Labour buoyant after Scottish gain
Pincher scandal looms large
Tony Blair won predecessor seat
The first of October's three by-elections went like a dream for Keir Starmer. By trouncing the SNP in Rutherglen and Hamilton West, Labour sent the strongest signal that they are heading for a majority government. That option was matched at new lows in our Overall Majority market, before settling around odds of 1.434/9, implying a 69% probability.
Next Thursday, they could send an even stronger signals by winning by-elections in Mid-Bedfordshire and Tamworth. They are currently favourites to win both, albeit only very marginally in the former. For Tamworth, they are trading around 1.331/3 (75%).
Labour aiming for best gain yet
To be clear, neither would be essential gains to secure that majority at the general election. They rank 245th and 265th on their target list, whereas fewer than half that number are required. The seats around the winning line require approximately 11% swings, whereas these two require 19% and 21% respectively.
I've already looked at Mid Bedfordshire previously and will update next week. It remains the most unpredictable by-election in living memory. Here, though, let's focus on Tamworth.
Tories damaged by Pincher scandal
The by-election was called following the resignation of shamed MP Christopher Pincher. A sexual abuse scandal, involving multiple allegations dating back years brought down the former Deputy Chief Whip in June 2022 and played a big part in Boris Johnson's downfall as PM. This surely made big news in his constituency.
The required swing is higher in Tamworth than Mid Bedfordshire but I'm confident that the respective market signals are correct, and this Staffordshire seat represents a much easier task for Labour.
Labour have historic pedigree here
Why? Well first, they have a history, winning here as recently as 2005. Indeed since its creation in 1997, Tamworth has been a bellwether - always voting for the winning party nationally. The last three national polls put Labour ahead by an average of 20%.
Second, the vote looks set to be monopolised by the big two parties. The combined CON/LAB share at the last two elections was 90% and 95%. Thus, Labour should monopolise the anti-Tory or anti-government protest vote. I doubt anyone else will even save their deposit.
A key test of Starmer's party brand
Nevertheless, don't underestimate the scale of the task. UK politics has changed a lot since 2005. Based on the usual electoralcalculus indicators, this is precisely the kind of seat where Labour have fallen off a cliff since the Blair years.
Out of 650 constituencies, it ranks 37th for 'National', 62nd for 'Leave', 80th for 'Social Conservative' and a more middling 196th for 'Economic Right'. The electorate is 95% white, with more homeowners and lower education levels than the national average. It is labelled 'Strong Right' and looks exactly the type of seat that comprehensively rejected Corbynism and even Milibandism.
For all their recent by-election successes, Labour only managed this level of swing once - in Selby and Ainsty. There, Labour had an outstanding local candidate and recent population growth in the constituency likely benefited them.
What may work in their favour is the trend noted in my recent by-election pieces. On the same night as Selby and Ainsty, Labour lost the Uxbridge and South Ruislip by-election, as predicted. The latter prompted a load of dubious assumptions about net zero. Arguably, it changed Tory policy.
But there is a much simpler explanation. The trends which saw Labour bottom out in places like Tamworth were reversed in and around London. In ethnically diverse, highly educated seats, Labour have much less room to grow. But in this type of constituency, previous disasters leave massive room to grow, now the Tories are deeply unpopular.
Council results are inconclusive
Likewise, there were visible trends in local council results in both of those aforementioned seats to signal the outcome. Here, Tamworth Borough Council swung to Labour in May, as they won eight of ten seats contested. These results were markedly different to 2022 or 2021. However in the Lichfield District Council wards, the Tories remained dominant.
As always, the narrative coming out of these elections will be crucial. Starmer visited this week and said it was a 'tough ask'. Note the difference between their confident tone before the wins in Scotland and Yorkshire.
Parallels with famous Blair win
If they win, it will be compared to Tony Blair's victory in the previous constituency, South East Staffordshire, in 1996. That swing was 22%, so very slightly higher than this task. A powerful signal of a looming Labour landslide. However given the lofty expectations generated by that poll lead, even narrow defeat will be treated as failure and victory for Sunak.
One way of trying to measure the swing is to compare the decline in Tory shares in recent by-elections. Given the government's unpopularity and the Pincher scandal, it feels hard to envisage many people being motivated to turn out for the Tories in a by-election.
In Selby and Ainsty, set against very similar national polls, it fell by 43%. It fell by more in Somerton and Frome but in that case, the Lib Dems were the opposition and better placed to win protest votes. In Uxbridge it fell by a mere 14% amid those different conditions.
In the 2022 Wakefield by-election - another classic marginal, albeit with different demographics to Tamworth - the Tory share fell by 37% despite only trailing nationally by 5%. That was after their MP resigned due to another sex abuse scandal.
Based on those rough figures, I think they will lose around 40% of their 2019 vote. That would reduce their share to around 40%, compared to a winning target around 45%.
Labour are entitled to be favourites but aren't certainties. 1.331/3 isn't the most exciting price. We also have markets on both Labour and Conservative Vote Share. Here, the lines are 41.4-41.5 for each party. My prediction is Labour to win by around eight points, 48-40.
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