UK general election: drawing the battle lines
The FT's UK political commentator Robert Shrimsley and deputy opinion editor Miranda Green map out the key battlegrounds as Conservative and Labour fight for votes, with the Liberal Democrats, Brexit Party and SNP among those also in the mix
Filmed by Rod Fitzgerald, edited by James Sandy
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OK, a-one, a-two, a-one, two, three. Election Battlegrounds 2019 with a map.
I feel like we should add on the arrows, don't you? Maybe not.
So Robert, this election is going to be a wild ride. We've invented a wild ride for ourselves this morning because I'm going to attempt to draw the United Kingdom. And then we're going to map the battlegrounds for the election. Is that OK?
I've seen you practicing your maps. And all I can say is, so far it's fantastic.
Right, this, believe it or not, represents East Anglia, Kent, the Southwest, Wales. That's Great Britain.
And here's Northern Ireland.
No, it's pretty good. I like the chef's hat.
So, this election is very complicated, potentially the era of kind of national swing telling you the whole story is over.
And we're going to have some regional fights.
So let's try and explain what's going on. We've got the usual red on blue fight. Would you like to take the Conservative pen?
I'll take the Conservative pen.
And the first battleground that's been identified has been what's being called the Red Wall.
Which is Labour-held seats in that kind of a shape.
Yeah, you kind of should take it all the way across, to some extent.
OK, all right, let's do that. So that's a key battleground. Oh, oh, oh, oh. You want me to do that as well?
OK, let's just do that.
OK, yeah, Red Well.
That's the Red Wall all the way from the Vale of Clwyd over to the Northeast coast. And these are seats the Tory Party thinks it needs to win.
To gain a majority.
Yeah, and this is going to be one of most annoying phrases. And we're going to hear this all through the country - the Red Wall, which is, of course, not a wall at all, but more a sort of set of crazy paving or something like that. There are there spots all over the place. It kind of comes down to the Midlands in parts as well.
And these are seats, essentially, all over the place with wildly different demographics that the Conservatives think they've got a chance of taking the Labour seats. And when we talk about the Red Wall, we're mostly talking about seats that the Conservatives never held.
They're not held in modern memory.
So it's traditional Labour territory.
And some of them are really quite surprising, former mining seats, some of the Derbyshire areas, Bolsover, for example, Dennis Skinner's seat, famously for god knows how many years. Tories think they've got a real chance at it.
There are places like that also up towards Sheffield. You've got places where you just do not think of the Conservatives having a shot where the numbers from the last election say if they got the same swing this time that they got last time, then they've got a good chance.
So crucially, that's actually a continuation of the May strategy in the 2017 election to try and take working class towns off Labour because of the leave vote.
Well, that's the theory.
That's the theory. We've talked of this before. But, you know, the last election, Theresa May, for all the things that she got wrong, she got 42 per cent of the vote.
That's a big number.
Let's put that over here.
In most elections, that's a winning number. And she squeezed the UKIP vote, as it was then. We call it the Brexit Party now. She squeezed that vote as much as you could probably squeeze it to get there.
In fact, one of the reasons why it was so close in the election is because the price of squeezing that was consolidating the anti-leave vote, as it were.
But there's not a lot of spare meat in some of these seats for them to squeeze. They've actually got to go and get Labour votes. They can't do it by squeezing the Brexit Party again. They've got to get angry Labour voters. There's a different proposition.
So the complicating factor, which you've already alluded to, is the Brexit Party and where they stand. And so can I do a sort of dabble of Brexit Party.
Do a dabble, yes, OK.
I'll do a dabble of Brexit Party here because if they stand in these seats, they could take a percentage of the Tory vote because there may be traditional Labour voters who can bring themselves not to vote for Jeremy Corbyn this time. But can they totally bring themselves to vote for the Tories, their ancient enemy?
You know, in coalfield seats, former coal mining towns, do they really want to vote for the party of Mrs Thatcher?
So I did a bit of research beforehand. That's why I've got my phone out. Looked at a number of constituencies. And some of them are quite telling where the Brexit Party vote can be the difference.
And there are quite a lot of seats, some held by the Tories already in the North Hamptons or Milton Keynes, some like Wolverhampton Southwest where a couple of thousand votes for the Brexit Party will be the difference between victory and defeat in those seats.
And I think actually when you look at the big picture the whole election, obviously number one is Labour v Tory, as always.
But the three things that really are going to determine the outcome this election are A, the turnout. Because 2017, so more people voting in most constituencies than 2015. And that accounts for quite a lot of the changes.
