MANCHESTER GORTON: Could Labour be in trouble in its heartland?

March 15, 2017

The death of Sir Gerald Kaufman on 26th February has triggered a by-election in one of the safest seats in the country. Under normal circumstances, the Labour Party should be expecting to comfortably hold Manchester Gorton with a healthy increase in vote share and majority. Indeed, Manchester Gorton is Labour's ninth safest seat with a super-majority of 24,079. The party also holds every council seat in the constituency and Gorton has returned a Labour MP since 1935. In 2015, Labour increased its share of the vote by 17%, largely at the expense of the Liberal Democrats, who slumped to fifth place. Despite this, the spectre of Copeland just a few weeks ago remains fresh on the memory and things are beginning to look a little bit more difficult for Labour. 

Labour are currently sitting between 10 and 20 points behind the Conservatives in the national opinion polls and Jeremy Corbyn consistently scores lower than Theresa May when voters are asked who they think will make the best Prime Minister. In Copeland, the Conservatives pulled off a once in a blue-moon result as they became the first incumbent government to gain a seat in a mid-term by-election without a defecting incumbent or disqualified winning candidate since Brighouse and Spenborough in 1960. On the same night, Labour held Stoke-on-Trent Central and as a result, Mr Corbyn and his supporters have been able to brush off calls to resign. But looking beyond ‘Labour HOLD’, the result was still not a great performance by the Labour Party. Despite successfully holding off a challenge from UKIP, the Conservatives increased their share of the vote and in both seats and so did the Liberal Democrats. The Conservatives aren't competitive in Gorton, but the Liberal Democrats might be able to give Labour a run for their money. 

Despite falling back to just 7.9% of the vote and 8 seats in 2015, the Liberal Democrats seem to be making an unlikely comeback. In the last five parliamentary by-elections, the party has increased its share of the vote compared to 2015 and has overturned a 23,015 majority in Richmond Park. In Manchester Gorton, the party finished second in elections from 1992 to 2010. In 2015, the Greens replaced them in second place and in line with the collapse of their vote, they finished in fifth place and lost their deposit. On the face of it, it looks incredibly unlikely that Mr. Farron’s party will manage to reverse Labour’s mega-majority but some interesting factors could occur and bring the seat into play. Firstly, the Liberal Democrat position on Europe and the fact that the constituency voted 62% to remain in the European Union gives the party a chance to take votes from both Labour and the Conservatives. 

For many remain voters, the Liberal Democrats are certainly becoming a natural home. They have begun to see the benefits of this in the opinion polls where the party is beginning to creep back into third place ahead of UKIP. In recent by-elections, this has certainly been the case and Richmond Park was effectively turned into a ‘Brexit-battleground’. Having selected their candidate, Jackie Pearcey, before any of the other major parties, the Liberal Democrats have been able to start running campaign literature. One leaflet displays Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May arm in arm outside 10 Downing Street. With no other declared candidates and Labour not making their selection until 22nd March, this head could be very useful to the orange team in turning this into another 'Brexit by-election'. Focusing the campaign on Brexit will allow the Liberal Democrats to paint Labour as ‘Tory enablers’. On this basis, the Liberal Democrats should be able to eject the Green party from second place and finish a comfortable second to Labour. But the good news for Tim Farron's team doesn't end there. In recent days, George Galloway has announced that he is considering standing in the contest. If this were to be the case, he would have an interesting effect on things and could take a large portion of the Labour vote (particularly the votes of the working-class Asian community in the constituency). Labour's debacle over the selection process could also have a negative effect on the party's performance in the election and aid Galloway. This would potentially allow Liberal Democrats to sneak through the middle and gain the seat. 

If certain factors come together, the Liberal Democrats could certainly have a good night but at the moment, the writ for the by-election hasn't even been moved and even without a candidate, Labour remain the strong favourites to hold the seat. But, given Labour's recent woes and the party's parliamentary backing of Brexit, it will certainly be interesting to see how the party's vote holds up in a constituency that voted strongly to remain in the European Union last June. If the Greens retain second place, it will certainly ease the worries of some senior Labour politicians. If not- then there could be further pressure on Mr. Corbyn to reconsider his position as party leader. Although no date is currently set, it is likely that the Labour Party will chose to hold the by-election on 4th May to coincide with the local council and mayoral elections. If the unthinkable were to happen, or the Liberal Democrats were to run Labour close, the wider results of the night would allow Corbyn's supporters to distract from the outcome of the by-election. 

At this stage, it certainly looks likely that Labour will hold on. Nonetheless, it will be interesting to see how the contest plays out over the coming weeks and maybe, just maybe, Manchester Gorton will join Copeland (2017), Mitcham and Morden (1982) and Hull North (1966) in that select club of 'special' by-elections.

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