Will Labour win the Tooting by-election?

The longterm trends make this seat a tricky contest for the party, but it is a narrow favourite in June. 

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Labour have a strong shortlist for the Tooting by-election: with two doctors in the shape of Rosena Allin-Khan and Mike McLoughlin and one candidate who has already gone through the wringer of a by-election – albeit one in which Labour never hoped to do anything other than avoid embarrassment – in Naushabah Khan.

Party organisers are particularly excited by the two doctors.  Two of the constituency’s largest employers are hospitals - St George’s, which is inside the constituency’s boundaries, and St Thomas’s, which is ouside it. Doctors are also among the biggest drivers of the area’s gentrification, which has been causing the party growing headaches in Tooting, a once rock-solid safe Labour seat that now has a majority of just over 3,000, around 2,000 of which may be down to Sadiq Khan’s personal popularity, according to local estimates, although people differ as to whether this following could be replicated by another candidate from a Pakistani background.  

Labour’s Allin-Khan is widely tipped as the favourite, though the selection is harder to call as it is the first in which new members who joined during the Labour leadership election are eligible to vote in an internal contest.  The party’s six-month period before new members are allowed to vote in internal selections meant that Oldham West, Ogmore and Sheffield Brightside were restricted to members that joined under Ed Miliband.

Whoever Labour’s candidate is, they will face established opposition with a growing personal vote of his own in the shape of the Conservatives’ Dan Watkins, the candidate at the last general election who has been working the seat hard in anticipation of a by-election. Labour also believe that the bulk of the 2027 votes that George Galloway got in the Merton and Wandsworth GLA constituency  were from Tooting, and at their expense.

Local Conservatives believe they have it in them to run Labour very close. But the mood around both parties has been changed by the party’s unexpected win in Merton and Wandsworth, an Assembly seat that neither Labour nor the Tories expected Labour to win. Both it and Tooting have increasing numbers of voters who are, in the words Suzanne Evans used to describe why Ukip had done so badly in London, “educated, cultured and young”.  These voters were mildly supportive of Ed Miliband and are stronger supporters of Jeremy Corbyn, so the party has reasons to be optimistic, although there is not much Green vote to be squeezed.The afterglow of Zac Goldsmith's campaign, which appears to have hurt Labour in whiter parts of the capital but sent them backwards in Tooting, may also help the Labour party.

What’s impossible to quantify and could decide the by-election is the impact of individual electoral registration (IER) – the longterm effect of which will be to accelerate the trends making Tooting bluer. In the short term, however, while IER will reduce the number of eligible Labour voters in the seat, it has also cut into the number of new arrivals, who are more sympathetic to the Conservative party, who are eligible to vote.

The party should be considered narrow favourites on 16 June, although this is very probably the last year that you could say that, as gentrification and IER will increasingly make it like Greg Hands' Fulham seat - once a safe Labour seat, now a Conservative fortress that is only winnable in wave years. 

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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