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Copeland and Stoke-on-Trent Central: What have we learned?

February 24th, 2017

It is in the nature of political junkies, like sharks, to be constantly moving forwards, and like goldfish, to be constantly forgetting what has just happened.  We should try to do better.  In the wake of two extraordinary by-elections we should reflect on their implications.  Because, as it happens this time, their implications are manifold.

The Conservatives did incredibly well

This is one of those rare occasions where the media have actually underplayed something.  The Conservatives’ victory in Copeland is off-the-scale impressive.

Others have written about how Copeland was the first government by-election gain since 1982 and how it represents a new landmark not achieved since 1960, 1929 or 1878 according to taste.  The swing to the Conservatives is bigger than that to any governing party in a by-election since at least 1950.  The last time the Conservatives achieved a gain in vote share at a by-election was 1982 in Beaconsfield (by 0.1% against a Labour candidate called Tony Blair).  In Copeland, the Conservatives put 8.5% on their vote share.

But the Conservatives also did extremely well in Stoke Central.  They started in third but far from being squeezed they put on vote share there also.  Remember, this was one of only seven occasions since 1970 where a government party has put on vote share in a by-election.  To do so from third is quite remarkable.

Bear in mind that sitting governments normally do much better at general elections than in by-elections and the Conservatives are potentially heading for a landslide that would far eclipse 1983 and perhaps 1997.

UKIP now lack meaning

Stoke Central was supposed to be UKIP’s big opportunity.  A seat where they were already in second place with a relatively small swing required for victory, where they had a substantial existing vote share and where Leave had won overwhelmingly, it was by my reckoning in their top ten most promising targets.  But they made no real progress towards winning it.

It would be easy to lay the blame on the candidate.  Certainly he did not help.  Paul Nuttall, through his strained relationship with the truth, seemed to put the nut into Nuttall and in doing so he ensured that UKIP got the all out of f-all.

That would be easy, but it would be far from the whole story.  The Conservatives gained vote share in Stoke Central – even though they started third.  In some ways this was even more astonishing than their victory in Copeland.  By taking ownership of Brexit, the Conservatives have deprived UKIP of meaning.  You might very well argue that represents a victory for UKIP’s ideas, but as an electoral force the purple team now look marooned.

The Lib Dems are barely off the canvass in Leave-voting seats

The Lib Dems have been doing very perkily in local council by-elections and had put in excellent performances in the Parliamentary by-elections in Witney and Richmond Park.  But while they have increased vote share in Sleaford & North Hykeham, Copeland and Stoke Central, they have only done so from deposit-losing levels to barely respectable levels.  They were not remotely in contention in any of these three seats, despite rushes of enthusiasm from their activists (particularly in Stoke Central).

The Lib Dems have sought to position themselves as the party of Remain.  In Leave-voting seats, they have yet to succeed.  Worse, in the 1980s, they were able to scoop all of the None Of The Above vote for themselves.  With the advent of UKIP and the Greens, the NOTA party is not a single party any more.

It’s important to keep perspective.  The Lib Dems have improved markedly in Remain areas.  18 months ago they seemed completely irrelevant everywhere. They have work to do in Leave areas if they are going to be anything more than almost completely irrelevant. But at least they have some areas of relevance now.

Labour are in very very serious trouble

It is hard to overstate just how bad the Copeland result was for Labour.  They didn’t just lose, they were soundly beaten by the Conservatives.  They lost vote share in both Copeland and Stoke Central (and if the combined Conservative/UKIP vote had been as unevenly divided in Stoke Central as it was in Copeland, they would have lost both seats).  It’s unfair to compare Jeremy Corbyn’s performance with the 1997 results -– no one is expecting him to win a landslide – but it’s reasonable to compare his performance with 2005, a fairly run-of-the-mill overall majority.  In under 12 years Labour have lost over a quarter of their vote share in both constituencies.

Since the referendum vote, Labour have lost vote share at every seriously contested by-election.  Opposition parties should be gaining vote share at by-elections in all bar the most extreme circumstances.  The circumstances are extreme.

If any Labour supporters are comforting themselves that at least UKIP were seen off in Stoke Central, they are deluding themselves.  In almost every constituency, the Conservatives are their real opponents.  Both these results showed the Conservatives are doing unbelievably well.

If Labour are to avoid a defeat that exceeds that of the Conservatives in 1997 for severity, they need to act fast.  Time is not on their side.

Alastair Meeks