Picture credit: Wikimedia Commons
Alastair Meeks assesses the chances
Zac Goldsmith’s father once said that when a man married his mistress, that created a vacancy. In the same way, his successful opponent for the Mayor of London contest can be expected shortly to be standing down as MP for Tooting, giving rise to a fascinating by-election.
Tooting has long been a Labour stronghold. It has been held by the party ever since its creation in 1974. The closest that the Conservatives have got to Labour was in 1987, when they got to within 3% of the Labour MP. So it should be a safe Labour hold?
Perhaps. The area has undergone substantial demographic change. While most of London is trending to Labour, Tooting is an exception. In February 1974, the Conservatives took 32.6% of the vote. In 1992, the Conservatives took 40.1% of the vote. In 2015, the Conservatives took 41.9% of the vote, their highest vote share ever in this seat. For comparison, the national vote shares for the Conservatives over those three elections were 46%, 42% and 37%, so it has gone from being a considerably worse than average seat for the Conservatives to being a considerably better than average seat for them. Admittedly the boundaries have changed twice in that time, but this is a seat that is gentrifying. This is not the gentrification of hipster beards and radical art movements but of loft extensions and Maclaren buggies. The Conservatives will be taking aim at this seat.
The result in 2015 was a close two horse race. Sadiq Khan had a majority of just under 3,000 (5.3%) over his Conservative opponent Dan Watkins. Everyone else lost their deposit. Turnout at 69.7% was above the national average (again showing that Tooting is not a typical London constituency).
So we can expect another two horse race. National opinion polls vary according to their methodology and taken overall suggest that Labour might have improved slightly relative to the Conservatives over the last year. So that might give Labour a bit more of a cushion.
What of the candidates? The rumour mill suggested that Jeremy Corbyn originally wanted Ken Livingstone to run for this seat for Labour. We can safely assume that’s not going to happen now. So Labour will have a selection battle ahead.
The Conservatives too will need to select a candidate. Dan Watkins has been looking ahead. Far from abandoning the seat he did not win at the general election, he has been assiduously working it. Here’s his news page on his campaign website.
As you can see, he’s been keeping himself busy. If as seems very likely Dan Watkins is selected to refight the seat, the Conservatives will have a familiar face with good local knowledge. It looks like the Conservatives have stolen a march on Labour already here. (As an aside, Conservative localism, clearly borrowed from the Lib Dems’ decades-old strategy, seems to be here to stay. Labour are going to have to adopt similar tactics much more systematically.)
So to sum up, the by-election is going to be a two horse race in a seat that Labour has held since its formation but where the Conservatives are going to have a relatively familiar candidate, where Labour are struggling in the polls far more than most mid-term opposition parties in an area that has been trending towards the Conservatives for two generations.
The last time that a government gained a seat at a by-election was in 1982 in neighbouring Mitcham & Morden. Could history repeat itself? This could be intense.