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.