Last night Labour held Stoke Central and lost Copeland to the Tories. As usual, by-elections don’t tell us a huge amount about the bigger political picture, but are very important in setting the political narrative.

By-elections are very unusual beasts. Because they don’t decide who will form the government for the next five years, only who will be the local MP, people are comparatively free to use them to register a protest. They are much more fiercely contested than your average seat at a general election. The constituency itself will also normally have its own local ideosyncracities that mean it can’t just be read as if it is a microcosm of Britain as a whole. So when people ask me what by-elections tell us, I normally say not much: if the change in the vote is in line with what the national polls are showing then it tells us nothing we didn’t already know, if the change is different to the national polls it’s probably just because by-elections are very different to general elections.

Looking at the two results, Copeland is a marginal seat between Labour and the Conservatives… albeit, one that had been in Labour hands for eighty years. The national polls tend to show the Conservatives about 14 points ahead of Labour, the equivalent of a 3.5% swing from Labour to Conservative since the general election. Therefore if Copeland had behaved exactly in line with the national polls it should have been on a knife edge between Conservative and Labour. In the event the Tories gained it comfortably. We cannot be certain why the Tories did better than the national picture would have predicted, thought the most obvious hypothesis is the unusual nature of the seat: Whitehaven is a town wholly dominated by and dependent on one industry – nuclear power – and the Labour party were perceived as being hostile towards it.

On the face of it Stoke Central was a less interesting result – Copeland is one for for the record books, but Stoke saw hardly any change since the general election (only the Lib Dems really saw a significant increase in their share). However it does perhaps give us a idea of the limits to the UKIP threat to Labour. UKIP were perceived as the main challengers from the beginning and it was a promising seat for them: a somewhat neglected working class Labour seat that voted strongly for Brexit, but with a Labour candidate who was remain. They seem to have thrown all they could at it, but with very little success. Again, we can’t be certain why – Paul Nuttall obviously had a difficult campaign and anecdotally UKIP’s ground game was poor, but there are also wider questions about UKIP’s viability now Brexit has been adopted by the Conservatives and without Farage at their helm. By-elections have often been an important route for smaller parties, getting them publicity and a foothold in Parliament. Whenever there has been a by-election in a northern city in the last five years or so there has been speculation about it being a chance for UKIP, but they never seem quite able to pull it off.

So what will the impact of these by-elections be? Copeland will be a body blow to Labour simply because of how incredibly unusual it is. Governments do not normally gain seats at by-elections. Lots of people will be writing about past examples today – 1982 in Micham and Morden (Lab vote split because of SDP defection, and the government got a surge of support during campaign because of the Falklands); 1961 Bristol South East (Tory gain only because the candidate with the most votes – Tony Benn – was disqualified for being a peer), 1960 Brighouse and Spenborough (ultra marginal to begin with). The fact that one has to go back that far to scrape a few examples that generally have extremely unusual circumstances underlines how freakish this is. The political narrative will go back to how Labour are in crisis…but whether that makes the slightest practical difference, I don’t know. Might it provoke another Parliamentary coup within Labour? Who knows. Might it sow some doubts among Corbyn supporters within the Labour party? Again, who knows. The point is, Labour have had terrible poll ratings for a long time, Jeremy Corbyn has has terrible poll ratings for a long time, but this did not stop him being being relected leader last year. The question of Labour’s leadership is one that seems to be a lot more about the opinion of Labour members than the wider public.

909 Responses to “Stoke and Copeland by-elections”

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  1. I should have added the corollary to this. If the government sticks to its normal free market instincts, there is every chance we will lose the likes of Nissan in due course.

  2. @ Guymonde

    I have the same suspicions as to the instinct of the Tory Party in general, but I wonder if pragmatism may come into this: Hammond is looking for 6% cuts in public spending at a time when that could impact on Tory VI, is this an attempt to keep a pot back for judicious intervention when Brexit difficulties emerge?

  3. There are signs that global demand is recovering which will be a welcome development as we try to rebalance toward manufacturing and other exports – Germany today reported a significant improvement in employment and real earnings over recent months.

