Louise Mensch’s resignation this week creates a tantalising by-election opportunity for Labour. The graph below shows the 2010 result for the Corby constituency.
So far this Parliament, there have been seven by-elections, one of which was Belfast West. The other six have all been in Labour-held constituencies (of which they lost Bradford West). This is the first mainland by-election where Labour is not defending, and they have a good chance of winning a Conservative seat.
It is a good chance too: Mensch won the seat in 2010 by a slender 1,951 votes (3.6%). She gained this on a swing of 3.4%, well below the national 5% swing in that election. This is perhaps even more remarkable given the expenses controversy involving the Labour incumbent Phil Hope.
Indeed, as the second graph shows, Hope received as many votes in 2010 as he did in 2005. Mensch benefited from turnout, presumably previous undecideds deciding to cast their ballots.
To make things worse for the Conservatives, Labour already have a candidate in place, as Corby is a seat that the Boundary Commission propose to leave the constituency untouched. 35-year old local man Andy Sawford seems like a good pick for them and must be as excited as an Olympic hopeful now.
The Conservatives already seen to be privately writing off their chances of holding on to Corby. As a result, they are delaying the election to 15 November to coincide with the elections for the Police and Crime Commissioners and two or three other by-elections* and therefore hope to bury the bad news a little.
You may have picked up in the press some confusion about the name of the constituency: it is officially named Corby but it was referred to as Corby and East Northamptonshire by both Mensch in her resignation statement and by Andy Sawford, and some papers have mistakenly started using the latter as the constituency name.
The reason for this is that the constituency is comprised of both the whole of the borough of Corby plus most of the district of East Northamptonshire. Corby makes up 53% of the electorate, whilst the other 47% come from the mainly rural parts of East Northamptonshire (the district’s most urban area, the Rushden-High Ferrers conurbation lies outside the constituency in the Wellingborough seat). As the map below shows, this may be the smaller section in population, but covers a far larger area than Corby borough.
It is the combination of these two districts that makes the constituency marginal. The borough of Corby is strongly Labour: the local council has been controlled by them continuously since 1979, and they currently hold 22 of the council’s 29 council seats. The town’s Labour traditions stem from its former steel industry and the Glaswegians that came to work there: a third of its population is of Scottish ancestry and 19% were born in Scotland. The largest Rangers supporters club outside Scotland and Northern Ireland is in Corby.
East Northamptonshire is very different. The Conservatives hold 35 of this council’s 40 seats. 19 of those councillors represent wards in the Corby constituency, with Labour and Independents holding two apiece there (there is a third Independent in High Ferrers).
The East Northamptonshire section includes the small towns of Irthlingborough, Oundle, Raunds and Thrapston along the River Nene.
Irthlingborough was home to the now-defunct Rushden and Diamonds football team and used to be where Dr Martens boots were made until production moved to China in 2003. It is the only part of the district with Labour councillors.
Raunds was another centre of the Northamptonshire footwear industry, and was home to Sir David Frost in his youth. Oundle is home to Oundle School, a well-known mixed sex public school.
Further north, the district becomes more rural, taking in what is left of the old royal hunting forest, Rockingham Forest.
The map above shows the distribution of councillors across the thirty wards in the constituency (15 from each district).
The map below shows our estimate of the scale of lead for Labour or the Conservatives in each ward at the 2010 election, based on mapping the 2011 local election results against the 2010 general election result. Two Conservative wards in East Northamptonshire were uncontested last year (and in both 2003 and 2007), so our model treats them as having the same level of support as the Conservatives’ strongest contested ward.
This map shows that there are few wards in the seat that are really contested: most wards are either safely Labour or safely Tory. The tactics of the election for both parties are therefore likely to be primarily those getting their vote out rather than converting swing voters, although areas like Irthlingborough and the rural eastern part of Corby borough are more marginal.
*(note): The pending by-elections for Cardiff South & Penarth and Manchester Central are both expected to take place on that day, as their respective MPs (Alun Michael and Tony Lloyd) step down to contest the Police and Crime Commissioner elections. Another by-election for Mid Ulster, triggered by Martin McGuiness’s decision to stand down and concentrate on being deputy first minister, may be held on the same day.