Dartford is a nothing sort of place. It has nothing much of note in it – a tunnel, a bridge, and a shopping centre. That’s about the sum of it. The Rough Guide to Dartford would consist of the way out.
But in politics (and like so many politicians) this nobody becomes a somebody. Dartford is one of Britain’s most reliable ‘bellwether’ seats. At every single general election since 1964, the people of Dartford have elected an MP from the party that goes on to form the government. Win Dartford, and you win the country.
No wonder Dan Hodges is worried. The permanently embittered Blairite recently took to his Telegraph column to claim that Labour is headed for disaster for not pitching further to the right. Most the article is abject nonsense, but one line did ring true:
“Labour’s southern discomfort is as much of a problem today as it ever was”
He’s right that Labour is not making up ground in southern England. Recent local elections have not seen the party seize control of the kind of councils they swept up in the mid-90s. The experts will tell you Labour are doomed unless they reverse this trend.
The experts know nothing.
Labour’s 69 position
A glance at the BBC’s 2010 election results map for the south east (excluding London) makes grim viewing for Labour. Election night left them with just four out of 84 MPs in the region. Half the regional vote went to Cameron.
But take another look at those figures. Yes, Labour had a terrible night in the south east, losing more than three quarters of their seats. But they only had 17 MPs there to begin with – and that was with an outright majority at Westminster.
Meanwhile Labour lost two-thirds of their south western seats. But again, this was always solid Tory and Lib Dem territory.
Now, assuming the government’s boundary changes fall through, and putting to one side the fate of the Lib Dems, if Labour take 25 seats from the Tories at the next election, they’ll be the largest party. 69 seats will give them an overall majority.
Now have a look at this – http://ukpollingreport.co.uk/guide/labour-target-seats/. It’s a list of Labour’s target seats at the next general election, plus the swing they’d need in order to take each one. Check out the sea of blue.
Count off the first 69 Tory seats (ignoring Corby, which turned red in a 2012 by-election) and you reach Aberconwy. Labour need a 5.67% swing to take this seat – pretty makeable in rural Wales. All other 68 seats need smaller swings – a uniform 5% swing will give them almost 60 Tory seats, while a piddling 2% swing will win them 26 seats, enough to become the largest party and first in line to form a coalition. In many of those seats, they can get a 2% swing just by showing up.
But look closely again at that target seat list, and another thing becomes apparent – these seats are not in the south. In fact, just five of the 69 are in the south east region of England (which excludes Essex and Greater London), and six more are in the south west. Eleven seats across the whole south of England, out of 69 targets – and half of those have tiny majorities to overturn. By comparison, ten of the 69 target seats are in the north west alone.
Rather than being duked out in the southern counties, the next election will be won and lost in the Midlands, the North West, and the East of England.
A cliché that became a canard
So why do the hacks place so much weight on the south?
The south east has always been the big focus. Perhaps it goes back to 1997, when Labour gained a smattering of south eastern seats amidst their national landslide, including a cluster in Kent – Dartford among them.
Many of these seats had been won by the Conservatives in 1979. They had become archetypal ‘swing seats’. Michael Howard sized them up in 2005, but seized only one of them. Labour MP Bob Marshall-Andrews famously predicted he had lost Medway on election night before ultimately hanging on by a hair’s breadth.
But that night in 2005 is why the south east matters so little now. Labour clung on to its treasured south eastern seats by often tiny majorities. Five years later, those majorities were obliterated by hefty swings – Crawley, Portsmouth North, Milton Keynes North, and Medway’s successor seat all went from ‘ultra-marginal’ to well over 10% Tory majorities.
And then there’s Dartford. Labour’s vote cratered in this trusty old bellwether, leaving the Tories with a plump 21% majority. Look again at that list of Labour targets in 2015. Dartford’s way down at number 130, barely even on the radar.
Cameron’s northern problem means Labour don’t need the south east to win. Dartford may have voted for the winning party at every election since 1964 – but rules are there to be broken.
But does it matter?
In one sense, no. Sure, it makes it likelier that Labour will be the largest party after the next election – even if the economy magically picks up – but since Labour has committed to permanent austerity, and is on the verge of matching Tory post-2015 spending plans, it makes very little difference who wins the next election. We’re in for more of the same.
But there are two ways in which this is more than mere psephological magniloquence.
First, it spells huge trouble for David Cameron. The devastating impact of austerity across northern England is guaranteed to lose him much of the turf the Tories conquered in 2010. Many of the marginals they hold look untenable – Pendle, number 58 on Labour’s target list, has been battered by cuts and youth unemployment has risen sharply. Holding the southern forts is no use when Labour are marauding towards their rear.
Labour MPs were ultimately loyal to Gordon Brown in the run-up to 2010. Many of them had decided they would step down in 2010, rather than defend seats they knew they would lose – and there was no point ditching the leader to save their seats when they were quitting anyway.
This time it’s different. Many of Cameron’s MPs are newly elected and ambitious for high office. They have little loyalty to their leader; around half the rebels who killed off House of Lords reform were from the 2010 intake. And they are defending marginal seats that the polls say they are going to lose. They will get very twitchy as the election draws near.
The party will probably have a decent time of it at this year’s shire county elections, but Universal Credit is a disaster in the making and the signs are grim for Britain’s retail sector. The 2010 intake is going to become very restless by the end of the year, worried about losing their seats. But 2014 will see the real fireworks.
David Cameron will, I think, face a leadership challenge in the first six months of 2014. It could be a ‘stalking horse’ challenge from a right-wing maverick like Peter Bone or Douglas Carswell, just to test the water. But David Davis could wade in and possibly win. A Davis win would bring down the coalition in a heartbeat, however – so if a mortally wounded Cameron did a Thatcher and shuffled off, Michael Gove would sweep in and win as the ‘unity’ candidate.
They’d still lose the national vote, mind.
But ultimately that’s just political chess. The second reason why this shift from the south matters is more significant: it gives the lie to the idea that a party must win the Home Counties to win power. For 30 years, political strategists have scoured the editorials of the Sun and the Mail to tell them what southern middle class voters supposedly want and think. They are assumed to want low taxes, spending cuts, and above all, welfare cuts – policies are duly concocted, and these policies do real damage to real people, miles from the manifesto cutting room floors. Even now, Labour bigwigs are dreaming up ‘southern strategies’ and focusing their attention on Basingstoke – which has voted Tory at every election since 1924.
But this demographic falsity is now an electoral delusion. ‘Chasing the Mail’ is wasted breath.
Old habits die hard, but south-centric politics is slowly dying – and that’s why it matters that Dartford doesn’t matter.
Update 09/01/2013 – rather neatly demonstrating the point, Dartford does not appear on Labour’s newly-released list of ‘key battleground seats’ – in fact, only two Kent seats make the cut. This must be the first election in a very long time where they are not focusing on Dartford. Hasn’t stopped them refusing to repeal the benefits uprating cap if they get into power, mind.