The Conservatives victory in the Hartlepool by-election means the Brexit realignment of British politics is still taking place … or does it? In fact, Labour’s defeat in Hartlepool for the first time in over 60 years should be put down to tactical voting rather than Brexit realignment, at least for now. It will be the two upcoming by-elections in Batley & Spen on 1st July representing the Red Wall and Chesham & Amersham on 17th June 2021 representing the Blue Sea that will answer the question “Is Brexit realignment is still continuing or did it end in December 2019?”
This is part 2 of a series about the next general election
In “Keir Starmer’s train to Downing Street” I introduced my target seat list for Labour at the next election which I dubbed InterCity 125. Without major changes in the politics of Scotland, the only way Labour can win a majority at the next general election is to make net gains of 125 seats from the Conservatives in England, most of which are in between (inter) cities rather in (intra) cities. In that article, I noted Labour’s need to identify seats to defend against further Brexit realignment, a point which takes on new relevance given Hartlepool. So this article lays the groundwork for Labour’s seat defence list as well as identifying opportunities and threats for the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats.
In writing this article, I will assume that readers are familiar with the facts, concepts & reasoning I used in my earlier article but I will refer readers to the relevant points of those where necessary.
Red Walls & Blue Seas
The Red Wall is now part of the British political lexicon but what is it? Conventionally, it is defined as seats that have returned Labour MPs for many years, often with large majorities, mostly situated in the North & Midlands. At the 2015 general election, I counted 95 seats (13 in Wales, 82 in England) which Labour have held continuously since 1964. By 2019, 22 of these (21 in England, 1 in Wales) had fallen to the Conservatives and the loss of Hartlepool increases this to 23.
These 95 though are seats with largely the same boundaries since 1964 and don’t include other seats whose characteristics are similar to these but whose boundaries have been in existence for a shorter period. I find the simplest way to identify Red Wall seats today is to include any seat in the North & Midlands that voted Labour in 2010 & 2015, Leave in 2016 and where the top 2 parties in 2019 were a combination of Labour, Conservatives, Brexit Party or Independent. 108 seats meet these criteria of which the Conservatives now hold 38 (including Hartlepool). This is Brexit realignment breaching the Red Wall and the question to consider is how many of the remaining 70 Labour seats, which includes Batley & Spen, are vulnerable to further Brexit realignment.
My demographic map (introduced halfway through my InterCity 125 post) shows where these seats are to be found. The main battlefield is the LL quadrant and of the 54 remaining Labour seats in this quadrant, 25 have majorities of less than 10% including Hartlepool (9% now overturned) and Batley & Spen (7% to be overturned?).
For me, the Blue Wall is the 37 (now 38) seats the Conservatives took from the Red Wall. It is not the true blue Conservative seats in the South that may be vulnerable to the flip side of Brexit realignment. I call the counterpart to the Red Wall the Blue Sea since when you look at a map of the South, one sees a swathe of blue with the odd outcropping of other colours. Also it allows Labour to talk about parting the Blue Sea due to Labour voters moving out of London.
I’ve chosen to define the Blue Sea as seats which voted Conservative in 2010 & 2015, voted Remain or narrow Leave (<54% Leave) in 2016 and where the Conservatives were one of the top 2 parties in 2019. There are 93 such seats which includes Chesham & Amersham. The Conservatives lost 12 of these in 2019 and the question is whether any more are vulnerable. Of the 81 Conservative seats today, 16 have a majority of less than 10% which does not include Chesham & Amersham (29%).
The demographics of the 93 Blue Sea seats are the complete opposite of the 107 Red Wall seats. Whereas the Red Wall seats are almost all straight fights between Labour & the Conservatives, for the Blue Sea, the Conservatives battle with the Lib Dems in 47 seats, Labour in 44 & Independents in 2. The gold & red ellipses in the chart above show where most of the battlegrounds are for Lib Dems & Labour respectively and it is notable that the upper left hand side of the UL quadrant which includes Chesham & Amersham are mostly CON-LD battles whereas the CON-LAB battles take place in the upper centre of the map.
