Starmer warned Tories could sneak ‘shot in the arm’ by-election win in red wall

Keir Starmer has been warned that Rishi Sunak’s slim general election hopes would be given a huge “shot in the arm” if the Tories win a crucial by-election contest in Tamworth next week.

Despite Labour’s huge national poll lead, the Tories believe they can hang on to the Midlands seat and boost their ambition to cling on to “red wall” territory won in 2019.

Voters head to the polls in both Tamworth and Mid Bedfordshire in the south of England on Thursday – but polling experts told The Independent it is the Midlands contest which is vital in Labour’s efforts to win a Commons majority.

Lord Hayward, the influential Tory peer and polling expert, said: “Labour winning Tamworth would be a striking signal of their progress – but not a surprise.”

“But if the Tories win it would be an astonishing boost in the arm. There would more than just hope they can hang on in crucial marginals. There is a real concentration of key marginals across the Midlands. So keeping Tamworth would be symbol those seats can be held.”

Polling guru Prof John Curtice told The Independent that the Tamworth by-election was “much more interesting” than Mid Bedfordshire because it is typical of the pro-Brexit red wall seats which backed Boris Johnson so heavily in 2019.

“Tamworth is a red wall seat, and it was very pro-Leave seat. If Labour can pick that up, it suggests pro-Brexit voters in 2016 wouldn’t necessarily be a barrier to a big Labour advance,” said Prof Curtice.

The Tamworth by-election was triggered after Tory MP Chris Pincher lost his appeal against a long suspension for drunkenly groping two men. Prof Curtice said the swing needed by Labour to overcome Mr Pincher’s 19,000 majority was “similar” to the one which saw Labour take Selby in north Yorkshire in July.

“If you do a Selby-type swing in Tamworth – which is even more pro-Leave – it would be significant. It’s an important test [of whether they are heading for a majority],” said Prof Curtice.

Keir Starmer was buoyed by recent byelection win in Rutherglen, where Labour’s Michael Shanks (r) triumphed over SNP

(Getty Images)

A senior YouGov pollster said this week the path to a Labour majority could be “essentially blocked” if the party does not win back most seats in the Midlands.

“Those majorities are huge and that is a massive task,” Patrick English, an associate director in research told a Labour conference event. “If [the Tories] can turn out [its] base in the Midlands marginals, Labour’s path to a majority is essentially blocked.”

Labour has played down the significance of a Tory victory if Mr Sunak’s party does hang on in Tamworth. “It is simply not the kind of seat Labour needs to win in order to win the next election,” one strategist told the Financial Times.

Pollsters say there is no clear evidence of a post-conference bounce for either of the two big parties. Tom Lubbock, founding director at JL Partners, said the general election is still “all to play for” despite Labour’s big lead.

Mr Lubbock said there was an “unusually high” number of swing voters – 36 per cent of the electorate is undecided according to a recent Ipsos study – and the group remain “extremely confused” about which party to back.

JL Partners’ post-conference season focus group of undecided voters all thought Mr Sunak had performed better than “weak” Mr Starmer. Yet all said they were swaying towards Labour because they think it is “time for a change”.

Three-way fight in Mid Bedfordshire could see Tories cling on

( Jeff Overs/BBC/PA/via Reuters)

While no polling has been done in Tamworth, the latest Survation poll for Mid Bedfordshire found Labour and the Tories neck and neck on 29 per cent, with the Lib Dems a close third on 22 per cent. Labour has a 24,000 majority to try to overcome.

Prof Curtice said the limited polling done in Mid-Bedfordshire – the seat given up by Nadine Dorries as she fumed over her thwarted peerage – shows the Conservative vote is “pretty much collapsing”. But the expert said “it may be that Labour won’t pick it up because of the split vote”.

Losing Mid-Bedfordshire should not panic Labour because there are still “relatively few” clear three-way fights involving the Lib Dems, said Lord Hayward.

Luke Tryl, director of the think tank More in Common, said his group’s own recent focus group of undecided voters in Mid-Bedfordshire showed a “striking” lack of enthusiasm for Keir Starmer and Labour.

“There is a sense they are still not sure what he stands for. There is deep frustration with the government, but there is an anti-politics mood – voters question whether any party can really sort out the mess,” he said.

Mr Tryl said Labour has to “change the mood” towards cautious optimism in the months ahead by setting out two or three clear ways he will make people’s lives better. He said Sir Keir may have found one in his Labour conference promise to oppose nimbyism and build more housing.

But Lord Hayward believes Sir Keir may have made a “major gaffe” in pledging to “bulldoze” through local opposition in the greenbelt, arguing that it could help the Tories in the home counties.

Despite huge national Labour poll leads, there was some hope for the Tories in the latest poll of blue wall seats in the south. The Redfield & Wilton Strategies survey found that the Tories on 36 per cent – up by five points since last month, with Labour down one on 32 per cent.

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