  4. @Laszlo 12.41 am

    An excellent summary of the futility of the Brexit debate here and the reason why, although I still dip in from time to time, I haven’t bothered to comment for some months.

  5. apparently a post on polling in a blog in the sp*ct8tor is in moderation
    Isabel Hardman if you want to look.

  6. WB,
    “Hammond is looking for 6% cuts in public spending at a time when that could impact on Tory VI, is this an attempt to keep a pot back for judicious intervention when Brexit difficulties emerge?”

    The line on Brexit difficulties will undoubtedly be that the government is doing its best to overcome the inevitable difficulties caused by the voter’s decision to leave the EU. That the conservatives are the only party determined to come through those difficulties to a new sunnier economy.

    I suspect the 6% cut is in essence exactly the policy osborne predicted of the need for massive government cuts post Brexit.

  7. @danny
    I suspect the line will be subtly different:
    ‘The government is doing its best to overcome the inevitable difficulties arising from Brexit caused by EU intransigence’

    They will never blame the voters…

  8. I see the French presidential candidate Fillon is being formally investigated over some irregularities over fake jobs.
    But he will still campaign on….
    Great political system over there, makes you wonder why we would want to cut them adrift..
    Vive La France !

  9. I’m surprised there is anything left to cut after all these years of austerity. Will it ever end? It never ceases to amaze me how well the government is doing in the polls.

  10. @Jasper22

    This will be a godsend to Le Pen. But I still think most of the Fillon voters will switch to Macron rather than Le Pen.
    We’ll see.

  11. @COLIN

    “The Times reports on the need for new IT systems capable of dealing with 390m customs declarations pa & applications from 3.3 m EU citizens for work permits whilst doubling the work permit handling capacity .

    The very mention of “Whitehall” & ” New IT System” in the same sentence makes me go cold.”

    As an IT professional I hear the ‘ker-ching’ sound somewhere. Given the notoriously poor governance of IT implementations in the public sector, every IT consultancy will be jumping at the bait, wanting to fleece the government for every penny possible. IT suppliers have the ability to devise contracts that allow huge additional charges for every little change request that goes in – and there will be many, given that government departments are pretty hopeless at knowing what they want.


    “They will never blame the voters…”

    And the tabloid press will be parroting the usual xenophobic drivel about the bl**dy foreigners etc. Hopefully pepole will see beyond this and make their own minds up, though I doubt it.

  13. That’s me sorted, two Bagels and a large latte carry out. For such a small town Reigate has quite a lot of splendid foody establishments I highly recommend Urban Kitchen if any peeps are in the area.

    More on today’s poll…

    “Which of the following do you think would make the best Prime Minister? May 49%, Corbyn 15%, don’t know 36% ”

    I’ve not seen the tables but I’m assuming once you take out Scotland then TM will be quite a bit over the 50% mark.

    “I’m surprised there is anything left to cut after all these years of austerity. Will it ever end? It never ceases to amaze me how well the government is doing in the polls”

    I’ve yet to be won over by the whole austerity thing but other than that I can’t really bash the Tories over other policy areas in England.

  15. Mike Smithson? @MSmithsonPB 3m3 minutes ago
    24% of GE2015 LAB voters tell YouGov that TMay best PM. Just 31% go for the toxic Corbyn

    Sobering stuff….

    Ok that’s me done..Might pop in again around 4ish.

  16. RE Fillon. An interesting point made by AN on DP about the French Presidential Election.

    Either Macron or Le Pen will result in a period of huge uncertainty for France. Macron has no MPS & LePen has 2 at present.

    How will either of them govern?

  17. House of Lords getting stroppy over granting rights to stay for eu citizens after brexit. Can’t help thinking the government will be relieved if the Lords does do this as it will be one more thing which the government needs to do but does not want to be seen to support.

  18. Big fat Ron,
    “They will never blame the voters”

    I understand the logic but it will be an interesting spin to change “the people have decided so we must obey”, into ” not us gov”. Made easier if the principle opposition is going along with it, of course.


    Just so.

    What gets me though is that it never seems to change.

