Can Labour Cling on in Copeland and Stoke-on-Trent Central?

That the question of defeat even arises shows the extraordinary weakness of the official opposition in these strange political times.

If we accept that 2015’s defeat under Ed Milliband represented a low in Labour’s fortunes, then holding onto two relatively safe seats should - midterm - be easy.

The last time the main opposition party lost a by-election was in Romsey in 2000 under William Hague’s dire leadership; the last time a governing party snatched a seat from the opposition was the Mitcham and Morden by-election in 1983 when a surging SDP took 20% of Labour’s vote and let the Conservatives win with a reduced vote share.

These are the precedents we are talking about. Neither William Hague nor Michael Foot were regarded as exceptional opposition leaders. And for those who do not follow politics closely, neither went onto general election victories.

Both by-elections have been caused by the resignation of the sitting Labour MPs, Jamie Reid and Tristram Hunt. Displaying the fragility of the Corbyn project, neither candidate comes from his wing of the party. Both are Brexit constituencies. Both have been held by the party unto the ages.

Jeremy Corbyn campaigned in Copeland but as the vote has approached he has concentrated his efforts (such as they are) on Stoke where Paul Nuttall, the new UKIP leader is standing. That Theresa May has chosen to campaign in Copeland shows the Tories’ confidence. Prime ministers rarely campaign in by-election, cautious of being tarred with defeat.

Yet her visit was not the success it should have been. She struggled to make hay out the Labour leader's opposition to nuclear power (Copeland’s nuclear industry is a big local employer) and dodged questions about the closure of the local NHS maternity ward. Yet Labour stands lower in opinion polls than in 2015. May could just - with some luck and a good ground game - nudge a victory.

Labour has never committed regicide with the same lack of compassion as the Tories

The campaign in Stoke-on-Trent Central has been more dramatic. In 2015, the opposition to Labour was split between the Conservatives and UKIP. Unlike his predecessor, Nuttall chose to take a chance and stand himself. Yet his campaign, though high profile, has not been a success. Stoke is more ethnically diverse than UKIP’s traditional territory and he has met frequent opposition. His claims of residence in the constituency have been widely mocked. More recently, he has come under heavy fire for claiming a “close friend” was at Hillsborough. It is the kind of untruth that cuts through on the doorstep and his extreme defence - calling the campaign against him “evil” - may enthuse Kippers but Stoke is only the party’s 50th target seat.

Labour’s candidate, Gareth Snell, has not had a smooth campaign either, demonstrating the poor organisation of Labour. Whoever wins in Stoke, the constituency is unlikely to be well-served.

The last time an opposition disposed of a flailing leader was in 2003 when the Tories dumped the hapless Iain Duncan Smith. Labour has never committed regicide with the same lack of compassion as the Tories. Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Ed Milliband were all allowed to linger long after their elect-by-date.

The disastrous loss or near loss of two safe seats would surely forced any ordinary leader onto the scrap heap of political history. Corbyn is no ordinary leader. His ability to endure humiliation is only matched by Norman Wisdom. He is extraordinary in the sense that his narrow band of supporters seem to endow even the most banal utterance with almost Socratic profundity.

Blair may prove prescient

Maybe defeat will be blamed on Tony Blair. After all most things that are wrong with the party are usually blamed on Labour’s most successful leader.

The irony of his speech was that he made the principled - and democratic - argument for opposing Brexit. It is Corbyn, 70% of whose parliamentary party represent Brexit-voting seats, who is playing politics with the European issue. Were Blair to be leading Labour now, he would probably adopt a similar position. His speech showed how much better he would do it though.

However, win or lose he is safe. Until the Corbynite left can be sure of securing enough nominations for one of their to get on the membership ballot Corbyn will continue. Hence why John McDonnell is proposing to reduce the nomination threshold from 15% to 5%. His opponents will not launch another leadership until they can be surer of a candidate who can solve the party’s Brexit dilemma and inspire the membership while reaching out to new voters.

Clive Lewis might inspire the membership but he lacks parliamentary support and now the support of Corbyn. None of the other candidates can combine elements of the Corbyn project with electoral appeal. The party is stuck.

Blair may prove prescient to say that Labour have become facilitators of a disastrous Brexit. He was (unfortunately) wrong to give the speech at all.  

Corbyn, not Blair, now leads Labour. As such, he must accept responsibility for its failures - and its successes. A Trumpian attitude that his party is “a finely-tuned machine” is denial too far.

So, clinging on is what Labour can expect. And that is being optimistic.

More about the author

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.

Follow Graham on Twitter.

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