Labour pose a major threat to the Tories along the coast
The (very) broad story of the 2022 local elections in England is likely to be stalemate in most of the north of England. There is evidence the Labour Party’s performance sits somewhere between 2017 when the ‘red wall’ creaked and 2019, when it crumbled.
In the south of England outside London, we have a different story. In our analysis last year of Conservative-Liberal Democrat marginal constituencies we identified Witney in Oxfordshire as a potential ‘reverse Sedgefield’. That largely rural constituency in Durham was Tony Blair’s stronghold, and losing it in December 2019 was a highly symbolic body blow for the Labour Party. Boris Johnson recognised that symbolism, and that pain — it was the place he chose for his victory speech the next day.
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If the Conservatives are going to lose office, it might be lost in Windrush Leisure Centre, Witney. The hall where David Cameron sat on election night in 2010 and 2015 just saw the Conservative Party lose control of West Oxfordshire District Council due to significant gains from the Liberal Democrats.
It wasn’t just the Liberal Democrats having all the fun in the south of England either. We are all sick of ‘Red Walls’ and ‘Blue Walls’. But it is possible ‘the Southern Sea Wall’ could catch on. We have emerging what looks to be a very wall-like set of places: a Plymouth-Bournemouth-Southampton-Portsmouth-Worthing axis running along the south coast where the Conservative Party has reason to fear Labour. The political transformation of the People’s Republic of Brighton and Hove over the last decade — sitting in the middle of that chain running along the south coast — looks increasing like a premonition of things to come.
For Boris Johnson, the obvious problem is that there are a lot of Conservative MPs with seats in the south of England. This means that the number of Tory MPs representing places where the party performed relatively well will be outnumbered by those who sat in counts last night that went badly. There is also the fact that many of these losses will be put down to factors that unavoidably sit squarely with him: dislike of his political style, and his most successful political project — Brexit.
Keir Starmer has been criticised in some quarters for paying too little attention to these places in the south of England that look like propitious territory for his party. It may be that defining his leadership by winning back former seats that Labour lost in December 2019 looks foolish at the next general election, as the next political earthquake takes place in the south of England.
But this could be a thankless yet necessary task: stopping a further flow of losses where Labour held on largely thanks to Nigel Farage last time — and even winning some seats back — looks eminently possible on these numbers. Boris Johnson will only fully experience southern discomfort if the north of England does not give him cause for relief.
That said, Keir Starmer might be wise to venture to Southampton or Sussex today for his victory lap. There is little sign that the Brexit realignment of English politics will be wholly reversed, and he might as well enjoy his own symbolic wins where he can find them.