The votes in the West Lancashire by-election today (9 February), triggered by the resignation of the Labour MP Rosie Cooper in November, will be counted over night. There are unlikely to be any surprises to wake up to tomorrow.
As I trudge through the town of Skelmersdale, Britain Predicts modelling has Labour winning 63 per cent of the vote, up 11 percentage points on 2019. The Conservatives are forecast to fall to their worst result in the seat: 26 per cent, down ten points. It’s touch and go as to whether Reform UK, the successor to the Brexit Party, will keep its deposit. The party’s recent rise in the polls to 6 per cent nationally would see it perform well in seats like Boston and Skegness – where our model forecasts it would reach 10 per cent – but not here.
West Lancashire comprises the more rural and urban areas between Southport and Liverpool. In one respect, it serves as the spillover for both. It's west of Wigan, and south of Preston and Chorley. Its main towns are Ormskirk (coming from Old Norse meaning “serpent's church”) and Skelmersdale (or Skem, as the locals call it). What makes this seat special is that Ormskirk hasn’t always leaned towards Labour. It was Conservative under Margaret Thatcher and only went solidly red under John Major and Tony Blair.
The pollster James Kanagasooriam tipped West Lancashire as a red wall seat that should go Tory in 2019. The reason it hasn’t, and probably won’t (the reason Labour won an 8,000 majority in 2019 while it lost seats near by, such as Leigh), has to do with identity politics. West Lancashire has been kept Labour by the presence of Scouse-identifying voters. The party’s association with Scousers has turned former marginals like Crosby into super-safe seats. West Lancashire is part of that pile.
By-elections almost always have low turnouts, and this one looks like it will be even worse than the median. According to an observer on the ground, one polling station recorded an 11am turnout of 3 per cent, though that figure doesn't account for the postal vote turnout, which will play a prominent role.
Travelling through the constituency you’d be surprised there even was a by-election. Placards and posters are few and far between. Labour’s headquarters, a borrowed community centre in Skelmersdale, sticks out among general apathy. I've been told all the local parties have made little effort at getting organised, much to the consternation of national officers. A number of households I spoke to had received one Labour leaflet through the door, and nothing from the other parties. Another set of households had received as many as ten, all from Labour. A Conservative campaigner I keep in touch with who usually attends by-elections – including no-hopers like Airdrie and Shotts – hasn't bothered to come here.
The fatalistic nature of this campaign is to the detriment of West Lancashire's voters. If the result is out of kilter with State of the Nation's forecast, we know what to blame: a campaign effort that feels so low-key it's non-existent. But an upset is unlikely.
[See also: Britain Predicts]