Sketchy Politics: mapping the next election | FT
The FT's UK political commentator Robert Shrimsley and deputy opinion editor Miranda Green trace out the political landscape and offer early analysis of the main parties' progress ahead of next year's expected general election
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I'm not sure this map shows Wales properly.
Is it a brick? It's some bricks.
Sounds like something you say on election night.
Godalming and Ash.
How old were you when you dropped geography?
OK. Just tell me where Hadrian's Wall is on this.
Welcome to 'Sketchy Politics: The Battleground.'
Robert, we've got the party conferences behind us, so I thought...
We should have some glitter...
We could. Somebody can run... in if somebody could just run in and...
Throw glitter on me.
...put glitter on Robert, that'd be great. I thought it'd be a good opportunity to actually look at the landscape and the battlegrounds that are emerging because we're going to have an election at some point over the next few months. And so I'm going to take you back to the results. We got 2019, what it might look like in the coming election.
So, to start off, clearly we've had some exciting by-election dramas. They're not always a good indication of what might come. But this is the landscape as it emerged after the December 2019 election at which Boris Johnson was triumphant.
So you've got very, very clear expanse of blue, red areas - strong, but not enough of them. Tiny little spots of yellow, one green. SNP totally dominant in Scotland. So we're going to explore how that might change. Is that OK with you?
...with it so far.
OK. Let's just cast that to one side. So, first of all Robert, this is going to happen at some point, right? They've got to call an election during 2024, but it could push into...
...theoretically January 2025. What's your thinking on that while I'm attempting to draw? When is it going to happen?
I'm still in the October camp. A lot of people very persuasively make the argument that the best time for the Conservative party would be to go in May at the same time as the local elections primarily because a fatigue is setting in... not bad. No. Better than I'd do... a fatigue is setting in that people want the change.
And that the longer you leave it, the worse it might get. That people are just getting more and more angry with the Conservatives, and that you could cut your losses a bit. The counter-argument that, which is why I go for October, is that when the Conservatives get to say March, and they'd have to make a decision on pushing the button for a May election...
...if the polls are roughly where they are now, no sane prime minister calls that election. Rishi Sunak believes he can do good things as prime minister. And he's not going to want to cut it short when there's always that chance that something may turn up. So even though the probability is that nothing will turn up, my hunch is still to go for October.
I know people who even argue for the last possible date because they get towards October, and it's nothing has turned up. And it's still bad, and they just think we'll press on till the last date. But that's pretty risky going, campaigning over Christmas as well.
Cancelling Christmas effectively for the public.
I don't see that. So although I see a coherent argument for May my money's on October. What about you?
Well, it was clear that the Labour Party wanted to get ready for May because they thought they might go in May. If the economy starts to turn, if there's some sort of hopeful news on Rishi Sunak's five tests, they wanted to be ready. But it was clear from the Manchester Tory party conference they want to go later in the year. So my money's still on October, absolutely.
So we might have a whole year to wait, but we think we kind of know what the landscape might look like, right? So what do you... how do you think the main battleground's shaping up, which is that territory of northern and midlands southern England and then obviously the Labour Party versus the SNP up there?
Can I steal your steal your Labour rose up there? And then some sort of, like, action down here between the Lib Dems and the Tories. This is the real fight, right?
Yeah. This one pushes up into here a bit and pushes there a bit as well. It depends on what you think this election is.
If it is one of those huge change moments, if we're heading into a landslide election, then some of the battleground talk that we do focus on, and we're going to focus on, becomes less relevant because it's just an enormous tide that sweeps away the Tories all over the place, except in Scotland where the battleground, as you say, is SNP-/Labour.
And if it is that kind of election, then some of the things that matter enormously in a much tighter election - some of the demographic concerns - they become less directly relevant because the whole country has one of those moments.
This is our traditional swingometer, basically. So if you get, like, huge swings...
