The North of England – defined here as the three statistical regions of the North East, North West, and Yorkshire and the Humber – has long been a stronghold of the Labour Part. Now, the region is set to be a key electoral battleground.
The Conservative Party are targeting seats in the North where there was significant support for Leave at the 2016 EU referendum, seeking to win over the so-called ‘Workington Man’. The Brexit Party are also confident of success in these areas.
Given this challenge, will Labour be able to maintain its dominance in the North of England?
The role of Brexit divides
While a majority in the North voted in favour of Leave in 2016, the region was broadly in line with the national picture: more deprived towns opted for Leave, cities and more affluent places backing Remain. The characterisation of the North as overwhelmingly Leave supporting is therefore inaccurate.
Nevertheless, there are many places across the North where support for Leave was high. Many of the seats in these areas are held by Labour.
In the places where support for Leave was highest in the North – places such as Barnsley, Doncaster, and Hartlepool – sizable Labour majorities will be difficult to overturn.
Other more marginal seats in Leave supporting areas such as Barrow and Furness, Bishop Auckland, Crewe and Nantwich, and Keighley will be more hotly contested.
The party’s current position on Brexit – seeking to re-negotiate a deal with the EU and then put it to a referendum alongside the option to Remain – may be unappealing to Leave voters in these places.
For such voters, the Conservatives or the Brexit Party will likely hold greater appeal.
Yet, even in the North of England, the way in which Remain supporters vote is likely to affect Labour more, especially when it comes to defending seats the party already holds.
At the last election the majority of Labour voters supported Remain. If a sizeable number of these switch to more definitively pro-Remain parties such as the Liberal Democrats, it will have a detrimental impact on Labour.
While there are only a handful of seats in the North that the Lib Dems could realistically take from Labour like Sheffield Hallam and Leeds North West, if Remain supporters desert Labour in large enough numbers it could prove costly in Labour-Conservative marginals.
Who will speak for the North?
Brexit is not the only issue that will shape the election. The NHS, education, and the economy and public spending will be important in all parts of the country.
In the North, the economy and public spending may be particularly pertinent when framed in terms of regional inequality and the North-South socio-economic divide.
So far this campaign Labour have sought to take the lead on this issue. Most of the party’s key speeches and policy announcements to date have taken place across the North.
Labour’s Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, has promised significant extra investment in the region, as well as pledging to move parts of the Treasury to the North.
Meanwhile, Jeremy Corbyn has sought political gain from the floods in Yorkshire and the Midlands, framing the Conservatives arguably lacklustre response as evidence of the party’s Southern-centric mind set and disdain for the North.
In taking this approach Labour are seeking to present themselves as the party that can best speak for the interests of the North. This may benefit them as it chimes with preconceived ideas about the Conservative Party held by many across the region.
It may be that in many of the seats that the Conservatives are targeting, Boris Johnson’s party simply remain too toxic a brand for a lot of Northern voters.
At present, the polls paint a mixed picture for Labour in the North of England.
Polling by YouGov which looks at party support in different regions suggests that while support for both Labour and the Conservatives has declined across the North since the 2017 election, Labour’s support has declined further.
As a result, the polls suggest that the Conservatives are now more popular than Labour in the North West and Yorkshire and the Humber.
Additionally, polling commissioned by the Centre for Towns suggests that the Conservatives are slightly outperforming Labour in ex-industrial towns – the types of places where they are seeking to challenge Labour in the North this election.
If these polls prove accurate, Labour may be in serious trouble in many seats in the North of England.
However, it is not all doom and gloom for them. The party’s performance in the polls has been improving recently and historically it’s performance in the North tends to be better than its performance nationally.
The party will be hoping to close the gap with the Conservatives as they did in 2017. At this stage in the campaign then the party were further behind in the polls that they are now.
Moreover, if the current polling trend continues, smaller parties will become increasingly squeezed. This will benefit Labour if the fight in the North increasingly comes to be viewed as more of a straight battle between the Conservatives and Labour.
In a perceived two horse race, Remain supporters may be more likely to continue to back Labour rather than split the vote with the Lib Dems.
In this scenario, it is likely that Labour will be able to fend off the Conservatives in most of the seats they currently hold in the North. The party may lose some of the most marginal seats, but generally it should maintain its dominance in the region.
The bigger problem for Labour in this case, in terms of being able to form a government after the election, is that while it is possible to see them holding on to a majority of seats in the North, it is difficult to see where they might pick up additional seats – both in the North, and elsewhere in the country.
By Ryan Swift, ESRC PhD Researcher Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Leeds.