How well does Labour need to do in the Corby by-election?

The party needs to win a majority of at least 12 per cent to match its current national poll lead.

Barring some dramatic upset, Labour will win today's Corby by-election (triggered by the resignation of Louise Mensch), gaining a seat from the Conservatives for the first time in this parliament. But winning alone isn't enough. A slender victory would prompt fears that the party still isn't where it needs to be if it's to stand a chance of winning the next general election. Thus, while Labour requires a swing (the rise in one party's vote added to the fall in another's and divided by two) of just two per cent to overturn the Tories' majority of 1,951, it needs a swing of at least five per cent to put it on course to win a national majority in 2015 and a swing of eight per cent to justify its average opinion poll lead of nine points. The latter would see it take the seat with a majority of around 12 per cent. 

To win Corby: Labour needs a swing of two per cent.

To win a majority in 2015: Labour needs a swing of five per cent to put it on course to win a majority at the next general election.

To match its national poll lead: Labour needs a swing of eight per cent to match its average national poll lead of nine points.

Polling by Lord Ashcroft in the constituency has suggested that Labour will easily exceed this benchmark. His final survey gave the party a lead of 22 points (with Labour on 54 per cent and the Tories on 32 per cent) and showed a swing of 12.5 per cent from the Tories to Labour.

Labour, naturally, has downplayed Ashcroft's findings, insisting that Corby will be "a very tough fight" in an attempt to ensure its supporters turn out. Ed Miliband reminded party workers last week that the party thought it had won in 1992 but ended up losing to the Tories by 342 votes. While history isn't likely to repeat itself today, anything less than a resounding victory in this mid-term electoral test will force Labour to ask why it isn't doing better.

Update: As the commenter below points out, there are two other by-elections today, in Manchester Central and Cardiff South and Penarth. Labour currently holds both seats by majorities of 10,430 and 4,709 respectively and is expected to retain them.

In addition, the first ever police and crime commissioner elections are taking place in 41 police authority areas in England and Wales. You can read my guide to the elections here.

Ed Miliband is hoping Labour can win a seat off the Conservatives for the first time since he became leader. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Paul McMillan
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"We're an easy target": how a Tory manifesto pledge will tear families apart

Under current rules, bringing your foreign spouse to the UK is a luxury reserved for those earning £18,600 a year or more. The Tories want to make it even more exclusive. 

Carolyn Matthew met her partner, George, in South Africa sixteen years ago. She settled down with him, had kids, and lived like a normal family until last year, when they made the fateful decision to move to her hometown in Scotland. Matthew, 55, had elderly parents, and after 30 years away from home she wanted to be close to them. 

But Carolyn nor George - despite consulting a South African immigration lawyer – did not anticipate one huge stumbling block. That is the rule, introduced in 2012, that a British citizen must earn £18,600 a year before a foreign spouse may join them in the UK. 

“It is very dispiriting,” Carolyn said to me on the telephone from Bo’ness, a small town on the Firth of Forth, near Falkirk. “In two weeks, George has got to go back to South Africa.” Carolyn, who worked in corporate complaints, has struggled to find the same kind of work in her hometown. Jobs at the biggest local employer tend to be minimum wage. George, on the other hand, is an engineer – yet cannot work because of his holiday visa. 

To its critics, the minimum income threshold seems nonsensical. It splits up families – including children from parents – and discriminates against those likely to earn lower wages, such as women, ethnic minorities and anyone living outside London and the South East. The Migration Observatory has calculated that roughly half Britain’s working population would not meet the requirement. 

Yet the Conservative party not only wishes to maintain the policy, but hike the threshold. The manifesto stated:  “We will increase the earnings thresholds for people wishing to sponsor migrants for family visas.” 

Initially, the threshold was justified as a means of preventing foreign spouses from relying on the state. But tellingly, the Tory manifesto pledge comes under the heading of “Controlling Immigration”. 

Carolyn points out that because George cannot work while he is visiting her, she must support the two of them for months at a time without turning to state aid. “I don’t claim benefits,” she told me. “That is the last thing I want to do.” If both of them could work “life would be easy”. She believes that if the minimum income threshold is raised any further "it is going to make it a nightmare for everyone".

Stuart McDonald, the SNP MP for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East, co-sponsored a Westminster Hall debate on the subject earlier this year. While the Tory manifesto pledge is vague, McDonald warns that one option is the highest income threshold suggested in 2012 - £25,700, or more than the median yearly wage in the East Midlands. 

He described the current scheme as “just about the most draconian family visa rules in the world”, and believes a hike could affect more than half of British citizens. 

"Theresa May is forcing people to choose between their families and their homes in the UK - a choice which most people will think utterly unfair and unacceptable,” he said.  

For those a pay rise away from the current threshold, a hike will be demoralising. For Paul McMillan, 25, it is a sign that it’s time to emigrate.

McMillan, a graduate, met his American girlfriend Megan while travelling in 2012 (the couple are pictured above). He could find a job that will allow him to meet the minimum income threshold – if he were not now studying for a medical degree.  Like Matthew, McMillan’s partner has no intention of claiming benefits – in fact, he expects her visa would specifically ban her from doing so. 

Fed up with the hostile attitude to immigrants, and confident of his options elsewhere, McMillan is already planning a career abroad. “I am going to take off in four years,” he told me. 

As for why the Tories want to raise the minimum income threshold, he thinks it’s obvious – to force down immigration numbers. “None of this is about the amount of money we need to earn,” he said. “We’re an easy target for the government.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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