I mean, if the Labour party is getting into the territory of 400 seats, which I still think would be an extraordinary thing, even with what we have now, then some of the battleground issues go away a bit because it's just one of those elections. But because I don't think we should take that for granted at all, I think your analysis is exactly right. And what you have is the Labour's revival in Scotland, question mark. The extent to which Labour claws back those so-called red wall seats that the Tories worked hard to get for two or three elections. And then...
Made progress, we should remind people, in 2017. And then...
Exactly. Theresa May did actually most of the work.
Yeah, I know. The Theresa May premiership that nobody ever speaks about - she actually made progress in Labour territory.
And then the areas, as you say, in the south-east and the south-west and the Home Counties where the liberal Democrats are the main challengers to the Conservatives. And there's also these areas I think are interesting. But people talk about the blue wall.
Yeah. Here you go.
And I don't know exactly... I'll draw a blue wall. Is even this beyond my capacity?
Is it a brick? It's some bricks.
Look at that. Look at that, I've actually...
I love it. I love it; although, it's actually north of London, which it shouldn't be.
It was just a wall. That's just... but people talk about the blue wall as meaning any safe Tory seat that's under threat. But in fact it's more interestingly and accurately defined as a certain type of Tory seat.
There's a very interesting writer on this called Steve Akehurst, who talks about seats that the Tories have held since 2010, where the majority is less than 10,000, and where there's been a significant demographic shift of the kind that we saw in the seats that the Tories took off Labour, where young families moving, priced out of the cities, moving to smaller cities, smaller towns, commuter belt places. And I think those are very interesting places, be they in Sussex or Berkshire or Essex even. So there's a fair few of these battlegrounds.
Because also, people have taken red wall just as a sort of blanket description of the north, the Midlands.
...flat caps and whippets...
And that's not right, right?
It's completely wrong. Yes.
it's where Conservative-minded pollsters did a bit of demographic analysis and thought: hang on a minute, there is no reason why these people in these seats aren't voting Tory because everything else about them, except the geography, would tell you that they're Tories. And then they went for it very successfully.
It was a brilliant piece of electoral... as you say, it was essentially... these are seats that, were they there, would already be Conservative in every... but because of the legacy of the north, they weren't. And the Tories focused on this and targeted it quite brilliantly, and Brexit pulled it over the edge.
They were going after these seats quite aggressively even before, and might well have got quite a few of them anyway. But they're all in terrible trouble now because the Conservatives haven't met the promises, and they're all feeling poorer. And they're very vulnerable, and they're way behind in the red wall seats.
So one of the things that's been going on, because this actually does change the fights in some places, is also that since 2019 the boundaries of all of the constituencies have been redrawn, and in some places quite radically. And we've been talking about the red wall.
But both in the red wall and the blue wall seats, you've got Tories having to sometimes find a new piece of territory to fight and sometimes doing what is traditionally called the chicken run.
The chicken run. The chicken run.
I'm now going to draw a really bad...
A green chicken.
A green... a bad, green chicken. Look, here's my bad green chicken running. So if the chicken run is basically when a Tory MP in a previously safe seat decides to sort of find a new seat to fight because it's not looking so safe anymore. And that's happened in the red wall and the blue wall, right?
Yeah. The irony is this is because these set of boundary changes have been a long time coming, longer than it normally takes. And a lot of the assumptions...
And caused panic, right? It caused panic...
...among some MPs. Like, what do you mean my seat's disappearing?
And a lot of the assumptions that went into the initial thinking on these boundary changes have since been blown apart by the Tory success in taking red walls and the redrawing of Britain's demographic and electoral map. So it's a double shift coming up to these elections that we've got to figure our way through. But there are a number of seats in Wales, where the Tories had quite a good election...
They did. They did.
...last time, but look very fragile to me. There's Bridgend, which was Jamie Wallis. There's Simon Hart, the chief whip seat, which has also had some boundary changes, and that looks vulnerable. So the Tories look to be in a bit of difficulty there. I don't know the extent to which that's down to boundary changes or just the shift.
