Could Labour lose the Rotherham by-election?

The party still expects to win but is increasingly nervous about the UKIP threat.

As well as the publication of the Leveson report, tomorrow sees three parliamentary by-elections - in Middlesborough, Croydon North and Rotherham (all currently Labour-held). Of these, it is the latter that Labour is concentrating resources on. A combination of factors - the date (which will reduce turnout), the child grooming scandals, Denis MacShane's resignation over false invoices, a divided local party and, most recently, the UKIP fostering row - means that the result is increasingly hard to predict.

It was initially Respect, which is fielding Yvonne Ridley, a former journalist who famously converted to Islam after her capture by the Taliban, that was seen as the main threat, but it is now UKIP, support for which has surged since the weekend, that represents the greatest challenge to Labour. The latest YouGov poll puts Nigel Farage's party on 11 per cent (up from eight per cent), the party's highest-ever rating, and it is likely to have enjoyed a far larger swing in Rotherham.

The expectation among those Labour MPs I've spoken to remains that the party will retain the seat (as well as Middlesborough and Croydon North), albeit, one said, with a "significantly reduced majority". The advantage for Labour, which currently holds a majority of 10,462 in Rotherham, is that the protest vote will be split four ways between UKIP, Respect, the BNP (which polled 10.4 per cent in 2010) and the English Democrats. One hope among party activists is that the Tories will be pushed into third or even fourth place, leaving them unable to spin the result against Labour.

Ed Miliband speaks to reporters after Labour candidate Andy Sawford won the Corby by-election. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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