Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Deciding the next election (2): the East Midlands in 2015

Moving from the West Midlands to the East Midlands, we stay in marginals-rich territory. 10 of the 100 most marginal Conservative seats can be found among the 46 seats in the East Midlands. Six of the 40 most marginal Labour seats are found here also. This is election-defining territory.

This region, however, possesses much less cultural unity than many other regions. While the centre of the East Midlands, based around the triangle of Nottingham, Derby and Leicester, has an identifiable local culture, the region does not have the same central pull as Yorkshire & The Humber, the East or the South West. This makes generalisations particularly dangerous. It might be safer to treat southern Lincolnshire (and perhaps Northamptonshire) as part of East Anglia and to look at north Nottinghamshire and north Derbyshire, which have Sheffield as their nearest big city, through the same psephological lenses as Yorkshire & The Humber.

In the last few years, economic performance has been mixed. Unemployment is pretty average for the UK but the region has lower than average wages. House price rises have been fairly flat.

Generally across Britain, the story of 1997 to 2011 was of England's GVA growth being led by London and the eight core cities (which include Nottingham), with medium sized cities lagging behind. In 2012, however, the trend reversed with medium sized cities outperforming the rest. Nottingham bucked the trend positively, recording 5.2% growth in 2012 while Leicester was an outlier in the other direction, recording only 0.9% growth.

There is a narrow point and a broader point here. First, seats around Nottingham look like more fertile territory for the Conservatives and more challenging for Labour, all other things being equal, than seats around Leicester. Secondly, it's incredibly dangerous reading too much into national statistics - what is being experienced on the ground in different locations may vary a lot. Leicester and Nottingham are less than 25 miles apart, but their recent economic experiences are quite different.

At the last census, the East Midlands had the highest proportion of cohabiting couple households of any of the regions in England and Wales (11 per cent). The East Midlands is also the only region where the average number of cars and vans per household has remained the same between 2001 and 2011 (it increased elsewhere). Oddly, the traffic increase on major roads over more or less the same period is higher than average. Perhaps East Midlanders have just taken to driving more.

Here's the ONS's handy guide to the region:

Anyway, let's have a look at the seats:

As usual, I have put together a Conservative battleground (largely because the constituency odds on the Conservative side generally compare a bit more favourably with the odds on the Conservatives getting an overall majority or being largest party, as compared with the Labour counterpart odds) with a selection of other seat markets at the end.  As previously, the third column reflects the effect on the majority in Labour/Conservative marginals that would be had by allocating a quarter of the 2010 Lib Dem vote to Labour (the figure is derived by assuming that half will leave the Lib Dems and that these will break for Labour rather than the Conservatives in a 3:1 proportion).

Observations? Well, first of all, the Lib Dems are an irrelevance. On paper they look competitive in two seats (Ashfield and Chesterfield). In practice, Labour should hold both of these seats very comfortably indeed - in this region at least the Lib Dems will be the un-credible shrinking party. The 2/9 on Labour in Ashfield is a sound if undynamic bet.  A 22% return in a year is not to be sneezed at.

I don't think it's yet fully appreciated how far the Lib Dems look set to be driven out of central England.  It's quite plausible that the Lib Dems will have no MPs inside an area bounded by Bermondsey & Old Southwark, Cambridge, Sheffield Hallam, Hazel Grove and Cheltenham.   On a bad night, the Lib Dem free zone could be substantially larger.

UKIP are short-priced in Louth & Horncastle and Boston & Skegness (both Saxon Shore seats), but elsewhere are no shorter than 16/1. There may be good UKIP bets among the longshots here, but if there are I haven't spotted them. I'd steer clear of South Northamptonshire and Daventry though - their local authority has the highest employment rates in the country. It's hard to imagine many residents in fear for their jobs as a result of immigration in those constituencies.

The bulk of the seats are, essentially, the type of Labour/Conservative battlegrounds that once upon a time spread across the entire country. Given Nottingham's good growth record, pocketbook concerns may mean that the Conservatives do relatively better here than elsewhere. The 9/1 on the blues in Nottingham South might be an adventurous longshot. Perhaps more sensibly, the 5/1 on the Conservatives in Sherwood is worth a flutter: a first time incumbent in a seat that adjoins Nottingham might be more resilient than one might expect. It certainly looks a better bet than the 7/2 on the Conservatives in Broxtowe, which is a seat with many of the same features and a substantially identical majority.

On the other side of the fence, Labour at 8/11 in Northampton North still looks good value. There's a huge Lib Dem vote to squeeze. By comparison, Erewash requires a bigger swing, has fewer Lib Dems to squeeze and Labour are 1/2 there.

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