1982. That was the last time a governing party gained a seat in a by-election. Sitting governments nearly always suffer swings against them in mid-term contests, especially unpopular ones. Be it in Witney, Richmond Park, or Sleaford—the Conservative vote has declined in every one of these seats. Brexit in 2016 will not be to Theresa May what the Falklands War was to Margaret Thatcher in 1982—leaving the EU as we well know will be a much longer process than the recapture of Port Stanley. The Falklands War was manna from heaven for the Conservatives—Brexit may yet turn out to be a poisoned chalice for the party. It may be well over a decade after the initial vote to break with Brussels that the UK actually extricates itself from the EU.
The Conservatives may be happy to rally around that rather hackneyed platitude of “Brexit means Brexit”, but platitudes do not win by-elections. Although a part of the country voted Leave, this fact alone doesn’t necessarily endear it to abandoning the Labour Party. After all, Copeland and the adjoining seat of Workington (both coastal seats in Cumbria) have been won by Labour at every General Election since before World War II. It would be truly momentous if, after six and a half years of being in government, the Conservatives managed to wrestle this West Cumbria seat from the Labour Party, even a Labour Party presided over by a man who has taken the party to its lowest poll rating since 2009. A Conservative victory in Copeland therefore, would be a political earthquake.
Be that as it may, these are not normal times. The old certainties in politics (insofar as they existed) are gone. Copeland’s (soon to be former) MP Jamie Reed resigned after much outspoken criticism of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership (although he maintained that his decision to resign was unrelated to the leader). Another, anonymous, Labour MP has hinted that Reed may be one of “a dozen” to quit the party. Even if the Labour Party can “hang on” (to use Jeremy Corbyn’s own words), Corbyn’s ability to lead it will be impossibly weakened. There is no guarantee at the moment that the party will “hang on” in Copeland.
The very sort of people who voted for Brexit (Copeland had an estimated Leave vote of 62 per cent) seem to be diverging from the North London-based leadership of Labour. For Labour’s bastion of the adjoining boroughs of Camden, Islington and Hackney and the MPs representing the areas (who also happen to dominate the Shadow Cabinet) is worlds away from industrial Cumbria.
Though both areas form a bedrock of Labour support (having been dominated by the party since the 1930s), seats like Copeland are but distant outposts for a party that has appeared to retreat to its urban crucibles in recent years. There’s every chance after the shock result of the EU referendum, that voters in Copeland will turn their back on the Labour Party after 81 years. The very fact that this by-election result is in question is itself remarkable. In years gone by, Labour would be assured of a thumping victory in a mid-term by-election in a hitherto stolidly red seat like this one—no longer.
The party is under threat from all sides. For the Conservatives, Copeland’s voters are the sort of people who have been drifting away from Labour ever since its 1997 landslide—in the intervening 19 years seats like this have become far closer between the two main parties. The old mining vote in seats like Copeland is slowly eroding, while the Conservatives dominate the rural hinterland of this seat where Labour come nowhere near (as is the case in all of rural Cumbria and Northumberland).
The Liberal Democrats too (whose leader Tim Farron has carved out a fortress in another neighbouring seat—Westmorland and Lonsdale) could challenge Labour here. Buoyed by recent post-Brexit bounces in Witney, Richmond Park and even Leave-voting Sleaford (where Labour fell from 2nd to 4th place), the Liberal Democrats will surely look to make a breakthrough among the 38 per cent of voters in the seat who voted Remain. UKIP’s leader Paul Nuttall (a native of Cumbria’s neighbour to the south, Lancashire) may also see this as a unique opportunity to enter Parliament and demonstrate that the party is in rude health despite its main objective of securing a vote to leave the EU being achieved. Labour must contemplate, with some equanimity, the serious danger of haemorrhaging votes to not one but three parties in this once rock-solid seat.