And then so I'm going to give you an example of what's gone on with the boundary changes and why it changes the fight a bit in a couple of places. So hold on, I'll be back.
So this is quite fun because what you've got here is some Surrey seats. Now, some of the counties that are most affected by these boundary changes, which makes the battleground slightly different, are Surrey, Oxfordshire, Hertfordshire.
It's these quite affluent bits around London, where you've got this fight going on between the Tories and the Lib Dems. South-west Surrey, you couldn't get a more senior politician in a current seat that's disappearing, right? Because this is Jeremy Hunt.
This is his current constituency in pink. That turns into two separate constituencies. He's had to get himself selected for this new constituency, Godalming and Ash. And then...
It sounds like something you say on election night.
Godalming and Ash, I've lost. Well, interestingly, the new territory that comes into the seat that Jeremy Hunt's got a fight includes some bits around Guildford where the Lib Dems think they're really strong. So Surrey is a really interesting example of where the battleground shifts, the fights change their very nature.
Yeah. And that also goes to the question of how big a tide goes against... I mean, you've got these places on the edges of big towns and big cities... people who have moved out; people whose ambitions, their home, the cost of childcare, all these things that are plus, often quite metropolitan values because they're not that far from London... coming into play in what was traditionally blue territory at a time when the Conservatives have alienated the more liberal end of their vote. And so those two factors together make it extremely difficult. And there's large parts of Surrey that, you're right, the Lib Dems think are in play. And if we went a bit further north, the seat that was Dominic Raab's almost certainly going to fall to the Liberal Democrats.
People have even been saying is there going to be what we had in 1997, which was known as the Portillo moment when Michael Portillo unexpectedly lost his seat to a Labour unknown Stephen Twigg? And it was, were you up for Portillo? Because that was a measure of how far the country had swung to Labour. And could Jeremy Hunt be the Portillo moment of the coming election?
Well, I mean, it's clearly possible. An element of me still thinks not.
Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. But the thing is... but this is the thing we've across is that these seats are so...
They're not supposed to fall ever.
This is staunch Tory territory. I mean, you can feel it if you drive through. It feels like Tory Britain.
These are the places that didn't fall in '97, even.
Absolutely. So the fact that we're even having the conversation is crazy. And he's not the only very senior Tory who's had to find a new seat. The Home Secretary Suella Braverman, this was her existing seat in the pink. And she's had to get herself selected for this one here, Fareham and Waterlooville, rather than just the Fareham seat as it's called at the moment. Although, that's OK probably, right? This one...
I mean, to be fair...
...neither her nor Jeremy Hunt could be said to have done the chicken run.
They've taken the better portion of the seat as far as they're concerned, I mean, the chicken run normally means you go miles away.
It's not that far from the Surrey territory we were discussing a moment ago, where you were talking about liberal Tories being alienated by some of the messages of the current government. And Suella Braverman, of course, is in the forefront of that.
And the face of alienation.
...whether the... well, whether what they call the Suella strategy, which is go hard on immigration, goes over in this seat where her cabinet colleagues are trying to get these liberal-minded Tories to carry on voting for him, it's a huge issue, right?
It is. Although, in general, I subscribe to the critique that we have of liberal Tories and what bothers them, politically on the environment. I think immigration is a slightly different one. I think immigration is one of those issues where if you're incredibly unpleasant and horrible to immigrants, then you will lose a certain liberal Conservative vote. But the centre ground on immigration is not where...
It's not where liberals think it is...
Think it is...
...or hope it.
No, it really isn't.
...or tell themselves it is possibly.
No. And certainly, as long as we're focusing on illegal immigration, I think they're OK on that one in terms of keeping their vote together.
So one of the other really interesting things is a seat that I'm going to show you, where we might get a by-election pretty soon...
Yeah, quite probably.