Well that, of course, is off the back of a 70 per cent turnout in the Brexit referendum...
...a year before, which boosted the numbers of participation.
Motivated. But take a seat like Warwick and Leamington, somewhere around here.
Oh, where, exactly, Robert? Would you like to say where? No? No? OK, broadly.
If you tell me what the other parts are, I'll tell you where it is in relation to them.
Can I pick out one?
I think Hartlepool is sort of here.
So there, for example, Richard Tice is a very high profile member of the Brexit Party standing in a traditional Labour town where it's quite a big ask to get people to go Tory, right? So that's quite a good example.
It is really interesting because...
I believe you. Nigel Farage has said he thinks the Brexit Party will take more votes off Labour than off the Conservatives. Or expert opinion says the opposite, that for every two votes it takes off the Conservative, it'll take one off Labour.
But there are places - and these sort of places where it's undoubtedly true that there was a chunk of Brexit Party vote which was there for the taking, and it wouldn't go to the Conservatives. So it's not a completely false point. And if they targeted really carefully, it could make a difference.
And there are some seats where they've been very, very strong. Stoke-on-Trent is one. Dagenham and Rainham is another where this vote matters. But let's come back to Warwick and Leamington for a minute because that's an interesting constituency.
Well, we're just agreeing that they're a disruptor anyway.
It's a massive disruptor, the Brexit Party coming into those seats.
That's a seat where the majority - Labour currently hold it, majority of about 1,200. The number who voted in the last election went up considerably. But the Brexit Party could make a real difference because there is a significant white working class vote in there. On the other hand, there's also a really large student vote.
So it's the kind of place where the Brexit is going to make a difference. Also the Liberal Democrats could make a difference because their vote got squeezed.
And I think the big issue is how much can the Conservative squeeze the Brexit Party, how much can Labour squeeze the Liberal Democrats?
Yeah. Because either of those parties start doing well, it's very bad news for their respective larger brothers or sisters.
Yeah. So I want to come on to the Lib Dems. Because I want to talk about this battleground here, which, at the moment, the map of the south of England with the exception of London - so let's just bracket off London - I mean, this is really Tory when you look at it.
It's absolutely blue as you like the whole way down. This is going to be a hugely important target area for the Lib Dems. I mean, affluent commuter zones all around London, bits of the south coast where they previously held a lot of seats.
Cheltenham and St. Albans.
That's right. And those are moderate Tories put off by Brexit.
They think in enough numbers to secure quite a few seats here, and even down in the southwest...
...which used to be strong Liberal territory, but which has the complicating factor that it's quite leavy, quite leavy, and where the Lib Dems lost this crucial second place...
...after the coalition years. But so this is going to be a really, really, really tight fight between the Lib Dems and the Tories. And there, what you were alluding to, how much can the Lib Dem vote squeeze? In these seats, it's going to be how much can the Lib Dems squeeze the Labour vote down?
Is that true? Because I mean, in most of these seats, Labour is still in second place. They have 38 second places across the whole country.
Uh, uh, uh. I would like to stop you there.
Because I would like to say that you're assuming that the 2017 election is the baseline.
And it really isn't, because since 2017, the Lib Dems who were still on life support have come back to life. And they all the challengers this year, even though they were not the challenges in 2013.
Isn't the greater risk that actually it's not clear. If you live in quite a lot of these seats, you're not clear who the challengers are if you live in the Bournemouths or places like that. Actually, the Lib Dems can tell you that they have a better chance of winning it. But the facts say that in 2017, Labour were second in whatever seat it was. And therefore, the greater risk is the fact they fight each other to a standstill and the Tories keep all of them.
So happily for the Lib Dems, they are kind of an alliance with the polling industry in a weird way.
It does seem that way, yeah.
Because the polling industry has been trying to reinvent its methods since 2017. It seems to be on-board, in a sense, for the Lib Dem message, which is that don't look at the last general election.
Look at what's happened in recent months because the leave versus remain divide in the country is motivating people's vote more than those traditional allegiances, which you still saw in 2017.
All right, so this is a really important sort of second battleground. And, because the Tories know they're going to lose some of these seats here to the Lib Dems, that's why they've got to gain some of these seats up here.
So it's all interrelated.
But I think also it's crazy. When we talk about elections, we all love things like the Northern Strategy or the Red Wall. Actually, there are...
We don't have a name for this, anyway.
There are about just under 40 seats...
...that the Tories have held in recent memory but they don't hold now. I think it was 35, 37, something like that. And some of them are quite marginal. And some of them could easily fit and they're all over the country. There's some in Wales, the Vale of Clwyd. In London, you've got places like Battersea. As I said, Warwick and Leamington, Wolverhampton South East.
