Battleground Yorkshire: Demographic changes give Labour hope in Tory heartland

There are only so many times Skipton can be named one of the best places to live in the UK without the demographics changing substantially.

Historically the Skipton and Ripon seat has been the traditional rural Conservative backbone of the party's base, with farmers and retirees helping the local MP along to a some 20,000 majority.

As the years have gone on, the town of Skipton has won accolade after accolade as a great place to live and bring up a family. It's not hard to see why.

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As the 'Gateway to the Dales' it is an amazing place to bring up children, with the nature of the Yorkshire Dales within walking distance of most houses in the town.

The Leeds-Liverpool canal in Skipton.The Leeds-Liverpool canal in Skipton.
The Leeds-Liverpool canal in Skipton.

The seat has half of Yorkshire's grammar schools, with professional couples taking the costs of moving into the catchment area as an alternative to private school fees.

At a financial services event in Leeds earlier this year, many of those in attendance were discussing how they live in Skipton to commute into Leeds and occasionally into London for work.

It costs as little as £2.50 to get into Leeds in just over half an hour, as little as £6 to get to York in just over an hour, and you can get to London for around £35 in about three hours.

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Skipton itself has its own strong financial services industry with Skipton Building Society, which also owns Connells, Britain's largest estate agents.

All around the market town new housing developments have sprung up to meet the demand to move here, and with the double-tax on second homes for North Yorkshire, it's perhaps more likely that these will be lived in rather than be rented out.

Though house-building is good for people wanting to live in an area, this does place further pressures on already-stretched public services.

GPs, dentists, council services, are all likely to face greater demand with an influx of people into the area, and more often than not new houses are not matched by a substantial increase in these services.

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Some market towns have been largely recession-proof, and though Skipton saw many high street casualties, the town today boasts enough micro breweries and artisan coffee shops to convince that it is doing well enough.

With that comes the demographic and change in attitudes that come with it, and with the "crossover age" when voters cross from the idealism of voting Labour to the pragmatic Tory voting rising to around 70 years old, that will only have a negative impact on Conservative support in the area. In 2011 the Channel 4 Show Love Thy Neighbour saw 12 families compete to prove they deserve to win a home in the Dales village of Grassington, outside Skipton.

The show saw two black contestants told that there are "a lot of people who get startled when they see a black face" in the area, while a same-sex couple were told that some people in the village are not comfortable with homosexuality.

Last year Grassington hosted its first Pride in the Dales event, with rural attitudes changing markedly in the last decade.

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All of these factors make the seat more winnable for Labour, but it is still a tough ask.

One senior Conservative source told The Yorkshire Post that Skipton and Ripon is "no longer" a community of farmers and has become an extension of London and Leeds' commuter belt of professionals. This seat has been Conservative since it was created in 1983, with the current MP, Julian Smith, winning four elections since 2010 to keep his current 23,000 majority.

He did not respond to multiple requests to be interviewed for this piece.

The former Northern Ireland Secretary, and former Chief Whip is rumoured to be among those set to be rewarded with a peerage by his party, with speculation high that the current Conservative Party chairman, Richard Holden, who was educated in Skipton, could run in his stead.

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Skipton was his first campaign stop since being appointed to the post.

Mr Holden yesterday told LBC that he has not yet been selected for a constituency after his own seat in

Durham disappears following the boundary changes.

"I'm afraid I am still yet to find a seat. I will be going for one, but I'm still to find one," he said.

"Obviously, I need to find somewhere to accept me to stand for them first, but I promise you if somewhere does take pity on me, then I will let you know first."

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Labour's hopes in this seat will likely require more than just the national swing to see them through, with the party needing to focus on the specific worries of the more rural elements of the constituency. Though train travel from towns to major cities is surprisingly good, its buses are not, meaning it is largely impossible to visit the Dales without a car with no direct regular buses linking major settlements up and down it.

Agriculture, though perhaps not as the major vote-winner that it was, is still important, and the party's ability to put a convincing offer to farmers and the communities around them that struggle with rural crime is key.

Though North Yorkshire is well off in general, there are pockets of deprivation in these communities, as a lack of investment extends both to poorer areas and more affluent ones in recent years.

This seat is, like Thirsk and Malton, essentially at the outer reach of Sir Keir Starmer's party at the next general election.

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It is a seat that his party would have no chance of winning in any normal election year, but one that the Conservatives will now not be able to completely ignore.

This poses a difficult problem for the Tories if they remain so far behind in the polls, that they will be fighting a defensive battle, spending money and resources that would be needed in the seats that are more on a knife-edge.

Conservative activists with low morale, and fewer councillors, following months of by-election, mayoral, and local election losses will need all the resources they can get.

Where they can take hope is that Labour's campaign machine in North Yorkshire is not as strong as theirs, and when it comes to campaigning on local issues, this will be invaluable.

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