The by-election in Stoke-on-Trent Central will take place on 23 February 2017, following the resignation of leading Labour MP Tristram Hunt to be director of the V&A museum.
UKIP have announced that their leader Paul Nuttall will contest the seat for them, to try and secure another MP in addition to their sole existing MP Douglas Carswell (Clacton).
Making predictions for by-elections is a fool's game, since they behave very differently from general elections. Previous general election results may not be a good guide to by-elections, and by-election results are famously a very poor guide to the next general election.
However, we can look at some political measures around Stoke-on-Trent Central to get a flavour of the political situation there.
It is well-known that UKIP came second, narrowly ahead of the Conservatives in the 2015 General Election. Since then, the Conservative vote share has increased, whilst UKIP's has declined very slightly.
The current Electoral Calculus prediction for the seat in a general election (not the by-election), as at 25 January 2017, is:
|2015 Votes||2015 Share||Predicted Votes|
|LAB Majority||5,179||16.7%||Pred Maj 8.3%|
This has the Conservatives comfortably back in second place. However this may not be a good guide to what will happen. Voters in by-elections are not all keen readers of political prediction websites, and tend to simplify contests into a two-horse race. They often use the last general election result as a guide to which the two horses are. In other words, the voters are likely to see the seat as a Labour/UKIP contest. That would be very useful for UKIP because they can then squeeze the other anti-Labour parties.Additionally, the former MP has gone off to a glamorous job in London. By-election voters often dislike this situation (going back to Matthew Parris leaving Derbyshire West for TV presenting in 1986) and vote against the incumbent party.
To win, either UKIP has to persuade half the likely Conservative voters to switch to it, or persuade about a fifth of Labour supporters to change sides. Or some combination of those.
So the question is: can UKIP overturn the normal political arithmetic and beat Labour in the special circumstances of a by-election?
To analyse this, we need to introduce some major new modelling of political behaviour at a local level which Electoral Calculus has performed.
Electoral Calculus has recently conducted a major new analysis of political attitudes and voting patterns at a detailed local level. The relevant level here is the local council ward, in which people cast votes every 4 years or so for their local district or borough councillors. There are around 8,700 wards in Britain (excluding Northern Ireland), with an average of 5,000 voters in each one. Wards are naturally sub-parts of parliamentary seats, so information gained at a ward level can be very helpful for the ultimate analysis of an entire seat, and also provides valuable campaign information.
Using "machine-learning" and big data techniques, well-known to mathematicians as linear regression and Bayesian analysis, the following calculations can be performed to get three very useful datasets.
From the 2015 General Election, recent local election results and the ward/seat geography, we can use the Electoral Calculus prediction model to allocate general election votes from the seat level to the ward level. This useful information is not published by the electoral authorities. But using our model means that we have an estimate for how people voted in each ward at the general election. This ward-level voting breakdown is shown below its map on each seat details page, such as Stoke-on-Trent Central.
The EU Referendum result on June 2016 was not just politically significant, but also contains a wealth of detailed political information. The relative vote shares of Remain and Leave across the country can help identify areas of UKIP strength and weakness, but also underlying political attitudes especially on the international / national axis of the Electoral Calculus 2D Political Map.
The EU Referendum reported results by District (Local Authority), which is the sum of all the wards within it. To allocate EU votes from the district down to its wards, we need a political/demographic model of voting behaviour. In this case, we used Electoral Calculus ward-level voting patterns plus ONS demographic data which was fed into a machine-learning algorithm to calculate estimates of each ward's EU referendum vote.
These data can be seen at the seat level on each seat details page, and at the ward level information shown on the results page of the 2D Plot My Position feature.
Finally, we can estimate the 2D Political Attitude of each ward. This positions each ward on the Electoral Calculus two-dimensional map. The first axis is the economic left-wing/right-wing dimension, which runs from 100° Left (big government, pro-workers) to 100° Right (low-tax, pro-business). The second axis runs from internationalism (pro-immigration, EU single market) to nationalism (anti-immigrant, Britain first) denoted as 100° Int and 100° Nat respectively.