Altogether, it should be clear from the above that the parting of the Blue Sea is hampered by vote splitting among the anti-Conservative parties. Hence why I will look at the opportunities for tactical voting and electoral alliances in this article as well.
What would Complete Brexit Realignment look like?
A Complete Brexit Realignment (CBR) occurs if the vote shares of the parties in a seat (or region) exactly matches a prediction based solely on the 2016 Leave & Remain vote shares in that seat. First I need to introduce two new “parties” –
- LVA = Leave Alliance consisting of the Conservatives, Brexit Party, UKIP & BNP.
- RMC = Remain Consortium consisting of Labour, Lib Dems, Greens, Change UK.
Since I am only concentrating on England here, the Nationalist and Northern Ireland Unionist parties are not listed. I should state here that whilst the CBR model I will describe here can be used in Wales (by adding Plaid Cymru to RMC), I do not consider it suitable for Scotland & Northern Ireland where the political debates are most influenced by the politics of independence & unification.
When I made my 2019 General Election forecast, CBR was one of the seven models I used. This was based on the polls at the time showing what % of Leave & Remain voters were intending to vote for each party as shown in the table here. If I add up the parties within the Leave Alliance & Remain Consortium as of December 2019, I get the following figures.
- LVA = 75% of Leave voters + 21% of Remain Voters
- RMC = 23% of Leave voters + 72% of Remain Voters
- DNV = Those who did not vote in 2016 but did in 2019 are to all intents & purposes RMC voters and probably account for up to 10% of voters today.
These percentages have remained surprisingly constant since the 2019 election and a glance at any of the latest polls will show similar figures. To take into account the gradually increasing proportion of DNV voters, I intend to use the following figures for my CBR model.
- LVA vote share = 70% Leave vote share + 20% Remain vote share
- RMC vote share = 25% Leave vote share + 75% Remain vote share
If I apply this model to the 2016 result of 52:48 Leave:Remain then the Leave Alliance would get 46% nationally, the Remain Consortium would get 49% and Others 5%. Ignoring others, this would result in a 48:52 LVA:RMC split. It is this thought process that led me to include seats with less than 54% leave in the Blue Sea definition since the swing since 2016 should turn narrow leave seats then into narrow remain seats now.
By applying this model to each seat in turn using my own estimate of what the Leave vote share was in 2016, I can estimate what the LVA & RMC vote shares should be in each seat. Any seat where the actual LVA & RMC vote shares are equal to this are said to have undergone Complete Brexit Realignment.
Why Hartlepool was Tactical Voting (for now)
To illustrate my CBR model, let’s look at Hartlepool. For information, the graphic below comes from a spreadsheet you can download at the end of this article which will generate the same layout for any of the 632 seats in Great Britain.
CBR predicts 55% for LVA and 40% for RMC, a clear win for LVA. The model got the 2019 election bang on yet Labour (part of RMC) won the seat because the LVA vote split almost equally between the Conservatives & the Brexit party. In the by-election, the LVA vote share held up but the RMC vote share fell off though the main independent candidate was a former Labour MP. More importantly, the LVA did not split itself and instead united behind the Conservative candidate to deliver a Conservative gain.
This is why I say, Hartlepool cannot yet be described as evidence of continuing Brexit realignment. The LVA vote share was unchanged from 2019 which is because the seat completed its Brexit realignment in 2019 with a 10% swing from RMC to LVA. If we count the independent candidate as RMC, there was no further swing between LVA & RMC in 2021.
Instead, we have to say that the Conservatives won Hartlepool by benefitting from Brexit party voters voting tactically for the Tories. Of course, if such voters remain with the Conservatives then we can regard it is as a form of realignment but until we have evidence that this is a permanent change, I think it should be treated as temporary for now.
Batley & Spen and Chesham & Amersham will give answers?
In Batley & Spen, an 8% swing from RMC to LVA is needed to achieve CBR. The Conservatives only need a 4% swing away from Labour to them to win another Red Wall seat.
