Tom Watson notoriously tweeted that the Corby by-election will be “a very tough fight”. It was also reported that he was telling Labour activists to “to stress that the party expects to lose the by-election”.
This pessimistic perspective is in stark contrast to almost every commentator and poll that has predicted an easy Labour victory. I have reason to believe though that Watson might be right.
Labour requires a 1.8% swing in their favour from the Conservatives. Nationally, polls are showing that they are sat on an 8.5% swing. This would be enough to secure a Corby victory and a 7,000 Labour majority.
In addition, Lord Ashcroft has funded a Corby specific poll for the by-election. The results are clear. The New Statesman reported the poll’s findings saying, “Labour [hold] a 15-point lead over the Conservatives, with Miliband’s party on 52% and Cameron’s on 37%. The Lib Dems are on just 7% and could yet be caught by UKIP”.
Firstly, it is worth noting the makeup of the constituency. 55% of the voters live in Corby itself, an ex steel town which at least in theory should be a Labour strong-hold. The other 45% though live in small Northampton villages which have traditionally voted Conservative. Labour are aware of the need to reach out to the rural residents of the constituency. They launched their by-election campaign in Thrapston.
Corby has always been a marginal since its birth as a parliamentary constituency in 1983. This still holds true today.
The same poll in Corby that showed Labour with a 15 point lead also showed only 31% would prefer Ed Miliband to David Cameron as prime minister. Equally, it showed a “two-to-one majority favoured the government’s austerity programme over Labour’s plan for more spending and borrowing to boost the economy”.
If the Conservative campaign can press the right buttons (“need for economic austerity”, “a vote for Andy is a vote for Ed”) then it is possible that this by-election will be a lot closer than the headlines suggest. Labour are ahead at the moment but we know a good campaign can turn a constituency.
Labour knows this. They also know that from a PR perspective Labour simply cannot afford to lose this by-election.
Labour are desperately trying to forget the recent failure at the Bradford by-election.
Before the by-election Ed Miliband said, “This is a chance for the people of Bradford West to deliver a verdict on a Budget which will force millions to pay more so that millionaires can pay less”. He muttered these words assuming that voters would fall back to Labour. He was wrong.
Labour’s old foe George Galloway turned a 5,763 majority into a 10,140 Respect majority. Labour was crushed. They simply cannot afford another Bradford disaster.
The lesson here? Labour cannot assume that the Lib Dem vote will meekly fall at their feet any more than they can assume the more general anti austerity vote will fall at their feet. They have to work for it.
Watson and Labour know all too well that this will not be as easy as the media are suggesting.
Perversely for an incumbent, the ball is in the Tories court now. It is up to them to go on the offensive to win this by-election.