The Copeland byelection was a rejection of Jeremy Corbyn’s politics
The February byelection results are so bad it is taking some time for them to sink in. Jeremy Corbyn becomes the first Labour leader since Michael Foot to lose a seat in opposition to the government. Jonathan Freedland in the Guardian asks, ‘Was it the worst result for an opposition since 1945 – or since 1878?’ Either way this was the worst byelection result for Labour in living memory.
Things were not helped by Corbyn sacking his shadow cabinet campaign coordinator Jon Trickett a fortnight before polling day and campaign chief Simon Fletcher walking out only days later. The Labour leader should thank his lucky stars that Labour headquarters is still full of highly professional people that were on hand and able to keep the show on the road. Without them both Copeland and Stoke-on-Trent Central would have been much worse.
While Corbyn’s team try to blame anyone but him, a close look at what actually happened is vital. As Lewis Baston shows (on page 11) Labour retained only 69.3 per cent of its 2015 vote in Copeland and 64.3 per cent in Stoke Central. The Tories had a 96.9 and 73.5 per cent retention respectively. The swing against Labour in Stoke Central of two per cent, let alone the 6.2 points in Copeland, if repeated at a general election would decimate the parliamentary party. May would be sitting on the sort of majority only seen by Clement Attlee, Margaret Thatcher or Tony Blair, which no independent observer would say she deserves. Labour might find it impossible to recover from such a blow.
First, it is time to respect the voters. They know what they are doing. There are various examples of patronising nonsense being circulated about the voters of Copeland – including doubts over their access to cars or ability to go out in harsh weather. These claims are not true, and spreading them does not exemplify an effective way of winning back that support. Copeland is a working-class seat that has returned Labour members of parliament for 82 years. They know the difference between Labour and Tory governments. It is one of the most unionised seats in the country with Prospect, the GMB and Unite having thousands of members each. It is also a highly informed electorate, with more PhDs per head than any other parliamentary constituency in the country. They were not duped by the mainstream media, nor Tory propaganda. They were convinced by it. It is different. How Labour talks about the choice the people of West Cumbria made will determine if they are prepared to look again at Labour when there is a general election or when the leadership changes.
Second, the National Health Service – and the Tories’ appalling handling of it – is not enough to save Labour. Former parliamentary candidate Jessica Asato wrote following the result in Copeland, ‘At some point [Labour] will learn that the boy called wolf too many times on the NHS. [The party has] run so many campaigns on 365 days, 10 days, three days, one day to save the NHS, and you know what? People don’t believe it anymore.’ She is right. Labour risks desensitising the voters on the very issue all Labour members care so much about. The party has been warned.
Third, the hard-left’s aversion to the industrial interests of working-class people is now apparent to those whose forebears founded the Labour party and have traditionally been its core vote. Whether it is on civil nuclear power, fracking, Trident, defence more generally or security firms like G4S, the politics of Corbyn and John McDonnell would see those who work in each of these sectors on the scrapheap and their communities go the same way mining communities did under Thatcher. The fact many of these manufacturing jobs exist in otherwise isolated places means there are no roads nor infrastructure projects that could be built that would provide a viable and well-paid alternative. Why do the people of Copeland know this? Because Sellafield is all the heavy industry left in an area that used to be home to tin and coal mines too.
The wake-up call for Labour is clear. West Cumbrians sent the plainest of messages: they would rather send the Labour leadership packing for wishing their jobs away than punish the Tory government for actually closing the local maternity unit and urgent care centre. Until the Labour party understands this, this failed leadership project will continue to make its excuses and risk finishing off Labour for good.
Corbyn is visibly damaged for losing a seat held by Labour since 1935. You can tell from the fact the only people out defending him in the media were former staffer Cat Smith, longterm partner in crime McDonnell, neighbour Emily Thornberry – who said it was ‘fake news’ to suggest Corbyn was ever against nuclear power – and new campaign chief Ian Lavery. There was not a peep from the ‘gang of four’ Corbynistas – Clive Lewis, Rachael Maskell, Dawn Butler and Jo Stevens – that resigned from the shadow cabinet over article 50 just weeks before. Nothing from the successor contenders Rebecca Long-Bailey or Angela Rayner. The irony will not be lost that in his moment of apparent need those who call on the rest of the party to ‘back the leader’ could not do the same themselves.
The Fabian Society started 2017 with a report estimating that Labour would get 150 MPs after an election with Corbyn as leader. The Stoke Central result confirms that view, Copeland makes it look optimistic. Corbyn’s team could sort out their rank incompetence, outline some policies all Labour members could get behind and control Corbyn’s bad temper. But Copeland was not about any of these Westminster bubble considerations. It was about politics. The hard-left, Momentum-led political agenda of the Labour leadership was on trial for all to see. The Copeland voters delivered their damning verdict: they found Corbyn and McDonnell’s brand of politics more repugnant than May’s. It is time to wake up and smell the coffee.
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
Our work depends on you.