Note my by-election (CBR Swing) forecast uses the implied CBR swing and adds/subtracts the relevant swing to/from the top parties within LVA/RMC rather than forcing the LVA & RMC vote shares to match the CBR numbers. This allows for independents & others to have smaller or larger than expected vote shares at a seat level. It’s worth noting that Wikipedia states the Independent candidate in 2019 was a former chair of the local UKIP branch. If so, then there is a case for saying the LVA vote share in 2019 was actually inline with CBR and therefore the Conservatives can win the seat through tactical voting alone with the Independent votes switching to the Conservatives.
Chesham & Amersham is not a seat where independents muddy the water. My CBR model points to a 11% swing from LVA to RMC in the by election. It’s worth noting that an 8% swing from LVA to RMC did happen in 2019 and so a further swing would be evidence of Brexit realignments continuing. If the Conservatives are to be threatened in their Blue Sea seats at the next election, this needs to happen now in the by-election.
Unlike Batley & Spen in the Red Wall, this Blue Sea seat will be held by the Conservatives unless tactical voting can be encouraged within the Remain Consortium. If the 3 parties of the Remain Consortium are serious about any potential electoral alliance then Chesham & Amersham is a perfect seat to try it out. Personally, I think Labour should be the party to stand down since the Greens don’t have enough voters to make a difference. This would also allow us to see if Labour voters will switch to the Greens or the Lib Dems once deprived of the option to vote for their usual party.
So to summarise, the 3 by-elections point to the following
- Hartlepool (Red Wall) – CBR was reached in 2019 and maintained in 2021. The Conservatives won the seat with nearly complete TV.
- Batley & Spen (Red Wall) – CBR may or may not have been reached in 2019. The Conservatives might be able to win with TV only but a bit of further Brexit realignment would not go amiss.
- Chesham & Amersham (Blue Sea) – The Lib Dems can only win the seat with both CBR & TV otherwise the Conservatives hold on.
The obvious question to ask now is whether these seats are typical of Red Wall & Blue Sea seats?
How many Red Wall Seats are vulnerable to CBR & TV?
Earlier, I plotted the 108 Red Wall seats on a demographic map. Here I plot them using actual seat maps from 2015, 2016 & 2019 along with a CBR estimate. CBR implies that on average across the Red Wall, LVA was 4 points below CBR and RMC was 8 points above CBR in 2019. Therefore, if Brexit realignment is still continuing today, a 6% swing overall from RMC to LVA can be expected in the Red (& increasingly Blue) Wall.
The implied 8% CBR swing for Batley & Spen is slightly above the Red Wall average and along with the fact that its Leave vote was bang on the average for Red Wall seats, it’s clear that Batley & Spen is completely typical of the Red Wall. In addition, recalling the demographic map I showed at the start of this article, the seat is also dead centre in the LL quadrant where most Red Wall seats are found. Should Labour lose the by-election, they will be in serious trouble.
Assuming that the national vote shares of the next election was unchanged from 2019 and no tactical voting, then a uniform swing of 6% away from Labour to the top LVA party in the remaining 70 Labour Red Wall seats, would result in 35 losses for Labour resulting in 33 gains for the Conservatives and 2 gains to the Brexit Party’s successor. That would mean the end of the Red Wall and the beginning of the reign of the Blue Wall.
If I apply CBR to each seat in the Red Wall instead of uniform CBR swing (again with unchanged national vote shares and no tactical voting), then Labour would lose 53 seats instead of 33. I’ve already stated that at the seat level, local factors such as notable independents can make things trickier so seat level CBR estimates should be taken as indicative rather than definitive forecasts. But the bottom line is that Labour’s Red Wall is fragile and vulnerable to further Brexit Realignment with anything between 30 & 50 seats at risk. I estimate Batley & Spen is number 18 of this list in terms of vulnerability which is why I say losing this means the Red Wall will turn Blue.
I showed earlier that Hartlepool was the result of tactical voting not CBR since it looks like 90% of 2019 Brexit Party voters switched to the Conservatives. In a general election I doubt that tactical voting would take place on such a scale and so for now, I have assumed 50% TV i.e. the parties within LVA & RMC that are not the top party see half their votes switch to the leading party of LVA & RMC respectively. Again, I am assuming national vote shares are unchanged and this time no CBR i.e. only TV is taking place.
