Election 97

South West England

South West 92 South West 97

The South West of England officially consists of the counties of Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, Somerset, Gloucestershire and Wiltshire. We have included Hampshire here to even out the size of the regions.

This is a fascinating region electorally. It contains the heartland of Lib Dem support in Devon and Cornwall, from which fastnesses they launch raids into enemy-held (usually Tory) territory - as they did, very successfully, this time. With much Conservative countryside and numerous urban pockets of Labour support, the South West operates a three-party system on the edge of England's two-party contests - and this time the third party came through, for it has to be said that hopes of a decisive Liberal Democratic breakthrough in this area have frequently been dashed.

In fact, though less newsworthy than Tony Blair's national landslide, the Lib Dems achieved something of a regional one in the South West, taking almost all their target seats. In Cornwall, they took the key target seat of St Ives and picked up the unexpected gain of South East Cornwall, where the retirement of a popular Tory MP gave them an edge. A Labour gain in the three-way marginal of Falmouth and Camborne unseated ex-athlete Sebastian Coe and, since the two remaining seats, North Cornwall and Truro, were already held by the Lib Dems, the county is Conservative-free - the nearest Tory seat to Land's End is now Devon South West.

The Tories held their ground in South Devon but, in the cases of Teignbridge and Totnes where the Conservative majority was reduced to only three figures, only just. Central Tiverton and Honiton must now also be counted as a marginal. Against this, the Lib Dems made two significant gains at Torridge and West Devon and Torbay - the latter by a majority of a mere 12. While they were busy in the countryside, Labour was making a clean sweep of Devon's two cities, taking Plymouth Sutton and Exeter.

Tory gloom continued into Somerset, where two of the neighbouring seats to Paddy Ashdown's Yeovil, Somerton and Frome and Taunton fell to the Lib Dems, along with Weston-super-mare and Northavon in the ex-county of Avon.

At this point, however, the Lib Dem onslaught petered out, with no gains in Dorset (they failed to hold even their by-election gain in Christchurch) - it is now one of only three counties in the UK that is entirely Tory - or Wiltshire, where the fight was left to Labour, who took both seats in Swindon, North and South.

Labour did exceptionally well in both Somerset and neighbouring Gloucestershire, unseating Minister William Waldegrave at Bristol West and gaining Gloucester as expected, but also picking up two entirely unexpected seats, Wansdyke and rural Stroud.

Hampshire and the Isle of Wight was one of the most interesting areas in this election, with a number of target seats for both the Lib Dems and Labour, some of them vital. As was expected, Labour took the vital marginal at Southampton Test and, rather more surprisingly, Portsmouth North. The Lib Dems gained their targets of the Isle of Wight and Portsmouth South and successful defended their by-election gain of Eastleigh against both the other parties - it is now a three-way marginal. A really unexpected result for them, however, was their gain, by two votes (a record in a 20th-century general election) of Winchester, a result that (at the time of writing) defeated incumbent Gerry Malone may challenge in court.

Although there must have been some disappointment in Lib Dem ranks over their narrow failures in South Devon and Dorset, it has to be said that Paddy Ashdown's strategy of focusing his party's energies on a number of selected target seats has paid off. Liberal Democrat incumbents are notoriously hard to dislodge, and the Lib Dems have reduced a number of Tory majorities to three figures, another obstacle on the path to Conservative resurgence.