Imran Ahmad Khan, the Conservative MP for Wakefield, has been found guilty of sexually assaulting a 15-year-old boy. Hours after the court verdict he was expelled from the Conservative Party. If he receives a prison sentence of a year or more he will be disqualified as an MP, and if not he could well face a successful recall petition, forcing a by-election. Either way, the race to replace him has begun.
The by-election would be hard fought. 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, this is it. Wakefield is a Red Wall seat where 62 per cent of voters backed Leave in the EU referendum. Weekly wages in the seat are £100 less than the national average, while 11 per cent of voters have 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 four to five points. Britain Predicts modelling, which proved a reliable guide for the recent Birmingham Erdington and Old Bexley & Sidcup by-elections, suggests Keir Starmer’s party would win Wakefield by seven points today. The seat is a must-win for Labour. Anything less would mean Labour is underperforming and doing something very, very wrong.
If it wasn’t for the conditions leading up to the potential by-election, Wakefield could 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 wasn’t a one-off. While towns such as Burnley and Bury weren’t as supportive of the Tories as before, Wakefield was.
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 that is far from certain. According to the latest polls 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 Red Wall seats and 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.
There are two possible conclusions to draw from this. The first is that voters in Wakefield are more likely to be hostile towards 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.
Nevertheless, all the polls point to Wakefield being a guaranteed Labour gain -- and Starmer will have no excuses for anything less.