Imran Ahmad Khan, the Conservative MP for Wakefield, was found guilty of sexually assaulting a 15-year-old boy. Hours after the court verdict he was expelled from the Conservative Party, and later resigned his parliamentary seat, triggering a by-election.
On paper, this is it. This is the by-election that will be hard fought and that will tell the tale of so-called Red Wall England. The Conservatives won Wakefield from Labour at the 2019 general election, the first time the seat had elected a Tory since 1931. Mary Creagh’s five-percentage point majority was replaced by a seven-point Tory one.
If Keir Starmer wants an ideal practice run for a general election, here it is. Wakefield is a seat where 62 per cent of voters backed Leave in the EU referendum. Weekly wages here are £100 less than the national average, and 11 per cent of voters hold a degree, compared with 17 per cent nationally. In summary, Wakefield is a few percentage points off being the average English seat.
At present, Labour has a national poll lead of five to six percentage points. Britain Predicts modelling, which proved a reliable guide for the recent Birmingham Erdington and Old Bexley & Sidcup by-elections, suggests Labour will Wakefield by ten points today. The seat is a must-win for Labour. Anything less would mean the party is underperforming and doing something very, very wrong.
If it wasn’t for the conditions leading up to the potential by-election, Wakefield might be a tougher contest. In last May’s local elections the Conservatives won a slew of council seats from Labour, some for the first time in decades. This means that the 2019 result - that general election win for the Tories of Thatcherite proportions - wasn’t a one-off.
And not only that, there’s a small cushion for the Conservatives here. It comes in the form of a 6 per cent Brexit Party vote at the last general election. Some will regard this vote as easily obtainable for the Tories, but I'd mark that as far from certain. Look at the data, and not all former Brexit Party voters are turning to the Conservatives. They are more likely than not to say they wouldn’t vote if an election was held today. Polling suggests voters in key marginals are more prone to defecting and to abstaining than the country at large. At the height of partygate, Labour was found to be performing better in Tory marginals than on a national level because voter disaffection was more pronounced in these seats. Wakefield is one of those seats
There are two possible conclusions to draw from this. The first is that voters in Wakefield are more likely to be hostile towards Boris Johnson and the government than voters nationally and will act accordingly. The cost-of-living crisis is squeezing the public and the opinion polls have widened in Labour’s favour.
The second is that disaffected voters are easier to tempt back than those who have defected. Labour has gained around one in 15 Tory voters from 2019. That’s fewer than the Conservatives gained from Labour in 2010 and fewer than Labour gained in 1997. Compared with the number of Tories voicing uncertainty, it’s a small group indeed. Voters are squeezed during election campaigns. Mountains of literature pour through the letterboxes and activists give residents little rest. If the Tories can pull off a successful core vote strategy, in pushing their backers out toe the polls, they may be able to run Labour close. That will, however, require a campaign with minimal reference to their party leader, and, indeed, the national news.
This is a time, and a seat, that will not be easy for the Conservatives to hold. All the polls at present point to Wakefield being a guaranteed Labour gain. Keir Starmer, Labour's leader of little impact, will have no excuses for anything less.
[Follow the latest news from the by-elections in our Live blog: LIVE: Wakefield and Tiverton & Honiton by-election results – New Statesman]