Wednesday, April 22, 2015

The Changing Landscape

Look at the political map of south-east England, outside of London, and it is a sea of blue. There have been times when there were splodges of other colours, but currently you would have to squint to pick out the tiny dots where there is anything other than Conservative representation in the House of Commons. Of the eight constituencies in East Sussex, five are currently held by the Tories but, in an outcome that will probably mirror our fractured national electoral picture, this is set to change in two weeks' time.

There are two constituencies that cover large, mainly rural areas – Wealden and Bexhill & Battle –and these are typical Tory territory. They have returned Conservative MPs since the dawn of time and that is unlikely to change this year. The odious UKIP polled well in these areas in local and European elections last year but, with large majorities, the Tories should see off any challenge even if UKIP make a sizeable dent in their vote. The Liberal Democrats came second in both seats last time but may see the rise in popularity of the Greens in these areas translate into votes at their expense.

Two of those tiny dots on the map are yellow and represent the neighbouring seats of Lewes and Eastbourne. Lewes was won narrowly by Liberal Democrat Norman Baker in 1997, ending a long line of Tory MPs, and he has held it since with a reasonable majority. Baker is a popular MP locally and has always benefitted from a massive anti-Tory tactical vote; but the radical spirit of many Lewesians view his participation as a minister in the Tory-led coalition government as heresy; the Green Party is hoping to capitalise.

Eastbourne became a Liberal Democrat seat more recently. In 2010, Stephen Lloyd defeated the Tory incumbent by a majority of over 3,000 in a constituency the Conservatives are desperate to win back next month. When there was a major fire on Eastbourne pier last summer, Cameron and Osbourne were helicoptered in the next day with a bag of cash for refurbishment.

Of the four urban seats in East Sussex – three in Brighton and Hove, one for Hastings & Rye – all bar one are currently held by the Tories. Caroline Lucas is the only Green dot on the political map: she represents Brighton Pavilion with a slim majority but may feel some fallout from the unpopularity – transport policies, 2013’s bin strike – of the Green-run city council. I have always been impressed by Lucas: she has been the only MP to appear at local teachers’ strike rallies and has spoken eloquently and passionately against the Tories’ ideological assault on comprehensive education. All four of these constituencies are held with majorities of under 2,000 and are in the top 30 of Labour’s target seats.

With an excellent local candidate in Sarah Owen, opinion polls suggest that Labour will take Hastings and win two of the three Brighton seats: Lucas will survive but the Conservatives will lose Brighton Kemptown and Hove. Hove is something of a bellwether seat: since 1979, whichever party has won there has formed the government. In 1997, on hearing that Labour had taken Hove, Tony Blair became convinced that the Tories had finally been defeated.

Current polling also suggests that Lewes and Eastbourne will re-elect their current MPs and, if this is correct, come 7th May, East Sussex will have one of the most politically diverse landscapes in the south-east: 3 Labour MPs, 2 Conservative, 2 Liberal Democrat and 1 Green.

This may still not represent everyone: speaking recently of his “emotional attachment to a Labour Party that no longer exists”, the writer Irvine Welsh reminded me of my own dilemma. The Trade Union and Socialist Coalition (TUSC), an alliance launched by the late Bob Crow, most reflect my views but are fielding a candidate in only one East Sussex seat and that is, sadly, not where I live. Thanks to Nick Clegg not holding out for a referendum on proportional representation as his thirty pieces of silver, my vote in one of those large rural constituencies will be irrelevant. But I still don’t know whether to follow my emotional attachment or support those who most resemble what Labour used to be, the only anti-austerity party I can vote for: The Green Party.

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