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.