Just a week after the drama of Richmond Park, voters in another (very different) constituency go to the polls to elect their next MP. There haven’t been any published polls for this one, and I’m not aware of any private polls. So what should we expect? First of all, here’s how the seat voted in 2015:
In general elections, this is a safe Conservative seat, having been blue since it was created in 1997, and its main predecessor was Tory since 1950. But, as I keep reminding people, there is no such thing as a safe seat when it’s a government defending in a by-election. How often have you heard about a governing party’s majority being “slashed”, only for whichever major party it is to regain it easily at the next general election?
If we look at the performances of governing parties in by-election since 1983, the theoretical “par” score for a seat where they took 56.2% at the general election is about 38%. But on any objective measure, the Tories are doing well in national polls (with the caveat that we haven’t had any since Richmond), and have outperformed the theoretical par in recent by-elections. The former doesn’t necessarily feed through one-for-one to the latter, but they point in the same direction. So it’s more likely that the Conservative vote share drops to 40-45%.
That will probably be enough to hold the seat, because the rest of vote is so well divided between the other parties. But I think the 90% probability that betting markets are putting on it is – at least on paper – a bit on the high side. The fact that turnout tends to drop more than normal in December by-elections (and unlike last week, there is no high-profile campaign to prop it up) means we should attach more uncertainty than normal. Conservative hold is still favourite, though.
Second place is more interesting. I imagine UKIP will overtake Labour in a seat like this (62% Leave) although it’s not ideal territory for them – the constituency’s Leaviness is explained by its older-than-average makeup (21% aged 65+), whereas education levels are only slightly below the national average. It’s true that in the favourable circumstances of the 2014 European Parliament elections, UKIP won both North and South Kesteven districts (from which the seat is formed) with vote shares in the upper 30s. However they would need a 20.3% swing to gain the Westminster seat, which is a bit of an ask.
Labour came second in 2015, as they generally have apart from in 2010, but no-one expects them to be in contention this time, which will probably result in them getting squeezed. Although you’d normally expect the same to happen to Lib Dems when they start in fourth, the europhile party got 5.7% in 2015 and Remain got 38%, meaning plenty of potential votes, so this time may well be different.
Lincolnshire Independents are a bit of an unknown in a by-election contest – maybe they get their usual votes, maybe they get squeezed. The Greens aren’t standing a candidate (they haven’t done so in this area since 1987) but have endorsed an independent.
So, get ready for another entertaining Thursday night, but to repeat my usual caveat: By-elections matter not because they normally tell you anything, but because the Westminster bubble treats them as though they tell you something. And on the rare occasions that they do, it’s either something we already knew anyway, or it gets missed (e.g. Heywood and Middleton)!