It is more worrying than the victory in Stoke is reassuringby Tom Quinn / February 24, 2017 / Leave a comment
Labour has managed to avoid the indignity of losing two seats in by-elections to two different parties on the same day. But any relief at keeping UKIP at bay in Stoke-on-Trent Central will be outweighed by the far more consequential defeat to the Conservatives in Copeland. After almost seven years in opposition, Labour looks further away than ever from returning to government.
The party clung on in Stoke, with Gareth Snell beating UKIP candidate Paul Nuttall, the party’s charismatic leader, by a clear 13 percentage points—although its 37 per cent share of the vote was two points down on the 2015 general election. However, Labour lost Copeland, which it had held since 1935, to the Conservatives on a swing of 6.7 per cent, with Trudy Harrison beating Gillian Troughton into second place. It is the first time since 1982 that the main opposition party has lost a seat in a by-election to the governing party. Even the ’82 case was unusual in that a Labour MP who defected to the SDP fought to retain the seat and split the left’s vote. It is necessary to go back to the Brighouse & Spenborough by-election of 1960 and the Sunderland South by-election of 1953 to see anything similar to what happened yesterday—and these vote swings from Labour to the Conservative were below 2 per cent in both instances. It is not an overstatement to describe the Copeland result as historic.
Governments are rarely loved and so when one manages to win a seat from the opposition in a by-election, it usually indicates a vote of no-confidence in the opposition. Labour was decisively rejected in Copeland. The swing was even greater than national opinion polls, which put the Tories 16 percentage points ahead of Labour, would have suggested. Labour’s beleaguered leader, Jeremy Corbyn, finds himself firmly in Michael Foot territory in terms of both his own personal appeal (his latest satisfaction ratings, according to Ipsos-MORI, are -38) and his party’s unelectability. Normally, that level of performance would result in a full-blown leadership crisis. But after surviving a coup by his MPs last year and winning a second thumping mandate from Labour’s members (especially those who joined after the 2015 general election), Corbyn may feel safe—at least until there are signs that his left-wing allies are deserting him. As it stands, they are blaming Labour’s right for the loss, with John McDonnell saying that: “we can’t have a situation like we did last week when Tony Blair comes out and attacks his own party, Peter Mandelson as well.”
Copeland was a triumph for the Conservatives. They campaigned hard on the key local issue of nuclear power, being helped by Corbyn’s ambivalence on the matter. But they will also have noted that Theresa May’s increasing shift towards a harder Brexit has not cost the party at the polls. On the contrary, Labour’s disarray looks to have given the Conservatives significant room for manoeuvre to develop a vision for Brexit largely free from any electoral constraint from the opposition. The sharp drop in UKIP’s vote share in Copeland also appears to confirm polling evidence of a drift back to the Tories by those voters who defected to UKIP in 2015. The Liberal Democrats maintained their recent improvement, doubling their vote share in both Copeland and Stoke, albeit from extremely low levels.
Stoke was a major disappointment for UKIP. It was precisely the type of constituency where the party must perform well if it is to find a role in the Brexit era. Labour’s internal divisions and Corbyn’s unpopularity gave UKIP the opportunity to target Leave-supporting working-class voters. Nuttall’s profile and Northern roots would, UKIP hoped, appeal to Stoke’s “left-behind” voters. Instead, his campaign was embroiled in controversy throughout. He was forced to defend statements that he had been present at the Hillsborough stadium disaster in 1989. Later, he acknowledged, contrary to claims on his website, that he had not lost close friends at Hillsborough. The effect of the coverage was to undermine Nuttall’s credibility and the controversy may continue to dog him in the future. His leadership is already starting to look holed below the water.
UKIP might have won Stoke with a stronger candidate—Nigel Farage, for instance. But while there is always scope for an upset in a by-election, in reality the threat that UKIP poses to Labour in its heartlands has been overstated. In the 2015 general election, there were 44 Labour seats in which UKIP finished second. But in only five of them was Labour’s majority below 20 per cent and its average majority in these seats was 33 per cent. It would take a catastrophic collapse of Scottish proportions for many of these to fall, but UKIP is no SNP. On the other hand, UKIP will find it difficult to take seats from the Conservatives while the party is delivering on Brexit. Polls indicate that about a quarter of people who voted for UKIP in 2015 now support the Conservatives. UKIP’s relevance in the post-Brexit, post-Farage era is looking increasingly uncertain.
While Labour will take heart from Stoke, it is Copeland that has the greater bearing on the party’s future prospects. In 2015, Labour won 41 seats in which the Conservatives finished in second place and the majority was less than 10 per cent, including Copeland, where the majority was 6.5 per cent. These marginal seats would all look under threat in an early election (boundary changes are expected if the election is held in 2020). Straight Labour-to-Conservative switching among voters is what will bring marginals, as well as slightly safer Labour seats, into play and potentially deliver the Conservatives a solid parliamentary majority. There must now be a temptation for the Conservatives to look for ways around the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act to engineer an early general election and to use a bigger majority in parliament to shape Brexit in their own image.