...which is Peter Bone's seat of Wellingborough. Peter Bone has been censured by the House of Commons. We might well have a by election here, but this is a really good example.
Look, here's the existing seat. It's kind of crazy. We might have a by-election there quite soon but then in an election soon after the whole area is carved up anyway.
I mean, Selby's seat is changing massively.
Absolutely. Selby, which Labour won dramatically from the Tories on a 20-plus swing earlier this year. All of these by-elections that we're having, and even the ones that are to come in the next few months, those seats are kind of being abolished or disappeared.
But we don't really think of by-elections in terms of they've won it in a by-election therefore they'll keep it. We look at these things, don't we, as taking the temperature of where we are. If a government that's been in for 13 years, is holding its own seats in by-elections, that's really telling you something. If it's losing them, well, that's kind of what you'd expect.
OK. Well, what did you use therefore because this is a known quantity? I'm hoping that this is Tamworth. Sort of here is sort of Tamworth? Would you...
It's Stoke, isn't it?
Yeah. So Tamworth, we had a dramatic Labour win. We also had a dramatic Labour win in Mid Beds, which is here.
OK? You don't think that's Mid Beds?
Oh, it looks like London.
No, no, no, no. We're going to say London's there. OK, just for the sake... so this is two dramatic Labour wins recently. What did you learn from that?
What do we learn from it? We learnt that the Conservatives are every bit as unpopular as we think they are. That their vote is either switching or not turning out for them. I think a lot of it, the latter not turning out for them. Also, we've learned...
Well, then we should say that was the Tory line the moment... the morning after, right? Well, they...
That isn't always untrue.
...just stayed at home. Yeah, but in first past the post, quite often you only need a proportion of them to stay at home. And if they're not making a...
You're completely right, and that was incredibly true in the '97 election.
But if we're talking about the difference between a general election and a by-election, it is much easier to claw back voters who abstained than who switched. We also learned that the Labour opposition, which, if it's going to have any chance of power, has got to be winning these by-elections, is capable of doing so.
They were really good nights for Labour. They were really bad nights for the Conservatives. It showed Keir Starmer on track. Every electoral test we are seeing over the last 12 months or so has said Keir Starmer is on track for Downing Street.
There's still room for debate about whether he gets a really big majority, a very narrow majority, or a minority government. But everything is saying he's on track for Downing Street, isn't it?
Robert, I'm going to hand you the pen now, and I'm going to ask you to put Hamilton...
Hamilton West and Rutherglen on the map.
OK. Well, just tell me where Hadrian's Wall is on this?
Well, Hadrian's Wall...
I'm going to go for a... I'm going to go for about here.
OK. Hamilton West and Rutherglen. Another dramatic Labour by-election win, but crucially this time not against the Tories. So not like Mid Beds and Tamworth, but against the SNP. That was also a huge swing away from a governing party.
That's true. I mean, it was just about the ideal by-election for Labour to prove their point on this. it was one I think they'd held in the previous election. The SNP incumbent went because she broke Covid lockdown rules.
The SNP's had obviously the year from hell. So if Labour couldn't win that seat, then all of the talk about a Labour revival in Scotland was killed stone dead. But they did win it. And so that, again, points to Starmer on track because obviously the one thing we know is that a major part of Labour's problem has been the loss of all its Scottish seats.
Yeah. It's also, again, really hard to overstate the drama of what happened with Labour in Scotland.
2015, they went from dominating Scotland to a near total wipeout overnight and haven't been able to recover, leaving the SNP effectively as a kind of one-party state north of the border. I mean, there's no guarantee that the SNP will get away from their year from hell, as you called it. Next year, though, right?
No. But I mean, I'm a bit of a sceptic on this. I mean, I think Labour will definitely make inroads. And Scotland will definitely do better. If you said to me they'll take 10 or 12 seats, I'll go, yeah, I absolutely believe that.
