Election 2010: The Midlands and East Anglia

Labour must fight off advances from both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats across the middle of England.

By Alex Stevenson

Six months out from the likely date of the general election on May 6th, here’s a pick of some of the key battlegrounds which could dominate the coming campaign.

The Midlands

“I’ve always thought that the most important job of the business ministry – and the Treasury come to that – is to make it easier for the small businessman in the Midlands to make his living, to produce a bit of prosperity and create some jobs,” Ken Clarke told Conservative delegates at the party conference this year.

The big beast’s pitch will be tested on polling day in a number of key seats where the local Tories think they’re in with a big chance. Lynda Waltho won Stourbridge by just 407 votes in 2005 and will view Margot James as a major threat. David Kidney of Stafford has a bigger cushion but still has just a 3.9 per cent advantage. Jeremy Lefroy, the Tory candidate here, has made hay out of the Stafford hospital issue, leading the campaign for a public inquiry. And then there’s Redditch, the seat of “disgraced” former home secretary Jacqui Smith. Will she survive her damaging expenses revelations, her time in power, and her husband’s nocturnal habits?

The Midlands, especially to the west, are an area where the Liberal Democrats are especially ambitious. Boundary changes have played in their favour in Birmingham Hall Green: the new constituency has bits of various old ones in it, and the third party nationally hope to do well in its wards out of Birmingham proper. The Lib Dems will also be targeting Worcestershire West from Tory merchant banker Harriett Baldwin, who replaces standing-down Michael Spicer. Richard Burt, husband of Solihull’s Lorely, will hope to pick up votes from instinctive Tory voters frustrated by the local council’s plans to cover its charming countryside with thousands of homes. The Lib Dems have been banging away here for years, local campaigners have told us, but this time they think it might finally be theirs.

And finally, how could we forget Solihull? This big surprise from the 2005 election saw Lorely Burt scrape through against the Tories by just 279 votes. The last time the Tories re-entered government, in 1979, their majority here was 30,000. But the demographics have changed, and the usual Lib Dem incumbency factor could play to Burt’s advantage. The Tories say their candidate, Maggie Throup, is getting excellent coverage in the local press. Both sides agree this is an interesting contest.

East Anglia

Labour seats in the east, very much part of John Denham’s ‘southern comfort’ strategy, are looking very vulnerable for 2010. Armed forces minister Bill Rammell’s supermajority of 97 votes in Harlow seem likely to come under for a stern investigation. Angela Smith in Basildon faces a tough fight, too, but there is a feeling within the Labour party that if anybody can save herself, she can. The Tories will be looking to hold on to places like Harwich which went blue in 2005. Thanks to the outspoken, Speaker-slaying Douglas Carswell, that seems more than plausible.

One of the most fascinating seats in the region is Watford, a genuine three-way race. Claire Ward, the Labour MP, beat the Lib Dems into first place four years ago. But the Tories in third were less than 2,000 votes behind. Labour are bullish about holding on to the seat; recent council elections saw a big swing away from the Lib Dems. And the Tories being forced to reselect their candidate won’t have helped, either. But the Lib Dems hold the directly elected mayoralty, making this a thoroughly interesting seat to watch.

Another seat which continues to fascinate in the eastern region is Norwich North, which in the summer elected Conservative Chloe Smith as parliament’s youngest MP. The by-election was the result of the exit from politics of Ian Gibson, a much-loved figure whose expenses excesses meant he was given the boot by Labour’s ‘star chamber’. Constituents felt he had been treated unfairly and duly elected Smith in his place. The strong tradition of Labour voting could mean she fails to cling on; but the likelihood is she’ll be given another chance.