Theresa May is the only party leader who will be feeling a spring in her step following Thursday’s by-elections in two of Labour’s most traditional seats.
The Conservative victory in Copeland is an extraordinary success by almost any historic standard. And it has been described as a ‘humiliation’ for Jeremy Corbyn. He can take some consolation from holding on to the other seat, Stoke-on-Trent Central – but not much. The party’s share of the vote fell there as it has in every by-election since Mr. Corbyn became leader.
Meanwhile, UKIP’s leader is nursing his wounds having failed himself to become Stoke’s MP in a contest his predecessor, Nigel Farage, said was ’fundamental’ to the party’s future. Are both Labour and UKIP now looking into the abyss and what can and should they do about it?
Trudy Harrison’s victory in the remote Cumbrian constituency of Copeland was extraordinary on many counts. She turned a Labour majority of over 2,500 into a Tory one of over 2,100. She brought about a 6% swing to the Tories and increased its share of the vote by 8%. This was achieved in a seat that has been Labour since 1935. But this was done not at a time when voters might be fed up with a Labour government that had been in office for years and against which they might be looking for a means to protest, but after nearly seven years of a Tory or Tory-led government that has put the axe to public spending.
The last time a party in government won a by-election in a previously opposition-held seat was 1982. And we have to go back to 1966 for a case where a government party increased its share of the vote by so much in a by-election.
Some will say that we shouldn’t get carried away by these impressive statistics. Special factors were at play in Copeland, notably the fact that an enormous proportion of jobs in the area depend on the nuclear energy industry, about which Mr Corbyn has shown little enthusiasm in the past even though supporting nuclear is official Labour policy. So people were voting for their jobs rather than expressing a political opinion that has any wider significance, the argument goes. Yet Labour campaigned on an issue that is just as potent in the area, the threat to services in the local hospital and even so it failed to rally its traditional supporters. Labour’s share of the vote fell by 5%.
Ms Harrison gave her own explanation for her success and Labour’s failure. She said: ‘It’s been very clear talking to people throughout the campaign that Jeremy Corbyn doesn’t represent them.’ Labour canvassers have admitted the same thing which is why even Labour-friendly papers are talking of Mr Corbyn’s ‘humiliation’.
But the by-elections were not all bad news for the Labour leader. His party was thought to be up against it in Stoke, even though it has been Labour since the seat was created back in 1950. But the Labour candidate, Gareth Snell, won it reasonably comfortably with a majority of over 2,600 over UKIP on a low poll. The fact that Labour’s share fell from 39.3% at the general election to 37% was obscured by relief at winning at all and even more by the focus of attention being on UKIP’s failure.
That focus was understandable in light of the fact that the party’s former leader, Nigel Farage, had said success in the by-election was ‘fundamental’ to the party’s future. It’s not hard to see why. Stoke-on-Trent Central was the constituency with the seventh-highest pro-Brexit vote in the country and therefore a highly promising hunting ground for the party. Furthermore, strategists had identified the party’s future, after its success in bringing about its main aim of getting Britain to leave the EU, as replacing Labour as the main opposition to the Tories in the old northern heartlands. Stoke perfectly fitted that bill too. Hence UKIP’s new leader, Paul Nuttall, put himself forward as the party’s candidate. Victory would have put the party on a roll.
But it was not to be. Indeed, Mr. Nuttall only just avoided coming third. The Tory candidate was a tiny 79 votes behind him, demonstrating (as Copeland had done) that the Conservative Party also has its eyes on former Labour voters in the north of England. Both the Tories and UKIP increased their share of the vote but it was UKIP that was left with the headache. Or, to put it more precisely, with two questions: has UKIP now peaked? And what can it do to revive itself?
The party’s chairman, Paul Oakden, said the result was ‘disappointing but not desperate’, that the party is used to waiting a long time to achieve its aims and that it may have to go on waiting a long time to win a second seat in the Commons. But since Mr Farage’s departure the party has shown itself to have a penchant for infighting. A by-election victory might have curbed that, but defeat is likely to lead to yet more. The party’s problem about what to do now was expressed by Mr. Nuttall himself in what was a somewhat ambiguous response to defeat. He said: ‘There’s a lot more to come from us. We are not going anywhere. I’m not going anywhere.’
Meanwhile, Labour too faces problems of continuing infighting with no obviously viable strategy to halt its loss of support. John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor and close ally of Mr. Corbyn, called for party unity and suggested that recent critical remarks by the former leader, Tony Blair, and his New Labour acolyte, Lord Mandelson, had contributed to Labour’s defeat in Copeland.
But such unity seems unlikely to be forthcoming when so many Labour MPs simply do not have any faith in Mr. Corbyn’s ability to lead them to victory. Indeed John Woodcock, the Labour MP for Copeland’s neighbouring seat of Barrow, said after the by-election result that the party was on course for a ‘historic and catastrophic defeat’ at the next election. Yet he seemed unable to offer an obvious way to avoid it. He ruled out another challenge to Mr. Corbyn’s leadership on the grounds that it would simply produce the same result, adding: ‘Jeremy Corbyn is going to remain leader of the Labour Party unless he decides that he thinks that it is right to go.’ Mr. Corbyn announced that he has no intention of resigning.
So both Labour and UKIP, each having suffered defeat on Thursday, face the prospect of continuing failure without any obvious strategy to reverse the trend. Meanwhile Mrs. May is sitting pretty.
Do you think Labour and UKIP can get themselves out of the predicaments they now find themselves in or are they both embarking on long-term decline? If they do have a future, what do you think they need to do to secure it?
No doubt they would both welcome any ideas you may have, but let us know first.