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.
‘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.
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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