General Election 2019: Why is Lancashire so important?

By Mike Stevens
Lancashire political reporter, BBC News


Lancashire is at the forefront of the national general election campaign.

We've already seen regular high-profile visitors, lots of political mud-slinging and even one candidate who has officially changed his name to Brexit.

With 80 candidates across the county's 16 constituencies desperate for your vote, dozens of issues are being discussed and debated on our doorsteps and on social media.

Health, the environment and economic inequality are all topics which come up frequently, but most roads seem to eventually lead to Brexit.

Worries about the NHS and concerns over the cost of living, for example, are constantly being framed in the context of whether, when, and how the United Kingdom will leave the European Union.

In places like Blackpool perhaps that shouldn't come as any surprise.

More than two-thirds voted Leave at the 2016 EU referendum - the highest share of the vote across the entire North West.

Image caption,
Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn have both visited Lancashire during the early stages of the campaign

Both Blackpool South and Blackpool North & Cleveleys are highly marginal constituencies, meaning that there's only a couple of thousand votes between Labour - who hold the former seat - and the Conservatives, who are defending the latter.

"You can tell how seriously the main parties are taking Blackpool as both Jeremy Corbyn and Boris Johnson visited the town within the first week of the campaign," said Edge Hill University's senior politics lecturer Paula Keaveney.

"Both parties are throwing everything at the town and I'd suspect to see a few more famous faces over the coming weeks."

The Brexit Party could play a huge role in the town. Leader Nigel Farage has decided not to field candidates in seats not currently held by the Tories.

That means they won't be able to take the votes of Leave supporters in Blackpool North & Cleveleys from the Conservative candidate. Could that prove decisive for incumbent Tory Paul Maynard as he seeks to defend his 2,023 majority?

Down in Blackpool South, though, the Brexit Party's stance on Europe may well appeal to some Conservative voters. Could that boost Labour veteran Gordon Marsden, who is sitting on a 2,523 lead over the Tories?

Heading north, the historic city of Lancaster and the former fishing town of Fleetwood have very different demographics, even though they come together as a single constituency.

Lancaster was pretty much split exactly down the middle in the June 2016 referendum - with Leave just tipping the result - while Fleetwood voted overwhelmingly in favour of Leave.

Other issues come into play here as well though. Environmental concerns have long been important to people in Lancaster and the local council recently became one of the first to formally declare a "climate emergency".

All of these factors mean Labour will be fending off serious challenges from the Brexit Party (especially in Fleetwood), the Liberal Democrats and the Green Party as well as the usual one from the Conservatives.

In places like Pendle, though, it looks more like a two-horse race. The Conservatives will be desperate to keep hold of Lancashire's most marginal seat, despite Labour narrowing the gap in 2017.

The Liberal Democrats have a tradition of doing well locally, but it's a long way back for them, having lost their deposit two years ago after failing to win at least 5% of the vote.

Ms Keaveney says May's local elections could give us a clue of what lies ahead.

"The Conservatives lost their slim majority on the council earlier this year but are still the largest party," she said.

"There is no Brexit Party candidate in the constituency, which could help the Tories, but Pendle is always on a knife-edge and hard to predict."

All change?

Meanwhile if those local elections are a premonition of things to come, Burnley could be a worry for Labour.

The constituency hasn't been Conservative for more than a century, but could all that be about to change?

Labour lost control of the town's council in May, with many voters citing the party's stance on Brexit as their reason for desertion.

Burnley voted overwhelmingly to leave the EU and the Brexit Party will be hoping to capitalise.

As with Blackpool South and other Labour-held seats, though, will it allow the incumbents to sneak home courtesy of the Leave vote being split between the Brexit Party and the Tories?

In most general elections, you get a rough idea of what will happen in Lancashire a few weeks before polling day.

This time, though, things seem to be very different.

Take Hyndburn for example. Another traditional Labour area with a large Leave vote, it's clear from speaking to voters that many still haven't made up their minds.

Again, the introduction of the Brexit Party has caused concern for activists from all of the main parties.

They are struggling to work out whether the inclusion of Mr Farage's party on ballot papers in non-Tory held seats will help or hinder them.

Elsewhere, the usual Labour versus Conservatives battle in Morecambe & Lunesdale has another challenger in the shape of former Labour councillor Darren Clifford.

Mr Clifford, who defected to become Independent earlier this year, is hoping to poach votes from his former political home.

He's standing on a "pro-Brexit, pro-nuclear" ticket in this majority-Leave constituency, which is home to the Heysham nuclear power stations.

And if you thought all that was complicated and hard to predict, we haven't even got to Chorley yet.

The town was expecting to sit this election out, after Sir Lindsay Hoyle - the local Labour MP for the past two decades - was earlier this month elected Speaker of the House of Commons.

Tradition dictates that the Speaker is re-elected unopposed by the major parties.

And while Labour, the Lib Dems, the Tories, and the Brexit Party have all agreed not to put forward a candidate (Mr Hoyle no longer represents Labour), two candidates are not happy to stand by.

The Green Party's James Melling argues the arrangement is "unfair" and says he is "giving the people of Chorley a choice" by standing.

The Brexit Party's prospective candidate Mark Smith was so annoyed by the decision of his bosses not to stand, that he is still throwing his hat into the ring as an Independent candidate.

He's even changed his name to Mark Brexit-Smith to prove his commitment to the cause.

Ms Keaveney believes it is hard to predict what difference these two candidates will make.

"Sir Lindsay Hoyle currently has a massive majority but he won't be campaigning this time around," she said.

"It will be interesting to see how effective a month of leafleting and knocking on doors by the other two candidates is."

During Jeremy Corbyn's visit to Lancaster, Labour's local candidate Cat Smith kicked off the event by referring to Lancashire as "the centre of the world".

Whilst that might not be geographically correct, when it comes to this election it's perhaps not far from the truth.