And I slightly wonder whether, in all of our journalistic interest in big themes and big concepts, actually it's places like that dotted all over the country where this election will really want - Battersea is a good example.
Battersea, I think...
Well, that's good. Let's move to London because London is really interesting anyway. So London, in recent years, has been a very Labour city.
Very. But we've seen opinion polls recently which suggest that it's nothing like as Labour as it was. And Labour have got some unusual wins at the last election. Kensington is a really good example - very, very narrow win.
Could easily lose it. Lib Dems have now got Sam Gyimah, who was a Conservative. So they're going to put up a stronger challenge in there. Who is he going to pull votes from, Labour or the Tories? It's not clear.
But, you know, it doesn't take a lot to pull that seat off of Labour. Battersea is interesting. I pulled this one up. So Battersea is a seat the Tories held since 2015, I think. They lost it at the last election.
The majority, it's a little over 2,000, 2,500. But the Lib Dem vote in the last election was 4,401, one of the places where the Lib Dems didn't actually take a complete battering. They began to eke their way back.
If that Lib Dem vote creeps up again, that's mostly going to come from Labour, I would have thought. And that lets the Tories back in. It's a fascinating dynamic for the Tories and the Lib Dems because actually, they need the Liberal Democrats to do well, to win the seats they're after. But obviously, if they start do too well, it becomes a problem.
So that's a very...
They've got a vested interest in the Lib Dem surge.
That's a very urban phenomenon and in very particular seats, isn't it? But it makes it really interesting to watch because it means in a lot of London, there's all three parties in play.
But a lot of these seats are if not urban, they're suburban. They're quite well-heeled. Derby North, the seat the Chris Williamson held, that was quite recently a Tory seat. Again, the Lib Dem vote, the Brexit Party vote, how that plays out could make an enormous difference.
And these are not actually poor areas for the main. These are places with lower than national average unemployment, quite high owner occupiers. These are the kind of seats that the Tories traditionally were going after. And they're not the Red Wall notion.
The other thing I think is really interesting about this and where you get these three-way fights, you will have - well, there are very bad relations nationally between the Lib Dems and Labour.
And they're not able to replicate the thing that worked as the anti-Tory surge during, for example, the 1990s, where it was quite clear and the parties were happy to reinforce on the ground.
In a sense, if you want to vote against the Tories, we're your best bet here. And they'd be non-aggression pacts, nationally. That sort of Northerner wink to tactical voting is going to be really difficult this time between Labour and the Lib Dems because of their divides on the Brexit strategy. principally.
I think that's right. One of the nice, clarifying things of this election is that all the parties really do hate each other.
There's just no fakery about it.
That's true. That's true. Except I was going to come on to the fact that the Lib Dems have also managed to sign up the Green Party. What should we use for Greens?
How about green?
This one? How about green for Green? And the Lib Dems and the Green Party and Plaid Cymru.
Who are also green.
Who are also green, confusingly. Let's do two shades of green and a nice little mess. Look, I'm going to do a little green implied rainbow here.
There's one Green MP at the moment, down in Brighton, Caroline Lucas. Lib Dems, Green, and Plaid Cymru are trying to replicate what they're calling the Remain alliance, which secured a Welsh seat for the Lib Dems in a byelection earlier this year.
That may not be insignificant because it's 60 seats where they've agreed to stand down for each other to give a clear anti-Brexit message.
I gave a quick look at those 60 seats. I haven't had time to really go into them. But it looks like quite a good deal for the Liberal Democrats.
And not much of a good deal for the others. The Greens, I think, have a shot at the Isle of Wight, as well as the one seat they've got. So that's one that they might be glad of this deal.
The Plaid Cymru options, they don't look fantastic. None of them look gift seats. The Lib Dems have done quite well in this list because they've either got seats where they have a real shot or they hold it.
Or a shot at getting a really good second place. Because if you're the third party in a two-party system, whether you're seen as the challenger, as we are discussing earlier, is really, really crucial.
And of course, if this general election delivers another hung parliament, we might have to have another election really not too far down the track.
So actually, for the Lib Dems that becomes really significant where you can be absolutely acknowledged challenger for a potential another shot at it.
Yes, and that was the catechism of the 2015 election. Not only they lost all those MPs...
...but they lost, was it 200 second places?
It was a major deal.
And for example, down in the Southwest, those Lib Dem second places, Labour leapfrogged them.
So they don't want that to happen again. Right, shall we discuss Scotland?
Yes, I was going to to say one other thing just about the Lib Dems.