In such a scenario, the Conservatives would gain only 7 Red Wall seats (including Hartlepool), the Brexit Party 1 seat and Labour 2 seats from the Conservatives. That would mean a net loss of only 6 seats for Labour. The reason why 50% TV does not have much of an impact can be seen in the right hand map above. Overall, in the 108 Red Wall seats, the Brexit Party’s 8% as part of the Leave Alliance is almost cancelled out by the combined 7% of the Lib Dems & Greens as part of the Remain Consortium. Even 100% TV would only result in a net loss of 10 seats for Labour in the Red Wall so the conclusion has to be that Hartlepool was somewhat unusual in this regard and Labour’s main threat in the Red Wall comes from further Brexit realignment.
You can check out all of these scenarios yourself by downloading the spreadsheet from the link given at the end of this article.
How many Blue Sea Seats are vulnerable to CBR & TV?
I plot the equivalent seat maps below for the 93 Blue Sea seats. My CBR model implies that on average, LVA was 8 points above and RMC was 7 points above where they should have been in 2019. Therefore, if Brexit realignment is still continuing, a further 7.5% swing from RMC to LVA can be expected.
The implied 11% CBR swing for Chesham & Amersham is also slightly above the Blue Sea average. Like Batley & Spen, Chesham & Amersham’s Leave vote is bang on the average of the Blue Sea so yes it is completely typical of the Blue Sea. When I refer back to the demographic map at the beginning, I see it is the most extreme seat in the UL quadrant. Bottom line, should the Conservatives lose the by-election, further parting of the Blue Sea will be on the cards at the next election.
It is worth pointing out that boundary changes will be in effect at the next election and these will give England 12 more seats. It is highly probable that most of these will end up in the Blue Sea so if the Conservatives lose the by-election, they may find themselves defending a notional 92 Blue Sea seats rather than 80. Such a situation would result in two battlefields (Red Wall & Blue Sea) of equal size which could make for some fascinating swings and roundabouts assuming there is no change in the vote shares for the Leave Alliance and Remain Consortium.
For now I will ignore this effect and assume no change in national vote shares and repeat the exercises I did for the Red Wall. I find the following outcomes for the 93 Blue Sea seats –
- With uniform CBR swing of 7.5% away from the Conservatives, they would lose 26 seats, 10 to the Lib Dems and 16 to Labour.
- With seat level CBR swings, the Conservatives would lose 11 seats, 3 to Labour and 8 to the Lib Dems.
- Chesham & Amersham is a Conservative hold under either approach.
It’s interesting to note that the Lib Dems make similar gains regardless of which CBR approach is used whereas Labour’s gains are very dependent on the approach used. However, what is clear that even though the implied CBR swing of 7.5% in the Blue Sea from LVA to RMC is larger than the implied CBR swing of 6% in the Red Wall from RMC to LVA, the Conservatives will make net gains and Labour will make net losses from Complete Brexit Realignment. This is because of the fragmentation of the Remain Consortium vote compared to the Leave Alliance. Recall the Brexit party stood down in Conservative seats in 2019 so the LVA vote share in the Blue Sea seats are in fact all Conservative today.
If we now look at 50% Tactical Voting alone, then the Conservatives make a net loss of 9 seats, 5 to the Lib Dems and 4 to Labour. With an unrealistic 100% TV, the Conservative net losses would rise to 20 seats (11 to Labour 9 to Lib Dems).
However, if seat level CBR is combined with 50% TV, which is what is needed for Chesham & Amersham to fall to the Lib Dems, then the Conservatives would make a net loss of 33 seats, 10 to Labour and 23 to the Lib Dems. At this point, the Conservatives gains in the Red Wall start to be cancelled by losses in the Blue Sea but even then, my national projection still shows the Conservatives with a small net gain nationally. This is because the Blue Sea is not as vulnerable as the Red Wall to CBR and the balance ultimately helps the Conservatives to withstand determined tactical voting.
