There are two parliamentary by-elections next Thursday. The vacancy in Clacton is caused by Douglas Carswell resigning from the Conservatives, joining the United Kingdom Independence party and now seeking ratification of his defection from the electorate. The Heywood and Middleton vacancy has arisen because of the death of Labour member of parliament Jim Dobbin.
|Clacton||2005 GE %||2010 GE %||2013 County %||2014 Euro % (Tendring total)|
Clacton, the main town of the constituency, is a Victorian seaside resort, still popular with retirees from across London and Essex. Matthew Parris, famously, did not think much of it, but when I visited on a warm late summer day this year it was a pleasant enough place to stroll along the beach, and seemed less down at heel than when I went in 1992. The constituency also includes the little port town of Brightlingsea. Ukip scholars Rob Ford and Matthew Goodwin rated Clacton the most fertile territory in the country for the anti-European Union party – it has a high proportion of older voters and people who have been ‘left behind’ by economic change, and few members of the worst groups for Ukip (ethnic minorities, young people and the well-off). Unlike other constituencies that come out high on the demographic analysis (such as Knowsley), Clacton has a history of Ukip activity at a local level. Way back in 1997 the predecessor seat, Harwich, had the best result in the country for the anti-EU Referendum party (9.2 per cent), which probably threw the seat to Labour (although active Labour member of parliament Ivan Henderson held on well in his own right in 2001). Local politics in the last 25 years have seen Liberal Democrats, Labour, Tories and local parties have boom and bust cycles. With the personal profile of Douglas Carswell – who can genuinely claim to have been repulsed and radicalised by seeing Westminster from the inside – Clacton should be an easy win for Ukip. There are probably enough loyal Tories to keep their party in second place, but the Labour vote seems to have continued falling since 2010. Douglas Carswell looks like being the anti-Europe mirror image of Dick Taverne, who was triumphantly re-elected member of parliament for Lincoln as an independent social democrat in 1973 after leaving the Labour party.
|Heywood and Middleton||2005 GE %||2010 GE %||2012 Locals %||2014 Locals %|
Heywood and Middleton is the sort of constituency that would be a Conservative-Labour marginal if it were sited in southern England, but on the edge of Manchester it has been a reliable Labour constituency since it was created in 1983. There was a fairly strong swing to the Tories in 2010, prefigured by the Conservatives being slightly ahead in their best local election year of 2008, but now the challenge comes from Ukip rather than the Tories.
There are three main elements to the constituency; the two towns that give the seat its name and some western suburbs of Rochdale. Heywood lies between Rochdale and Bury, and Middleton is to the south and borders directly on Manchester; it was expanded greatly in the 1960s by the construction of the Langley estate but it also has older elements and includes the middle-class Alkrington Garden Village. Heywood and Middleton are both Labour towns, but not without some variety (the Conservatives can poll respectably in Middleton in a good year), while the moorside Rochdale suburbs of Norden and Bamford are Labour’s weakest area.
Ukip’s vote in the 2014 local elections is slightly understated because it failed to contest two of the 10 wards in Heywood and Middleton (Bamford and Castleton, probably their weakest areas anyway). Nigel Farage’s party won 33 per cent of the vote in Middleton and 31 per cent in Castleton, formidable figures that are not dissimilar from those in many smaller working-class towns across northern England. The Rochdale suburbs may end up with the casting vote – if their Tory voters return the favour that Labour supporters did them in Newark earlier this year, it would see Labour through, while if they collapse in favour of Ukip that could topple Labour. For safety’s sake, Labour needs to identify and turn out its vote in Middeton in particular. So far, the campaign seems to have gone Labour’s way in Heywood and Middleton, perhaps helped by the selection of Liz McInnes, a non-Westminster candidate, and Ukip over-reaching in attempting to capitalise on the local problems Labour has faced in Rochdale.
Anything less than a convincing Carswell win in Clacton would be a huge shock. A Ukip gain in Heywood and Middleton seems unlikely but not unthinkable. Not since the peak of the Social Democratic party-Liberal Alliance in 1981 has it seemed possible that a reasonably safe Tory seat and a reasonably safe Labour seat could fall on the same day to the same third party. Not far behind this pair comes a classic marginal seat (though currently a bit more Tory than the nation), Rochester and Strood. That one is shaping up to be perhaps the most interesting contest this year. Stay tuned …
Lewis Baston is a contributing editor to Progress and senior research fellow at Democratic Audit. He writes the Poll Positions column as part of the Campaign for a Labour Majority and tweets @lewis_baston
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