Post-Copeland: The future for Labour and UKIP

By-elections in both Stoke-on-Trent and Copeland delivered a message against Jeremy Corbyn and Labour, while voters endorsed Theresa May.

By Sam W. Shenton | 24th February 2017

The news in December than both Jamie Reed MP and Tristram Hunt MP would be standing down as Members of Parliament painted a worrying prospect for Labour. At that point, Labour was routinely 12% behind the Conservatives in the polls, struggling with its leader Jeremy Corbyn’s popularity, and downbeat about its chances in both seats. Stoke-on-Trent posed the problem of UKIP: an attempt by the populist right to dig into Labour’s support in its traditional heartlands that overwhelmingly voted to leave the European Union last June, while Copeland posed the biggest threat of a Conservative gain in a by-election while in government for the first time since 1984.

In the end, Labour held its Stoke seat with a reduced majority, sending Gareth Snell to Parliament after defeating Paul Nuttall, UKIP’s new leader that they thought would invigorate the campaign and lead to a decent swing In UKIP’s favour. On the night, a swing of just under 4% occurred from Labour to UKIP, marking the continuing trend of a declining Labour vote share in Stoke-on-Trent since 1997. The Tories, who many had labelled as a write-off and who were thought to be focussing on Copeland, came third, showing a hardening of Tory support in working class areas – and highlight, if anything, the problem UKIP faces in the coming years if it is to build against Labour in the north of England.

UKIP of course aims to capitalise on the high leave vote outside of Labour’s Metropolitan/ London seats. The issue appears to be that there simply aren’t the Labour Leave voters needed to catapult UKIP directly to victory – and, therefore, the party needs to target Conservative Leave voters, while also hoping parties like the Lib Dems and Greens can cause Remain-voting Labour voters to leak away to them. The issue? While Remain voters may well have left Labour for the Lib Dems in Stoke, the Tory vote solidified and increased – proving that Theresa May is trusted by the working class, and more generally by those who voted Leave, to deliver Brexit. Their candidate and leader, Paul Nuttall, was hardly the shining light they needed here, either. His likes on the Hillsborough disaster, his lies about having a PhD and about living in a house in Stoke-on-Trent painted him and the Party as untrustworthy, and it’s likely that if his leadership isn’t re-evaluated that UKIP will fail to break through in the Labour North so long as he is associated with the local election battles.

The issue for UKIP in this case is: where do they stand? If the Tories won’t vote tactically in a seat such as Stoke, where the by-election was painted as a two-horse race, where is it that UKIP can actually hope to gain? If we move to Copeland, the story for UKIP is even more bleak. While they came third in 2015, their vote share dropped by 9% in 2017 – but the combined “right wing” vote of the Tories and UKIP was similar to 2015 totals. In other words, UKIP vote was so soft that the Tory candidate was able to convince it to back her, while UKIP is unable to make “hard Tories” come over to them. If this is a trend that continues, UKIP’s challenges are going to continue, even in so-called “Brexit Central” seats. Copeland’s Leave figure wasn’t vastly different from Stoke’s either: 62% vs. 69%, showing again that UKIP’s rhetoric and its ability to attract other Brexit-supporters is limited.

UKIP Leader and candidate at the Stoke Central count

Obviously the biggest story from Copeland, however, was the eventual victory of Theresa May’s Conservative Party over the incumbent Labour Party. The by-election produced the biggest swing to a governing party since 1966; the first time the government has gained a seat in a by-election since 1982; and the first time a Tory Government has taken a seat directly from Labour since 1960. With a swing of 6.7% – repeat: SIX POINT SEVEN PER CENT – the Tories took Copeland on a bigger swing than any of the opinion polls currently suggest – possibly highlighting the tradition of how polls underestimate Conservative support and overestimate Labour support is still on-going. Although it’s foolish to replicate the the results of one by-election onto the country as a whole, (I’m going to do it anyway) this result would see Labour down to a rump of 160 MPs. 160 MPs would be the worst performance for the Labour Party in a General Election the 1935 General Election (incidentally the time they first won Whitehaven/ Copeland and had held it since, until the 2017 by-election!).

It would mark the worst defeat for the Party in the modern political context, and the pressure upon Jeremy Corbyn because of that prospect must be – has to be – immense. Corbyn defended his leadership saying that people had lost trust in the political establishment – to the point that they voted for the governing Party in Copeland? In reality, voters are fed up of the current Labour establishment and leadership. Jeremy Corbyn has a net -35 approval rating, compared to May’s +6. On questions of who would make the best Prime Minister, Corbyn regularly scores beneath the “Don’t Know” option. When he engages with voters, rather than helping the Labour cause, he hinders it: in Copeland his record of anti-Nuclear stances was a big driver towards seeing working class voters voting for the Tory candidate.

Labour’s Copeland campaign was also based around the NHS – the supposed silver bullet. Despite Theresa May refusing to take a petition in Downing Street on hospital closures in the constituency, May’s Party still won by a substantial majority of 2,147 over Labour. Not only did the NHS campaign fail where it never had before, the win produced such a large majority that it seems Corbyn’s failures as leader overshadowed any local Labour warnings. The question that will haunt Labour from this by-election, therefore, is: if people can’t vote Labour in a by-election because of Jeremy Corbyn, how can they be convinced to do so in a General Election that could make him Prime Minister.

The Tories already had a solid win in Copeland on the back of Corbyn’s failures and in the context of a high polling lead – but if that question of Corbyn as PM resonates, we could just see an even bigger underestimation of Tory support, and considering the Tory lead in some polls (18% in the latest ICM Poll), that is a terrifying prospect for Labour – and that prospect should endanger Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership further. Of course, it won’t, and he won’t resign:

Follow me on Twitter: @SamDoesPolitics