By-Election Blues

“If a whole set of by-elections are caused by police probes, it would be difficult for Mrs May not to call a general election”

Politics
Manchester: Cause for concern for the Conservatives? (Juliusx CC BY-SA 3.0)

Following the death of Gerald Kaufman, there will be a by-election in his constituency of Manchester Gorton. It is likely to be held on May 4 — the same day as local elections and the inaugural, George Osborne-inspired, Greater Manchester mayoral election.

In normal times the by-election would pass with little comment. The seat has been held by Labour since 1935 and Kaufman was elected in 2015 with 67 per cent of the vote, Labour’s 15th-highest share. His nearest rival, the Green candidate, received under ten per cent. The Labour candidate, Pakistani-born MEP Afzal Khan — every bit as much an Israel-hater as Kaufman — could have expected to have a job for life. The Boundary Commission’s initial proposals for the 2018 parliamentary constituency review, which seek to implement the government’s desire to reduce the size of the House of Commons from 650 to 600 and to make constituency sizes more equal, make no changes whatsoever to Manchester Gorton.

Jeremy Corbyn has, however, changed all that. Labour is now 20 percentage points behind the Tories in the polls, and even his erstwhile cheerleader, Guardian columnist George Monbiot, says of him on Twitter: “Corbyn has proved completely useless . . . JC could scarcely have made a bigger hash of it by design.” Moreover, the Labour Party in Manchester Gorton is in some disarray, with the constituency association having been in special measures since 2004 and the candidate shortlist for the by-election handled by a five-strong centrally appointed panel. This panel — to the apparent annoyance of Corbyn, who wanted his ally, the Salford MP Rebecca Long-Bailey, on it instead — included the Leicester MP Keith Vaz despite his recent discussions about washing-machines with Romanian rent boys.

Labour, of course, lost the Copeland by-election in February to the Conservatives, the first time a governing party has gained a seat in a by-election for 35 years or — if the 1982 Mitcham and Morden by-election is discounted, as the sitting MP had defected to the SDP and was seeking his constituents’ sanction for the move — 57 years. Could the same happen in Manchester Gorton?

Copeland had also sent only Labour MPs to Westminster throughout its history but it had been a much less safe seat. Labour’s majority in Copeland was 6 per cent, as opposed to 57 per cent in Manchester Gorton, which is also much more ethnically mixed: 47 per cent of its population is non-white, with parts of the constituency having a large black population and others being heavily of Pakistani background. Both these groups have proved more loyal to Labour than white working-class voters.

The Liberal Democrats will be seeking to draw support on the basis of the constituency’s pro-Remain stance. It voted by more than 60 per cent to remain in the EU last June and has a large student population. The Liberal Democrats have traditionally been the second party in the constituency, albeit a long way behind Labour. In 2015 their support collapsed to fifth place behind UKIP — itself not especially strong in the constituency at 8 per cent — as students abandoned them en masse. The Lib Dems will certainly make a significant advance in this by-election but overturning Labour’s majority would be a massive task — it is not an affluent liberal place like Richmond, where they pulled off their surprise victory over Zac Goldsmith last December.

George Galloway, attracted by the constituency’s large Muslim vote, also says he will stand. The seat is, however, not as ethnically monolithic as Bethnal Green or Bradford West, the locations of his previous triumphs. At 62, he is a diminished figure who no longer has a party behind him — his Respect party dissolved itself last August.

If the Conservatives were to win in Manchester Gorton it would mean that the rules of British politics had been rewritten — the Tories have been getting around 10 per cent of the vote since 1997 and had been at 20-something per cent in the elections before that. It would mean that they are on the brink of achieving Theresa May’s ambition of becoming a catch-all party which could appeal to every section of society.

Manchester Gorton is not the only by-election likely to be held soon. The Labour candidates for both the Greater Manchester mayoralty, Andy Burnham, and for that of the newly-created Liverpool City Region, Steve Rotherham, are sitting MPs who will stand down if elected in May. Although he has no chance of winning, the Manchester mayoral election will see perhaps the highest-profile candidacy yet from an ultra-Orthodox Jewish candidate in the shape of UKIP’s Shneur Odze, a member of the influential Lubavitch movement.

In addition, the police investigations into the Conservative Party’s election spending at the 2015 election could result in by-elections in half a dozen or even more constituencies, not least Thanet South where Nigel Farage would in all likelihood once again try his luck. If the Tories faced a whole set of by-elections under these circumstances it would be difficult for Mrs May to resist calling an early general election. The Fixed-term Parliaments Act does not present insurmountable hurdles in this regard. A government can, of course, cause its own downfall by not voting for itself in a confidence vote, thus precipitating an election.

A more likely route is for the Commons to vote for an early dissolution, which it can do by a two-thirds majority. It would be very difficult for Labour to argue against such a motion since it claims it wants to form a government, and opposing it would effectively be saying that it wants the Conservatives to remain in office until 2020.

One of the strongest arguments the Tories have for resisting calls for an early general election — that they want the new boundaries for a slimmed-down House of Commons to be in place, which will be more favourable to them, and will not take effect until late 2018 at the earliest — is a hollow one. The boundaries have to be approved by a vote of both Houses of Parliament, and the current arithmetic means that the Commons is unlikely to support them.

All flavours of Ulster Unionist — on whom Mrs May has generally been able to rely in Brexit votes — are adamantly opposed to them, as the proposed new Northern Irish boundaries are very favourable to nationalists in general and Sinn Fein in particular. With an effective government majority of 17, only nine Tories who would see their own seats and jobs being abolished would have to rebel to block the new-look Commons.