Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Excuses, excuses

Progress deputy editor Conor Pope takes a look at some of the most egregious excuses for Labour’s performance in Copeland and Stoke

The byelection results in Copeland and Stoke-on-Trent Central should not set alarm bells ringing for the Labour party. The alarm has long since been silenced; ignored until the flames it warned against melted it mute. No, we have long since had our warnings. This was the firefighter telling us that the house burning down was our own.

There is no longer any plausible excuse not to know how desperately bad the situation is. To put it another way, you either see the glass as half full, or you grab a brush to help out with sweeping up the shards. Anyone now downplaying quite how catastrophic these results are is fully culpable for whatever worst case scenario befalls us.

Bear in mind that even were it not for the Copeland result, the one in Stoke Central would have been bad enough. Both of these constituencies, in largely the form that they exist now, have returned Labour members of parliament at every single election since 1935, and midterm byelections tend to overstate the opposition’s performance at the subsequent general election. Yes, Copeland was a disaster, but the result in Stoke Central was abysmal too. To suggest either was an acceptable outcome suggests only that you are happy with, or at least not uncomfortably encumbered by, a Conservative government.

It is worth, then, taking a quick look at some of the most egregious excuses used in the last few days by people who, to put it kindly, are extremely relaxed about the historic decline to irrelevance of the Labour party.

‘The failed political consensus’

Jeremy Corbyn’s reading of the situation in Copeland at 3am on Friday morning was that fed up voters had struck a blow at the political establishment that Labour has, for decades, attempted to assimilate into. Why those people would have used the anti-establishment rage to vote for a Conservative party in its seventh year of government was sadly left unexplained.

Copeland is ‘remote from London’

Shami Chakrabarti made this claim on the Andrew Marr Show yesterday as part of an explanation as to why voters there may have felt ‘neglected’ by Labour. In fairness, her geography is impeccable – Copeland to Westminster is apparently the longest public transport journey of any English constituency. Although, after 82 years of consistent support for Labour, why this simple fact would have suddenly led people to desert the party remains unclear.

Labour exceeded expectations in Stoke

‘We were written off in Stoke’, said the email Momentum sent out to supporters at 7am on Friday, ‘but we proved them wrong’. Bear in mind that Labour has held the seat since before the second world war, that the party was the bookies’ favourites, that the Tories put next to no resources into the election and that the United Kingdom Independence party’s Paul Nuttall had spent the fortnight up to polling day apologising for lying about the Hillsborough tragedy, it would have been a brave person to write us off. Our share of the vote still went down.

‘Winning in Copeland was always going to be difficult’

This, from the script supportive Labour MPs were given by the leader’s office, ignores the fact that the party has overcome that difficulty to win on 20 occasions since the Tories were last successful in 1931.

See also: Copeland is a marginal

As a renowned bellwether constituency, Copeland has a superb record of telling us whether Labour will win more than 100 seats or not.

The Tories and Ukip ‘threw everything’ Stoke

Also featured on the script for any MPs still adamant that the approaching asteroid is good news/fake news/an inevitable result of the neoliberal consensus. Bar a fleeting trip from Theresa May, the Conservative machine did very little in Stoke Central, preferring to concentrate on Copeland – and they still improved their share of the vote in both seats. Ukip, meanwhile, has learned all the wrong campaigning lessons from the referendum. They seem to be believe that unconventional ‘polling’ and a couple of rallies are the key to success. Elections veterans on the Labour staff, on the other hand, ran an excellent campaign, and more than 100 activists out during the course of a day was a common occurrence. The ground game was not the problem.

‘Fake news’

‘Word had got out that Jeremy wasn’t in favour of nuclear power. That isn’t true. That’s what you call fake news’, shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry told Sky News on Friday. Corbyn has a longstanding opposition to nuclear (here he is in 2011, saying ‘no to nuclear power, let’s decommission the stations we’ve got’) which was highlighted by the Conservatives during the campaign, and his refusal to say whether he would support the building of a new power plant in the area were certainly big factors on the doorstep in Copeland. ‘Alternative facts’ do seem to be a problem for Labour at the moment, but only because the discerning voters can see straight through them.

Longterm decline

Corbyn told the Guardian that ‘in Copeland … the Labour vote has actually been unfortunately going down for quite a long time’. Labour’s share of the vote in Copeland has indeed dropped at every election since 1997 in what, we are told, is a sure sign that people there hated Tony Blair and New Labour. There is a slight snag. Since 1983, Labour has received between 40 and 50 per cent of the vote except for four occasions: 1997, 2001 and 2005, when we got over 50 per cent; and 2017, when got under 40 per cent.

Low turnout caused by storm Doris

Another in the litany of reasons used by Chakrabarti this weekend to explain away the Copeland. There are two parts of this to unpack. First, why storm Doris appeared to affect Labour voters more than Conservative ones (our supporters tend not to have cars, appeared to be her slightly unsure implication), and second, why low turnout could be an excuse at all. The only electoral strategy Corbyn has offered since first running for leader was that he would galvanise non-voters to the polls. It is an astonishing and altogether unexpected turn of events then, to discover that our defeat in Copeland was the result of non-voters not voting. Still, no one could have seen that coming.


