If you want to get romantic, Wellingborough is an Old Labour locale sitting in the south. It was a bellwether seat in the postwar years but turned Tory after Harold Wilson’s premiership. It was won by New Labour in 1997 and lost by New Labour eight years later. And since then, the town and its surrounding villages have voted little other than Conservative.
Welcome to what is the first (but not the last) parliamentary by-election of this general election year. Wellingborough, which the Tories have held since 2005, has been left vacant by a successful recall petition against Peter Bone after a report found he had “committed many varied acts of bullying and one act of sexual misconduct” against a member of his staff.
Bone’s majority in 2019 stood at a hefty 18,540 and Labour has struggled to recover in the seat since losing it in 2005. In good years for the party nationally, it has still fared poorly in Wellingborough. At the 2021 local elections, of the 18 seats in the borough, just one backed Labour (and even that was a second-placed win in a three-member ward).
And yet, were an election held today, my modelling suggests that Labour would regain the seat. While the party is poorly organised on the ground, the scale of the swing against the government is likely to prove decisive.
In fact, my modelling has Labour polling as well in Wellingborough as it did in advance of the Selby and Tamworth by-elections. And assuming our Britain Predicts model proves reliable, a Labour gain here is more likely than not.
But note that hefty(ish) vote for Reform UK. The Farage-backed party is polling 9 per cent nationally but here it’s forecast to win closer to 12 per cent. In not one by-election or local election, however, has Reform lived up to pollsters’ projections. Despite this underperformance, the Conservatives have not, as some might expect, electorally over-performed as a consequence.
Wellingborough, while more built-up than Selby and Ainsty, has one thing in common with the locale of my Yorkist forefathers: until recently, there has been little sign of an effective Labour Party. Both seats saw dramatic falls from grace for New Labour in 2010. While under Gordon Brown, Labour lost six points in national support, in Selby it shed 17 and in Wellingborough 16.
Wellingborough and Selby are seats that in 2010 fell out of love with Labour to a degree normally reserved for governments that lose by a landslide (Brown’s party managed a hung parliament). And in the former, Labour’s vote splintered in multiple directions – to the Lib Dems and apathy in 2010, to Ukip in 2015, and to the Conservatives from then on. To win, Labour will need the support of people who likely stopped voting for the party almost two decades ago.
In the above chart, see how stagnant Labour’s support has been in recent local elections. And note the variation in support for the smaller parties: 27 per cent for Ukip in 2013, replaced by 23 per cent for the Lib Dems and Greens in 2021. These are the voters Labour will look, in part, to turn out – people for whom politics is more something to protest and lash out against than much else. This is a town that decisively voted Leave and has less Labour history locally than Tamworth.
Crucially, Labour doesn’t need Wellingborough to secure a parliamentary majority (326 seats). Winning it would imply a far more substantial victory (400-plus seats). On paper, Wellingborough may be projected to fall to Labour just as Tamworth did, but it feels a much tougher challenge.