The sudden resignation of the Conservative MP Louise Mensch, probably the best-known member of the 2010 intake of MPs, will cause a fascinating by-election contest in her Corby constituency in eastern Northamptonshire. It is the first seat that either coalition party has had to defend in a by-election since the government was formed in May 2010, the longest respite a government has ever had before it has had to defend a constituency. For the connoisseur of by-elections, Corby is a good one - a marginal seat that has so far reflected the national winner (Conservative 1983-97, Labour 1997-2010, Conservative since 2010), and a constituency of two bizarrely juxtaposed political and social environments.
The road into Corby town itself from Rutland offers a startling vista that summarises the constituency. One trundles along through woods and gentle hills, and the little English village of Rockingham, and suddenly WHAM! You're in the middle of some gritty council estates in an industrial town that looks as if it were hundreds of miles to the north. Industrial Corby was a product of the 20th Century. A huge steel works was built in 1932-35, attracting construction and steel workers from all over Britain, particularly from unemployment blackspots like Scotland, Tyneside and Cornwall. The Scottish contingent was particularly prominent, with more than 4,000 (in a town of 18,000) living there in 1939 and more arriving after 1945. Corby was designated a New Town in 1950 and continued to grow, an anomalous, part-Scottish industrial presence amid quintessential English countryside.
Corby's economy was devastated, with the loss of perhaps 11,000 jobs, in 1980 when the steelworks closed down. The town faced other problems of de-industrialisation such as contaminated land and a poorly educated workforce; it was also isolated by the loss of its railway station in 1966 (briefly re-opened 1987-90).
But strangely, in the middle of all this devastation, the 1983 general election saw Corby with its first Tory MP since 1945. The reason was largely the boundary changes, which severed the link with urban Kettering that had been the recipe for a reasonably safe Labour seat and created the current marginal. Corby town is combined with a large chunk of the rural East Northamptonshire district, most of which is extremely Tory. Unlike other New Town seats (like Harlow or Stevenage) Corby does not dominate its constituency. The proportion of the seat's electorate that is in Corby itself is just over half - around 40,000 electors are from Corby and 35,000 from East Northamptonshire. Politics in Corby is polarised between some very Labour and very Tory areas. There are large core votes for each party, a recipe for close elections (four of its seven elections so far have been decided by fewer than 2,000 votes), high turnout (around 6 per cent over the national average in most elections) and poor prospects for third parties.
Corby itself is a strongly Labour town. The party has run the council since 1973 with hardly a challenge to its control, and the local party has a very traditionalist flavour to it. The centre and north of Corby are Labour strongholds - wards such as Beanfield, Kingswood, Shire Lodge and Central were all more than 70 per cent Labour in the 2011 local elections. There are some more marginal, newer-built areas to the south and east around Oakley, Stanion and Gretton (and some Tory villages like Rockingham). These have sprouted since the 1980s as suburban development has introduced a more middle class, commuting presence to Corby. The pattern is similar to the sort of development one sees on the edge of other southern New Towns such as Harlow (Church Langley) and Crawley (Maidenbower), but it has probably added fewer Tory votes than it has in those towns. Corby is still not beautiful or well-planned, although its title in the Telegraph of 'one of the most malformed places in Britain' is probably going a bit far.
Most of the acreage of the Corby constituency consists of some very plush East Northamptonshire countryside. It is hard to imagine that a constituency containing Oundle and the villages around it could be marginal, let alone Labour for 13 years, and although giving a partial impression first impressions do not mislead when it comes to this part of the seat. It is very similar to some hard-core Tory areas just across the county border in Rutland, north Cambridgeshire and south Lincolnshire. The Conservatives polled over 60 per cent of the vote in most of these wards in the 2011 elections, and Labour did not even bother contesting most of them. This seems an oversight on Labour's part, given that however Tory they are, these villages are still part of a key marginal. There are a couple of smaller towns where there is a bit more competition, particularly Irthlingborough, but East Northamptonshire is dominated by the Tories. To general amazement, Labour gained control of the council in Tony Blair's local election annus mirabilis of 1995, but it reverted to type in 1999.
After their initial win in 1983 Conservatives held Corby in 1987 and 1992 with slender majorities on very high turnouts (83 per cent of the electorate voted in 1992). The Tory years saw some investment and economic revival - it was close enough to London and the South East to have some of the benefits of the region's boom to waft into the town. But Corby fell easily to the national Labour landslide in 1997, with new MP Phil Hope winning a majority of nearly 12,000.
Labour won again in 2001 and 2005, but on both occasions the party's majority slipped back by much more than the national average. The swing to the Conservatives was 5 per cent in 2001, thanks to falling Labour turnout and 4.5 per cent in 2005 when the Conservative vote recovered well, bringing Corby back to the front rank of Tory targets. Hope's majority in 2005 was 1,517 (3.1 per cent), fairly similar to the tight margins won by his predecessor William Powell. The writing was on the wall for Labour in the 2005-10 Parliament as the Conservatives selected a prominent candidate in Louise Bagshawe (as she then was) and poured in resources. The economy turned sour again with the recession that set in during 2008, although it can boast a revived rail link and a fair amount of inward investment. Phil Hope was also caught up in the expenses scandal in 2009 and paid back a large sum for second home claims. But Hope, and Labour, fought back strongly on the ground and what might have been a rout, given the trend in New Town seats and for other ex-Ministers criticised over expenses, turned out to be a narrow win for the Conservatives. The swing in 2010 was well below average at only 3.3 per cent (national swing was 5 per cent) and the Tory majority at 1,895 was unimpressive.
The local economy remains in bad shape, with a large employer, the tailors Aquascutum, shutting down in April 2012 with the loss of 115 jobs. The fact that a 'large employer' now involves a bit over a hundred workers rather than thousands tells its own story of industrial change in Britain. Given the size of the majority that Louise Mensch's successor will defend, and the apparently unfavourable national and local climate for the Tories, Corby is a must-win for Labour and the Conservatives from David Cameron down seem to have written it off already. It is hardly worth the Lib Dems' while turning up, and given the Scottish origins of the population the SNP would probably win more votes here in the by-election if it whimsically decided to stand. UKIP, however, could potentially make some headway in the traditional Tory shire part of the constituency.
The weight of expectation on Labour is such that the stakes are very high. There has already been a debate within Labour circles this summer about electoral strategy and the respective merits of chasing Tory switchers or trying to gather in the 'missing millions' of former Labour supporters who have drifted into abstention or support for Lib Dems and others. Corby is a test case of these approaches. Labour has lost voters both to abstention in the working class parts of Corby town and to the Conservatives and others in the newer suburbs and smaller towns. The party, and its candidate Andy Sawford, will need a campaign and a message that will play well both with disillusioned working class electors and with the swing voters in Irthlingborough and Oakley if it is to overcome the Tory vote in the villages. Just mobilising the town was not quite enough to win in 1992 - but letting the town vote rot away in 2001 and 2005 severely undermined Labour's hold on the seat. The size, and contours, of the result when Corby goes to the polls on 15 November will be interesting. A Labour landslide win in Corby is unlikely, given the high turnout and strong Tory loyalties of the villages, but the party must be expecting to gain it by a more decisive margin than Mensch managed against Hope in 2010.