I mean, it's more of a national point. But I've been very struck by this over the last few years. Jo Swinson, the Lib Dem leader, when she's been talking and she's been pressed on the usual Lib Dem murder question, well, which side are you going to put in power if it's a hung parliament?
And it's quite a difficult one for her because she's obviously not going to put Boris Johnson in power. She's obviously not going to back a Brexit deal because the party wants to revoke Brexit.
The logical thing is an alliance with the more remainy Labour Party. But she's been completely explicit that she could not put Jeremy Corbyn in power, so explicit that I don't see a way around it, really. And that's crucial since she's going after a lot of Tory seats. And that bothers Tory voters.
Now, there's a bit of wiggle room in that she could acquiesce to others putting Jeremy Corbyn in power and maybe just wouldn't bring him down, a vote of confidence. But I think at some point she's going to come under quite a lot of pressure.
Because if it's obviously you're not going to put the Tories in power and you insist you're not going to put the Labour in power, and nobody thinks you're actually going to win the election, then what the hell are you actually going to do? And what's the point in voting for you? It might be a reasonable voter question.
And if you want a referendum...
...there's only one way you can go in there. So what the hell are you going to do? How are you going to depose Jeremy Corbyn if that's your price? A, when Labour's lost its deputy leader and B, when he might not wish to go.
So my answer to that would be that if you put all your eggs in the anti-Brexit basket, which the Lib Dems have done, then you just have to stick to the line and say, well, we'd support moves to block Brexit. But we will not prop up a Corbyn government.
But actually, if you...
But prop up meaning what?
Well, we'll have to see. But it's carefully worded.
It means we won't bring it down, but we won't do anything to help it.
But look, we need to get onto Scotland, right?
Which actually is linked to your point because the Tory Party in this election is trying to get a majority to push through their Brexit deal. As you have written, what the Labour Party needs to do is just stop that Tory majority. And it's much harder for them to actually get a Labour majority. And that is partly because of Scotland.
Because Labour used to deliver a kind of industrial number of Labour seats.
In Scotland, that used to be a wheelbarrow full of Labour seats.
Can I - I want to put Wales before we move on.
OK, put that there.
But go back to Scotland.
But so Scotland, I think we're going to have to use black for the S&P.
Having once been red, Scotland is now pretty much SNP territory, right? There's no possibility of a Jeremy Corbyn majority being delivered by seats in Scotland anymore.
Quite the reverse.
So that's why we're into this potential hung parliament conversation. And then the SNP is very important because the SNP, in exchange for their second independence referendum, would support a Corbyn government, even a very short-term one, which...
But I think they'd actually support it, regardless.
Yeah, but it takes it takes the pressure off the Lib Dems to a certain extent, I would argue. But, I mean, let's talk about Scotland. Because from London, it's tempting to see the SNP as just masters of all they survey north of the border.
But of course, they've been in government for a long time in Edinburgh. So they're actually defending a government record. And there are still a lot of Scots, half of Scots, who aren't in favour of independence, even given Brexit. So that's tougher for them than we think.
And it's also worth remembering, although we all think of Scotland as the greatest remain enclave possibly apart from London, is it still a third of Scotland voted for Brexit. So it's not like there are no leavers in Scotland.
And we've got, what? 13 Tories at the moment in Scotland?
13 Tories. Now, at the election before last, the SNP cleaned up. It got 56 of the 59 seats. They totally wiped out everybody.
At the last election, the Tories came back. And the reason is because Scotland is being buffeted by two existential issues rather than one. It's got Brexit and it's got independence.
And the Conservatives became the home of the anti-independence vote. They did really well. They had a very charismatic leader in Ruth Davidson, which helped. And it pulled them up to 13 seats. And that was the difference in Theresa May being able to carry on.
And not. Labour, I think, is on seven seats now. And actually, I think Labour is even more at risk in Scotland than the Conservatives.
When you talk to Labour people, they think they're talking about - maybe the one seat of Ian Murray, Edinburgh South, being the one they could hold, has got a massive majority. But they're fearing total wipe-out in Scotland.
So they're all vulnerable, both red and blue, vulnerable.
Yeah. And I think the Tories, the best case scenario you hear from Tories is that number goes down to about seven or eight. And the worst case is it goes down to one or zero.
So the Tories are very vulnerable. But they may be able to cling on quite well. I'm not sure Boris Johnson plays brilliantly in Scotland. But, as you said, where the SNP picks up seats, it will as much be because Labour is losing them as the Conservatives.
