Thursday, December 27, 2007

Can the Conservatives win (or Labour manage to lose) Southampton Itchen & Southampton Test?

swing when your winning...

The two seats that cover the bulk of Southampton geographically have just selected their prospective Conservative parliamentary candidates.

For most of the post-war period, Southampton was considered something of a political bellwether in that the party that formed the government tended to win the parliamentary seats in the city. That changed largely as a result of the last boundary review which made both seats considerably better prospects for Labour- much of the suburb of Woolston came into the seat of Southampton Itchen from the Eastleigh constituency, St Lukes (or Bevois as it is now styled) moved out of Itchen into Southampton Test while the Test constituency lost the leafy (historically ultra-Tory) suburb of Bassett to what is now known as the Romsey & Southampton North constituency.

There are some further boundary changes in train but they should not radically effect the results in either Itchen or Test; currently Labour's Alan Whitehead in Test has a notional majority of 7018 (17%) based on the boundaries next time while John Denham has a majority of 8484 (21%). On that basis, the Tories have something of an electoral mountain to climb. Southampton Test is Tory target seat 175 and Southampton Itchen is number 198 on the basis of the pure maths alone, taking into account the new boundaries. Both Denham & Whitehead have been selected by Labour to contest the seats again and they enjoy all the campaigning benefits of being the incumbents, not least the £10k communications allowance they awarded themselves last year!).

Over the last two general elections, the Labour vote has held up remarkably well in comparison with the national position. I think this was due in large part to Labour's ability to out campaign the Tories, their then dominance in local government in the city, the failure of the local Conservative Party to pick well known local candidates to contest the seats and a strong Lib-Dem challenge squeezing the Tory vote.

Another factor is the undoubtedly significantly personal vote both Denham & Whitehead enjoy for not having just been around for a long time (Denham & Whitehead were both comparatively high profile Councillors before their election as MPs) and both were undoubtedly boosted by their position on the war (Denham having a very good resignation, Whitehead also being implacably opposed).

However all is not doom and gloom for the Tories; far from it. Partly as a result of some disastrous policy decisions (and encouragingly for the Tories they still don't seem to recognise this) Labour lost majority control of the Council some years ago. The weakening of their local government base has undoubtedly also weakened their campaigning base as a time when the Conservatives are newly resurgent.

Despite Denham enjoying something of an Indian summer as a newly appointed Secretary of State, both the Labour candidates are beginning to look decidedly well worn; Denhams performance on the politics show a couple of weeks ago was pretty dire, despite trying to appear hip over issues of the day, he actually came across as a bit naff, not to mention ill-informed. Whitehead will never hold government office again and after the burgergate scandal and his efforts to really concentrate on one policy area in the form of the enviroment at the exclusion of all others, he hardly comes across as a rounded individual, let alone a balenced one. Then there is Denham's weird (and it is weird) attempt to justify the underfunding of Southampton City Council. Councils are resource hungry beasts of course and I have yet to meet a councillor who does not believe at least some areas of his or her authority need additional resource but Labour's record in Southampton is so lamentable as a result of the skewed funding formula that you would think that he would want to keep his head down. Far from it- he has embarked on a letter writing campaign to the press on a battle he can never win for surely residents always want more money for their area even if it is at the expense of another!

There are signs that the local Conservatives have learnt from past mistakes too; this time they have picked two tough, articulate, plausible, indeed likable local candidates to contest the seats. Unlike recent challengers, Denham & Whitehead now face opponents who are well known locally and candidates who have the platform of being local councillors (as they both were) to raise their profile and show what they can do in government (albeit at a micro level).

Another piece to the puzzle is the Lib-Dems; they polled remarkably well in both Southampton seats at the last general election but there are signs that their star is waning in the City. at the last election they got properly thumped- having made some disastrous policy decisions of their own- which again for some reason they are still campaigning on! They have also lost the telegenic Mr Kennedy (it will be interesting to see how Mr Clegg performs) and the big issue of the war is in abeyance. The war is interesting in that because they were high profile opponents of it, it did not damage them electorally. However, next time round, I would imagine the issues the country vote on nationally will by and large be the issues that Southampton votes on too and that could be very dangerous for Labour in the city if they are starting from what could perhaps be an artificially high base...


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think that if Labour continues to mess up under Brown then Denham and Whitehead's majorities will both be threatened by the Tories. It's time for a change anyway. Denham and Whitehead have both been on the scene too long. Both of them should of gone before now. Labour has plenty of competent younger faces who it should be fielding instead of John and Alan. What about Denham standing aside for a talented youngster like Matt Stephens.

8:44 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think that Matt will oust June Bridle soon anyway and this will strengthen his grip on Labour in Southampton. Surely he will get one of the parliamentary seats sooner or later.

8:46 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think the answer to your question is No. John and Alan are both very good campaigners and the local party is not moribund. The fact we now have a Tory administration will help Labour not the Tories.
One thing you have failed to mention is that Southampton has nearby constituencies that are far higher up your winnable list. Labour in Southampton has always benefited from having Romsey and Eastleigh next door. These seats will suck out any Tory/Lib Dem activists.
But again we shall see!

4:55 pm  
Blogger Matt said...

Interesting thoughts!
Seems that Matt Stephens certainly has some support from the first two correspondants and Bridle is certainly vunerable in Sholing but might Labour not want one of the 'old guard' to represent them? Cllr Richard Williams from a new Labour perspective, Cllrs Simon Letts or Marsh-Jenks from a more traditional standpoint, Cllr Boggle as a frest face with undoubted interlect or Jacqui Rayment as the 'business as usual' candidate would surely be all runners or riders?
The final writer is interesting in that he believes being in control of the Council hinders rather than assists the Tories; I suppose this all depends what you do as the administration! The point about Romsey & eastleigh being must win seats for the Conservatives that will require support from Conservative activists is an entirely valid one.

3:33 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think that Matt Stephens could be a middle of the road candidate who would have support in the local party.

Whether Southampton Labour Party is middle of the road enough to back him remains to be seen.

4:38 pm  

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