Friday, 24 February 2017

Stoke-on-Trent Central and Copeland - Reactions

Last night's by-election results were really something. But Should we expect normality and continuity in this age of political upheaval? Probably not, but that won't give Labour any real sense of comfort regarding Copeland, despite their success in holding Stoke-on-Trent Central.

Yes, on the one hand, Labour easily held a seat in which many they had predicted they would struggle to see off the challenge of Paul Nuttall and UKIP. But on the other, they, as Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition, lost a seat which they had held since the early 20th Century to the governing Conservative Party.

One step forwards, two steps back.

Their achievement in holding Stoke-on-Trent Central, despite the best efforts of UKIP leader Paul Nuttall and the fleeting visit of Prime Minister Theresa May, is notable. Though their vote share declined (vote shares are obviously much more volatile anyway at lower turnouts, making 37% in this low turnout by-election substantively equal to 39% in the General Election), this was a good result given that a populist party leader was standing against them, and the wider context of Brexit and the chasms it has opened up in British politics (to which said leader was trying to appeal).

The seat was won, the vote share near enough the same as it has been since 2005. Job done.

What does the failure to even come close to taking Stoke-on-Trent Central - so dubbed by Nuttall himself as the "Brexit capital" - mean for UKIP? In my view it is further evidence of their declining irrelevance to the future of British Politics. With their reason d'ĂȘtre successfully achieved with the country voting to leave the European Union last year, the party has been suffering from almost perennial chaos and in-fighting as it struggles to even establish to itself what it is indeed for, let alone to the wider electorate.

That is before we even get to the much maligned candidate that Nuttall would eventually become in this contest, dogged by a rather uneasy, thorny relationship between he and the truth.

To be quite honest, given the above this result was easy to see coming. The only reason that Labour's win was "in doubt" was because commentators were saying so, not because it actually was.

UKIP went into Stoke-on-Trent Central with a clear message - 'only we can be trusted to deliver on Brexit'. Brexit Central disagreed. That is profoundly, and potentially fatally, wounding for the party.

For Labour, a huge sigh of relief. With a result very much suggesting things are "as you were" in their heartlands, despite enormous noises from critics and commentators that they were losing their bases and would succumb to a Brexit crafted tied across the North and Midlands, perhaps they can now rest a little easier in the knowledge that UKIP may well have hit a ceiling in 2015 beyond which they aren't going to pass.

The Conservatives on the other hand now appear to pose a level of threat to Labour in the North to a level that was beyond any estimation.

On the night, we all expected the result to be close. I personally thought Labour would scrape it and make it two from two defences. The truth was of course that the Conservatives had not only overturned a couple-thousand majority, but built one of their own in an 8% swing.

As Matt Singh over at Number Cruncher Politics summed up so well in an article released before the counts began, for a governing party to overturn a couple-thousand majority to take a seat mid-term from their main opposition would be astonishing, almost without historical precedent.

As it turned out, that is just what they did. Copeland turned out to be, as John Curtice put it, the worst performance in a by-election by an opposition party since 1945.

For the Conservatives, dreamland. A scenario where, as Michael Portillo suggested before the results came in, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn would not be embarrassed enough to resign (having lost both) and potentially be replaced by a new (potentially more threatening) leader, the Conservatives could maintain their adopted 'party of Brexit mantra' identity without the encroachment of a second UKIP MP in parliament, and enjoy a morale boosting win adding another seat to their majority.

For Labour, it is evidence of how much trouble they are in in seats where it is the Conservatives, not UKIP, challenging them in the North and Midlands. Perhaps it is a Brexit effect (Conservatives squeezing the UKIP vote?), perhaps issues about nuclear power came into play, and individual level data would be necessary to determine which voters switched where, but what is clear is that with the Labour Party in the state it is currently in, the Conservatives can now realistically look to be winning in areas which, historically speaking at least, were very much out of their reach.

What is most worrying for Labour is this - if Copeland can be taken by the Conservatives, in this fashion, while in government, then tens of other Labour seats in the North and Midlands where the Conservatives are placed in second are not 'at risk', they're already gone.

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