But some of the recent polling and some of the talk has suggested that Labour could even be the biggest party in Scotland. And while it's obviously possible, I'm just hesitant about that because I think the SNP vote is so tied up with the independence cause. If SNP do really badly in this election that sets back independence so desperately.
Also, they're beginning I think to be quite effective in saying Labour under Starmer is not that much different to the Tories. They're not changing Brexit. There are a variety of other issues on welfare and spending issues. They're not that far apart. Do you really want them?
I agree with you on that fundamental, which is that there's a kind of floor...
I think so.
...on how much the SNP vote can fall because of the identity with a vote for independence. And there's no other vehicle except the Green party, which has proved itself quite bad in government, to vote for if you want to vote for independence.
And you've got the first past the post issue, which is there's only one effective there's only one party of independence in these elections. And unless the unionist vote is highly organised and also motivated by defence of the union rather than other issues, like getting the Conservatives out, then the SNP still has opportunities in constituencies.
OK. I'm glad you raised that - tactical voting. Because north of the border people are starting to say, could there be tactical pro-union voting against the incumbent SNP? So could you get... because I think that's what happens in...
Tory gains, even.
Yeah. Like, not on as dramatic scale as Labour. But if you get a pro-union tactical vote north of the border that can help Labour, and it undermines the SNP. And of course, south of the border, where the tactical voting works or not is really crucial, right?
And what I thought was very interesting about Mid Bedfordshire, the recent by-election, , is you had the two main UK-wide opposition parties, Labour and the Lib Dems, scrapping it out for who was going to challenge and unseat the Tory. And the Labour party absolutely triumphed at the end with a huge 20-point-plus swing.
But I am told that this is a very unusual seat, and that mostly it's really clear, really clear who the challenger is. So it would be the wrong moral to take away from Mid Bedforshire that the opposition couldn't get its act together for anti-Tory tactical voting.
I think that's absolutely right. Just going back to Scotland...
Yeah, yeah. Please do.
...obviously there's two types of tactical voting. There's the union v independence tactical voting, and then there's the anti-Tory tactical voting. And the two do not necessarily align. So the question is, what is the emotion, which is...
Ooh, that's really interesting.
...powering voters in Scotland?
So if you want to... if you want to replace Sunak with Starmer.
Or just want to replace Sunak, full stop.
Then the question is, can Labour attract and effectively borrow SNP votes for a general election, saying this isn't about the governance of Scotland? This is about getting rid of the Conservatives. And my instinct is that will be a more powerful tactical voting motivator in Scotland than the union this time because the SNP has had a bad run, because the forces of independence feel a little bit in retreat for the moment. I think it will be the other one that motivates tactical voting in Scotland.
Well, that's really, really interesting. So the other question I want to discuss with you is these sort of even smaller parties.
So we've obviously got Plaid as a factor in Wales as a home for nationalist voters who aren't happy with the direction of Labour under Starmer; although, of course, it's a Labour incumbent government in Wales as well. So I suppose if you were...
And the Tories pushed that incredibly hard, don't they? Whenever there's an issue there... if you look at what Labour's doing in Wales, that's a big Tory refrain.
Absolutely. So I suppose if you wanted a kind of anti-incumbent government in Wales, you could go Plaid and that's a factor there. In other territories, I'm interested in this: in 2019, the predecessor to Reform UK, the Brexit party, how they decided to behave, i.e. whether they stood in certain seats or not, was a factor, right?
So what do we think? You can have it... you can have it... you can have Reform... You can have Reform UK.
I've got both reforms.
Yeah. So what do you think's going to happen? Do you think they're going to stand? Will they split enough votes on the right to again to...
Yeah. So I mean, first of all, I didn't regard the Plaid as a spoiler party. They're a proper party that actually wins things.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, absolutely.
So given that I said that before. Reform UK, I'm a massive Reform UK sceptic. Unless Nigel Farage comes back to lead them, I do not think they're a major force in this election. They're a receptacle for disgruntled Tories who would otherwise have abstained.
