The Footballer Belt Is On The Brink Of Turning Labour

Andy Burnham at a Labour canvassing event in Altrincham and Sale West with the party’s candidate Connor Rand (Alamy)

7 min read

The leafy suburbs of Cheshire have long been Conservative strongholds and the backbone of the party’s election-winning coalition. But changing demographics — plus a collapsing Tory brand — mean Labour could turn the ‘Footballer Belt’ red for the first time in its history.

It is clear why the three constituencies of Altrincham, Congleton and Tatton are home to some of the UK’s richest postcodes outside of London.

Altrincham Market, which led the way in reviving the town centre, is filled with wine bars, breweries, and a collection of British, Mexican and Italian food stalls. It’s a regular weekend haunt for Love Island contestants, footballers, cricketers, and TV presenters.

The neighbouring seat of Tatton boasts more than 1,000 acres of green land, and a national park with 16th century mansions. Alderley Edge, a village in the constituency, revibrates wealth. It has enough former footballers to fill an all-star Manchester United team.

Congleton, a short drive from Tatton and firmly within the ‘Footballer Belt’, is home to Tudor architecture and wall-to-wall independent shops.

All three seats were symbolic of the Conservative Party’s base during the years of former prime ministers Margaret Thatcher, John Major and David Cameron.

These seats, long considered Conservative to the bone, have often been used by the party’s central office to parachute rising stars in. Tory alumni in this desirable pocket of northwest England include former chancellors Anthony Barbour and George Osborne, Thatcher’s PPS Fergus Montgomery, ex-1922 committee chair Sir Graham Brady and minister Esther McVey.

Altrincham Market
Altrincham has been named by the Sunday Times as one of the best places to live in the North West for years, describing its market (pictured above) as “magical”

The cluster of constituencies remain full of “aspirational” voters who prioritise personal success for them and their family, according to one Tory councillor in Cheshire.

The majority of Conservative-held seats are in jeopardy due to the party’s dire national polling. With less than two weeks to go until 4 July, Rishi Sunak is running out of time to avoid a defeat of truly historic proportions. But this national picture overlooks the trend that affluent seats like Altrincham, Tatton and Congleton have quietly been moving away from the Tories for the last decade.

Labour increased its vote share in 2017 by more than ten per cent in each of these seats, far higher than the national swing towards the party then led by Jeremy Corbyn. At the Corbyn nadir in 2019 – when the party suffered its worst defeat since 1935 – Labour lost less ground in leafy Cheshire than in the ‘Red Wall’ and many southern constituencies.

Congleton was the slight outlier where the Tories’ numerical majority saw a slight uptick. But one Conservative candidate in the North West said the reception on the doorstep five years ago was particularly “dire” and far worse than both Altrincham and Tatton.

As things stand, polling suggests Keir Starmer is in a strong position to turn all three seats red. Labour is on course to take Altrincham by 14 points, according to YouGov, while Tatton and Congleton were the two of the four most competitive constituencies in the country.

Labour candidates and insiders are certain they have to fight hard to win voters in leafy Cheshire. Altrincham, Congleton and Tatton on the face of it have healthy Conservative majorities ranging between 10 to 30 per cent.

“Tatton’s obviously wild to think we could in a million years be in contention,” one Labour candidate in the North West told PoliticsHome.

Connor Rand, the Labour candidate for Altrincham and Sale West, stressed at a canvassing event in Timperley – with senior party figures shadow cabinet member Lucy Powell and Manchester mayor Andy Burnham in attendance – that the party still faced an “uphill battle”. “It will obviously take a lot of work and a lot for people to put their trust in Labour,” he said.

Yet despite this caution it is clear the Tories have been “losing ground” with voters in these areas who are younger, well-educated and more socially liberal, Professor Rob Ford of the University of Manchester told PoliticsHome.

They’ve seen that party has moved away from them and become much more populist

All three seats, like many in the traditional southern Blue Wall, have far more university educated voters than the country-at-large. Professor Will Jennings said “parts of the north” like Altrincham, Tatton and Congleton with higher numbers of younger professionals will “amplify this swing towards Labour.”

“This is why you have got places like Tatton, which would not have been on our radar as competitive before, in contention of turning red for the first time,” he said.

The Tories’ woes are likely to be compounded in these constituencies as the average age of a Conservative voter has risen from 39 in 2019 to 70 in 2024. “The demographic changes are getting lost because everywhere is going,” Scarlett Maguire, Researcher at JL Partners, told PoliticsHome.

Sam Corcoran, the Labour leader of Cheshire East council, told PoliticsHome he had seen how “professionally qualified people” were now more enthusiastic about their support for Labour. “They look more favourably to Labour, whereas in the past, the Conservatives were seen as the natural party of power across Cheshire,” he said.

One explanation for why educated, aspirational voters are moving towards Labour is that they are and always have been on the more liberal wing, or ‘One Nation’ end, of the Tory party.

Burnham told PoliticsHome voters in Altrincham were perhaps “on the more moderate side” of the Tory Party, and were appalled by Boris Johnson’s time in office and Liz Truss’s short-lived stint in Downing Street. “They’ve seen that party has moved away from them and become much more populist,” he said.

Manchester mayor Andy Burnham and shadow Cabinet minister Lucy Powell with activists in Cheshire (Alamy)

Voters here also have higher expectations of competence and delivery, according to Ford, which he says goes some way in explaining why Tory ratings in these constituencies have fallen sharply.

Carole and John, a retired couple in Knutsford, both told PoliticsHome Sunak and Johnson had not “capitalised” on the majority the Tories won in 2019. They questioned whether to stay at home on polling day as they sipped their coffees in the sun.

“It is such a shame. They’ve made so many mistakes, and the lies they have made on immigration,” said John.

One senior Tory in the North West disagreed that the Tory vote in Cheshire was put off by the Conservatives over their record. “The Truss experience was bad – which is why Starmer keeps banging on about it,” they said. “But it was 49 days of chaos, not 14 years.”

They acknowledged, however, that the party faced a serious challenge in motivating their base to come out for them on 4 July. 

Rory, 18, a school student at Altrincham Grammar School for Boys, said neither Sunak nor Starmer “impressed” him. “I didn’t like the interview clip where Sunak said he did not have a working-class friend. But Starmer is about as interesting as a door knob,” he told PoliticsHome.

Linda, a retiree from Hale, who had noticed a “younger crowd” in Altrincham than a decade ago, complained that despite voting Tory all her life “no politician” was willing to keep a promise. “It’s silly bickering in Westminster.”

Another pensioner said they had voted for the Conservatives since Edward Heath, who was prime minister in the early 1970s, but were so “disillusioned” that they would back Nigel Farage’s Reform UK. “This government has been inactive and unable to get anything done,” they said.

The Tory Party is facing a dangerous cocktail in the Footballer Belt: a mixture of apathy, a lack of trust, and a growing group of voters who believe the party does not reflect their values.

According to Jennings, there is no guarantee that the Conservatives will quickly be able to win them back. “In the long-term, Labour [if it is successful] is likely to have a challenger in these constituencies,” he said. “But we should not assume it will be Tories.”

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