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.

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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

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