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I’ve never made a secret of the fact that I’m not Jeremy Corbyn’s greatest fan. Like many others on the left, I agree with much of what he has to say, but I doubt his ability to deliver on those shared aims. So it’s tempting to join the pitchfork waving masses and use the election results in Stoke and Copeland as a stick to beat him with. But I’m not a fan of lynch mobs either so this isn’t an attack. No honestly.
The results have been spun more ways than a drunk ballerina, but it can’t be denied that they’re not good for Labour. It’s the first time an opposition party has lost a seat to a sitting government in 30 years and despite some rather revisionist claims that Copeland was not a safe Labour seat, it was safe enough for a marginal.
They had comfortably held it in previous incarnations since 1924 and in its current form since its inception in 1983. If 93 years of unflinching support is to be so easily brushed aside by Labour, it’s perhaps little wonder that the constituents felt they were being taken for granted.
The outcome in Stoke was better in that they held the seat, but still with a reduced majority, albeit by only 2.2%. Even so it’s something you wouldn’t expect in what has traditionally been a safe seat, especially if all the hyperbole about Corbyn’s appeal is to be believed.
The loss of Copeland can be laid at Corbyn’s feet of clay to a large extent, but not necessarily in terms of his leadership qualities. This was more a conspiracy of circumstances. A poorly regarded local MP allied to Corbyn’s well known opposition to new nuclear power was never going to win much support in a constituency that relies on that industry so heavily.
It was essentially plain bad luck that this by-election happened now, in a constituency where a part of Corbyn’s mantra mattered so much. For the same reasons it would probably have been a loss for a Corbyn led party whenever it happened, but viewed within the landscape of a full general election it could have been more easily swallowed.
It’s difficult to see what anyone could have done about that short of the Labour leader doing a complete volte-face, which was unlikely. Even if he had, it would have been seen by his avid supporters as a betrayal which would have undermined his position elsewhere.
So the loss of Copeland in itself doesn’t necessarily bode ill for Labour, but both these by-elections do bring into sharp relief the reality of our electoral system. In that context it’s not a time for Corbyn or Labour to be as blasé about the implications as they have seemed so far.
Both Stoke Central and Copeland were long held seats. The loss of one and the reduction in support in the other gives lie to the confidence that Momentum has in its membership numbers guaranteeing it a walkover win in 2020 and suggests that even their safer seats are not unassailable.
As I, and many other commentators have repeatedly warned, national membership, no matter how impressive, is likely to mean very little in the grand scheme of a General Election, especially after the imminent boundary changes are introduced. All that matters in our first past the post system are marginal seats. As parties like the Greens have learned the hard way, no matter how many thousands of people sign up to join you, if that support doesn’t resolve into votes in key areas, you’re still going to lose. If Copeland is a marginal – and that’s somewhat debatable – it’s even more worrying that they lost it.
If Corbyn carries any blame, it’s his dogged opposition to electoral reform, which means that the votes of the majority will continue to count for very little in most areas. If you now add the phenomenon that support can so easily slip away over single issues, the prospect of a PM called Jeremy looks increasingly more distant.
The other, less unique, but equally salient circumstance in Copeland is the fact that during the election campaign Theresa May pointedly refused to give any assurance that she would intervene to stop plans to downgrade maternity services at the West Cumberland Hospital.
Those who switched their vote from Labour to Conservative effectively handed the government a strengthened mandate for their dismantlement of the NHS. They swapped job security for the safety of expectant mothers and their babies. If that’s how little impression Labour are making on the electorate about one of the most serious political issues in a generation, it brings into question their ability to take votes from them. To put it another way, Corbyn’s opposition to nuclear eclipsed the far more pressing issue of Tory attacks on the NHS. One can only wonder which other hobby horse may ride against them in future elections.
If Labour are going to have any hope of winning the next general election they really must learn the lesson from Copeland. They have to take a more relevant and vote winning stance on a micro-political level. They have to re-connect with the Labour heartlands and not simply preach to the echo chamber choir of Corbyn acolytes. Above all they need to unite on a clear and vote winning set of policies well before 2020 and speak with one voice of opposition against the excesses and inequities being foisted on us by this monstrous government.
If that means some level of compromise on long term ideals, then that’s a price worth paying for both leader and party. So far I’ve seen little evidence of any of this under the tutelage of Jeremy Corbyn and I can only hope that Copeland will be a wake up call.
The loss of even one seat, let alone one conceded to the Conservatives, is not something to be sniffed at, and their reaction since hasn’t persuaded me that Corbyn or the Labour Party have really grasped what is going to be required of them to win in 2020. Until they do, I’ll continue to dread the prospect of another 5 catastrophic years of Tory rule after the next General Election.