In 2019, the fall of Labour’s “Red Wall” in the North and the Midlands exposed a seismic realignment of the British electorate and gave the Conservatives a historic election victory. Yet, just two years later, a series of by-election losses have shifted the focus southwards, to a so-called “Blue Wall” in the South of England.
But how real is the Blue Wall? Where will tomorrow’s electoral battlegrounds be? What would the impact be of a Lib-Lab Pact, or a new or resurgent party on the Right of the Conservatives? Onward’s latest paper, Another Brick in the Wall, explores these questions building on our previous study of the 2019 election, No Turning Back.
Using James Kanagasooriam’s original “Red Wall” methodology, any “Blue Wall” should follow a certain pattern. It should be a cluster of seats that we would expect to vote Labour or Liberal Democrat based on demographic modelling but which, instead, defies these demographic predictions and consistently returns Conservative MPs.
We find no evidence of an “Blue Wall” in the South that mirrors Labour’s Red Wall in 2019. There are some vulnerable seats in the Home Counties, but most of the area is as Conservative as demographics would predict. There are more homeowners, more older voters, and more affluent voters than average – all indicators of Conservative voting.
If a Blue Wall existed anywhere, it was London in the 1990s. The Conservatives polled better in London than they did nationally at every election between 1979 and 1992. But there was a ‘correction waiting to happen’.
Using regression analysis, we show that the Conservatives over-performed demographic predictions in 49 out of their 60 London seats in 1987. Only 11 of these remained after Tony Blair swept to victory ten years later.
The pendulum swung hard against the Conservatives and has never returned. So much so that the Conservatives have never held a smaller share of London seats, while being in Government, than they do now.
We used demographics like age, education, homeownership and other markers to estimate how well each party should do, and then compared that to what happened on polling day. The gap between these two numbers can tell us where the Conservative Party is actually most vulnerable.
While talk of a Southern collapse is premature, the action is really in the North and Midlands. Our analysis suggests that nearly two-thirds of future battleground seats are in the North of England. Only 20% are in the South. So, while the concern over Esher and Walton, Guildford, and Wimbledon is understandable and real, it is also overhyped.
But the Conservative coalition remains fragile. There are 31 seats in the North, Midlands, and north Wales that could fall to Labour if the party fails to deliver for those who ‘lent’ their votes in 2019 – i.e. if they switch back to their “ideal party” before 2019. And that is not counting the dozens of other marginal seats that the Conservatives could lose if their popularity remains low. These seats will be high on Labour’s target list.
But the challenges of political realignment also present opportunities for the the centre right. There are 36 constituencies in the North of England where the Conservatives under-performed demographic model predictions, suggesting that the Red Wall still has further to fall. This list includes high-profile names like Ed Miliband’s seat of Doncaster North and Yvette Cooper’s seat of Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford. These could be Conservative target seats at the next election.
In contrast to the high levels of volatility in the North, continued realignment only puts 12 southern seats at immediate risk. This is because most Conservative constituencies in the Home Counties are about as Conservative as their demographic profile would predict. They have more homeowners than average, more older voters, are less urban, and so on. Other parties will struggle to make much headway here, unless there is a large national swing away from the Conservatives.
So, the main battleground in 2024 will likely be in the North and Midlands, rather than a “Blue Wall” in the South of England.
Rather than a southern Blue Wall of seats likely to fall at the next election, we find a ‘Blue Drift’ of gradually declining Conservative support in the South over successive elections.
35 seats saw Conservative vote share fall by 10 points more than average since 2015 – about 10% of all Tory seats. Most are in the Greater South East, including high-profile seats of two former Prime Ministers: David Cameron’s old constituency of Witney and Theresa May’s seat in Maidenhead.
Some of this is a post-Brexit realignment. Surrey seats like Esher and Walton saw large swings away from the Conservatives in 2019. But the other half of this story is a 30-40-year trend of declining Conservatism in the South. Conservative support in counties like East Sussex and Cambridgeshire has been slowly ebbing away since the 1980s.
If these recent and long-term trends continue, dozens of constituencies in former Tory heartlands will become more marginal over time.
What might the electoral map look like if Labour and the Liberal Democrats negotiated an informal non-aggression pact?
We modelled this hypothetical Lab-Lib pact by assuming that the two parties trade votes in Conservative seats depending on which is the runner-up. In seats like Dewsbury, where Labour is the main challenger, all Liberal Democrat voters defect to Labour. In Guildford, where the Liberal Democrats are the main challenger, they pick up all of Labour’s votes
Even if it played out perfectly, with all the third placed party’s votes switching to the runner up, the Conservatives would still win 321 seats, leaving them as the largest party in Parliament. Depending on the number of Sinn Fein abstentions, they could even have a small working majority.
Labour would only win 233 and the Liberal Democrats would win 24, for a combined strength of just 257. This is still worse than Labour – on their own – achieved under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership in 2017.
A bigger threat to the Conservatives would come from a resurgent ‘NewKip’ right-wing populist party. Research has already shown that the Brexit Party cost Con 25 extra seats at the last election. In effect, if the Brexit Party had stood down in more Leave-voting Labour seats, Boris Johnson’s majority could have increased from 80 to an eye-watering 130.
Looking forward to the next election, we estimated the impact of disaffected 2019 Conservative voters switching to a new party that occupied the same political niche as UKIP or the Brexit Party did at their height.
‘NewKip’ would cost the Conservatives 53 seats, which would completely eradicate their majority and deliver a hung parliament. They would lose some of their more iconic 2019 gains like Dewsbury, Bridgend and North West Durham, as well as some marginal seats in the South.
Rt Hon Damian Green, MP for Ashford:
“This is a fascinating snap-shot of the geography of where the next electoral battleground is likely to be. It illustrates that genuine One Nation policies are needed to take the Conservative message to all parts of the UK and that One Nation politics is the best way to maximise support.”
Richard Holden, MP for North West Durham:
“As ever Onward are bang on the money with their analysis. There is a massive opportunity to make further significant progress across Wales, the Midlands and in the North of England. It is vital that the Conservative Party seizes this major opportunity for the future.”
Simon Fell, MP for Barrow and Furness:
“This essential report shows why the realignment in British politics is an unfinished journey and is so important. The breaching of the Red Wall was a significant moment, but there is further to go and we shall only get there if we truly deliver on the promise of levelling up and speak for the communities who have put their trust in us.”
Katherine Fletcher, MP for South Ribble:
“Since the 2019 General Election many North West MPs and I have chatted about the near misses, seats where we believe we could have won with additional structured effort. This fascinating report adds data and evidence to those hunches and anecdotes, there is yet more opportunity in the Red Wall – well worth a read.”
Rt Hon Matt Hancock, MP for West Suffolk:
“We need to listen to the findings of this Onward report, that there are yet more potential voters open to supporting the Conservative Party, but that we Conservatives need to ensure we’re attracting younger generations too. We must engage with younger generations as, ultimately, they hold the keys to our country’s future.”
Rt Hon Robert Buckland, MP for South Swindon
“The true strength of Conservatism is that it has a national appeal, as shown in the 2019 result. Instead of wringing our hands, we should be embracing the opportunity we have been given to implement One Nation policies. With seriousness of purpose, and a clear plan, this can be done.”
This report is part of Onward’s Future Politics programme, which is studies the changing values and voting patterns of the electorate and the future of the Union.
Your contribution will help fund cutting edge research to make the country a better place.