Labour held out to Ukip in the Stoke-on-Trent Central by-election, which was forced after Labour’s Tristram Hunt resigned to become director of the V&A. But Jeremy Corbyn and his party had just under an hour to savour the victory as the Copeland by-election result hit home in the early hours, handing a resounding victory to the Conservatives with a huge swing in a supposed Labour heartland.
It was the first time an opposition party had lost a seat to a governing party in 35 years and the best by-election performance by a party in government since 1966. The last time the Conservatives won in Copeland was in 1931.
It was a bad night for Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, whose campaign had been dogged by allegations of myth-making – including one claim revealed by Channel 4 News that he may have misled voters about the location of his home address at the time of registration, forcing a police inquiry. After a false website claim and Ukip donor Arron Banks’ comments over Hillsborough, when he said he was “sick to death” of hearing about the disaster, Nuttall and Ukip seemingly shot themselves in both feet well before votes were cast. Nuttall’s campaign, at times, had the farcical whiff of an unwritten Thick of It episode.
But, but despite all this – Ukip’s vote share went up and Labour’s went down.
For the Conservatives and their winner in Copeland, Trudy Harrison, it was time to rejoice. Prime Minister Theresa May had joined Harrison on the campaign trail. May’s political grip over the country has now been strengthened as a result. Their swing to victory, overturning a Labour majority, was more than 6 per cent.
What does this mean?
It is often the case that during by-elections, governing parties get a hammering; a chance for the electorate – especially if late-on in a tenure – to let off a bit of steam and vent distaste for certain policies. That did not happen in Copeland. In fact, quite the opposite happened. For Labour, this is especially bad, but other parties, including Ukip and the Lib Dems, should have cause for concern at the Tories’ advance.
By-elections are not always good barometers of how general elections will pan out but they do throw up interesting detail in the numbers.
Political academics suggest Ukip actually helped Labour to win in Stoke. The theory is that a split Ukip/Conservative share of the vote is now seemingly the best way to victory for Labour.
But where the Ukip presence is small, or non-existent, Labour will likely be routed by the Conservatives. So Labour should be very worried by the Tories – not Ukip as is often posited. It’s also worth noting that despite Labour’s win in Stoke, the party’s vote share was lower than their loss in Copeland. There was a bigger swing to the right in Stoke.
Mellon, Evans et al back up this claim by suggesting that “numerically the bulk of Ukip’s support comes from the middle classes” and not from the working class. They found that 45 per cent of current Conservative voters have Ukip as a second preference, with only 19 per cent opting for Labour.
But when Ukip are not present, their current supporters are likely to vote Conservative – 42 per cent, compared to Labour – 20 per cent.
It is also interesting to look at how Brexit’s looming shadow is having an effect on by-election voters. In ‘leave’ parts of the country, people are affirming Theresa May’s Brexit vision (though we’re not really sure what that is yet), whereas in ‘remain’ areas, they are rejecting it (Richmond by-election).
But for Labour, a sobering thought: according to Professor John Curtice, a political scientist, the party’s share of the vote has now dropped in every single by-election since the EU referendum.
Where now for the main parties?
For Corbyn, it is business as usual of course – if his press conference is anything to go by. When asked by a reporter whether he thought the problem for the loss in Copeland might be on him, he simply said: “No. Thank you for your question.” And that was that.
Some commentators are already spelling the end for Corbyn – though many have been doing that since the start of his leadership of the Labour party.
Political commentator John Rentoul of The Independent, a Corbyn critic, said: “It turns out that you cannot run a party with an anti-nuclear leader in a constituency that depends on the nuclear industry for jobs. And in Stoke, also known as Low-turnout Central, a constituency that provides a laboratory test of Corbyn’s strategy of mobilising non-voters, turnout dropped and the Labour share of the reduced vote also fell… it must now be obvious to the 313,000 party members and supporters who re-elected Corbyn just five months ago that his leadership is unsustainable.”
Even usually staunch union leaders are now putting the pressure on Corbyn. Dave Prentis, General Secretary of Unison, said earlier today: “Stoke should never have been in doubt and the result in Copeland was disastrous…Jeremy has to show he understands how to turn things around.”
Labour’s grassroots movement is impressive and growing. But for it to be effective, the leadership at the top will have to be transformed.
For Ukip, despite Nigel Farage’s vigorous anti-EU campaigning, it looks like Brexit could be their undoing. They dropped nine points in Copeland as the Conservatives’ ‘hard Brexit’ rhetoric has been music to the ears of those voters who Ukip thought might easily be theirs. Like Labour’s problem, Ukip’s is perhaps the same – the Tories.
For the Lib Dems, their share of the vote has edged up in every by election since the referendum, campaigning recently on a pro-remain platform, the decisive victory in Richmond last December being the icing on the cake. But they have a very long way to make a considerable dent in British politics again.