On Monday, a national ICM poll for the Guardian put the Conservatives on 44%, Labour on 26% and UKIP on 13%. It was an early sign that the results in this week’s by-elections, in two seats Labour would normally be confident of holding, were anything but certain. In the end, the Conservative Party took Copeland from Labour who in turn, just about, held on to Stoke-on-Trent Central.
By-elections might be the preserve of the Westminster-watching bubble, but they do have real-world impacts. While there is no shortage of polling data to tell you about the state of the parties, its much rarer to have a real vote that illuminates voters in glorious technicolour. Or perhaps a drab grey on this occasion, given Storm Doris’ influence. It won’t shift the balance of power in Westminster significantly, but what it does is strengthen or weaken the parties’ leaderships.
No love lost in Labour
Copeland was expected to change hands, but for Labour that won’t make its loss sting less. The constituency has never been held by another party. Even the seat preceding it had been held by Labour since 1935 – pre-dating the first majority Labour Government. Many in Labour will be furious at the loss of such a seat, and pressure will be piled on the leader at Westminster as a result. Corbyn’s saving grace will be that Labour held on to Stoke-on-Trent Central – helped by a poor UKIP campaign – but the election of Gareth Snell adds another Corbyn-sceptic to the Parliamentary ranks.
However, Corbyn’s power base has never been in Westminster, it has been amongst the new members who joined after Labour left power. How his supporters respond is less clear; though there are early signs of frustration emerging amongst Corbyn’s increasingly fragile coalition. Corbyn has never been in a weaker position than he is today.
On the other hand, Theresa May will be quietly delighted with the result. Her position as Prime Minister seems secure – ICM’s poll showed the largest Conservative lead for nearly a decade and, despite some concern on her backbenches, they have rallied behind her on triggering Article 50. However, when the dust settles, they might have concerns that – despite a poor UKIP campaign and Labour in disarray – the Conservatives made no headway, coming third in Stoke.
Paul Nuttall, who only became UKIP leader at the end of November, will this morning be reflecting on a dire election for him personally. His comments about Hillsborough and the internal resignations that followed have weakened his position. It’s not yet clear what this means for his long-term prospects.
What next for Labour?
The biggest implications of the by-elections are clearly for Labour. Corbyn’s hold on power was weak before yesterday and will be weaker again today. The main difference between now and last summer is that his coalition on the left of the party is splintering, with former loyalists including Clive Lewis MP now distancing themselves. A challenge from former loyalists, as opposed to Labour moderates, would be much more difficult for Corbyn to win. Rumours are also swirling that Corbyn will voluntarily stand down; this weakens the loyalty of those who have pegged their careers to his leadership.
The vote swings in yesterday’s by-elections imply Labour could risk losing a further 100 seats at a general election (and Theresa May could exploit their weakness and go to the polls before 2020). His MPs will be staring at their own majorities and wondering what their futures hold.
Though it’s unlikely any challenge is imminent, Labour will not want to enter May’s local elections – which are far more significant than these by-elections – in the midst of a rancorous leadership battle. If Labour loses heavily in the local elections – as seems likely on the face of it – it also makes any subsequent challenge more likely to succeed.
If Corbyn chooses to jump before he is pushed, it looks unlikely he would do so before passing his “McDonnell amendment” (expected at Labour Party Annual Conference) that would pave the way for him to hand over to a successor. Whatever happens, it does seem increasingly difficult for Corbyn to continue on as leader of the Party. The question is starting to turn to the manner, not to the timing, of his succession.
Labour has challenged itself to be level-pegging with the Conservatives by the end of the year. On the basis of yesterday’s election, Corbyn’s January re-launch has had little effect. With two years of Brexit negotiations ahead, and austerity set to continue, the Labour Party must now ask itself serious questions about whether it is match fit for the job of holding Government to account – with consequences for the whole country.