Over the past 13 months, we've seen a wide range of by-elections, in constituencies that reflect different segments of the UK electorate, and voting sub-plots. Labour thrashed by the Tories in ultra-Brexit Hartlepool. Stunning Lib Dem gains from the Tories in both the London commuter belt and rural Shropshire. An easy Tory hold in wealthy Kent. A bitter campaign and inconclusive Labour hold in Batley and Spen. Now, arguably, the most significant of all.
Wakefield will be pivotal at next general election
The terms 'red' and 'blue wall' are often misused, but Wakefield perfectly fits the former tag. A seat steeped in trade union history, held by Labour since 1932 until the calamitous 2019 election. A must-gain if they are to prevent another Tory majority. A key measurement of whether Boris Johnson's realignment strategy and brand of Conservatism still works. The definition of a marginal.
Like the rest of the red wall, it had been becoming more marginal for some time but in this case, the Tories always retained a significant presence. Margaret Thatcher came within a whisker of winning it in 1983 and her candidate earned over 40% in 1987. Regarding Brexit, Wakefield voted 63-37 to Leave.
All signals point to big Labour win
Yet for all that marginality, the betting signals point to a no-contest. At odds of 1.011/100, Labour are rated 99% likely to win. We've seen two opinion polls, recording Labour leads of 20% and 23%. Regarding the latter, higher number, Survation showed the Greens and Lib Dem vote collapsing and transferring to Labour. A further signal of a nationwide anti-Tory, tactical alliance.
Surely this is very worrying news for Johnson? Tiverton and Honiton is more important, because the Tory chance of survival is greater, but losing both could well see more Tory MPs turning against him. Plus, it will become even harder to proclaim the so-called 'levelling-up agenda' after being thrashed in a marginal constituency, where house prices are merely 62% of the national average and only 31% are defined as having a good education.
This result could change political weather
I am a great believer in the power of narratives to shape politics. So much opinion and focus is shallow and the discourse is inevitably driven by mainstream and social media. So much of that is reactive and simplistic, to events which were actually quite predictable.
So if the polls are right and Labour win by 20% (and the Lib Dems gain Tiverton and Honiton), the headlines and chatter will revolve around a bloodbath. A catastrophe for Johnson, which could see him removed from post within a matter of weeks. A clear signal will be sent to Tory MPs that, without changing leader, they are headed for opposition.
The idea of a Keir Starmer-led government will be regarded increasingly plausible. Much more attention will be paid to Labour policies and pronouncements. This may have a positive or negative effect, but they will become more relevant. June 23rd 2022 - six years to the day since the UK voted to leave the EU - may be a genuine turning point in British political history.
Could this 2008 by-election offer parallels?
When this race was called, after Conservative MP Imran Ahmad Khan was convicted of sexually assaulting a 15 year-old boy, I instantly recalled the Crewe and Nantwich by-election of 2008. David Cameron's landslide victory felt like a significant, transformative moment. From that point on, the narrative seemed to permanently switch to inevitable defeat for Gordon Brown's Labour.
Crewe and Nantwich is a useful marker to measure Thursday's result. Its place on the Tory target list was similar to where Wakefield sits on Labour's current list. Then as now, the contest came at an awful time for the government. Labour were trailing much further in national polls - around 15%. At the by-election, the Tories gained it on an 18.5% swing. The forecast swing from Con-Lab in those two polls averages at 14.5%.
Victory will offer Starmer an opening
Thus, this result is critical for Starmer. Opposition leaders get little cut-through unless taking a particular, radical stance and nobody ever accused the Labour leader of doing that. At the moment, he may be faring well head-to-head against Tories, but Starmer's approvals are poor, with a large number of undecideds. Focus groups find him boring, opportunistic, bland, standing for nothing.
However if he is seen as favourite to win the next election, Starmer will get ample opportunity to alter those perceptions. If he has some popular, catchy policies, he will have greater success unveiling and owning them than has been the case to date. If not, and he still hasn't found a way of countering Tory culture war games, he will crash. Probably against a different, less damaged, leader.
Again, there are similarities with Cameron - if not in style but in their trajectory and the conditions of their era. The former PM also fared ordinarily, unconvincingly right up to failing to win a majority when expected in 2010. But Cameron did enough to not scare the electorate out of the change they evidently desired.
If you want a bet on this race and don't fancy the Tories for what would be a historic upset at odds of 74/1, the markets to consider are Labour Vote Share, Conservative Vote Share and Turnout. Current odds signal something akin to those polls - Labour winning by roughly 50%/30%.
I suspect that is about right. If anything go lower on the Tories and try 4.57/2 about them getting below 25%. I do expect a bloodbath.
But the more interesting bets are longer-term, for the reasons explained above. I reckon 2022 will surge back in again in our Boris Johnson Exit Date market, from the current 3.55. I can also see Most Seats at the next general election flipping to Labour for the first time. Currently they are 2.1211/10 compared to 1.8910/11 for the Conservatives. Wakefield, and the scale of swing, should provide a useful indicator.
Follow Paul on Twitter and check out his website, Political Gambler.
Wakefield - Conservative Vote Share
Wakefield - Labour Vote Share
Wakefield - Turnout
Tiverton and Honiton By-Election
Boris Johnson Exit Date (Year)
Most Seats at Next General Election