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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Theresa May gambles that the EU will blink first

In her Brexit speech, the Prime Minister raised the stakes by declaring that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain". 

It was at Lancaster House in 1988 that Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech heralding British membership of the single market. Twenty eight years later, at the same venue, Theresa May confirmed the UK’s retreat.

As had been clear ever since her Brexit speech in October, May recognises that her primary objective of controlling immigration is incompatible with continued membership. Inside the single market, she noted, the UK would still have to accept free movement and the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). “It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all,” May surmised.

The Prime Minister also confirmed, as anticipated, that the UK would no longer remain a full member of the Customs Union. “We want to get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe,” May declared.

But she also recognises that a substantial proportion of this will continue to be with Europe (the destination for half of current UK exports). Her ambition, she declared, was “a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement”. May added that she wanted either “a completely new customs agreement” or associate membership of the Customs Union.

Though the Prime Minister has long ruled out free movement and the acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction, she has not pledged to end budget contributions. But in her speech she diminished this potential concession, warning that the days when the UK provided “vast” amounts were over.

Having signalled what she wanted to take from the EU, what did May have to give? She struck a notably more conciliatory tone, emphasising that it was “overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”. The day after Donald Trump gleefully predicted the institution’s demise, her words were in marked contrast to those of the president-elect.

In an age of Isis and Russian revanchism, May also emphasised the UK’s “unique intelligence capabilities” which would help to keep “people in Europe safe from terrorism”. She added: “At a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The EU’s defining political objective is to ensure that others do not follow the UK out of the club. The rise of nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) has made Europe less, rather than more, amenable to British demands. In this hazardous climate, the UK cannot be seen to enjoy a cost-free Brexit.

May’s wager is that the price will not be excessive. She warned that a “punitive deal that punishes Britain” would be “an act of calamitous self-harm”. But as Greece can testify, economic self-interest does not always trump politics.

Unlike David Cameron, however, who merely stated that he “ruled nothing out” during his EU renegotiation, May signalled that she was prepared to walk away. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she declared. Such an outcome would prove economically calamitous for the UK, forcing it to accept punitively high tariffs. But in this face-off, May’s gamble is that Brussels will blink first.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.