Man, when it rains it really pours, doesn’t it? Tristram Hunt has now resigned as MP for Stoke Central to take up the post of V&A Museum director. That means, you guessed it, another by-election in which Labour will have to defend a seat in a which Leave won in June by a thumping margin (69% voted leave in Stoke-on-Trent).
When I heard about this I giggled first before looking into just how safe a seat for Labour Stoke Central happens to be. Before examining the data I would have guessed that Labour were sitting on a majority of at least 10,000, probably more like 15k; the actual number is a much more modest 5,179. Furthermore, Stoke Central has been getting steadily less safe over the last few decades. Created in 1950, it has never been other than a Labour seat, but in 1997, Labour had just shy of a 20,000 majority. While this was the biggest they have ever had in the seat, even during the Thatcher years the majorities were always around or over 10k.
In second place in 2015 in Stoke Central? Yes, you guess it, UKIP. In fact, if you took the UKIP and Tory vote together, that would have been enough to win the seat. I suppose that’s where Labour might hang on – UKIP and the Tories will be competing to be the official Leave party, and Labour might just come through the middle on the back of retaining enough of their traditional vote as a result.
As such, the Stoke Central by-election will be a huge test for Paul Nuttall and UKIP. It would be hard to find a by-election more suited to Nuttall’s “northern strategy” than Stoke Central. If they can’t win here, in early 2017, then it probably really might be curtains for UKIP. This makes it slightly tricky for the Tories: do they really go for it, thinking Brexit puts this previously unthinkable seat in play? Or do they hang back and let UKIP have a go, knowing that on one hand they increase the chances of getting a pro-Brexit MP in place by doing so, but on the other they are then missing the opportunity to kill the UKIP beast that has caused the party so much turmoil in the past?
The by-election is likely to take place just after the Copeland by-election, so we’ll have back to back real world tests of how Labour are really faring. Yet even if Corbyn wins both of them, another question hovers into view: how many Labour MPs are going to quit between now and 2020, assuming May doesn’t go for an early election? Perhaps from a certain Corbynista angle, having your centrist MPs bail out of the PLP is a positive – but only if you keep winning the subsequent by-elections.