I intend to write in detail about the upcoming Copeland by-election, once the main nominations are announced; this is meant to be a preliminary post containing a few thoughts around the contest.
The Copeland constituency has been in existence on its current boundaries since 1983. The previous constituency, Whitehaven (created during the electoral reform of 1832), was rock-solid Labour (often over 60%) from 1935 until the boundaries were changed in 1983
The Copeland constituency has continued Labour since its creation: the Labour vote reached its high-water mark in 1997, in the Tony Blair landslide. In that year, the Labour candidate achieved a vote of over 58%
and his successor, Jamie Reed, started off in 2005 with a Labour vote of 50.5%. However, the Labour vote share has steadily declined since then, most recently to 42% in 2015
The Conservative vote has been more volatile, ranging in various elections from 29% to 43%. The Conservatives achieved nearly 36% in 2015, only one point down on their 2010 showing.
The UKIP vote in Copeland has mirrored in a modest way those in much of the country: 2.2% in 2005, 2.3% (beaten by the BNP on 3.4%) in 2010, jumping to 15.5% in 2015.
The Liberal Democrats have never done very well in Copeland, their vote share flickering around the 10% mark, not exceeding that in 2010 (one point down from their 2005 showing in fact), then crashing to 3.5% in the 2015 debacle.
In 2010, the Green Party stood for the first time since 1987 but received a vote of less than 1%. That improved to 3% in 2015. There has been debate in Green circles about whether they should withdraw, so as to give Labour their small vote share but (leaving aside the question of whether Green voters do actually favour Labour in lieu –some vote UKIP, according to polls–), the Liberal Democrats seem to be unwilling to withdraw, so it seems likely that the Greens will stand. Copeland contains the Sellafield (formerly Windscale) nuclear plant [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sellafield], which all Labour candidates and MPs to date have backed strongly (it is the biggest –and best-paying–employer by far in the constituency). Indeed, Jamie Reed stood down as MP in order to take up a lucrative (and secure) position at Sellafield.
Jamie Reed was one of the earliest rebels against Jeremy Corbyn, indeed the first to throw down the gauntlet after Corbyn became Labour leader. This is a “rat leaves sinking ship scenario” and very obviously so. Copeland voted Leave in the EU Referendum; Reed is strongly pro-EU. The constituency is also anti-immigration despite having relatively few immigrants and/or non-whites.
Choice of candidate will be key, especially for Labour. Word is that local Labour is not only pro-Sellafield, but anti-Corbyn. If their choice prevails, the candidate will be the same. That might (arguably) help Labour somewhat, but Labour’s generally pro-EU and also pro-mass-immigration stance will not.
Turnout will be very important too. Since the 1980s, turnout has gradually declined from over 83% at one time to not much beyond 60% in recent elections. By-elections usually have far lower turnouts than do general elections. That disadvantages Labour in this case.
Labour has lost the “incumbency factor”, Corbyn is little-regarded by the voting public, Labour is perceived to be pro-EU and pro-mass immigration, as well as disunited and (at least arguably) almost irrelevant. There is also the point that Labour’s Jamie Reed resigned for purely selfish motives (no future as a Labour MP, at least under Corbyn’s leadership; lucrative business career in prospect). These factors will not assist turnout and will not assist Labour.
Jamie Reed’s majority was 2,564 in 2015, 16,750 votes as against 14,186 for the Conservatives (UKIP got 6,148). The Conservatives are tipped by the bookmakers, for what that is worth. Certainly Conservative voters have all to play for here. On the other hand, Labour voters might well be very unenthusiastic. They may not switch votes, but will more likely vote with their feet by staying at home.
If Labour’s vote were to be reduced by about half and the Conservatives’ by about a third, that would leave Labour with (in rough figures) maybe 9,000 votes, the Conservatives with 9,500. This could run very close indeed.
The joker in the pack is, appropriately, UKIP. Even on basis of the above scenario and even if all 2015 UKIP voters vote UKIP this time, it still leaves UKIP with a steep climb. To win, UKIP is going to have to increase its 2015 vote by at least 50%, from 6,000 to (at least) 9,000. On the other hand, it is that kind of shock result that goes down in political history. These things happen. UKIP now has a Northerner as leader. That may help.
So far, UKIP since 2015 has fulfilled my predictions: stagnation (at best) rather than upsurge. Copeland might just provide a (one-off?) breakthrough for UKIP, but only if all the cards were to fall right: a good UKIP candidate, a poor Labour one, helpful headlines around polling day.
This by-election was always going to be close to call. In the absence of nominations, I am not yet ready to call it, but the result will be significant in its effects: the closest by-election since the 2015 General Election. If Labour loses, other Labour MPs may jump ship (the newspapers suggest at least 20). That would of course also be the case, a fortiori, were Labour to come third, which is in fact not impossible, though it would have been unthinkable until recently.