Staffordshire seats will be key battleground in general election

-Credit: (Image: Getty Images)
-Credit: (Image: Getty Images)


Staffordshire has been visited by both main party leaders in the first few days of the general election campaign - showing how the county will be a key battleground on July 4. Labour leader Keir Starmer met voters in Stafford on Saturday, while Conservative Prime Minister Rishi Sunak visited Churchill China in the Stoke-on-Trent North constituency on Tuesday.

In the last general election, all 12 seats across Staffordshire were won by the Tories - including the so-called Red Wall constituencies in Stoke-on-Trent and Newcastle. But this time Labour will be hoping to make gains across the county, as they bid to win a majority.

Phil Catney, senior lecturer in politics at Keele University, believes that Stafford - rather than Stoke-on-Trent - could be key to Labour's ambitions. While Sir Keir will be banking on Labour retaking seats like Stoke-on-Trent Central, he will also need to turn 'bellwether' seats like Stafford red if he is to become the next PM.

READ: Sir Keir Starmer makes Staffordshire trip in visit to 'key battleground seat' - The Labour leader says residents in the area have called on the Government to address the cost-of-living crisis and NHS waiting lists

READ: Confirmed: Stoke-on-Trent lands new £20m levelling up boost - Burslem Market and Chatterley Whitfield will be among the sites to benefit from Stoke-on-Trent's Levelling Up Partnership

Ever since the Stafford constituency was recreated in 1983, the winner there has also gone on to win the overall election. Conservative Theo Clarke won by 14,377 votes in 2019 - the largest majority the seat has seen since 1983.

Dr Catney said: "New Labour managed to get hold of Stafford in 1997, but then Jeremy Lefroy won it back for the Conservatives in 2010. Labour need to win in places like Stafford if they want to secure a big majority - it's not just enough to rebuild the Red Wall, they need to build a patio around it as well.

"The Conservatives have a 14,000 majority in Stafford, which seems like a lot, but Labour believe they can win there. That shows that they aren't just playing it safe in this election, they're going for seats which will be harder win.

"The Conservatives' strategy seems to be more about shoring up their core vote, which has allowed Labour to be more aggressive. The North Midlands are very interesting, in that you have traditionally safe Labour seats, safe Conservative seats and swing seats. But Stafford is the really interesting one. If Labour can win there, they could be on course for a big majority."

Constituency data shows that Stafford is much closer than Stoke-on-Trent to the England and Wales average on metrics such as house prices, child poverty and claimant count. And Dr Catney believes that the average voters in middling places like Stafford are less susceptible to Conservative attack lines on Labour's economic credentials than they were in 2019.

He added: "We've already had a cost-of-living crisis and exploding inflation, so voters won't see how there could much more of a risk with Labour. Conservative voters are also more likely to stay at home this time, because they're not as scared of Keir Starmer as they were of Corbyn."

On paper, winning back Stoke-on-Trent North should be a much easier prospect for Labour than other seats in Staffordshire. All three Stoke-on-Trent seats had been solidly Labour for decade until Stoke-on-Trent South was won by Tory Jack Brereton in 2017, with the other two also turning blue in 2019.

With most polls now putting Labour around 20 percentage points ahead of the Conservatives, the Tories would appear to have their work cut out to retain Stoke-on-Trent North

But Mr Sunak's choice of coming to the constituency probably had a lot to do with the Tory candidate for the seat. Jonathan Gullis has been one of the most vocal and combative supporters of Tory policies like Brexit and levelling up since being elected in 2019 - as well as being a popular target for those on the left.

Dr Catney said: "I think this was all about Jonathan Gullis. He's been a high profile figure within the Conservative Party, who has been trumpeting about the Conservatives since being elected. If the Tories lose someone like that, it would be a major blow.

"The Conservatives had been chipping away at the Labour lead in Stoke-on-Trent North for years, but it was Brexit and Boris Johnson that finally got them over the line in 2019. Stoke-on-Trent then became symobolic of levelling up and that type of pork barrel politics the Conservatives were adopting. If they could separate Labour from its working class core vote, it would be left a cosmopolitan party of the big cities."

Stoke-on-Trent has been allocated millions of pounds of regeneration cash in recent years, such as the £56 million from the Levelling Up Fund for projects like the Goods Yard and Etruscan Square, and the £20 million of Levelling Up Partnership money. And during his visit to Churchill China, Mr Sunak insisted that Stoke-on-Trent remained a priority for the government under his leadership.

But if Stoke-on-Trent North still falls back to Labour, despite all the levelling up cash and Mr Gullis' boisterous cheerleading, it could be symbolic of a wider Conservative defeat across the 'Red Wall', less than five years after their historic win.

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