Election 2010: The south

The Conservatives are in the hunt for gains across the south of England as Liberal Democrat and Labour struggle to cling on to their seats. In the capital, at least, everything is up for grabs.

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 south-west

The less uncharitable describe the south-west as backward; that’s nowhere more true than in Somerton and Frome, the seat of the great bearded Lib Dem parliamentarian David Heath. He’s very well respected across the political spectrum but, with a notional supermajority of just 39, can’t sleep comfortably at nights as the threat of Annunziata Rees-Mogg (yes relation) looms under him. Politics in this neck of the woods is almost 19th century in its character – a real struggle between liberal and conservative values.

The strong yellow presence in the south-west region may have peaked in 2005. Lib Dems say many of these seats will be harder to hold than they were to win in the first place. Most view their gains here as tough fights to hold; the Tories see winning seats against the Lib Dems in places like Cornwall, where the Lib Dems hold all five of the current seats, as part of their election-winning strategy.

Local issues could play well for the Lib Dems, however. Tessa Munt in Wells has David Heathcoat-Amory’s expenses claims for manure to biofuel her challenge there; she must overcome a notional majority of 5.7 per cent. The campaign in Weston-super-Mare is likely to be dominated by proposals to construct an energy-generating barrage across the Severn river. Opinion is divided down the middle; Conservative John Penrose won the constituency off the Lib Dems last time round. The winner in 2010 is likely to have the best judgment on the barrage issue.

Boundary changes tend to even themselves out, but they aren’t doing Labour any favours in Bristol North West. The current seat straddles south Gloucestershire but is now transformed. Lib Dem gains in terms of councillors mean the seat could be yet another Tory-Lib Dem fight. Sam Townend, replacing Doug Naysmith and attacked on all fronts, won’t be cheered by that.

South-east

It’s a bit more straightforward in the south-east, the natural Conservative heartland. With David Cameron seeking to enter Downing Street the slim Labour marginals in Kent are surefire targets. Jonathan Shaw in Chatham and Aylesford looks especially vulnerable with a majority of 2,332 in 2005. Dover could prove another scalp after the recent announcement ports could be privatised to raise some public-finance-helping cash – not that Gwyn Prosser was especially sympathetic to the government.

The only seat in this region the Tories are worried about is Eastbourne, where Nigel Waterson has suffered the Lib Dems taking over the council two years ago. He’ll be hoping they fail in their efforts to frame the campaign as a personality contest but even so faces a tough fight, defending a notional majority of just 1.6 per cent.

Away from the big-party struggles, the Greens’ Caroline Lucas will be doing her best to win her party a first seat in parliament in Brighton Pavilion. The Greens were pipped into third place in 2005 but a steady increase in their profile, helped by the ever-growing prominence of environmental issues, could see her gain the extra 6,000 or so votes she needs to unseat Labour’s David Lepper.

London

The capital is about as hard to call as ever – perhaps more so, as its diverse make-up is reflected in the different kinds of contests on offer. The most electorally significant contests are likely to be in places where inner city deprivation brushes up against areas which are becoming wealthier. Sean Bailey in Hammersmith, for example, is taking on Labour’s Andy Slaughter. Massive boundary changes mean Hands will gain support in Kensington, but Slaughter will be boosted by areas like White City.

The capital hosts some of Labour’s most vulnerable constituencies. Battersea, where Martin Linton is struggling with a supermajority of just 163, could be ousted by the Tories’ Jane Ellison. Rudi Vis has the smallest notional majority of all in Finchley and Golders Green – just 31 votes separate him from the Conservatives. But there are also hopes for Labour gains here. Lee Scott in Ilford North could struggle against Labour’s Sonia Klein. And Ealing Central and Acton, which was clearly Labour but after boundary changes now feels far more Tory, has a notional majority of only 84.

A final competitive clash is that between the Liberal Democrats’ Sarah Teather and Labour’s Dawn Butler. Teather’s constituency of Brent East has disappeared, leaving her challenging the jacuzzi-claiming Butler in Brent Central. This will be a hard-fought struggle.