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…