Today’s the day. Voters go to the polls in two closely watched by-elections. Or three, if you count the one in Charterlands where one Dave Trigger will try to capture a seat on South Hams (Devon) council for Labour. For someone who followed up an MBE with becoming a Twitter celebrity on the back of his leaflets and having an epic surname, getting the swing of 64.4 per cent that he needs should be a walk in the park.
But most of us will be watching Stoke-on-Trent Central and Copeland. Polls open at 7am. When they close at 10pm there will be no exit polls, or even “on the day” polls. You may get stories of some local paper doing a straw poll, but those are either very wrong or very lucky. You won’t hear anything reliable until the ballot boxes are opened.
Stoke-on-Trent City Council has estimated their declaration time as between 3am and 4am (the reliability of these ETAs can vary). Copeland Council doesn’t seem to have published an estimate – that may be related to concerns about recovering ballot boxes from some very exposed, rural locations in the midst of storm Dora. So it could potentially be a very, very long night.
What effect might the weather have on turnout? It usually matters less than you’d expect, but bad weather can’t help. By-elections usually only attract about two-thirds of the turnout of general elections in the same seat to begin with, even before you factor in the weather. If it does come into play, expect it to matter more in Copeland (which is both rural and coastal) than Stoke.
For those of you not spending polling day getting ahead on sleep, a reminder of the reading material. I give a brief intro to Copeland here and some more detailed analysis here. I also wrote pieces on both by-elections for the FT here and the Fabian Review here. And I also took a look at some of the historical precedents here. It’s been a long couple of campaigns!
And last night I joined LucidTalk’s Bill White and Basil McCrea to talk about the two contests. If it seems a bit disjointed in places, we did have some technical issues, but a good discussion nevertheless. And Keiran Pedley and Co also discussed Stoke and Copeland (and Margaret Thatcher) in the latest Polling Matters.
So what should we expect? In the absence of legitimate polling, we’re all relying on the form book and whispers. As it happens, they give similar likeliest scenarios. In Stoke Central, Labour’s majority is big enough and its opposition divided enough that a low vote share – particularly if the reports of the Conservatives doing better than expected are correct – would be enough to keep the seat red. Therefore Labour are favourites in what is likely to be a fascinating contest.
Copeland is the one that’s making both main parties nervous. I’ve been clear all along about two things. Firstly, that a governing party by-election gain in a straight fight would be remarkable (it hasn’t happened in a seat with this sort of majority since 1878) and secondly that – on the basis of recent results like Sleaford – it could happen today. Will it? This one is just too uncertain to call…
I’ll be live tweeting throughout the night. Good luck to everyone involved!