Today's Guardian article, "Local elections: Tories tipped for heavy losses," contains the following statement:
...the Conservatives could lose about 500 seats to the Lib Dems and 300 to Labour. The latter traditionally makes fewer gains in the shires, where many of the elections are being held.
I've never before heard the expression "the shires". What does this refer to? Is it strictly a geographic reference or does it have a more subtle political or demographic meaning?
This was referring to local council elections affecting English and Northern Irish councils.