Using the valuable Social Market Foundation / Opinium "Dead Centre" survey on political attitudes, ONS demographic data, as well as the first and second datasets above, we can make another machine-learning algorithm to calculate estimates of each ward's 2D political position.
More details of this dataset and what it means nationally are the focus of the Electoral Calculus article "The hidden wiring behind modern politics and where it gives UKIP a chance to beat Labour".
We can bring all these data together in a practical way by looking at a single seat. Choosing Stoke Central, we can start with a list of all the ward (or part-wards) which lie within Stoke-on-Trent Central, and see their values from the three calculated datasets:
The table below shows all the wards in the seat, along with these quantities (sorted by EU leave share):
|Bentilee and Ubberley||8,073||Lab||87%||3° Left||33° National|
|Baddeley, Milton and Norton||3,447||Con||76%||10° Right||25° National|
|Springfields and Trent Vale||4,895||Ukip||76%||8° Left||22° National|
|Abbey Hulton and Townsend||7,267||Lab||75%||1° Left||24° National|
|Boothen and Oak Hill||4,660||Ukip||71%||3° Left||20° National|
|Sneyd Green||817||Con||69%||3° Right||16° National|
|Joiner's Square||3,780||Lab||67%||7° Left||14° National|
|Eaton Park||3,368||Lab||65%||15° Left||10° National|
|Etruria and Hanley||3,374||Lab||63%||10° Left||8° National|
|Birches Head and Central Forest Park||8,052||Con||59%||1° Right||7° National|
|Hartshill and Basford||4,877||Lab||57%||3° Left||8° National|
|Penkhull and Stoke||4,831||Con||49%||1° Left||2° National|
|Hanley Park and Shelton||4,807||Lab||32%||15° Left||17° International|
|Total : Stoke-on-Trent Central||62,250||Lab||66%||4° Left||14° National|
Politically, the General Election "winner" in each ward is not surprising. Most wards are Labour, which is expected since Labour won the seat. But both the Conservatives and UKIP have pockets of strength.
The EU Referendum vote is striking. Overall Stoke Central voted 66pc to leave, which was the 58th highest vote share in the whole country. And some individual wards are quite extreme. The ward of Bentilee and Ubberley has an estimated EU leave share of 87pc – eight out of nine voters wanted out of the EU. That makes it one of the top-dozen wards (out of 8,700) for leaving the EU. Four more wards had a leave share of more than 70pc which puts them all in the top tenth of wards by EU leave share.
The 2D Political positions show two things clearly. Firstly, that Stoke Central is fairly balanced between left and right. The average of the seat (4° Left) is only very slightly left of centre. And most wards lie in the centre ground between 10° Left and 10° Right. Only two wards lie outside that (both on the left), but not by much.
But the international/national axis for these wards is significant. Five wards have a position more than 20° National. This is a very strong political attitude which makes these wards more nationalist than 90pc of the rest of the county. Only one ward (Hanley Park and Shelton, which contains Stafforshire University) is Internationalist at all. The overall position for the seat is 14° National which ranks it as the sixtieth most nationalist seat in Britain.
Stoke-on-Trent Central is a Labour seat with a comfortable Labour majority. At a General Election, Labour would be expected to hold the seat.
But the seat is very strongly nationalist, ranking as the sixtieth most nationalist seat in Britain. It is possible for UKIP to win the seat. To do this, UKIP would have to:
It is difficult to put a probability on this, because there are too many factors which can't be quantified. Politically, a Labour victory would be a good result for the Labour leadership under Jeremy Corbyn and a real set back to UKIP. It would re-confirm Labour as one of the "big two" parties, even in its current weakened state. If UKIP cannot come close to winning here in these favourable circumstances, then they cannot win.
However, a UKIP victory would send the opposite signal. It would be bad news for Labour, and raise the prospect of UKIP taking more seats from them in the midlands and the north of England.
©2017 Martin Baxter