Conor Pope is deputy editor at Progress. He tweets at @conorpope



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Conor Pope

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  • More denial.

    Labour retained Stoke for two reasons. First – Paul Nutall.
    Second – The Conservatives did not want to win it, their preferred outcome was a Labour win.

    Labour lost Copelend because it deserved to.

  • What are you talking about, Alf? The PLP are slavishly (and very stupidly IMO) following him, even to the point of allowing Article 50 to be triggered with no scrutiny of government plans. Think of a better excuse next time.

  • “The right of the labour movement, to be honest, has no ideas of any compelling quality, except the instinct for short-term political survival. It would not know an ideological struggle if it stumbled across one in the dark. The only ‘struggle’ it engages in with any trace of conviction is the one against the left.” (Stuart Hall)

  • We do recognise the ideological struggle Alf, but there is no doubt in my mind that the current predicament is the fault of the messengers – Jeremy, John, Len, Diane, Shami, Cat et al whose ill-formed, arguments lack rigour, substance and persuasion and do nothing other than demonstrate the party’s current political incoherence. I see the behaviour of the leadership as an act of gross selfishness, clinging to power (token though it may be) at the expense of those it claims to represent. There is every indication that we shall lose the next general election by a landslide. Those who most need strong representation will have even fewer to fight on their behalf. They will have been abandoned. That the leadership of the party is prepared to put its own interests above those of the most needy in the country is a moral outrage.

  • Stuart Hall is, I believe, dead. Like so many of the other ‘Left’ critics of the Labour Party down the years, he never actually bothered to try putting his views to the electorate preferring instead high-minded sanctimonious moralising about those who did. His main achievement was founding an ivory tower populated by like minds who told each other fairy stories in convoluted language, had delusions of radicalism and achieved absolutely sod all in the way of concrete political change that actually improved real people’s lives. It comes as no surprise to me that Alf thinks he was some fount of wisdom. If Alf shares his view of the Party why is he bothering to post round here?

  • There may be some truth in the article. However, voters said that Labour is not representing the working Class anymore and that is why we are in decline. Is it because most Progress members and MPs have grown up under Thatcherite “values” and adopt them under the principles of Socialisation? It is easy to go with the herd but painful to oppose “conventional wisdom.” The Left was a “Leper colony” for decades and Progress, et al (Blairite ideology), shunned them. The Blairite agenda appears to have lost us two elections, and it is Progress commentators who are in denial of this possibility.
    I do not blame them, as it is easy to adopt the prevailing culture: Consumerism, the Market Economy, Individualism, Publicly owned services are BAD Private are GOOD, etc. Being an Old Grassroots Geezer (OGRE?) I saw society change in the 80s (due to Thatcher and her ilk) from a sense of community and liberalism (Us) – to one of ME. Thus, for the Labour Right it is heresy and incredulous to think of a Left agenda to be a viable alternative. Thus, they take every opportunity to try and undermine Corbyn. Due to ordinary members, Corbyn and the Left are now centre stage. However, their life raft is bobbing up and down in a sea (ocean?) of Right Wing animosity. It is little wonder he is seen as a “weak” leader by the Public. Until the majority of Labour MPs can accept Left ideology, we shall lose the next election. That is why the Labour Right MPs are worried about their careers – DE-SELECTION! But then, the Career Politicians and the neo political class is yet another angle regarding the Public rejection of Labour! Vic Parks (OGR’E)

  • And what is progress’ explanation for the results? Is it all down to Corbyn? A single cause with a simple solution. And will we then find we have whopping victories and a big majority in Parliament?

    It may be a little bit more complicated than just removing Corbyn and making progress the happiest organisation in the UK.

    Your constant attacks on Corbyn seem a substitute for analysis and a cover for your failure to address your own shortcomings. You need to ask yourselves whether preserving, resurrecting and recalibrating the Right wing of the party is really going to bring electoral popularity.

    Progress articles are marked by self importance, sloppy analysis and capitulation to the dominant discourse.

  • Speaking as someone from the Copeland constituency I can quite assure you all that one of the major factors coming across from the doorstep was the Corbyn factor. The Tories used Corbyn’s inability to support the neuclear industry to very good effect. This is the major employer in the area.
    Corbyn has had a chance but he is very uninspiring as a leader and the sooner this is recognised then we can move forward. Personally I think this should be done sooner rather than later.
    Sean is nearer the truth. Alf knows knows no other words than Tory Lite

  • Time Labour MPs started to listen to Francis O’Grady TUC – talks a lot of sense about employment and workers rights – maybe then we could get back to representing the working class. She should certainly be on Question Time.
    Kier Stramer also right Labour should be changing direction – the realities of BREXIT already starting to be evident and it took The House of Lords to highlight these

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