Election 97

South East England

South East 92 South East 97

Britain's most populous (and prosperous) region, the South East of England presented a very simple picture after the 1992 election, when Labour's prospects were so cruelly dashed. First, a swathe of Tory-dominated countryside in Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire, Berkshire, Hertfordshire, Kent, Surrey, and Sussex (Essex, Hampshire and Oxfordshire, although in the official South East, have been moved out to keep VRML file sizes down.) Second, London, the nation's capital, with a red Labour-voting core surrounded by a ring of Conservative suburbs, with the only Lib Dem seat in the region at Southwark North and Bermondsey.

The picture now is quite different. The red inner core of London has exploded outward to take in most of the outlying suburbs, with a substantial yellow Lib Dem presence (five adjoining London seats) to the southwest. Outside the capital, the sea of Tory blue is now marked by swathes and spots of red as the South East's towns and cities have declared for the Labour Party. If there is one region that epitomises the seismic shift that has occurred in British politics this year, this is the one. It is a result that Labour cannot have expected, even in their wildest dreams.

The result in London was almost a meltdown for the Tories, who were left with 11 seats, six north of the river and five south. North of the river, Labour made its target seats of Brentford and Isleworth, Edmonton, Hayes and Harlington and Ilford South, with sizeable majorities. But the shock mounted as rock-solid Tory outer London seats - Brent North, Enfield North, Enfield Southgate, Harrow East, Harrow West, Hendon, Hornchurch, Ilford North, Romford and Upminster - fell like dominoes into the Labour camp. For many, the defining moment of the 1997 election will have been the count at Enfield Southgate, where Michael Portillo, Defence Secretary and hot tip for the Tory leadership, lost his seat by 1,433 votes.

South of the river, the pattern of Tory defeat was repeated, except that this time their seats fell to a two-pronged assault by Labour and the Lib Dems. The latter picked up a string of adjacent gains to the south west, Carshalton and Wallington, Kingston and Surbiton, Richmond Park, Sutton and Cheam and Twickenham. The Lib Dems have always had a strong presence in this area, but they were only tipped to pick up Twickenham and, on an outside bet, Richmond Park.

There were still plenty of seats for Labour to take - they achieved their target seats of Croydon North, Eltham and Mitcham and Morden and went on to pick up a number of outsiders, some of which were regarded as true-blue Conservative territory - Battersea, Bexleyheath and Crayford, Croydon Central, Putney and Wimbledon. Only the 'Kent' boroughs of Greater London have held to the Tories in the south, although it must concern them that there is a resurgent Lib Dem challenge even here - perhaps the voters in Orpington are remembering the famous by-election victory of 1962.

Moving outside the capital, there was some comfort for the Conservatives in Surrey. With Dorset and West Sussex, it is now one of three counties that still return only Tory MPs to the Commons. The closest result was in Surrey South West, where health minister Virginia Bottomley's majority was squeezed to 2,694 by the Lib Dems.

Kent, on the other hand, was full of surprises. Labour will have expected to take Dover, Dartford and possibly Gravesham, but must have been surprised when all the other seats on the Thames estuary - Chatham and Aylesford, Gillingham, Medway and Sittingbourne and Sheppey, fell into their hands. A further bonus was Thanet South, the supposedly safe seat of Jonathan Aitken, one of a number of Tory MPs facing sleaze allegations.

West Sussex maintained its unswerving loyalty to the Conservatives, but East Sussex was a disaster zone for them. Labour was already tipped to gain Crawley and one of the two Brighton seats, Pavilion. In the event, they went on to gain Brighton Kemptown and, shockingly, genteel Hove. More plausible was their win in Hastings and Rye, one of many cases of clear tactical voting in this election and now a three-way marginal. (It is worth noting, by the way, that the preponderance of tactical voting in 1997 has created many more such three-way fights than in 1992 - they could be interesting next time around). A surprise result for the Lib Dems gave them Lewes, their first seat in this part of the country for a long time.

Thrills and spills continued into Berkshire. Labour 'gained' Slough, a seat that was really already theirs by virtue of boundary changes, and the Lib Dems easily held their by-election gain of Newbury, but one of the evening's great shocks was when both Reading seats, East and West, declared for Labour. Buckinghamshire gained its first Labour seats in a long time as both seats in the New Town of Milton Keynes fell, Milton Keynes South West was a Labour target, but North East much more of a long shot.

There were no real surprises in Bedfordshire, but Labour must have felt quite content, making all three of their target seats - Bedford, Luton North and Luton South. Likewise no one can have been surprised by Labour's Barbara Follett capturing Stevenage in Hertfordshire, but the swathe that Labour cut through this New Town/dormitory county was quite unprecedented. Welwyn Hatfield was a tough win, though within the bounds of possibility, but they cannot have expected to gain Hemel Hempstead, St Albans and Watford.

The South, and particularly the South East, of England provided the most dramatic moments of this election campaign. It was here that Labour had to break through, as they more than did. It was in the South that we would see signs of Liberal resurgence, and they were there. Above all, though, as we look at the new electoral map, it is the change in the status of the Tory Party that is most significant. It is not merely that they have been wiped out of Scotland, Wales and many entire counties of England, but that in the South East, their natural stamping ground, they have become almost purely a party of the rural shires, with a few recalcitrant suburbs to their name. They will have a long twilight struggle ahead to be regarded as the national party of England, let alone the party of the Union.