Friday, 24 February 2017

Stoke and Copeland By-election Results Show the Folly of Labour’s Hard Brexit Stance

Let us start with the constituency of Stoke in yesterday's by-elections, which at least the Labour Party managed to retain on Thursday. On a low turn-out of just 38%, Labour won with a 37.1% share of the vote, which is a fall of 2.2% of the vote share from the last general election in 2015. I suspect that most of the fall in support went to the Lib Dems who increased their vote share by 5.7%.

Labour were fortunate, that in a constituency that voted strongly to leave the EU at last year’s referendum, and where UKIP had finished second in 2015, the UKIP candidate and new leader, Eddie Hitler loolalike, Paul Nuttall, ran an abysmal campaign. Caught out telling lies about losing close friends at the Hillsborough football disaster, that he lived in the constituency, has a PHD and was a professional footballer, and making several policy gaffes, like wanting to privatise the NHS, he threw Labour a lifeline. Even then, Nuttall did manage to increase his party’s vote share by 2.1%, but it was not enough.

If UKIP can’t win a seat like Stoke, with their leader standing, then there is little hope for them anywhere else. Labour apparently, did manage an effective ground operation, with hundreds of party members doing the hard slog of door knocking in poor weather, but against a more credible opponent, they would probably have lost. The Tories also increased their vote share by 1.9% on 2015.

Which brings us to the other by-election on Thursday, Copeland in Cumbria, which the Tories won from Labour with a 6.7% swing from Labour to Tory. A seat held by Labour for 80 years and the first by-election loss by the main opposition party to the governing party since 1982, when the SDP split the left vote and the Tories won from Labour, with a 10.2% swing, in Mitcham and Morden in south London. The Tories went onto win a landslide victory in the 1983 general election.

So this was a historic loss by Labour and must be deeply worrying to the party. A national swing of 6.7% from Labour to Tory would see the Tories gain 52 seats from Labour, reducing the party to around 170 seats and a Tory overall majority of 114. And remember the constituency boundaries will likely change before the next general election, which favours the Tories by around 25 additional seats.

The increase in the Tories share of the vote at 8.5% is almost exactly the same as the 9% fall in the UKIP vote since 2015, and this will be the most troubling aspect for Labour, because it looks as though the Tories have stolen the UKIP vote, which is hardly surprising given the hard Brexit stance of the government. The Lib Dems also increased their vote share by 3.8%, which makes matters even worse for Labour, as they look to be in a pincer movement, with the Lib Dems picking up voters who wanted to remain in the EU and those wanting to leave, moving to the Tories.

Corbyn supporters have been quick to blame the two MPs who stood down and Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson for comments they made in the week leading up the election, but this is a weak excuse. Nobody really listens to Blair or Mandelson these days, they were not a factor in these results.

Corbyn’s critics have laid the blame at Corbyn’s doorstep, but are reluctant to launch another leadership challenge, after Corbyn’s easy win last year. They are putting pressure on Corbyn to stand down for the good of the party, but they tried this last year too. Corbyn strikes me as a stubborn individual and he is unlikely, now at least, to resign the leadership.

But the plates are shifting, Dave Prentis, leader of the second biggest trade union in the UK, UNISON, released a statement which implied that Corbyn was partly to blame for the Copeland defeat.   

The main difference though to last year is that Corbyn’s support amongst newer members appears to be falling. These members are overwhelmingly pro-EU and have been saddened by Corbyn insisting Labour MPs vote to trigger the Article 50 process which will formally see us leave the EU.

As we saw in these by-elections, Labour’s Article 50 debacle isn’t even popular with voters who want to leave the EU, or Labour would have held Copeland and done better in Stoke. History may conclude that the Article 50 vote in Parliament, was the beginning of the end for Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party.

I think Corbyn is now beatable in a leadership challenge, and if he doesn’t stand down, I think one will come before the next general election in 2020, probably in 2018. If the opinion polls don’t improve, and worse if more seats are lost to the Tories (and Lib Dems), there will surely be an attempt to oust Corbyn.

And what of the Greens? Well, we did poorly in Thursday’s by-elections, but these areas are not fertile ground for the Greens. In the south of England we should concentrate on challenging the Lib Dems for the 48% of voters who voted to remain in the EU. There must be people who will not vote for the Lib Dems because of their part in propping up the Tories, and the Greens are just as pro EU as the Lib Dems.

We should look to widen the crack in Labour’s support from remainers, it could well be very fruitful come the general election. 

1 comment:

  1. Labour's 'hard Brexit' stance and support for the Article 50 Bill was not the only reason for their poor performances. The anti-nuclear stance of many prominent Labour figures was an important factor in their loss of Copeland to the Conservatives, and also they are losing their grip on more rural/less metropolitan areas in general, as evidenced by their weakening holds in once solidly-Labour ex-mining and ex-industrial seats like North East Derbyshire and Mansfield.