Is Conservative hegemony under threat following the Liberal Democrats’ victory in the true-blue seat of Chesham and Amersham on a 25-point swing? This Tory defeat has sent many activists into an excitable – or depressive – frenzy. If it can happen in Chesham, they say, it can happen… well, where, exactly?
It’s worth remembering that by-election swings are rarely replicated at general elections. But in recent years we have seen a drift away from incumbents in some Conservative regions. Most of these areas are part of a so-called Blue Wall (hat-tip: Patrick English), an aggregate of Tory seats located in the south and east of England that voted Remain and boast an above-average number of university graduates.
But while these demographics might logically lead to faltering support for Boris Johnson, not all these areas are drifting away from the Tories, which makes me question whether we can speak of a tightly defined Blue Wall. If we want to examine which constituencies the Liberal Democrats, Labour and the Greens might one day win, we need to dispense with the assumption that they will necessarily all be affluent and Remain-voting. So what, if anything, are the unifying features of Blue Wall seats?
Mapped here are the Conservative-held constituencies that either experienced a shift away from the party or a net swing in the direction of one or more of the so-called progressive parties at one or more of the local elections held between 2018 and 2021. It shows how variable votes are by constituency and how willing voters are to entertain alternative parties.
Some reflect wider trends seen elsewhere (such as in Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire), while others are enigmas. The affluent, graduate-heavy commuter belt that YouGov’s Patrick English has highlighted does feature but, crucially, not in its entirety.
Unlike most of the Sussex coast, Worthing West and Worthing East – which voted Leave – are deprived areas. Support for the Conservatives there rose in the recent local elections, as the party absorbed what remained of the Ukip vote, but these gains were far exceeded by those of Labour, which claims to be in contention to win the parliamentary seats.
Shropshire, a county in the Midlands that voted Leave, also recorded a swing away from the Conservatives in 2019. Within the constituency of North Shropshire, total council votes split 44 per cent Conservative (down three points on the 2017 county elections) and 31 per cent Liberal Democrat (up nine points). In Shrewsbury and Atcham, represented since 2005 by the Tory MP Daniel Kawczynski, votes split 36 per cent Conservative (down six points), 28 per cent Labour (up four points), and 22 per cent Lib Dem (down one point).
Here, again, are constituencies that have become more competitive despite supposedly favourable demographics for the Tories. This phenomenon, as also seen in areas such as Sunderland and the Wirral, could be attributed to parties being in power for prolonged periods of time without any effective opposition. In the instance of Sunderland and the Wirral, those establishments were Labour, but in the case of Worthing and Shropshire, they happened to be Conservative.
Continue north to the affluent “commuterville” of Altrincham and Sale West, and you’ll find a constituency that bears a resemblance to southern Tory areas such as Watford and Harrow. At the May local elections Labour’s vote rose in Altrincham by two points compared to 2016. This is no major increase by any measure, but what makes it significant is that it coincided with a nine-point fall in support for the Tories and a ten-point increase for the Greens.
What all these examples reveal is that discontent with incumbent Tories is not the preserve of wealthy Home Counties England, or the blue parts of English Remainia. There are many areas where voters are defecting to alternatives to the Tories – some of which voted Leave and have above-average levels of deprivation.
In the long run, who will benefit from these shifts in a general election? For now, and disproportionately, the Lib Dems. They don’t need to poll well nationally to poll well locally. In the most recent local elections, the Conservatives topped the poll across the wards that make up Chesham and Amersham by 19 points. In the 2019 locals, the Lib Dems topped the poll across York Outer by a margin of 28 points. It is no stretch to claim York Outer would have been an easier by-election for an opposition party (Labour finished second there at the last general election) than Chesham and Amersham.
But, I must emphasise, not all of the Blue Wall seats are even remotely competitive for the opposition parties. The decline in Conservative support will not lead to an electoral shock on the same scale as the fall of the “Red Wall” – many of the Tory majorities are simply too large.
All the same, the local election results reveal a less tribal electorate that is more open to change than the results of the 2019 general election would suggest. Tory support among its true-blue base has yet to significantly drift, but it might be beginning to. And if it does, don’t be surprised when Hyndburn stays Tory, but Shrewsbury, York Outer and Altrincham do not.