Last week’s sad passing of Sir Gerald Kaufman means that, for the third time in 2017, Jeremy Corbyn is facing yet another by-election in a Labour-held seat. The party are in disarray as they continue to shed voters in the opinion polls, with the Conservatives most recently opening up a 16-point lead over them.
Despite the serious problems that are plaguing Labour, it is difficult to see how they could lose one of the safest seats in Britain.
Manchester Gorton – which contains elements of Manchester Ardwick, the seat previously held by Kaufman – has returned a Labour politician in every election since 1935.
Only under left-wing firebrand Konni Zilliacus, and in the by-election to choose his successor upon his death, were the party given a real scare, with three separate Conservative candidates managing to close the gap between the two to under 2%. Since then, Labour’s majority has slipped under 15% on just one occasion, and not since 1970. It has firmly established itself as one of their safest seats, with Kaufman’s majority of 24,079 in the last election representing Labour’s thirteenth largest.
Despite Kaufman’s continually strong showings since first winning in 1983, the constituency has proven to be one in which the Liberal Democrats have quietly impressed in second place.
They comfortably finished ahead of the Conservatives between 1997 and 2010, with 2015’s disastrous general election seeing them slip down to fifth place with almost half the amount of votes UKIP managed to gain. The loss of 28.24% of the vote was devastating but, as part of such a woeful election, not unusual, and the upcoming by-election arguably offers the party a chance to show whether or not they have seriously strengthened themselves since being decimated at the polls two years ago.
Manchester Gorton not only used to be an area in which the Liberal Democrats safely finished second, but also boasts a favourable political landscape that could prove advantageous for the party. Approximately 65% of residents in the area voted Remain in last year’s European Union referendum, and this, coupled with the problems facing Labour and anxiety amongst some over the possibility of a “hard” Brexit, could push previous Liberal Democrat voters back to the party.
Their hopes of returning to second place (or even managing to pull off what would be a truly shocking victory) lay largely in Labour’s hands. The seat has been in special measures since 2004, meaning that selection for the party’s candidate will be undertaken by Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC). If the NEC tries to force on the local party a candidate that it is not happy with, that could lead to possible in-fighting and offer a glimmer of hope to the Liberal Democrats.
It would take an almighty collapse for the party to get anywhere near Labour, so, realistically, the by-election instead offers the Liberal Democrats an opportunity to re-establish themselves as a serious threat to Labour.
To do this, they will have to find a way past the Green Party, who benefitted from the Liberal Democrats’ woes to take their place in second. As one of the four constituencies in which the Greens came second to Labour in 2015, they will no doubt be viewing the by-election with interest as well. As a result, the battle for second should end up being between the two, with the Liberal Democrats trying to convince voters that, after the misery of two years ago, they are worth voting for once again.
With Brexit the new dividing line in British politics after last year’s referendum, the Liberal Democrats have smartly decided to market themselves as “the party of the 48%”. With Labour in such a poor state and split over how best to handle Brexit, it is a tactic that could bring them success.
Campaigning on a clear and unashamedly pro-EU platform helped Sarah Olney beat Zac Goldsmith in last December’s by-election in Richmond Park. Whilst the situation is not as favourable in Manchester Gorton, it is clear that an area that overwhelmingly voted Remain could be tempted back to the Liberal Democrats.
Whilst Corbyn can sleep relatively easily knowing that Labour are unlikely to lose a seat that they have held for 82 years, he should still be wary of the threat posed by the Liberal Democrats, who could use a positive second-place finish to mount further attacks on a divided and deeply unpopular party.
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