  20. @WB

    I doubt that McDonnell has ever been to Devon, and I doubt he has ever met a small businessman, so I think mutual discussion is doubly unlikely.

    Here’s what he is saying:

    “we cannot let our high streets become a wasteland of boarded up shop windows, due to poor government decision making that makes the competition rigged against the small businesses on our high streets,”

    Has he seen the state of our high streets? They already have tumbleweed blowing down them. But his solution is a special £500 million fund for SMEs in town centres, which rather confirms the point I was making in my earlier post. Labour really have to say what cuts they are going to make, as well as spending promises.

    Its OK to say that austerity is the wrong policy, but they do have to show balance and judgement, rather than just advocate spending splurges. Its a credibility thing.

  21. Tancred et al

    But there haven’t been any “cuts”.

    Public Spending is higher now than it was in 2010.

    The Republic of Ireland has had cuts, poor old Greece has….but we haven’t.

    Some ministries have had their budgets cut but, overall, spending is higher.

  22. @ Millie

    I should have put a smiley by my comment.

    I take your point about McDonnell and cuts though. My understanding of the current “policy” is that the aim is to have current account spending match tax receipts, the remainder is pure Keynesian pump priming, the National Investment bank lends, the economy improves, the tax take increases and the surplus over current account spending is used to repay borrowing at “historically low interest rates”
    If you are a follower of the classical school of economics or are disposed towards the Patrick Minford analysis then you will consider this nonsense: If however you are (like me) a believer in the school of modern Keynesian economics then the policy makes perfect sense. In the words of the Fairground Barker “youse pays yer money and youse takes yer choice”.

  23. @JASPER22

    “Tancred et al
    But there haven’t been any “cuts”.
    Public Spending is higher now than it was in 2010.”

    What about all those civil servants who have lost their jobs? And the cuts in benefits and tax credits? It’s not a pure arithmetical calculation. Spending has to go up each year anyway as the population grows and there is more demand on schools, hospitals, state pensions etc. Total spending doesn’t doesn’t show the true picture.

  24. @WB
    Minford is not a good guide to ‘best economic practice’ IMHO – he seems to force every external observation into a straitjacket formed of his long-held opinions.

    Everything I have heard from him sounds hugely simplistic, plus he is about the only person that my very mild-mannered Professor of Economics brother gets really irritated by!

    He appears to be the economic equivalent of the leading climate change deniers: unable to accept uncomfortable reality despite masses of evidence.

    Of course my opinion has minimal value and I may be being totally unfair!

  25. @ Bigfatron

    in the immortal words “you may say that I could not possibly comment”


    “An excellent summary of the futility of the Brexit debate here and the reason why, although I still dip in from time to time, I haven’t bothered to comment for some months.”


    Well you could always ignore the Brexit stuff and comment on polling. I don’t comment much on Brexit, especially on all the “will article xyz be revoked” malarky. But someone has to do it I suppose….

    Strangely peeps were very happy to talk about Brexit and stuff right up until Brexit became a reality and arguments previously advanced become tested by reality.

    But this is the best time to talk about it, to see what stacks up. Even more so going forward as more is revealed!!

  27. Re: Patrick Minford

    I remember his big point in the [email protected] (along with the Chicago School) was control the money supply and you control inflation
    Peter Donaldson (who was my tutor at the time) told me the story of Chancellor of the Exchequer Scrooge:
    Bah Humbug said Scrooge I am going to put a stop to Christmas, I am only going to allow X number of notes and coins to circulate that’ll stop them spending so much and it will mean no pressure on prices. Unfortunately for Scrooge the Ghost of Christmas present was the bank manager and the ghosts of Christmas past and yet to come were the owners of the major retailers: they agreed that what they would do is once the till in the shop had £100 in it would be taken immediately to the bank no matter how many trips a day that took, then the bank would have enough notes and coins to give to its customers to go and spend:
    the moral being it was circulation of money and not the amount of money that controlled spending by the public.

  28. @Millie

    I am struggling with the very idea, but it is possible you have not read the economic exchanges on here, specifically about investment, demand, multipliers and stuff.

