As a consequence of Labour right wing MPs deciding to perform the Farewell Symphony through the medium of interpretive dance, political observers have two Parliamentary by-elections to brighten up a dank February. In normal circumstances these would both be easy Labour holds. Yet, following a cascade of money that has no doubt been prompted by Labour’s speleological exploration of new polling depths, the prices offered by the bookies suggest something very different. In Stoke Central, Labour are narrow favourites ahead of UKIP, with the maillot jaune having swapped between these two parties more than once. In Copeland, the Conservatives are heavily-backed favourites, despite not having taken the seat since the Second World War.
The parties are briefing furiously. Theresa May is visiting Copeland and Jeremy Corbyn is visiting Stoke Central. In line with both of these visits, the Sun has reported that Labour have all but given up in Copeland while Stephen Bush in the New Statesman and Patrick Maguire in the Observer have both speculated that Labour seem sure to hold Stoke Central with the Lib Dems doing surprisingly well. Aspersions are being cast on UKIP’s organisational abilities – they can do it in a referendum but the pundits are sceptical of their ability to do it on a cold Thursday evening in Stoke.
What should we expect?
Both of these seats should be fearsome mountains for the challengers to conquer. The Conservatives have no track record in Copeland. They have not increased their vote share at any Parliamentary by-election while they have been in government since Beaconsfield in 1982, and even then they did so only by 0.1%. With Labour 7% ahead of them at the general election, the Conservatives will win only by breaking this streak or by seeing Labour’s vote share fall far faster than their own. Both are possible but neither is exactly easy to envisage, given the historical precedents. If the Conservatives pull this off it will be a truly astonishing victory and a crushing defeat for Labour.
UKIP’s challenge in Stoke Central is if anything still stiffer. The kippers have only previously taken seats at by-elections where the incumbent had defected to them. They have flattered to deceive in Newark and Oldham West & Royton, despite a lot of boosting of their prospects. They have twice come close (in Eastleigh and Heywood & Middleton) but on both occasions suffered from a lack of local infrastructure. Victory for the kippers would be unprecedented and sensational. A lot of assumptions about the direction of British politics would need to be rethought.
UKIP have claimed that it is only 72nd on their target list. So why has their leader decided to stand in the seat himself? Well, that claimed place on the target list looks a lot like expectation management. It is 15th on the list of UKIP targets ranked by swing needed. It is the 32nd seat ranked by vote share achieved by UKIP in the constituency. It should be a lot higher than 72nd on any sensible target list. This is the sort of constituency they need to be making good progress in.
So while UKIP should not be expected to win Stoke Central, they should be expected to do well if they are going places any time soon. It is reasonable to expect UKIP to come a good second as a minimum. If the Lib Dems or the Conservatives are snapping at their heels in Stoke Central, that will be a dismal result for the purple team.
What of the Lib Dems? Hope springs eternal for the yellow team. Despite losing their deposits in both of these seats at the general election, reports keep coming through of surges in support. I’m highly sceptical. If the Lib Dems managed to get into double digit vote shares in both of these seats, that would be a very creditable performance given where they are starting from. If their vote share percentage starts with a 2 in either seat, everyone should sit up and pay attention: the Lib Dems’ bounce would be continuing.
It is more likely that these seats will be much less surprising. Stoke Central should be a clear Labour hold with UKIP in clear second place. If the Conservatives do take Copeland, don’t be less impressed because it has been expected by the betting public. But with the Brexit vote having upended traditional loyalties, we could be in for some real surprises. These truly are tests of public opinion.