By-Election Reaction: May Triumphs, UKIP Flops And a Truly Awful Night for Labour
Politics isn’t supposed to be exciting.
Elections are generally the exception to that rule. By-elections doubly so. They are, however, about more than excitement. Stunning by-elections can define a parliament. They are a signpost to the future.
In 1962, David Sumner resigned as Tory MP for Orpington. At the 1959 election, the party had held the seat with 57% of the vote. Few predicted anything except a Conservative win. On the day of the election the Liberals won with a 22% swing from the Conservatives. The following year Harold Macmillan resigned as prime minister; the year after Labour won the general election.
Twenty-one years later, the left was split. Mrs Thatcher was riding high after victory in the south Atlantic and the beginnings of an economic recovery. The death of Darlington’s Labour MP led to a three-way fight. Many predicted the SDP would continue their series of by-election victories; Labour won the seat but their vote fell.
Had Labour lost Michael Foot might have been replaced as leader, the SDP might have gone into the 1983 general election campaign with some momentum. As it was, Foot stayed on and three months later Labour lost by a landslide.
It matters that Labour managed to cling on to Stoke Central by 2,620 votes. Brexit dominates the national discourse; the seat voted overwhelmingly to leave the EU last year. UKIP came second in 2015 and sent in their newly-minted leader as candidate. They fought an immigration-focused campaign but their bid ultimately failed.
Much will be made of the alleged smear campaign against Paul Nuttall. Yet what the by-election demonstrates is that UKIP is far from ready to challenge Labour as a "patriotic voice of working people". For all its sins, Labour is still able to - just - galvanise its core support but that is all. UKIP still repels too many voters and lacks the organisational ground game to contend even in Brexit Britain.
Platitudes are not the same as policies
It took the SDP then the Liberal Democrats nearly thirty years of small by-elections wins to become a party of government. UKIP has not even climbed the first step. If they can’t win now, when can they win? Their dreams of supplanting Labour seem, to put it lightly, far off.
The victory will bring some false cheer to Corbyn and his supporters: Labour’s vote was down by 2.2% while the Conservative’s and UKIP’s rose. Victory and defeat will hide one thing: the resilience and strength of the Tory vote. This alone should scare Labour supporters.
There was not even a gnat's crumb of comfort for Labour in Copeland. On a reduced turnout (at 51% relatively high for a by-election) the Tories turned a 2,564 Labour majority into a 2,147 Conservative one. Victory was decisive and defeat for Labour crushing. Labour’s vote fell by 4.9% while the Conservative’s increased by 8.5% - that's a 7.7% swing from Labour.
May has had a rocky few weeks. Yet she won. She won with former Labour voters and former UKIP voters.
The last time an opposition lost a by-election to the governing party was 1982 but then the opposition was split. To see how truly awful this result is for Labour you have to go back to the 19th century.
The victory cements Theresa May’s leadership, increasing her authority in her party and the country. Whether it allows her to shift leftwards over Brexit remains to be seen.
Like the Tories, Labour threw everything they could at the election. With a local maternity ward under threat, they even claimed that babies would die. The kinder, gentler politics, eh?
Corbyn is finished but he’ll stay on as Labour leader
Surely if anything Copeland demonstrates that “hearting” the NHS does not win elections: crying “privatisation” does not work. That this was the best Labour could do shows how barren their policy cupboard is. Corbyn was meant to shake up politics with fresh ideas. He has failed. Platitudes are not the same as policies.
Corbynistas will see victory as confirmation of imminent victory while blaming simultaneous defeat on Blair’s intervention in the Brexit debate. That this does not stand up to a moment’s scrutiny does not matter. It is maddening though that this denial will prevent any serious analysis of how Labour can become a functioning opposition - with or without Corbyn.
Corbyn is finished but he’ll stay on as Labour leader. The truth is he has been finished for some time - and well before he faced a challenge to his leadership. He has long been able to hide behind unconvincing by-election wins, ignoring that he underperformed his predecessor. The odd parish council election cheers his spirits. Stoke may not confirm his failure for his supporters, but Copeland should. That they refused to acknowledge this shames them. They have become Tory enablers.
Elections are exciting because, for a few moments, power is in the hands of voters and we can guarantee so little.
One thing we can be certain of is that in years to come, Copeland and Stoke Central will be spoken in the same breath as Darlinton, Orpington and other historic by-elections.
About the author
Educated at Durham University and UCL, Graham is Disclaimer's editor and a regular contributor. He has written for numerous publications including Tribune, Out Magazine and Vice. He has also contributed to two books of political counterfactuals for Biteback Media, Prime Minister Boris (2011) and Prime Minister Corbyn (2016).
A democratic republican lefty, he struggles daily with the conflict between his ingrained senses of idealism and pragmatism.
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