Inside the grassroots Tory battle to win Labour’s target seats

As the run-up to the general election accelerates, Rishi Sunak been focusing his campaign on defending safe Conservative seats – many of which have been held by the party for over a century.

However, his “Dunkirk strategy”, which aims to limit the number of losses in the face of near-certain defeat, has left Tory candidates in marginal seats to fend for themselves while fighting against the odds laid out in recent polls.

Despite the odds, some Conservative candidates told i they believe they “can overturn any poll”.

Here are some of Labour’s target seats where Tory candidates are battling to win over voters.

Burnley, Lancashire

Burnley is Labour’s number one target seat. The party lost to the Conservatives by just 127 votes in 2019, and will need a swing of 0.13 per cent to win this time.

YouGov’s recent MRP poll forecasts that Labour will win with 55 per cent of the vote, while the Conservatives trail on 20 per cent of the vote.

Despite the bleak predictions for the Tories, Don Whitaker, deputy chair of Burnley Conservative Association, told i: “We can overturn any poll. Personally, I don’t follow polls. It’s going to be hard work, but Antony [Higginbotham, the Conservative candidate] is going to win because he deserves it.”

Burnley used to be considered a safe Labour seat. The party won every general election in the constituency from 1935 to 2019, with the exception of the 2010 election, which was won by the Liberal Democrats.

“In the 2019 general election, we wouldn’t stand a chance here either,” Mr Whitaker said. “This was a safe Labour seat for many decades. But we won and we can overturn this poll, too.”

High Peak, Derbyshire

High Peak is Labour’s third most important target. The party lost by 590 in 2019 and will only need a swing of 0.54 to win at the general election.

Local elections at High Peak Borough Council last year painted an optimistic picture for the Labour Party. The party gained 10 seats, bringing its total up to 29, while the Tories lost six, dropping to 10.

YouGov’s MRP poll forecasts Labour would win 55 per cent of the vote on 4 July, while the Conservatives would get 26 per cent.

However, Adie Hopkinson, chairman of the High Peak Conservative Association, said: “It’s going very well. I’ve met seven people this morning that are Labour voters who all said to me they are going to vote Robert Largan [Conservative candidate], even though they’ve been Labour voters. I had three yesterday say the same.

“We’ve had a lot of support from CCHQ and our campaign is going well.”

Wolverhampton West, West Midlands

Wolverhampton West is Labour’s fifth most important target. The party lost by a majority of 934 in 2019 and will need a minor swing of 0.92 per cent to win.

YouGov’s MRP poll suggests that Labour will win the seat at the general election with 53 per cent of the vote, while the Conservatives will win 28 per cent.

Local elections for seats at Wolverhampton Council earlier this year offered a positive outlook for Labour. It gained a seat, bringing it’s total number of councillors up to 47, while the Tories lost a seat, bringing their number down to 12.

This was compounded by the result of the West Midlands mayoral election, which saw Conservative candidate Andy Street, who had been mayor since 2017, narrowly defeated by Labour’s Richard Parker.

Tory candidate Mike Newton said: “Conservative values continue to resonate quite strongly with the people [in Wolverhampton]”.

He added that a Tory win is “certainly not out of the question.Our support feels quite resilient.”

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Mr Newton added. “Obviously it would be easier if the national picture was a bit more favorable to us but nonetheless we’ll keep doing what we’re doing on the ground.

“Winning is certainly not out of the question. It’s still two weeks away from polling day.

“The situation could improve at national level, equally it could get worse. We’re a very long way from conceding defeat here and we’ll continue to scrap all the way to the end.”

Conservative councillor Sohail Khan told i that “no one knows what’s for sure what’s going to happen until polling day,” but added that “you need to be realistic.”

He said: “It’s a bellwether seat, so it’s always swung by a small margin. Everything depends on hard work, but you need to be realistic. I’m not deluded.

“The polls are showing that it’s going to be a landslide victory of Labour. I don’t feel personally that that’s going to happen. Inflation has come down, interests rates will start coming down. Hopefully voters will take that into account.

“At the end of the day, the polls can show what they want, but no one knows for sure what’s going to happen until polling day.”

Bolton North East, Greater Manchester

Bolton North East is Labour’s eighth most important target seat, and the party will need a swing of 1.28 per cent to overturn a majority of 378.

Mark Logan, the Tory candidate who won in 2019, defected to Labour a week after the general election. However charity worker Kirith Entwistle is now running for the Labour party in the seat.

Adele Warren, who is standing as the Conservative candidate, said that she “stepped into the breach” after Mr Logan’s defection, adding that she is “not one to back away from any fight.”

She told i: “It’s obviously a very short campaign for me. I tried to hit the ground running with very little preparation regarding campaign funds, etcetera. It’s all been very quick.

“I knew this was going to be difficult just because of the situation that we’re in, but I’m not one to back away from any fight. If you look at the polls, I think we’ve got a lot of fights on our hands. We’ve all got our own battles at the minute.

“I will give it my best.

Labour is forecast to win in Bolton North East with 53 per cent of the vote, while the Conservatives are predicted to get 25 per cent.

Election 2024

Rishi Sunak, Sir Keir Starmer and other party leaders are on the campaign trail, and i‘s election live blog is the go-to place for everything on the general election.

All the main parties have launched their manifestos: read i‘s breakdown of all the pledges from the Tories, Green Party, Labour, Liberal Democrats and Reform UK.

i has urged the parties to commit to its Save Britain’s Rivers manifesto to improve our waterways. The Lib Dems became the first to back the campaign, followed by the Green Party. Keir Starmer called the campaign ‘really important’ but stopped short of throwing full support behind it.

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