Three weeks ago, I wrote a preliminary blog post about the upcoming Copeland by-election
in which I examined the history of the constituency. I also took a look at the factors influencing the present by-election. The time has now come to attempt a prediction with reference to wider political trends.
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%:
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 that of much of the country: 2.2% in 2005, 2.3% (beaten by the BNP, which got 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 are several factors which do not bode well for Labour:
- Jamie Reed may be seen as a “rat leaving the sinking ship”, having taken a potentially lucrative position with the company which operates the constituency’s largest employing entity (by far), the Sellafield nuclear plant. That may seep into perceptions of Labour MPs as a whole;
- recent polling shows Labour nationally as having the support of only 25% of voters;
- the same polling shows that Jeremy Corbyn is seen as a potential Prime Minister by only 16% of voters;
- Copeland voted heavily for Leave in the EU Referendum;
- Copeland is believed to be hostile to the mass immigration which Labour and its embattled leader seem unwilling to criticize, let alone promise to halt.
Labour has now selected as candidate a local councillor, Gillian Troughton, a former medical doctor and supporter of the nuclear industry, in which her husband works. That may help Labour’s campaign, as will her support for the NHS and the local hospital, but Labour’s problems locally stem from its general decline nationally and its generally pro-EU, pro-mass immigration positions.
Traditionally, the Conservative vote in Copeland comes from particular communities along the coast and inland and that vote seems to be rather solid. There is no reason to suppose that the Conservative vote will not hold up fairly well, bearing in mind Theresa May’s recent stance on Brexit and also the immigration question.
Recently-stagnating UKIP can probably expect a surge in its vote, though it seems that the party will probably not be able to do well enough to win, which would require its 2015 vote to increase by at least 50% and probably more. However, UKIP will probably be able to garner votes from disaffected 2010 and 2015 Labour voters.
Turnout is key. In 2015, the Labour vote was 16,750, the Conservatives received 14,186, but UKIP’s vote was only 6,148. It is quite likely that former Labour voters will not so much vote Conservative or even UKIP, but simply stay at home and refuse to support Labour. If turnout slumps, particularly among those former Labour voters, then the Conservatives might well pull ahead of Labour , especially if the UKIP vote increases .
Conservatives to win Copeland, with UKIP second and Labour third.
Only once in 35 years and twice in 60 years has a by-election seat been lost by the official Opposition party. If that happens in Copeland (even leaving aside the result of the simultaneous by-election at Stoke-on-Trent Central), Labour will go into a tailspin. If Labour is pushed into third place, that effect will be magnified immeasurably.
Corbyn has made it clear that he will not resign whatever happens. Failure at Copeland would lead either to a second attempt to depose Corbyn via leadership challenge or (more likely) to a mass exodus of anti-Corbyn careerists, Blairites, Brownites and Zionists following Jamie Reed and Tristram Hunt out of the House of Commons and possibly out of the Labour Party. If that exodus, in turn, leads to the loss of further Labour seats, then it is hard to see Labour recovering. Ever.
We may be seeing the death of one of the two major (i.e. long-established, sometimes governing) political parties, something that has not occurred since the collapse of the Liberal Party in the 1920s.