Testing Times For Corbyn And Labour
The loss of the marginal seat of Copeland to the Tories was immediately added to the long-running story that Labour is doomed under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. Much was made of the fact that Copeland, and before it Whitehaven, had been a Labour seat for over 80 years. Not since 1982 had a party in government gained a seat in a by-election. The fact that the Tories had been a strong second to Labour in every general election since 1983, when the seat of Copeland was created, was not deemed to be relevant. Labour’s share of the vote, on the other hand, had declined in each election from a peak of 58.2% in 1997 to 42.3% in 2015. In that year the Tories’ share of the vote was 35.8%; a huge improvement on a low of 29.2% in 1997. Given these facts and the circumstances faced by the Labour candidate, the signs of a potential Tory victory were already there.
The knives are now out for Jeremy Corbyn, with Labour MPs, backed by the anti-Corbyn media, saying he must accept the blame for the defeat or else the party faces disaster at the 2020 general election. His deputy Tom Watson has called for a change of direction, while reluctantly admitting that there is no appetite for yet another leadership election. Perhaps Corbyn’s critics should take a step backwards and examine the real reasons for the loss of Copeland. It was not entirely due to Labour’s leader.
Copeland, a largely rural constituency, which voted 62% to leave the EU, contains the Sellafield nuclear reprocessing plant, a key employer in the Cumbria region. Labour has been a strong supporter of Sellafield and of nuclear power for at least 60 years and current policy supports nuclear power as part of a balanced energy policy. Labour’s clear position on this was deliberately distorted by the Tory candidate who consistently referred to Jeremy Corbyn’s long held opposition to both nuclear power and the renewal of Trident, as if they were Labour’s official position. This message clearly got through to Copeland voters, in spite of the efforts of the Labour candidate to put the record straight.
Additional reasons for Labour’s defeat were the collapse of the UKIP vote and the perceived Labour split over Brexit. At the 2015 general election, UKIP won 6,148 votes with 15.5% of the total vote. At the 23 February by-election UKIP’s share of the vote was 6.5%, a fall of 9%. Coincidentally, the Tories’ share increased by 8%. UKIP votes clearly switched to the Tory candidate who stressed that UKIP had achieved its purpose of a vote to leave the EU and only Theresa May and the Tories can deliver a safe, secure exit for the people of Copeland. It was also said that Labour could not be trusted to support the “will of the people” to leave the EU, given its lack of unity on this.
The perceived lack of unity on Brexit arises from the imposition of a 3-line Whip on the vote to support the European (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill. Bizarrely, Corbyn was blamed for the refusal of 52 Labour members, including shadow cabinet ministers, to support the Whip on the Third Reading of the Bill. But anything other than a 3-line Whip would have been seen as a sign of weakness by Jeremy Corbyn, as well as being potentially electorally disastrous for Labour in its northern heartlands, which voted heavily to leave the EU.
Labour was also expected to lose Stoke-on-Trent Central; a constituency that voted 69.4% to leave the EU, the 15th highest total in the UK. Given the heavy media focus on the party’s turmoil over Brexit, Stoke should have been an open goal for UKIP. But Labour held the seat with a candidate who supported Remain in the referendum. Labour’s share of the vote, on an historically low turnout of 38.2%, fell by 2.2%, while UKIP’s share increased by 2%. A poor showing, given that its share of the vote at the 2015 general election rose by 18.3% edging the Tories out of second place.
The result for Labour was all the more remarkable following Tony Blair’s call for an uprising against the referendum result, just a week before the two by-elections. It would appear that his interjection was designed to damage Labour’s chances in constituencies that voted heavily to leave the EU. Blair clearly hoped that losing both seats would increase the pressure on Corbyn and force him to resign. Blair failed, but, one wonders, would he have made the same speech if the by-elections had been held in constituencies that voted to remain?
UKIP’s failure to win Stoke was put down to its candidate Paul Nuttall being “economical with the truth” about Hillsborough, his academic qualifications and his ‘appearances’ for Tranmere Rovers Football Club. This dishonesty would have had a negative effect, but the more likely reason is that UKIP has been found wanting since it achieved its main objective last June. It is difficult to know where its future now lies. Nuttall claims that UKIP aims to replace Labour as the patriotic party of the English working class; and if Labour’s current poll ratings do not improve, it could achieve partial success in the Midlands and north of England. At the moment however, it seems that the Tories are moving more quickly in that direction. The political cliché is in the ascendancy, and with her description of the Tories as “a government that works for everyone”, repeated publicly at every opportunity, Theresa May is in a strong position.
With the recent sad death of Gerald Kaufmann, Labour faces another by-election in Manchester Gorton. Gorton is a Labour stronghold which it held at the 2015 general election with a 24,079 majority, an increase of 17% in its share of the vote over the 2010 election. All other candidates polled badly. On the face of it, Labour should hold Manchester Gorton comfortably. However, circumstances have changed since the 2015 election when the Liberal Democrats polled just 1,782 votes, compared to 12,508 in 2010, when it ran second to Labour. The beneficiaries of the collapse in the Liberal Democrats’ vote in 2015 were Labour and the Green party, the Tory vote having stabilised. Manchester voted 60.4% to remain in the EU, therefore making it reasonably fertile ground for the Liberal Democrats. They are unlikely to win the seat, but they could run Labour a close second.
The Manchester Gorton by-election, whenever it is held, will be regarded as another test of Corbyn’s leadership. His project, to change Labour’s and the country’s political culture, is a long-term objective. He has recently asked for more time to develop the policies that will help to facilitate the change. If Labour is to mount a strong challenge to the Tories, Corbyn’s colleagues must give him the support necessary for this. Anything less could result in the electoral disaster they currently predict.