So if Reform UK gets a lot of attention, and there are angry Tories who don't want to go to the Labour party but want to change, they might give their vote to Reform rather than abstain. But I do not believe they're going to be a major force in the election in the way that Farage and the Brexit party were. So their current opinion poll standings, in my hunch, massively overestimated.
You think it's not real. Yeah.
Yes, I really do.
All the other colleagues of ours have said the same thing.
I don't buy the... the Greens is a different matter.
Oh, OK, look. Great. Look, here's my Greens.
And I think the Greens...
I think you might be about to say what I was going to say.
Well, in that case... in that case, the Greens are a different matter, aren't they, Miranda?
Well, Robert, I'm glad you asked me that because the Labour party under Starmer with its ruthless dragging back to the centre, it's ruthless expulsion of the hard left, silencing of the Corbynites, et cetera, has reckoned on the idea that there was no other home for people on the left to go to. And now, the Green party is looking pretty chirpy actually, and they would provide a home for disgruntled leftwing votes. Currently, of course...
Especially younger. So currently, of course, they only have - where's Brighton? Currently, they only hold one seat there... Brighton Pavilion. Caroline Lucas, who's standing down.
I'm literally not going to read any of the comments about our geographical awareness of our own country.
I mean, criticise anything else, guys.
Don't bother writing it. We don't want to know how bad we are.
So Caroline Lucas, the only Green MP, is standing down.
There's a Norfolk seat they're very, very focused on.
There is. I think it's Norfolk and a bit of Suffolk. So do we agree that actually there's a little bit of vulnerability to Labour's left in some places...
I think there is.
...from the Greens party.
And also from the liberal Democrats again. I think...
The Lib Dems are not looking very left.
I mean, but they spent a number of years sort of tacking left...
No. But once you've decided...
...during the Blair era, but now...
But if you're a left-leaning voter, and you've decided you can't vote for Starmer because he reminds you too much of Tony Blair, and he's too mainstream, then these are the only choices you have in England. And the Greens are a more obvious one because if you feel that strongly, what Labour is going to have to do and what Starmer is going to have to do is say to these people, look, I understand I'm not all you want, but he's the alternative. Rishi Sunak is the...
the only choice you get is not between Tony Blair, you say. You don't have a choice in ideal Labour and my Labour. Your choice is between Labour and the Conservatives. So the issue for those voters is just how strong do they feel this betrayal by Starmer's Labour party? Are they prepared to risk the possibility of continued Conservative government?
And he's got to squeeze that vote. And an important part of his strategy is going to be saying to those voters, look, whatever you think, it's me or the Tories.
It's really interesting. So I think we've done a good exploration of how the map is sort of changing and how it's evolving. The thing I would say, though, is these massive swings to Labour, or indeed to the Lib Dems or to the anti-Tory option, I've spoken to political scientists... who I've never really seen them in this mood before. They have said this is now the norm.
So everything we've discussed about how you can't really take too much from by-elections - would that happen again in a general election scenario, there is actually a chance that it's quite a dramatic night because these huge, huge movements that we've seen in individual battlegrounds, you could see in a lot of this whole battleground in May 24, October 24, January 25, whenever it ends up being.
I think you're completely right. And to me, the one metric I'm looking at in the polls is the favorability ratings for Keir Starmer because he's not been running that far ahead of Rishi Sunak. It's OK, but it's not great.
If, in this next year you start to see people going, actually, he's all right. I quite like him; and you start to see his favorability ratings creeping up then I think that landslide option becomes a really serious opportunity. If you don't see that, then the Tories' running a sort of better the devil you know campaign, then I think they can pare it back... not to the extent they win, but certainly to the extent that you get a weak or minority Labour administration.
Well, look, we're going to revisit this map or one rather like it when it comes to the crunch. And I suppose we should say let battle commence.
Yes. I'm just going to get on to Google Maps and find out where all these places actually were. Let's just not use this map to drive anywhere.