What the by-elections tell us about the state of the parties

6 Mar 2017

In my first ever post for Backbench, I wrote about how the Labour Party faced an extremely perilous position in its northern seats, seats which had previously been safe for the party for years.


So the prospect of two by-elections in Stoke-on-Trent Central and Copeland, held by Labour since 1950 and 1935 respectively, offered a great opportunity to see if (for once) my election forecasting actually came true. And the thing is, while I’d love to say my post was incredibly prophetic of what happened last week, that’s not exactly the case.


After all, if I’d been right, then Labour would’ve been down two MPs, not just one. A Paul Nuttall-led UKIP seemed to pose an existential threat to the Labour party in its constituencies that heavily voted Leave in 2016. Although now, it looks like UKIP’s bark continues to be much worse than its electoral bite, given the shambles of a campaign that Nuttall ran in Stoke. When Nigel Farage declared in 2014 that UKIP was parking its tanks on Labour’s lawn, you’d imagine he had places like Stoke-on-Trent Central in mind.


A 69% Leave vote previously represented by an MP called Tristram who stood down to head the V&A, surely UKIP’s attack line wrote itself? But it seems that whoever the leader of that party is, its inability to run a decent election campaign, in in conditions that could not be more perfect, remains a constant. But it seems that the threat from UKIP has, for now anyway, been neutered. You could devote many a column inch to the internal troubles of that party, but for now, let’s focus on this particular train wreck. Because while everyone at Labour HQ seemed to be slapping themselves on the back for holding Stoke-on-Trent Central, the real focus should’ve been on what happened 150 miles away.  


And perhaps the two results of last week are intrinsically linked. UKIP seems to lack a purpose now, because under Theresa May the Conservatives have become the party of Brexit. So Labour leave voters have not only the push factor of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, as well as the general shambles that is the party as a whole (sense a recurring theme here), combined with the pull factor that is Theresa May’s vision of what Brexit means. Although, to once again contradict myself, it does seem that Brexit played less of a role in ‘Super Thursday’ than might have been expected. After all, if it had played any kind of a meaningful role, then you’d have expected 69% Leave Stoke to swing decisively to UKIP. Either that, or it was the EU Referendum that was the anomaly, and tribal politics continues as it has since 1950.


So without the comforting blanket of Brexit, Labour is forced to confront the steaming mess that is Copeland. By-elections, we are told, measure the political temperature of a nation. By-elections, we are told, are not won by governments. Especially not won by governments from the opposition with a 6% swing in a seat held by said opposition party since 1935. That, for a party at least trying to give the impression it is serious about returning to government, is nothing short of Armageddon.


We are seven years into a Conservative government. Seven years into Conservative austerity that the liberal commentariat declare is widely unpopular. The two things aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, but if that’s true, how the hell does last Thursday happen? Potentially three years from a general election, Labour is losing supposedly safe seats to the government by a margin that it should be taking from their seats. To put it in context, almost twenty years ago, Labour won the Wirral South by-election from the Tories with an 18% swing. That, according to the rules of politics, is what should happen if the opposition looks like it’s ready to form a government and the current one is unpopular.


So what went wrong? As with everything else it probably starts with Jeremy Corbyn. His stance on nuclear power, when fighting a by-election in a constituency where the nuclear industry employs 10,000 people, is either principled or electoral suicide, depending on which way you look at it. And whether or not you agree with that particular stance, it certainly didn’t help. It was, despite the myriad of hugely important national issues raging in the background, a by-election fought on local issues. It was nuclear power versus West Cumbria Hospital. We can only assume the Tories managed to make it about nuclear power, and tie that by extension to Jeremy Corbyn.


But if anything was more useless than Labour’s performance during the by-election, it was their performance after it. The line of defence leaked by Sam Coates of The Times that was supposed to be parroted by Labour MPs is nothing short of utter rubbish. The idea that Copeland was a marginal seat and that it was a favourable environment for the Tories has so many holes in it might as well have been written on emmental. Even Malcolm Tucker couldn’t have spun that one. And as of yet, I don’t think anyone’s resigned, although who else is left?


The truth is this, that Labour is further from power than ever. The only organisation in the parliamentary party seems to come in the Lords; it’s losing by-elections in its heartlands to the government; and no one knows what on earth to do about Brexit. It’s all well and good to blame Jeremy Corbyn, and certainly the man carries a lot of the blame for the mess Labour’s in, but the idea that, if he were booted out and Sadiq Khan came in, they’d be roaring back to power in 2020 is just false. If that 6% swing to the Tories was repeated across the country in 2020, Labour would have less than 200 seats in the Commons. Now I haven’t got a clue what happens next, but I hope someone does. Because Britain needs an opposition, and the current one is wholly inadequate.


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