It is unlikely to meaningfully impact the news cycle or shift focus from the Ukraine war, but we have a by-election for Westminster today. The voters of Birmingham Erdington go to the polls to elect a successor to the late Jack Dromey.
The Labour MP was best-known as the husband of Harriet Harman but had deep political credentials of his own after decades of service to the trade union movement. Prior to becoming an MP, Dromey was Deputy General Secretary of the TGWU.
Labour candidate hit by late scandal
The betting for this seat cannot be described as competitive, although we did see some notable action yesterday. Previously matched at the minimum Betfair odds of 1.011/100, Labour drifted out to 1.071/14. That was probably a reaction to an exclusive on GB News, revealing past comments from their candidate Paulette Hamilton in which she said she was ‘torn’ between ‘the ballot and the bullet’.
GB News’ Tom Harwood exclusively reveals past comments from Labour candidate Paulette Hamilton ahead of the Erdington by-election. pic.twitter.com/4S27QQ0e35
— GB News (@GBNEWS) March 2, 2022
Veteran Newsnight reporter Michael Crick was damning of his former employers at the BBC for not running the story.
If the BBC have totally ignored the Paulette Hamilton story it’s very serious. Saying it’s on the eve of a by-election is no excuse. When I was Newsnight reporter I did story of Labour fiddling election expenses in Wirral South by-election. And we transmitted night before polling https://t.co/5ESA37QYQe
— Michael Crick (@MichaelLCrick) March 2, 2022
It appears Labour have a made a grave error here, which may well come back to bite them if the odds are correct and Hamilton is elected. However given that the story broke so late, it is unlikely to affect the result. A large percentage of votes will have already been cast by post and one must wonder, given the lack of coverage of this race, how many will turnout on the day.
Assuming therefore that Labour are to win, it makes sense to focus on the three side-markets – Labour Vote Share, Conservative Vote Share and Turnout.
Dromey outperformed Labour in 2019
My first reaction when studying this seat is it looks like one of very few decent results for Labour at the 2019 general election, when Dromey won by 10%. The key to determining most seats could be found in the demographics and preference regarding Brexit.
To a large extent Erdington looks like a ‘Red Wall‘ seat. It is predominantly white working class, and voted to Leave the EU by a substantial 63-37 margin. Like so many they lost in that election, it had always previously voted Labour.
The scale of Labour victory may owe something to Dromey’s profile and personal vote, but there is another critical factor. This electorate is relatively young – only 13.6% are aged over 65, compared to 18.6% nationally. Age, it seems, is the biggest single determinant of choosing Conservative over Labour. (A trend that should worry the Tories).
Starmer’s better national position bodes well
Nationally of course, Labour are in a much stronger position today. Jeremy Corbyn’s party lost by 11.5%, whereas current polls show Keir Starmer’s version ahead by around 3-5%. On that basis, one might assume Paulette Hamilton is likelier to win by Dromey’s 20% margin from 2017 than 10% from 2019.
I am somewhat sceptical they will win by so far for a few reasons. First, the candidate. Even without the breaking scandal, Hamilton won’t have anything like Dromey’s local profile.
Tories stick with regular local candidate
Second, it is notable that the Tories have picked the same candidate as they have in every election from 2010 onwards. Robert Alden must be pretty well known by Tory voters in the constituency by now and that gives good cause to think his vote will hold up, even if the party have been on the back foot nationally.
Third, going back to that age divide, if turnout is indeed low, one would expect older voters to make up a bigger share of this electorate.
Veteran leftist likely to take votes from Labour
Finally, there is a not insignificant challenge to Labour from the Left. Dave Nellist – a veteran of left-wing politics in the Midlands – is the TUSC candidate. He was Labour MP for Coventry South East from 1983 to 1992 before being deselected, due to his support for the Militant Tendency.
In the next six general elections, Nellist ran under various far-left parties in Coventry seats, winning between 3.7% and 7.1%. Vastly better than those parties tend to get, thanks surely to his profile in Coventry.
Now granted, Birmingham isn’t Coventry but Nellist is something of a legend on the far-left – he even won ‘Backbencher of the Year‘ once. With far-left activists purged by Starmer’s Labour, there is bound to be a reaction from this small segment of their support. Probably insignificant in a general election but a notable factor in a low turnout by-election.
Check out Resistance TV tonight at 7pm when you can hear from @davenellist about the prospects for socialism in the 21st century. I recorded this interview with him last year.#ErdingtonVoteDaveNellisthttps://t.co/wR06l1YbTX
— Chris Williamson (@DerbyChrisW) March 2, 2022
Nellist is getting plenty of coverage on Twitter, backed by the usual suspects from Chris Williamson to ‘Northern Independence Party‘ founder Thelma Walker. I can see him winning 5% or slightly more, as an option to kick the Labour leadership and generally register a mid-term protest. The history of the seat suggests any Lib Dem or Green share will be negligible, so perhaps even third place is within reach for Nellist.
Low turnout expected
Looking for comparable by-elections, I’d put this in the same batch as a dozen by-elections in safe Labour seats since they lost power in 2010, starting with Barnsley Central in 2011 to Lewisham East in 2018. None were seriously targeted by the other main parties.
In all bar one, turnout fell below 40%. In nine, the turnout fell below 35%, once below 20%. Note the three above 35% all involved strong UKIP campaigns. With all that in mind, here’s my predictions for those three side markets. In short, much closer than the outright odds suggest. I wouldn’t touch the 1.071/14 about Labour with a bargepole.
LABOUR SHARE: 47%
To win seat
Labour vote share
Conservative Vote Share