No silver lining
The Copeland and Stoke byelection results were historically bad for Labour, says Lewis Baston
—The byelection results from Copeland and Stoke-on-Trent Central are a shaming, mortifying embarrassment to the Labour party. There is no gloss that can be applied to excuse these results. Some people have attempted to take comfort in imagining that while Copeland was obviously a disaster, Stoke Central was an acceptable result. It most certainly was not.
It was not as if the 39.3 per cent of the vote Labour won in Stoke Central in 2015, on less than a 50 per cent turnout, was some sort of high point the party would have trouble sustaining. Between 1935 and 2010 Labour had only dipped just below 50 per cent of the vote once, and that was in 1983. In 2010 and 2015 the Labour share hovered around 39 per cent. It has now gone a little lower from this already severely depleted level. If one looks at how well Labour retained its 2015 votes, Stoke Central was actually a little worse than Copeland. For every 100 Labour votes in each seat in 2015, there were 69 in Copeland and 64 in Stoke Central in 2017.
Labour also benefited in Stoke Central from the credibility problems that blighted the United Kingdom Independence party in general and Paul Nuttall in particular. Nuttall was on the defensive from the moment that the curious arrangements for his declared residence were revealed by Michael Crick: the succession of further revelations were damaging in themselves, were handled badly, and prevented Ukip from getting any momentum. Their campaign organisation was its traditional amateurish enthusiasm. Even so, the party still managed a small (two per cent) swing towards it and away from Labour.
The most astonishing thing about these byelections was how well the Conservatives performed after seven years of government. They increased their share of the vote by a couple of points in Stoke Central without trying particularly hard and without much of a local organisation. In Copeland their success was phenomenal – for every 100 Tory votes under general election conditions in 2015, there were 97 for the byelection in 2017. The Tories knew their voters and managed to turn them out, by post and on the day despite the contribution of storm Doris. It is deeply humiliating for Labour to scrabble around with excuses about the weather: even if it were true, why were Tories in Copeland (and Stoke Central, to some extent) keen enough to brave the storm conditions and vote while Labour’s core support did not fancy it?
Oppositions usually get a bit of an automatic boost in byelections like Copeland which are two-party fights between them and the government. It should be easy to find unpopular government decisions and articulate public discontent, particularly in the target-rich environment provided by a government that is squeezing public services and wrapped up in its own hardline ideological agenda. Constituencies that did not vote for the government in the first place should be particularly easy turf for the opposition and a tough environment for the government to make its case. Even basically popular governments can get a poke in the eye in a byelection and do worse in them than general elections, for instance in Uxbridge 1997 and Darlington 1983. It is completely aberrant, and a very bad sign, when the electorate decides instead to inflict a bit of violence on the main opposition.
There is absolutely no silver lining to either result for Labour. Earlier byelections in this parliament suggested that a good campaign and a good candidate could achieve routinely respectable results, as in Tooting and Oldham West, without giving any impression of a forward march to victory. Labour can no longer seem to manage that limited feat. Labour’s cushion of goodwill, that even if we were a bit hapless we could be an acceptable vehicle for a protest vote and our hearts were in the right place, has gone.
The current course is set fair for electoral disaster in 2020 or whenever Theresa May decides to get around the Fixed Term Parliaments Act and call an election. This electoral feebleness has enabled the Tories directly by reversing the damage done by the Liberal Democrats in Richmond Park to the narrow Tory parliamentary majority. It enables them indirectly, because they do not fear Labour and feel no need to listen to and respond to the party’s arguments and so can do what they like. It is a terrible indignity for the party to be pitied, apparently genuinely, by George Osborne, who commented the following morning: ‘How much longer is the Labour movement going to put up with its utterly useless, shambolic and frankly embarrassing leadership?’
To invert a familiar trope: first they mock you, then they ignore you, then they pity you. For me as a psephologist, it is impossible to look at these results without feeling awed at history being made. But for us all in Labour, it should be impossible to look at them without shame and anger.
Lewis Baston is a contributing editor to Progress and senior research fellow at Democratic Audit
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Copeland, Labour party, Stoke Central, UKIP