So in a sense, in terms of the final numbers, it doesn't make that much difference. Because every one of those seven seats that goes to the SNP column is a seat that Jeremy Corbyn doesn't have to try and be the largest party in a coalition government.
This little orange blob here is Jo Swinson's seat in the suburbs of Glasglow. Because also in Scotland, it's a four-way fight with the Lib Dems hoping to pick up a couple of extra seats and defend seats like Jo Swinson's.
Yeah, so it's a very hard place to call a lot of time. But you have to assume that the SNP are going to have a good night when it comes to election day.
But the difference in a good night and a great night is, I think, still up for grabs. If they start getting into the 50s, great night for them. If they only make gains of seven, eight, nine seats, not quite so good. So Scotland, [INAUDIBLE]. But I just want to talk about Wales, if I may.
Yeah, no, no, go for it. You want to talk about Wales.
So Scotland, you know, it's in play, very much so. But the general tone of Scotland is understood. Wales is more interesting because Wales has been run by the Labour Party forever, basically. It's still got 28 seats.
The valleys, it's heartland, it's industrial, working class heartland for the Labour Party.
It's got 28 seats there. It's way more than anybody else. I think the Tories have got six or seven, Libs a couple...
One, OK. And Plaid Cymru have got a couple.
The Libs used to have this kind of Methodist...
...nonconformist tradition in Wales. But like in the Southwest, that's falling away.
The Tories think that Wales is really fertile territory for them.
They think they can make real inroads there. Wales voted for Brexit. Let's not forget that. They think that Labour can really, really be pushed back there. They've got seven or eight target seats. Again, ones they've held before, sometimes like the Vale of Clwyd, where they're going...
It's sort of here, isn't it?
Yeah, that's right.
It sort of North Wales.
Particularly North Wales. So this is a place where the political landscape, both of Wales and of the country, can be reshaped. If Labour is pushed back meaningfully here, it has knock on consequences all over the place.
And it's not really going to be pushed back by Plaid Cymru, I'd suggest. It might get a bit of push-back from the Liberals. But in the deal they've just done, in the remain alliance, there's three seats they've targeted. And I think one of them, they already hold. The Tories are the ones who could do damage here.
And I think they're putting quite a lot of their hopes on getting those big gains in Wales, pushing Labour back. And then, of course, you have this - supposing they take seven or eight seats of Labour there, seven seats of Labour go to the SNP up there, now Jeremy Corbyn lost 14 seats already. And he's down from 260 to 246.
Couple of other losses here and there, it's actually becoming quite difficult at that point to see how he does form that hung parliament. And so the Tories, if they're going to stop him - because obviously the majority is the simplest thing. But also, the more you can push Labour back, the more its numbers start to fall even if it's still got a theoretical hope of a coalition...
...it's begun to look weaker, and weaker, and weaker.
And that brings me to my concluding question is, what is the definition of success on the night for the Labour Party? Because in 2017, by having a surprise recovery in their national poll rating, and taking a lot of seats off the Tories, and actually depriving May of her majority, they have forevermore tried to say we won 2017 election, even though they didn't.
And I wonder whether it'll be another night like that. But there is a sort of window of claiming success by denying the Tories a majority. And then there's quite clearly not doing well enough, in which case, I would argue that Jeremy Corbyn leadership may be in trouble because he will have lost twice.
I think that's exactly right. And I think one of the really amazing things about this election, which is different from a lot of previous ones, is that actually both the contenders to be prime minister are really very well-known to the public. It's quite unusual. Normally, there's at least one who the voters are only really taking a proper look at for the first time during the election.
Last time, it was true both of them. I didn't really know Jeremy Corbyn. What they knew of him, they didn't like. And so he came as a pleasant surprise to a lot of voters. They didn't really know Theresa May. They thought they liked her. And then when they got a closer look, a lot of them decided they didn't.
And so actually, but this time you've got two exceptionally well-known candidates. And the voters have probably fairly fixed views of them already. So I think there's less scope for that bit of the shock.
But I think you're right. I think if Jeremy Corbyn cannot get himself into Downing Street this time, he's lost. He got away with it last time for the reasons exactly that you described. And because even though Labour didn't quite win, the Tories very obviously lost.
This time, I don't think that's going to work. If Boris Johnson is still in Number 10 on December the 13th, then Labour has lost. And Jeremy Corbyn has lost.
And there will be hell to pay.
And he's done.
That'll be my...
OK, well I think we've won.
Yeah, I think it's clear. Remind me of what that was again.
I think you were trying to tell me where Warwick was, actually, Robert.
So anyway, over to you next time, then. You think you can do better?
Oh, no, I definitely can't do better.