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Wednesday, 23 May, 2001, 11:17 GMT
The UK battleground

Peter Snow

On the face of it Labour looks very hard to beat - William Hague's Conservatives need a record-breaking 11.5% swing to win a majority.

But Labour's landslide in 1997 was won on the lowest turnout since 1935.

Tony Blair's 44% of the total vote was actually only 31% of those entitled to vote, and, as always with the British electoral system, small shifts of support in a select number of marginal seats can change the position dramatically.

The parties that now succeed in energising those who did not vote in 1997 and in targeting voters in the decisive marginal seats will have everything to gain.

So where will the key battles be fought?

Vulnerable

If the Conservatives are to win a majority, they must gain 165 seats - mainly from Labour - a hugely ambitious target.

But there are prospects for the Tories short of outright victory.

There are 90 seats - see the Crucial Seats section - in which Labour is most vulnerable. And in all but 10 of them the Tories are the challengers.

If Tony Blair loses them all to a swing of just 7.5%, he loses his majority and is left struggling to form a government in a hung parliament.

If William Hague's Tories can achieve that swing, which has been done before, they will have put the party back on the path to power.

Fertile Tory hunting ground

Labour's critical 90 seats begin with Kettering where Philip Sawford's majority was only 189 in 1997, and climb up to Birmingham Yardley where Labour's Estelle Morris, an education minister in Tony Blair's government, had a majority of 5,315.

Peter Snow during the 1997 election campaign
Peter Snow during the 1997 election campaign
Almost half of these seats in which the Tories are the challengers are in London and south east England.

It was here that Labour scored most heavily in its landslide victory in 1997.

The Conservatives can only begin to return to power when they win back the support of those who deserted them in seats like Romford, Hornchurch, Finchley and Golders Green, and Enfield Southgate - where Lady Thatcher (through the 1980s) and Michael Portillo (until his spectacular defeat in 1997) once looked invulnerable.

This fertile cluster of vulnerable Labour seats stretches up though Hertfordshire to Luton, Milton Keynes and beyond into Northamptonshire where Kettering, Wellingborough, and Northampton South which would fall to a 1.0% swing.

Nationalist threat

So that is one battleground where Labour is nervous, but Wales and Scotland may give Mr Blair problems too.

Here it is not the Tories who are the threat but the nationalists.

Plaid Cymru seriously worried Labour in the Welsh Assembly elections in 1999 by taking nine of the 40 constituency seats and grabbing nearly a third of the vote

In Scotland the SNP was snapping at Labour's heels in a number of seats.

Here too turnout will be critical for Labour. If the nationalists can fire up more of their supporters than Labour, Tony Blair could suffer serious damage.

Tory-Lib Dem fight

And finally there is another important battleground - the fight between the Tories and the Liberal Democrats in around 100 seats in which Labour has little chance.

The Liberal Democrats succeeded in seizing 46 of them in 1997 - mainly in south and south west England - partly by persuading Labour supporters to vote tactically by deserting their party in these seats and voting Lib Dem to get the Tories out.

They will be out to hold onto that tactical vote this time and build on it.

The Tories will be equally committed to making that Lib-Lab tactical alliance unravel.

There is only one other battleground that could suddenly matter - one that strikes fear into the heart of the Tories.

If there is a swing - even a small one - to Labour, we could find ourselves on election night picking our way through a battlefield of fallen Tory grandees like John Gummer, Gillian Shephard and Kenneth Clarke.

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