Expert advice from Harry Shackleton, a partner at strategic communications and business transformation consultancy Inflect Partners
It was indicative that Keir Starmer, the Labour Party leader, chose to visit Medway to celebrate the May 2023 local elections results. With the governing Conservative party losing more than a thousand seats overnight, there were plenty of victories to choose from across the country. Still, the triumphant opposition leader chose Kent and for good reason.
Labour had taken control of Medway Council for the first time in more than 20 years, but it was not just Kent where results seemed to suggest something afoot; across the South East, voters moved away from the Conservatives and the previously impregnable “blue wall” seems at risk. And not just to Labour, the Lib Dems made great strides in Surrey and West Sussex, whilst the Greens look set to lead Folkstone Council.
Pollsters will tell you that housing, schools and Brexit are all factors in this, as well as a sense of neglect across the South as political priorities have focused on the “Red Wall” voters further north since the 2019 election, often at the expense of areas like Kent, but there is something else afoot than voter reactions to current policy challenges.
Traditional voting blocs across the country are breaking down, particularly post-Brexit, and demographic shifts driven by the pandemic and changing populations are upsetting long-established political orthodoxy.
This is particularly true in the South East, long a bastion of the Conservative vote but now eyed up greedily by opposition parties ahead of a General Election next year.
But what does this political uncertainty mean for the region and for business? Whilst businesses thrive on certainty, in political terms, a little uncertainty might actually be a good thing.
With parliamentary seats in play, all of the main parties will be looking closely at the electoral maths and thinking about where to prioritise their resources.
Whilst seats like Hastings and Rye (3.7% swing required) will have always been high on a target list, suddenly seats like Worthing East and Shoreham (7.0% swing required) or possibly even Crawley (8.4% swing required) seem like they might be in play.
So, what does that mean? It means over the next year or more, until a General Election that must be held in January 2025 at the latest, the region is likely to see a flurry of political activity and attention. Local candidates will be more active, national politicians will be parachuted into the region for high-profile visits and both the main parties will be keen to hear from businesses about their issues.
This represents an opportunity for businesses in the region. Politicians will be more open to meeting and currying favour, offering you the opportunity to build relationships that could be helpful in the future and get your message across.
For businesses looking to raise their profile, there will be regional and perhaps national media opportunities to invite incumbent MPs or candidates for site visits (bonus marks if you can offer high vis and a hard hat). And for businesses with something to say, there will be more opportunities to get your message out to stakeholders and media alike.
With the South East becoming a political battleground, now is the time to think about what it means for you.