exeter voters concerned about a Jeremy Corbyn-led Government that “a vote for me will not affect who governs nationally.” UKIP, who secured 5,000 votes in 2015, are not fielding a candidate which should boost the Conservatives, and local boundary changes also risk damaging Bradshaw’s majority. However, Labour performed well in the city in the local elections and, as national polls suggest Labour’s urban vote is holding up, they will hope they are able to hold on to the seat.
Finally, for those looking to make some money, the odds on a victory for independent candidate Clare Wright in East Devon, have shortened after YouGov judged her the likely winner in a contest against sitting Tory MP Hugo Swire. Wright came a distant but respectable second place in 2015 and is hoping that she will be able to shock the Tories in this otherwise safe region.
Seats in Focus
Incumbent: Ben Howlett (Con)
2015 Majority: 3,833
EU Referendum Result: 68.4% Remain
A Lib-Dem strong-hold since 1992, Conservative MP Ben Howlett won this seat in 2015 with a majority of just 3,833. This seat has been targeted by the Lib Dems, given that two-thirds of the electorate voted to stay in the EU. Fewer than 5 per cent of Tory voters in Bath would need to switch their allegiance to the Lib Dems for the traditional party of choice in the area to retake the seat. Howlett is however vocally pro-EU, which could limit the number of dissatisfied Tories who will switch to the Lib Dems, but also alienates UKIP voters, whose 2,922 votes in last election could be enough to deny Howlett a majority.
The Lib Dem campaign got off to a rocky start after the original Lib Dem candidate, Jay Risbridger, stood down in only a week into campaign, citing family and work commitments. Taking his place was Wera Hobhouse, who stood in 2015 against Jacob Rees-Mogg, in nearby North East Somerset. On the other hand, CCHQ are putting their full force behind Ben Howlett’s campaign, with Theresa May and Phillip Hammond both visiting the city in the last week.
Incumbent: Ben Bradshaw (Lab)
2015 Majority: 7,183
EU Referendum Result: 55.2% Remain
Ben Bradshaw has been the MP since 1997, although his majority has ebbed over the years, falling to its lowest in 2010, at 2,721. He is openly critical of Jeremy Corbyn, and featured in the mistakenly leaked list of Labour MPs who had abused the leader and his allies, which could cause him some difficulties in this student-populated seat. In the days after the referendum, Bradshaw assured his largely Remain-voting constituents that he would fight to stay in Europe, whether it required ‘a renegotiation, a general election or another referendum’, and he also has a positive local standing.
Historically, the Lib Dems have been the the third party, although they suffered a loss of 16.2% of their vote in 2015 which saw them fall to fifth place, behind UKIP and the Green Party. Bradshaw’s pro-EU, progressive centre stance makes it less likely we will see a Lib Dem resurgence, although they will likely do better than UKIP.
UKIP received over 5,000 votes in the last election, putting them in third place. If Conservative candidate Dominic Morris sweeps them up, he would still be 2,000 votes shy of a majority here. Despite this, the Conservatives will be hoping they can recapture a formerly safe Tory seat that was theirs until 1997.
What to watch for
|If Labour can retain Bristol East, with its 3980 majority, they will be having a better night than expected.||If the Tories lose Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport to Labour, they may be on course for losses elsewhere.||The Lib Dem fightback will be truly back on if the party can take Bath, Torbay or Thornbury and Yate.|