    Or indeed the MMT stuff some of us take a bit of an interest in.

    But to put it simply, it isn’t automatically the case that we have to make cuts to pay for summat else. Some spending can pay for itself. It might cost to buy a car, but if it gets you a better job and you earn more as a result, you wind up better off. The same can be true of buying property, synths, etc., but there’s a vague on Allan’s latté.

    Thus, the government might invest in some infrastructure, or research… Research tends to have a good return.

    But even without that, just spending money on welfare tends to give some stimulus, although not as much. This is because the money gets spent in the economy over again, circulating round, supporting jobs and creating demand for goods, which attracts more money from business investing.

    That’s how we went from losing seven percent of the economy after the crunch to over two percent growth inside two years. Stimulus.

    Conversely, the cuts by the coalition didn’t save much money because you lose the stimulus and the economy stalls and deficit lingers. The cuts become a false economy.

    But governments have another method now: they can in effect print money…

  29. @Millie

    Some spending can not only stimulate the economy and make money, it can also save money too. A housing programme would be an example of this, reducing housing benefit costs as well as the economic stimulus of the construction.

  30. Housing would also give the government an asset to sell. But politically might cost votes in the SE…

  31. Tancred

    There are more people in work than ever !

    Less in the public sector and more in the private sector.

    HMG spends £700bn a year and gets £650bn in….. that overdraft has to then go onto our loan account…..which goes up every year.

    Would that we had been cutting…….

    Governments don’t have any money – only what they take from us. Then they choose how it is spent….and the Tories won the last GE and are 15 points up in the polls.

    Must be doing something right.

  32. Breaking News…..

    AG Barr are halving the sugar content in Irn Bru….

    There’ll be tears and tantrums in Auchtermuchty tonight – I’m sure “Nicola” will blame the wicked Tories and see this as yet another injustice heaped upon the Scottish people by them “doon sooth”.

  33. @jasper

    We tried cuts, made loads redundant, but it didn’t save much money because killed off the growth.

    Also, governments do have money, they can get the BoE to create it for them and then get it back via taxation, for example.

    They also build lots of assets they can sell.

  34. Jim Jam @ TOH

    “I wondered about ON’s remark and thought it suggested he thinks Indy Ref #2 is unlikely any time soon but was not sure.”

    I don’t really have a view on when Sturgeon will call the next referendum. It’s a matter of fine judgement rather than one with an obvious answer.

    While some indy supporters are keen to have one ASAP, they tend to be the sort who don’t read polls, don’t believe polls, or prefer to trust their mates than “experts” (every movement has them!)

    The FM and her team are best placed to take that decision, so I’m happy to leave it to them.

  35. This ‘more people in work than ever before’ isn’t necessarily something to blub happy tears about. There are millions more in insecure work, temp/agency work, zero hour contracts etc without basic employment rights. In 5 years the number of people in this type of work has increased by over 25%.

    We’re well known for our relaxed labour laws which attract investment and suit large companies – who can move in (and OUT!) to suit themselves. Is this necessarily a good thing for people?

    And er, polling, well Tories untouchable until a) the opposition ceases to be split and weak, or b) Brexit goes awry. ‘B’ will be blamed at first on the EU anyway and it may take a while that argument to wear thing and for people’s empty pockets to make them pass blame the government’s way.

  36. The thing about borrowing money at low interest rates is that it is indeed cheap, You can go along like that quite well: until it needs to be paid back. That is much harder, and is even worse if borrowing costs have risen in the meantime. Funding the borrowing costs is easy, its the paying back that is the problem. Ask Greece.

    Which is why I don’t like long term expensive commitments like HS2, Heathrow, Hinkley. Or PFI for that matter.

    Labour are trying to sell us a bit of a Ponzi scheme at the moment.

    @WB. Don’t worry I saw the imaginary smiley

  37. Some polling, even if not UK.

    The last two German polls puts SPD ahead of CSU-CSU largely driven by Schultz’s popularity and his promise of overwriting Schröder’s agenda 2010.

