Labour has lost Copeland – what does this mean for the Party and what does it show about the state of British politics?


Last week I covered the, at that point in time, upcoming by-election in the Stoke-on-Trent Central seat – the article can be found here. In it I waxed somewhat lyrical at the dangers which were presented to the Party with UKIP and the threat of losing what is seen as a key seat for the Party. Thankfully, Labour managed to fend off the threat of Paul Nuttall, leaving the future of UKIP in doubt – however, what I did not touch on sufficiently was the by-election in Copeland, which, as it turned out, produced a result which was not only unexpected but sent shivers down the spine of the Party. (Disclaimer: This article may be quite similar to last week and will mostly be speculation and some statistics – not the most thrilling subject. Next week shall be a look at justice and ethics which should, hopefully, be slightly more interesting.)

The main political factor of the area is unique: Copeland is the centre of the British civil nuclear industry. Sellafield, formerly Windscale, is situated in the constituency and was the first commercial nuclear reactor in the world when it entered into service in 1956. Until 2003 the plant operated as a reactor but has since been decommissioned and is used for the processing of nuclear waste – employing at least 10,000 people. Copeland Borough Council is also undertaking a consultation on the construction of a new reactor at the Sellafield site dubbed Moorside which would bring 5600 new jobs and support the existing nuclear-based industry. This posed a major issue for Labour in the by-election. The Party has been consistently shaky on its support for the nuclear sector: Jeremy Corbyn has expressed that he would like to see the unilateral disarmament of the UK’s Trident nuclear deterrent, as have numerous other high-profile members of the Party’s Left, including former Shadow Defence Secretary Clive Lewis. Naturally, this throws into doubt the Party’s commitment to the nuclear sector as a whole – not a vote-winning policy in such a nuclear reliant area.

Trident Nuclear Submarine HMS Victorious
The Vanguard-class submarine, HMS Victorious, at Faslane, Scotland – one of the UK’s carriers of the Trident nuclear weapons system. Labour’s inconsistent message on its nuclear policy was problematic in Copeland. (Credit: Defence Images through CC BY-SA 2.0)

However, as the by-election approached, concerns surrounding this disadvantage were soothed when history was taken into account.  The Copeland seat had been solid Labour since 1983, the previous seat of Whitehaven had elected Labour MP’s since 1935 and the only major threat to the seat, the Conservatives, hadn’t won the area since 1874. However, the threat of the Conservatives was itself lessened by the fact that no ruling party had taken won a seat in a by-election since 1982, under Margaret Thatcher. On all accounts there were also another major factor which should have swung the vote in favour of the Opposition: the NHS. As my previous article on the NHS and its condition under Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt outlines, the NHS is in crisis. In Copeland, the maternity unit at the West Cumberland hospital is set for closure or downgrading under a controversial STP (Sustainability and Transformation Plan – technically plans by NHS trusts to plan for the future, but also seen as methods of inflicting debilitating cuts on local services). This would mean maternity services would only be accessible at the Carlisle Cumberland Hospital – over 40 miles away. It is claimed by local residents that this would lead to potential deaths of mothers and babies and lead to the area being serviced as if it were ” third-world.” When the Prime Minister visited Copeland prior to the by-election, she avoided answering four times as to whether the unit would face closure – an unacceptable dodging of a vital question for the area’s future. At this point it would have been pretty much unforeseeable to lose Copeland.

On by-election day, history was made. Conservative candidate for Copeland,Trudy Harrison, a Conservative Party member since only 2016, overturned a 2,500 majority and beat socialist Labour Party candidate Gillian Troughton, with a swing of roughly 6.5% in the constituency. This shook the Party, for good reasons. Not just the Party of Government, but the Conservative Party managed to beat Labour in an area which had been solid red for over 75 years. Using the House of Commons’ website as point of reference, as of 26/2/2017, for Labour to win at the next election, the Party has to win at least 96 seats in order to have a majority of 1 and most of these seats will have to be won either from the Scottish National Party which holds 54 seats and from the Conservative Party which holds 330 seats. However, on the presumption that the Conservatives have the ability to overturn majorities of less than 3,000, Labour is set to lose 34 seats at the next election (according to the list of constituencies provided by politicalresources.net) without even taking into account other factors. Some predict the Party may win as few as 190 seats in 2020, the worst performance since 1935.

The reaction from the Party has been mixed. The leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who has been partially blamed for the defeat has been told not to forego responsibility for the shock result but has made clear he will “finish the job” as leader, with other figures in the Party such as Deputy Leader Tom Watson, a critic of Corbyn, stating that there are no new plans for a leadership contest – which would be the third in three years. However, from my own view at least, a clear choice lies ahead for the Party. The first is to carry on as usual under Corbyn and try and gloss over the fact that he is the least popular political leader in the country and has lead the Party to poll consistently lower than the Government in every major poll since the Referendum. Corbynites may say that correlation is not causation – in this instance, it has become undeniable. The second is to end this folly and change the leadership for good. A host of potential, more popular leaders in the Party are standing at the sidelines and could readily lead the Party and overturn the Tory advantage – current Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan has the perfect mix of name recognition and popularity, having a net -3 rating compared with Corbyn’s -40, according to YouGov. A popular leader with a clear vision could bring the Party back to its feet and change the UK for the better, but until that time, Labour is doing no more than licking its wounds and making members brace for the next awful defeat.

Thank you for reading this week’s blog. What is your take on the by-election? Is Labour set to lose the next election?

– TNAC

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