A critical, changing feature of by-elections is that polls are few and far between nowadays. When we do hear about one, it tends to have been commissioned by a faction with an obvious agenda – such as the Labour Leave survey that suggested UKIP were on course to win Stoke easily.
Polls have their weaknesses, for sure, but they are one of the principal driving forces behind political betting markets. In their absence, punters are relying on analysis and the perennially unreliable ‘information’ from the ground.
As somebody whose method largely relies upon deep political analysis, weighing past and emerging trends in politics, I prefer it this way. Theoretically, angles should be easier to find, especially in an era when political parties are declining and voter choice is in flux.
Consider the two by-elections we’ve seen since Brexit. In Richmond Park, the Lib Dems performed remarkably in overturning a 23K majority and defying the odds. Strong support for Remain in the constituency was surely the reason, and that trend has been repeated by the Lib Dems in council elections across the country. Now I didn’t expect they would overturn such a huge majority, but big improvement was both logical and predictable.
Next, in Sleaford and North Hykeham, the Tories scored a massive win, defying historic tendencies for governments to underperform mid-term. The reverse Brexit effect was in play, with both Remain parties making no headway whatsoever. Here, I felt the Tories were one of the all-time great [1.1] chances, but dared not try and buy money at such short odds in light of recent results.
So what of Copeland and Stoke-on-Trent Central – two long-term Labour seats that historically would have been predictable non-betting events?
Surely Brexit will be the key dynamic once again. It is by far the main issue in British politics. One lesson we should have learned last year is that the average voter is often having an entirely different discussion to the minority who follow politics in detail. The two sides don’t even agree anymore about basic facts. In 2017 England, you will find a lot of cynicism about politics and few close followers of the daily Westminster scene. Yet everyone has a view about Brexit.
On that score, Labour look in real trouble in both of these Leave-voting seats. Their incoherent, divided position on Brexit means they are being squeezed on all sides. Add in a deeply unpopular leader, especially amongst the type of voter that make up the majority in Copeland, and meltdown seems very realistic.
Consider where Labour were at the same stage of the last parliament. In 2012, they claimed the Tory seat of Corby with an 8K majority. Whereas they were consistently ahead in national polls throughout the previous mid-term, now they trail by around 15 points nationally. Despite mid-term results like Corby, they went on to lose catastrophically in 2015 and were wiped out in Scotland. But things are markedly worse now.
Imagine this were a General Election. On current numbers, the Tories would surely be favourites to win Copeland, despite Labour holding it for 70 years. 2500 is a relatively small majority and this is a seat where nuclear is the big employer, and Jeremy Corbyn has been a longstanding critic of that industry.
Granted, Labour are proficient at getting their postal vote out and have a strong local candidate, perfect for their main campaign theme – fighting local NHS cuts. However I find it hard to see how they retain the same vote share as 2015 – unless there has been a sudden reversion from UKIP to Labour in light of Paul Nuttall’s car-crash campaign.
If it weren’t for Nuttall’s disasters, I would be on UKIP for Stoke. I lived there 15 years ago and felt then it was ripe for a far-right party. Again thinking back to a time when Labour was faring vastly better nationally, they nearly lost Heywood and Middleton to UKIP, despite the much smaller party focusing nearly all their efforts on winning a different seat (Rochester and Strood).
That was paramount in my mind when backing them at 2.0 but, as mentioned on Twitter, I bailed out with a very small loss when the new UKIP leader’s brand started to implode. It must also be noted that, at the time of Heywood and Middleton, UKIP and Nigel Farage were arguably at their peak relevance and popularity.
Update on Stoke by-election: Bailing out of earlier UKIP bet at 2.0 after Nuttall lie admission. Taking small loss by laying at 2.38.
— Political Gambler (@paulmotty) February 14, 2017
The market suggests Labour will hold on but at 1.5, there are just too many questions to bet with confidence. Are the voters of ‘Brexit Central’ about to elect an ultra-Remainer? Will the massive swing from Lib Dem to Labour in 2015 hold up, or reverse as it has across England in other low turnout contests? Could UKIP have been far enough ahead to reduce the relevance of Nuttall? Indeed, do their supporters even care or will they dismiss the stories as fake news?
Ultimately, my prediction is that the Labour machine and postal vote will get above 30%, and that may just be enough with the vote split four ways. Here’s my best guess at tonight’s vote shares.
CON 38, LAB 35, UKIP 15, LD 6
LAB 32, UKIP 26 CON 22, LD 14