    Interestingly AfD fell to 8%. Linke is gaining

  38. @ Jasper22

    There’ll be tears and tantrums in Auchtermuchty tonight

    When did you start channelling the spirit of Bill McLaren

    As an IT professional I hear the ‘ker-ching’ sound somewhere

    Plus ça change and all that. In the 1973 winter of discontent I worked for the IT branch of a major accounting firm, and was tasked with interviewing a number of Data Processing Managers [as was the usual title then] North of Birmingham regarding processing capacity and issues during the three day week for Heath’s HMG.

    Before I was allowed to do this, I had to sign the Official Secrets Act and was required to tell neither my own management nor anyone else including HMG where I had visited or even to provide any travel or other receipts which might have indicated where I went. My own management, of course, were anxious that I spent the week assigned with my nose to the grindstone so that their fees were maximised.

    Quite a fun week ensued!

  40. @Millie

    Well yes, we borrow cheap. Over a long term. By the time we need to pay it back inflation and growth have seriously eroded the value of the debt.

    Much like a mortgage.

    That’s how we dealt with the huge postwar debt, with a war-ravaged economy too, and had decades of prosperity before the oil crisis hit.

    But in those days we didn’t properly control own currency, but now we do and it gives even more flexibility, including printing money so we don’t have to borrow.

    And of course we can usually just roll the debt over, like remortgaging.

    Greece is an example of what happens if you borrow but don’t invest enough of it, have your currency pegged, and are forced to make cuts so you harm the economy and lose the ability to pay it back.

    It’s like, a really bad example. There are much better ones.

  41. Or to make it clearer, Greece is an example of how not to do it. Postwar UK did it much better.

    And it amazes how peeps keep focusing on the cost of borrowing and completely ignore the return on the investment. Or the cost of cuts…

  42. They ignore potential savings too, eg with housebuilding…

  43. I left out the link to the latest German poll (if someone is interestef)

  44. “The majority of European doctors working in the UK are considering leaving the country because of Brexit, a survey by the General Medical Council (GMC) has found. Thousands could leave in the next two years, plunging the NHS into a fresh staffing crisis.

    The doctors’ disciplinary body surveyed 2,115 doctors from the European Economic Area (EEA), comprising the EU nations plus Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein, and found that 1,171 – 55 per cent – were thinking of leaving the UK, with the Brexit vote “a factor in their considerations”.

    With EU or EEA nationals accounting for about 10,200 – or roughly nine per cent – of NHS doctors, according to NHS Digital statistics, if over half of them did leave the UK, it could have a huge impact on a health service which is already suffering staff shortages in some areas.”

  45. @Syzygy

    Seems like MMT is becoming more established now. Like peeps using it at the BoE…

  46. Carfew and WB.

    Labour lost the argument in the run up and perhaps more pertinently in the few months after the 2010 GE

    I am with you and too far too fast was a good slogan until EM got scared of being labelled irresponsible.

    More austerity on its’ way?

  47. LASZLO

    @”The last two German polls puts SPD ahead of CSU-CSU largely driven by Schultz’s popularity and his promise of overwriting Schröder’s agenda 2010.”

    Its a fascinating prospect.

    An SPD Government, undoing the Schroder Labour Market reforms which transformed the German economy. And doing so with Die Linke- a small party with its roots in communist East Germany,led by a Hard Left lady who who saw the wall as a “necessary evil”, could end up as a senior minister in the federal government.

    I would love to see an EU with Shultz & LePen as its most powerful leaders trying to implement Juncker’s post Brexit White Paper :-)

  48. @JimJam

    They did lose the argument, for two reasons

    – media had given Labour a bit of an easy ride and blamed the bank’s initially. Then they hammered the coalition because Levenson

    – once they relented on Levenson media supported the line it had been Labour overspending. Now Labour were in a pickle…

    – the fundamental difficulty is the message is complex, requiring people to understand knock-on effects, impact on an economy of less demand and investment, money circulating, multipliers and stuff. Counter-intitive things like how spending money actually saves it. How inflation erodes debt without doing anything etc.

    It’s tricky to simplify in a way that keeps its power

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