It is often said that Labour has no route to Downing Street without retrieving its former solid bloc of seats north of the border. Or winning back those “Red Wall” seats in the north-west and north-east of England. What is less often remarked upon is that it will not be enough – unless it can also do something about the Midlands.
The part of the country which was until recently packed with marginals is fast moving them into safe Conservative seats. The Midlands seem to love Boris – particularly when pitched against Starmer. The latest Opinium polling has the Prime Minister with a 51% lead over the Leader of the Opposition in the region. The recent local elections showed the scale of Labour’s task. Admittedly, voting did not feature Labour’s solid rock of Birmingham itself. But elsewhere, the results were alarming for Labour.
Across those shire seats being contested in Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire, Northamptonshire, Leicestershire, Staffordshire, Warwickshire and Worcestershire, the tally of council seats was Conservatives up 73, Labour down 80. Those numbers mask that in many places, Labour had already been all but wiped out as an electoral force. There were no more worlds to conquer. Even their hard-core “Labour ‘til I die” base is vanishing. Staffordshire is now 57 Conservatives to 4 Labour seats. Warwickshire 42-6. Worcestershire 45-3. Leicestershire 42-9. Derbyshire 45-14.
Ah, but you say, Labour’s strength is in the Metropolitan areas of the Midlands. Well, up to a point Lord Copper. Dudley MBC is now Conservatives 46 to Labour 24. Walsall 36-22. Redditch 25-4. Solihull 30-2. Coventry still resists Boris’ charms, being 15-39, with only the one seat swapping red to blue this May. Wolverhampton is 15-44 – but that saw 5 seats go red to blue. Even Sandwell, the brightest of bright spots for Labour, until recently 0-64, is now 9-58.
Birmingham City is currently Labour 65, Conservative 27. All seats are up in 2022, so that will give an indication of whether the Tories might yet pile woe on woe for Labour – and see a way of breaking into what has in recent elections been a largely impregnable Westminster fortress. South Birmingham/Solihull is unusual – in recent decades it has provided the LibDems with that rarest of beasts: Midlands LibDem MPs. But even Yardley and Solihull now seem massively out of reach again. The Midlands, for whatever reason, is solidly a blues v reds fight. If Labour is to regain Downing Street, it has to regain Watling Street.
To see the size of that task, let’s look at Staffordshire. In 2005, it returned 8 MPs. 14 years later, it returned none. In that time, Cannock Chase has gone from a Labour majority of 9,227 to Conservative of 19,879. Tamworth from Labour 2,569 to Conservative 19,634. Burton from Labour 1,421 to Conservative 14,496. The combined size of the Conservative MP’s majorities across the county is now 162,375. Labour has no majorities. In Staffordshire, the Tories are in a position to pour resources from these newly safe seats into defending a handful of seats in Stoke (and the now reasonably safe seat of Newcastle-under-Lyme, majority 7,446).
It doesn’t look any better in Warwickshire. There, the combined Conservative majorities are 84,902. Labour’s sole seat has 789. That “marginal” seat of Nuneaton, the gain of which indicated David Cameron was to be our new PM in 2010 – now has a majority of 13,144 and is in the “very safe” column. North Warwickshire and Bedworth has gone from a majority of 54 in 2010, to the “very very safe” column with a whopping majority of nearly 18,000.
Looking slightly further afield, in Lincolnshire, the NE council area that included Grimsby saw Conservatives gain 8 seats, Labour lose 7. Across a huge swathe of the centre of the country, Labour is going into the next election playing defence. There are very few seats where it can realistically spend money and have a chance of a return on that investment in terms of replacing a Tory MP with a Labour one. Which leaves Labour with a massive headache I shall return to in another header: where does Labour fight the next election?
Mark Marshall (posting as marquee mark) is a longstanding member of pb.com, who was a Conservative activist in Birmingham back when Yardley was a bellwhether constituency. He is now an activist in Devon.