It should be noted that Labour would suffer badly with CBR across the Red Wall & Blue Sea with gains in the Blue Sea being nowhere enough to cancel losses in the Red Wall. It is the Lib Dems that would end up being the biggest beneficiary. I made this point at the end of my InterCity 125 article where I said Labour needs to consider an electoral alliance with the Lib Dems but such an alliance does not help Labour directly. Instead, it helps to take out Conservative seats but to the benefit of the smaller parties. Consequently, whilst there may be a lot of talk about electoral alliances, this factor could well be a stumbling block to making it happen since it requires a degree of altruism on the part of Labour that could have all sorts of consequences.
Again, you can check out these scenarios yourself by downloading the spreadsheet from the link given at the end of this article.
Why not make your own CBR & TV forecast?
If you would like to create your own Complete Brexit Realignment and/or Tactical Voting forecast, go to the GEXX sheet of this spreadsheet. The SEATRESULTS sheet will show detailed results for each seat in a graphical format used earlier in this article and the SEATDATA sheet contains the raw data that you can use for further analysis.
- Hartlepool was a notable victory for the Conservatives but it cannot be read yet as evidence of continuing Brexit realignment among the electorate. For now, the results should be put down to tactical voting by former Brexit party voters lending their votes to the Conservatives. There are not many other seats in the Red Wall where tactical voting on this scale could make a difference.
- Batley & Spen is completely representative of 108 Red Wall seats I have identified in the North & Midlands. Between 30 & 50 of these seats held by Labour today are vulnerable to further Brexit Realignment and if Batley & Spen is lost, it signals that the Red Wall will become the Blue Wall.
- Chesham & Amersham is representative of 93 Blue Sea seats I have identified in London & the South. Between 10 & 30 seats held by the Conservatives today are vulnerable to further Brexit Realignment but Chesham & Amersham is not one of them. Chesham & Amersham will only be lost if there is extensive tactical voting by Labour & Green on behalf of the Lib Dems as well as further Brexit realignment.
- The bottom line today is that Labour cannot replace Red Wall losses with Blue Sea gains and will make a net loss if further Brexit realignment occurs across the board.
- The Conservatives will make net gains from further Brexit realignment across the board with Red Wall gains outweighing Blue Sea losses provided tactical voting is limited. If significant tactical voting takes place in addition to further Brexit realignment, then the Conservatives will make no net gains which means they maintain their current majority.
- The biggest beneficiaries from extensive tactical voting would be the Liberal Democrats whilst Labour’s gains would be limited.
- If an electoral alliance of Labour, Greens & Lib Dems was formed (which is equivalent to 80% or more tactical voting), this could deprive the Conservatives of a majority, but the benefits would accrue to the smaller parties of an anti-Tory alliance rather than Labour. Would Labour want to make such a deal if they do not benefit but their competitors do? This could be a deal breaker in my opinion.
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— Read some of my other blog posts on elections —
- Keir Starmer’s train to Downing Street – I explain why InterCity 125 should the name of Labour’s target seat list for the next election. The goal is to make net gains of 125 seats in England all of which have to come from the Conservatives. I also show that to achieve this, Starmer has to be a better politician than Clement Attlee or Tony Blair.
- I am the most accurate forecaster of the 2019 UK General Election beating even Sir John Curtice’s exit poll!
- How accurate are voting intention polls for UK General Elections? – polls had their most accurate election since 1955 so they can only get worse from now on…
- Jeremy Corbyn’s road to a majority in 2019 and the roadblocks they face – in a nutshell strategies that focus on marginals, Tory-Remain seats, young voters, non-voters are all capable of gaining the 30+ seats that Labour needs to be the largest party in parliament. But the 60+ seats that Labour needs to get a working majority requires Labour to make major inroads into either Conservative Leave marginals, Safe Conservative Remain seats or the SNP seats in Scotland and to do that without losing seats they already have. So which road should Corbyn take?
More posts can be found by clicking on the Elections tab at the top of your screen.