Labour expects surge of ‘shy Reform’ voters in some northern and Midlands seats

Labour candidates and activists are privately braced for a surge in support for Nigel Farage’s hard-right Reform UK in north-west England and the Midlands, with some forecasting a margin of fewer than 2,000 votes between the two parties in some seats in Thursday’s general election.

In certain Conservative-held seats, campaigners told the Guardian that the Tories were likely to be pushed into third place by Reform, with one citing the phenomenon of “shy Reformers” affecting the results.

In some more diverse constituencies, there has in effect been a double splintering of the vote, with a candidate on the left or campaigning on Gaza appealing particularly to BAME voters, coupled with growing Reform support among white voters who might have otherwise have been targeted as Conservative switchers to Labour.

“Our target voters are vulnerable,” one candidate said. “A last-minute issue could sway them to Reform.”

Reform UK – whose central pitch is a crackdown on immigration, and several of whose candidates stand accused of making racist remarks – started the election campaign polling at about 11%, but after the surprise return of Farage as leader, support for the party rose to an average of 16% last week.

One Labour organiser in the East Midlands said it was possible Reform could win a Labour-held seat in northern England or the Midlands. They said it was almost impossible to track the party’s support via their canvassing data and compared the phenomenon to 2015, when Labour had no way of measuring the scale of the vote for Reform’s predecessor party, Ukip. “I expect some shocks,” the activist said.

Seats where activists are understood to have raised concerns about Reform include two in Oldham, as well as Leigh and Atherton, and Makerfield. Other places where Reform is expected to perform well are Bolsover and Sherwood Forest, and in Barnsley.

A senior organiser in the Midlands said Labour would comfortably win their Tory-held seat but that Reform would “definitely come second”. They said they were concerned the Reform vote was higher than expected because of the high rate of postal vote returns. Those who vote by post are likely to be older and therefore skew to the right.

“Our postal vote turnout is 80%. That means that some of those former Tories are still voting – and I don’t think they are all voting Labour,” they said. “We’re holding back Tory attacks in the last day because we think it might shift people to Reform.”

The organiser said they did not rule out a shock defeat for Labour in one or two seats, particularly those with a majority white population. “We have some very weak candidates in some places, especially where we are challenging Tories,” they said.

Activists said they had seen little evidence of an effective Reform ground campaign but that they suspected many of the undecided white voters they were encountering were breaking for Reform, especially where a local issue was at play, such as a hotel for asylum seekers or the imposition of electricity pylons.

“It’s specifically men breaking for Reform. Often we are getting women answering the door, they are voting Labour. In 2015, we had [a] 7,000 Ukip vote and they just didn’t say – they didn’t register on the canvass return.”

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Another campaigner said: “I think the imposition of Labour candidates has annoyed some local people. Most of these seats we will still win, but it’ll be too close for comfort and potentially less than 2,000 votes between us and second-placed Reform.”

Labour-held seats where a splintering of the vote was causing significant unpredictability include Debbie Abrahams’s and Jim McMahon’s seats in Oldham, as well as Bury North, where James Daly had the smallest majority in the country for the Conservatives.

“The polls may not pick up these ‘shy Reformers,’” one activist said. “Lots of the ‘don’t knows’ aren’t actually ‘don’t knows’ – they’re voting Reform but don’t want to admit it.”

Most candidates and activists still believe Labour is on course for a comfortable victory but say efforts will be made immediately to persuade senior Labour strategists of the need to devote significant attention to Reform come the next election.

“It has all the makings of a Ukip effect of taking votes off us and the Tories 50-50, making Farage more influential,” the activist said. “We seem to be sleepwalking towards it all, with lots not realising the huge shift that is about to happen in our politics.”


Updated: Juli 3, 2024 — 1:19 pm

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