Reprocessing Labour’s Waste: Stoke and Copeland by elections

The Stoke and Copeland by elections were predictable catastrophes for Labour but worse for UKIP’s future prospects.

Live by-election coverage is a deeply tedious and unrewarding task for the politicians involved. They are required by their organisation to spin a series of implausible positions, place their excuses out there as hostages on the washing line of fortune for scrutiny in the light of a decision made and unchangeable but not yet known. Second guessing the electorate is a mug’s game – especially when the deal is done.

The ‘intelligence’ you work with is frequently unreliable and there are clear limits to what you know. However, knowing your own candidate’s name is a pretty bog standard piece of homework. Especially so when you are being interviewed by someone as experienced and incisive as Andrew Neill. I now have a vision of the conversations taking place with the hapless Matt Hancock MP* – made all the more hilarious by his overly long title as Minister of State for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries. Promotion is looking unlikely.

Today nobody else can remember the name of the Conservative candidate in Stoke and neither should we care. However, the performance of the Conservatives, who presented themselves as UKIP lite, was highly creditable. The result was broadly in line with the current opinion poll position projected onto the constituency – a point or two either way but nothing of significance. The important point is to understand that in by-elections it doesn’t often work out that way. A squeeze toward the party of protest from, and therefore underperformance by the party starting in third place is the norm. In this case, however, the protest party was UKIP.

UKIP were favourites. Labour was weak, with the record-breaking unpopularity of its leader and an unsquarable circle on the great issue of the day. UKIP had sufficient support in 2015 – 23% to challenge. As it was people in Stoke Central looked at what was on offer from UKIP and declined. UKIP leader Paul Nuttall’s appalling by-election campaign may have rendered him unelectable, not just in Stoke, but anywhere.

Mr Nuttall, an MEP self-consciously looking to avoid the benefits queue come 2019, was caught out pretending that he lived in Stoke, he failed convincingly to explain away his documentated former position on the NHS. He, committed the failing of countless job applicants of inflating his academic qualifications and even pretending to have played football for Tranmere Rovers – each of which exposed and his fragile relationship with the truth then further underlined by his crass and tasteless fantasies over Hillsborough. He then spelled out his complete lack of class by failing to take responsibility and hiding behind a party functionary.

And, apart from history’s least successful personal rebrand, what was going on with that tweed suit and flat cap?

In other times this laughable nonsense would have ensured the end of Mr Nuttall’s political career. But these are not normal times and in an age where the truth has barely seemed to matter we may yet see more of this pantomime villain, but for now, unemployment beckons. However when the leader of the party can’t win a by-election in such promising circumstances and singularly fails to squeeze the Conservative vote, questions must be asked about UKIP; if not Sleaford, if not Stoke then where; are their prospects bleak for the local elections; if not Mr Nuttall then who; and was it all really about Nigel after all.

Labour’s showing was dire, but at least they won in Stoke Central. The scale of the disaster in Copeland is hard to understate, so let’s not. As the visual above neatly summarieses, the Copeland by election is arguably the worst single result since Labour’s foundation that was a ‘straight’ by-election – no clouding of the issue with defections and the same contesting parties as at the previous General Election. Just on the numbers Copeland was a catastrophe. Labour’s vote fell to around the figure projected by current opinion polling, however the Conservatives increased their share by 8.5% with UKIP falling by 9%. An overall swing of 6.7% from the Opposition to the Government in mid-term. And while the hapless Matt Hancock’s characterisation of the seat as ‘rock solid Labour’ is something of an ‘alt-fact’, Labour should certainly have held the seat easily in normal circumstances. A Labour seat since the 1930s, its hold during the 1980s and 90s was tenuous with majorities of 4.3-5.3% from 83 to 92 – the last time Labour flirted with an anti-nuclear stance. At that time Labour benefitted from a high profile front-bench candidate in Jack Cunningham, who treat the seat as marginal and strongly supported civil nuclear power. No doubt Labour’s leadership will blame all sorts of things up to and including storm Doris, but the facts are hard to avoid.

So what do we now know?

First, of all Labour can see off UKIP. The big problem for UKIP in Stoke was their candidate. The big problem for UKIP nationwide is there are a lot of Paul Nuttall’s and worse out there, their problem is finding something close to normality that people would actually want as their MP in the context of by-elections where the candidate matters. If UKIP cannot progress at by elections and cannot make ground at local elections then they will simply fade away.

Second, UKIP struggles to squeeze the Conservative vote. They are not the Liberal Democrats and cannot present as ‘everyman’, ‘non-political’. While UKIP may be able to squeeze the Labour vote in contests against the Conservatives the scope for this is limited and the ‘return to the fold’ of UKIP voting former Conservatives makes it an uphill struggle.

Third, all in all UKIP’s post-referendum prospects now look grim. The question is what follows?

Fourth, campaigns are reaching a new low. The atrocious ‘babies will die’ newspaper put out by Labour in Copeland and the hideous ‘Brexit’ publication of the Tories in Stoke speak volumes for the level of debate we have reached.

Finally, reports coming back from the Stoke and Copeland by elections and from doorsteps around the country shout it loud and clear; Jeremy Corbyn is now as toxic as the stuff they re-process at Sellafield. The party remains on life support.


*being unnecessarily fair to Matt Hancock, Cat Smith’s performance for Labour was also a train wreck – but, being live from the Copeland count, at least she could blame her earpiece.