Situated on the Sussex coast to the west of Brighton, the area covered by Worthing local authorities isn’t especially remarkable in geographic terms.
Electorally, though, what makes the locale a “one to watch” is that in the May local elections Worthing was one of the few councils in which there was a swing towards Labour, rather than away from it. And a significant swing, at that.
When we talk of electoral trouble in the so-called Blue Wall, the Tories’ southern backyard, Worthing might prove the obvious example. As things stand, the area is perhaps just one or two years away from electing a majority Labour council for the first time.
In 2017 Beccy Cooper, a public health consultant in the area, pulled off a shock council by-election win for Labour, scoring the party’s first victory in Worthing for more than 40 years. Activists on the ground thought a win was unlikely, but more than 1,000 voters in Marine ward turned out for Cooper, delivering a Labour win with 47 per cent of the vote.
This by-election was only the start. The following year the party went from one councillor to five, then from five to 10 in 2019, before jumping again to 15 earlier this month. To govern Worthing with a majority you need 19 seats, and according to sources on the ground, Conservatives are anxious about next year.
To find out what’s driving this shift – one that is against the national currents – I spoke to a collection of local councillors and campaigners.
Cooper, the winner of that 2017 by-election, is now leader of the opposition for the council.
“It’s not coming from nowhere, it’s coming from a long build up,” she said. As local campaigners, “we’re not faces that just appeared out of nowhere”.
“Our community work has really hit through”, added Emma Taylor, the newly elected Labour councillor for Heene ward. “We set up a food foundation for the pandemic. People really noticed that. We went strong on green issues, too. It helped us big time.”
In words reminiscent of those campaigning for Green gains on the Wirral and Lib Dem seats in Sunderland, Henna Chowdhury, also a Labour councillor, agreed: “We don’t go out only during election time. We do this all year round.”
Worthing town centre, they all said, has been in a poor state for a long time.
“We had issues before the pandemic,” Cooper said. “But the pandemic has exacerbated them and exacerbated the state of the town centre. Voters want a town centre that doesn’t look like Beirut on a bad day.”
“If I get into a conversation with someone,” John Turley, councillor for both Worthing Pier division and Gaisford ward, said, “I’d ask what they thought of it [the town centre], and just like that, off they would go.”
“We don’t really target people,” he added. “We don’t mention voting intention. Instead we have a conversation about what’s concerning them. We keep it casual. We try to be relevant to their daily lives.”
This local focus could be why the well-trodden national narratives about Labour’s decline seem to be of little consequence to voters in the area.
Worthing was electing Ukip councillors just five years ago, and voted Leave in the EU referendum. One might assume this would make it a harder fight for Labour than other “Blue Wall” boroughs that supported Remain.
But when such arguments are put to them, the Labour councillors seem unfazed. Ukip voters aren’t all going to the Tories in Worthing, they say. Many now stay at home. And the Tories aren’t the alternative here: they’re the status quo.
“What we realised years back,” said Cooper, “is we have to start ignoring the [Conservative] administration, and start proposing what we would do differently. Maybe that’s something the national [Labour] party should look at doing.”
And what of the leadership? Has Labour replacing Jeremy Corbyn with Keir Starmer done much to boost their appeal?
Cooper wasn’t so sure. “Starmer hasn’t done much for us here. To voters he still seems a bit of an unknown quantity. Some Tories have been notably less anti-us, that’s true, but that seems to have been about it.”
A strong local effort is not the only reason for Labour’s support being on the up in Worthing. Changing demographics have an impact too: the councillors concede that “spillover” from Brighton and London has helped them electorally.
In the past Worthing had an older population than it has now. Its proximity to Brighton has proven a mixed blessing. Rising house prices in the city have pushed would-be homeowners and the mobile young elsewhere (as they have in London), and Worthing has proven a popular destination.
This trend is likely to continue. In post-Covid Britain, as employees accustomed to remote working decide they no longer need to commute and can therefore live further from their city-centre offices, Worthing might offer a glimpse of what is to come in these satellite towns: of population spillovers and, with them, new demands that contemporary local party establishments could struggle to adapt to.
These demographic shifts will likely affect not just the fight for councils, but for the area’s parliamentary constituencies, which have up until now been safely Conservative.
And Worthing isn’t the only crack in the Blue Wall. Looking further inland, recent Liberal Democrat and Green gains have made Conservative activists jittery about their parliamentary futures.
In South Cambridgeshire, for instance – the area once represented by the then Conservative MP Heidi Allen – the Lib Dems scored numerous gains in the May local elections. Though the council boundaries do not entirely match up with those of parliamentary constituencies, it is clear that the Liberal Democrats were by far the most popular party in the South Cambridgeshire constituency earlier this month.
Are the Tories in danger of losing some of their “Blue Wall” at a general election?
The data from the May local elections isn’t conclusive, and it’s not always easy to match an aggregate of ward boundaries on to parliamentary boundaries. But there are areas where fears of oppositional challenge are well-founded.
In Ipswich, Labour has narrowed the margin against the incumbent Conservatives. In Stroud, sizeable Green gains give the party, with the support of Labour and the Lib Dems, an overwhelming advantage against the Conservatives.
But what of Worthing? Sam Theodoridi, a support worker who campaigns locally for the Labour party, reckons Tim Loughton, the incumbent MP for the east of Worthing, might one day be in trouble.
“If we get one Worthing constituency, and the boundary changes might give us that, we will run him very close. We know he’s worried.”
But, Theodoridi warns, gaining the seat will require help from the central Labour Party – a party, Sam thinks, that hasn’t yet realised what is happening in places like Worthing.
“The party needs to start paying attention to us here. One day all three seats in Brighton and the two across Worthing could be red. But it won’t be if the party doesn’t put in the resources.”
In Britain’s “Blue Wall” we are seeing incremental shifts against the Conservatives. Could these parts of the UK one day offer Labour a route to government? Not in isolation. The primary path to recovery for Labour still lies in reclaiming the north, where relying exclusively on the young and renting is not a reasonable route to Downing Street.
But while the electoral dividends are not yet there to be dealt, the potential is clear.