By Daniel Hewitt, Political Correspondent
Bolton North East is not a seat David Cameron or George Osborne took any notice of in 2015. The Conservatives haven’t won here since 1992, the Labour majority of just over 4000 votes made it an unrealistic target.
Two years on, the Prime Ministerial motorcade rolled up Blackburn Road last week into the heart of this constituency, and Theresa May stepped out to launch her General Election campaign, where the Labour majority is now even bigger, at 4300. She could have chosen a host of other Labour seats with much smaller majorities – Chester (93), Wirral West (417), Barrow (795) – but her choice of a relatively healthy Labour cushion shows just now ambitious the Conservative Party is of taking lots and lots of constituencies from Jeremy Corbyn.
Seats the Tories haven’t won in decades, are now in play:
CHESTER: Labour Majority 93
Chester bucked the national trend in 2015, a swing to Labour of 3% kicked out the Conservative MP Stephen Mosley and delivered Chris Matheson a surprise victory. That victory though was a narrow one, the narrowest in the country in fact of any Labour MP, helped by the Greens who didn’t stand. This has always been a marginal seat; for all of Chester’s historical beauty and grandeur it also harbours pockets of deprivation; the majority of its citizens live in semi-detached, two and three bedroom houses outside of the city walls. The seat has thus swung back and forth over the decades. If the opinion polls are even vaguely accurate this time, the seat will swing again.
WIRRAL WEST: Labour Majority 417
Labour threw the kitchen sink at this seat in 2015, and it worked. The sitting Tory MP Esther McVey suffered the consequences of continuously being put in front of TV cameras to defend the government’s latest disability cuts. A last-minute promise from George Osborne to scrap tolls fares for the Mersey tunnels fell on deaf ears as Labour’s Margaret Greenwood overturned a 2436 Tory majority. The Tories will be back here in force this time, confident they’ll get the 417 votes they need to win this back.
BARROW: Labour majority 795
The Tories haven’t won this seat since 1987, but the sitting Labour MP John Woodcock is very worried. A staunch critic of his leader Jeremy Corbyn, in February he watched the Cumbrian seat of Copeland just north of his constituency fall to the Conservatives for the first time since 1931. Like Copeland, Barrow is a remote constituency dominated by an industry Mr Corbyn has long been opposed to – nuclear. In Copeland Labour’s majority was more than 2000, in Barrow it is 795. Last week Mr Woodcock told Granada Reports his own leader was not fit to be Prime Minister and said he would never vote for him to be Prime Minister. Extraordinary stuff, but in a seat where nuclear defence is so crucial, Mr Woodcock believes the only way of defending this seat from a Tory onslaught is telling his constituents that a vote for him, is not a vote for the leader opposed to the industry that provides thousands and thousands of jobs here.
LANCASTER AND FLEETWOOD – Labour majority 1265
It’s an odd seat this. Lancaster - the historic, university city - and Fleetwood - the Victorian seaside town - are very different places. The oddity of Parliamentary boundaries lumped them together in 2010, when the Tories won by just 232 votes. Labour’s Cat Smith won it for Labour in 2015 - she was of the few North West MPs to back Jeremy Corbyn, but I understand her enthusiasm for his leadership has waned in recent months. Unlike Barrow, Mr Corbyn may prove useful to Labour in Lancaster with its large student population, Fleetwood though is a different kettle of fish. The Tories will really fancy their chances.
BLACKPOOL SOUTH – Labour Majority 2585
Like Bolton North East, the Conservatives didn’t take much interest here in 2015. All of their efforts went into holding Blackpool North up the road, where Tory MP Paul Maynard was defending a small majority. Gordon Marsden has held this seat for Labour since 1997, but the size of Theresa May’s lead in the opinion polls means he is vulnerable. UKIP have a pretty decent local operation in Blackpool. They registered 5613 votes here last time, their share up 13.5%. If their vote collapses, it’s the Tories who are likely to benefit in a town that voted overwhelmingly for Brexit.
BOLTON NORTH EAST - Labour majority 4377
Now it gets serious. If Labour start losing seats with majorities of more than 4000, they are in for their worst result in modern times. Bolton North East has not been on the Tories’ radar since the early 1990s. Like Blackpool, UKIP have a significant presence in Bolton. They won 19% of the vote in 2015, and like Blackpool, it is the Tories who will look to lure them away. Down the road from here, Bolton West was the Conservatives’ number 1 target seat in 2015 and a formidable campaign led to a surprise victory over the incumbent Labour MP Julie Hilling. The same tactics will be deployed here, but this is a much bigger ask for Mrs May.
HYNDBURN - Labour majority 4400
The Tories won Hyndburn by 21 votes in 1983. They held on to it in 1987 but then lost it in 1992, and have failed to win it back ever since. Again, this has not been a Tory target for a long time. Again, there was a big UKIP vote here last time (18%) and 66.2% of folk here voted to leave the European Union.
CHORLEY - Labour majority 4530
Well well, this would be a major coup for the Conservatives. The sitting MP here is Lindsay Hoyle. His Lancastrian boom has made him the star of every Budget Day in his role as Commons Deputy Speaker. Chorley born-and-bred, Hoyle has told me many times that his home town should have Tory written all over it, but he has worked tirelessly to keep it red ever since he won it in 1997. The bookmakers have him as favourite to replace John Bercow as Speaker of the House of Commons, but first he must fend off Conservative advances in a seat they would love to win.
WIRRAL SOUTH – Labour majority 4599
Labour’s by-election victory in February 1997 was a pre-cursor for what was to follow three months later. A fresh-faced Tony Blair grinned in the glare of the flashing cameras, New Labour had overturned a sizeable Conservative majority with a 17% swing. It was a huge blow for Prime Minister John Major who could ill-afford to lose another MP as his government limped on towards the dying of the light, now without a majority in the House of Commons. Labour has held Wirral South ever since. This constituency voted to Remain in the EU last June, making this seat much harder for the Conservatives to win than others mentioned here.
BURY SOUTH – Labour majority 4922
In a seat with a large Jewish population, Labour is facing a potential backlash over the party’s handling of an internal anti-Semitism row. Former London Mayor Ken Livingstone’s recent development of Adolf Hitler Tourette’s, and the subsequent decision by the Labour party to suspend rather than expel him, makes life much harder for those Labour members knocking on doors in wards like Sedgley and St Mary’s in Prestwich. Labour lost Sedgley to the Tories in last year’s local elections, and hung on to St Mary’s by just 19 votes. Labour councillor Alan Quinn, who lost in Sedgley, laid the blame squarely at Mr Livingstone’s door saying he had caused ‘grotesque offence to the Jewish population’.
Then there's the next tier of Labour seats, with majorities over 5000.The Conservative Party will take an interest in seats like Heywood and Middleton, Worsley and Eccles South, and Stalybridge and Hyde for the first time in a long time. With Labour as many as 22 points behind in some opinion polls, even these seats are not safe.