Tomorrow’s by-elections in Copeland and Stoke Central will be the 9th and 10th by-elections of this Parliament – a pretty high tally less than two years since the General Election. For the most part the previous 8 have been pretty routine holds of relatively safe seats for the two main parties, with only the remarkable downfall of Zac Goldsmith in Richmond Park bucking that trend. But while Goldsmith’s defeat was one of the most dramatic by-elections in recent memory, it was in many respects a unique contest from which it was difficult to draw too many wider inferences about the state of the parties.
Copeland and Stoke Central are rather more traditional by-elections and both promise to provide fascinating results in their different ways. Indeed, it would have been difficult to handpick two more perfect electoral tests for a Corbyn-led Labour Party operating in the political climate of Brexit.
Both are long-held but not overly ‘safe’ Labour seats. Both voted Leave last June and by hefty margins at that. Both have seen MPs regarded as on the ‘Blairite’ end of the Labour spectrum abandon Westminster for jobs more to their liking outside of the political bubble. Copeland has the added bonus of being a constituency heavily dependent on employment in the nuclear industry – not exactly one of Jeremy Corbyn’s favoured sectors. Stoke meanwhile is the type of urban, industrial, working class area that would traditionally be seen as a Labour ‘no-brainer’, but feels increasingly vulnerable as Labour seems to increasingly draw its core support from more metropolitan, university-educated circles.
Adding to the intrigue is that Labour appears to face a different principal threat in each seat: Copeland is firmly in the sights of the Tories, while Stoke Central is where UKIP leader Paul Nuttall hopes to secure his ticket to the House of Commons. For Jeremy Corbyn, losing one or other seat would be bad; losing both would be a nightmare.
So how have the campaigns shaped up and how do the main contenders’ prospects look? Here are five things to look out for when the results come in on Friday morning.
Make or break already for Nuttall?
Paul Nuttall’s decision to contest Stoke Central was a sure sign of confidence. Nigel Farage never contested a Westminster by-election as UKIP leader, presumably never feeling the circumstances were favourable enough to his chances of victory and recognising the damage that a defeat would do to his credibility as leader. Nuttall’s decision to fight a by-election just three months after becoming leader was a brave but risky one. He hoped that his northern, working class persona in this heavily pro-Brexit area would be a recipe for electoral success. However his campaign has not quite gone to plan.
He drew negative attention almost from the get-go, with Channel 4’s UKIP irritator-in-chief Michael Crick reporting that Nuttall had falsely listed an address in the constituency at which he was not yet resident as his home in his nomination papers. He then was forced to admit live on a local radio station that he did not, as claimed on his personal website, lost “close personal friends” at the Hillsborough disaster. Next, he was accused of falsely claiming to have served on the board of a vocational training charity. The combined effects of these stories – especially Hillsborough – have been to rob Nuttall’s campaign of any sense of momentum. So far from a procession to Westminster for UKIP’s new leader, in Jeremy Corbyn’s words the result is “on a knife edge”. If Nuttall is able to prevail and take the seat, his position will likely be secure, in spite of the damaging headlines. If he loses, UKIP’s leadership merry-go-round could well be fired up again.
Are Labour’s prospects as bleak as the national polls suggest?
An ICM/Guardian poll this week saw Labour lagging 18 points behind the Conservatives. Only three polls in the history of this series (dating back to 1983) have had Labour further behind: two on the eve of Michael Foot’s crushing defeat in 1983 and one in 2008 when Gordon Brown was being buffeted by the storm of the financial crisis. The 18 point margin recorded by ICM was at the high end of the spectrum, but was not wildly out of kilter with polling since the start of this year which has put the Tories ahead on average by around 13 points – double the margin of victory the Conservatives enjoyed over Labour in the popular vote in 2015. In Copeland, Labour’s majority over the Tories was 6.5%, so a proportionate swing reflecting the current national polls would make the seat neck and neck. The relative performance of the two main parties in these contests – particularly Copeland – will therefore give us a good indication of whether the national polls are giving a fair reflection of how badly Labour is doing. If they can hold Copeland, Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters will argue it’s not as bleak as the headline figures suggest; if they lose it, his opponents will say it’s even bleaker.
Is Brexit really the defining issue?
There is a temptation for those of us steeped in the day-to-day goings on around Brexit to assume that ordinary voters are equally on tenterhooks about the latest utterance from David Davis, Michel Barnier or some other luminary of the Brexit drama. But if there is one thing Parliamentary by-elections are good at doing, it is reminding us that there is a wide array of issues which voters care about and very few of them have much to do with transitional arrangements or non-tariff barriers to trade. In Copeland, the future of local NHS services has become a major campaign issue, with Theresa May accused on the front page of today’s local paper in West Cumbria of having ‘snubbed’ a 20,000-name petition on the issue. This could boost Labour’s prospects, but the aforementioned concern about the future of the nuclear industry on which so much employment depends in the constituency is another key issue, and one less favourable to Labour under Corbyn.
In Stoke too, the travails of Paul Nuttall remind us that voters will not simply queue up to vote for whichever candidate is the most fervently pro-Brexit – questions about the personal character and integrity of the candidates will remain pertinent – something which Labour’s candidate Gareth Snell has also discovered as some of his past colourful remarks on social media have been aired. The results on Friday may give us some hints as to the true potency of Brexit as an electoral issue.
Is the Lib Dem fightback continuing to gather momentum?
In 2015 the Lib Dems gained 3.5% and 4.2% of the vote in Copeland and Stoke Central respectively. Even securing the 5% required to retain their deposits would therefore mark a degree of progress. But will they do more than that? Let’s be clear, winning is not on the Lib Dems’ radar in either of these seats, but from such a low base the party will feel confident of securing a significant increase in their vote. The party is regularly gaining substantial vote increases in local council by-elections on a weekly basis and will look to these more high profile contests as opportunities to demonstrate that their fightback is a real and ongoing trend. Stoke in particular – where Labour and UKIP have both had tough campaigns – may prove fruitful for the Lib Dems, in spite of the high level of Brexit support. Though for the same reason, the Tories have not abandoned hope of a surprise result there.
Is Doris going to play her part in British electoral history?
Storm Doris – forecast to bring winds of up to 80mph – is predicted to have a significant downward effect on the turnout in the contests. Some Labour sources have said they fear this will harm their party’s chances in particular, with some Labour supporters already unenthusiastic about turning out for their party. Others are more sanguine, arguing that low turnout will be an issue across the board in these close races, not only for Labour. But if turnout is especially low and Labour fails to hold these seats, future analyses may note that Storm Doris played her part in blowing Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership away.
Check back here on Friday morning for our analysis of the results once they’re in.
Main photo by RachelH_ – https://www.flickr.com/photos/bagelmouse/