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. @John B

    “in order to subsidise Scotland is, quite frankly, beyond me.”


    There are a number of reasons for a healthy Barnett settlement, and quite a few of them are quite compelling!!

    1) There are parts of Scotland that were hammered by de industrialisation etc. and could use some investment

    2) you have lots of potential renewable energy resources which are worthy of developing and more besides. Like, you know, spaceports and stuff…

    3) You are keener on things like free tuition etc., which might cost a bit more, esp. up front and since you’re devolved, why shouldn’t you be able to have some extra resources to tailor to your favoured approach?

    4) Some of us might see it as at least a bit of recompense for what happened in the eighties and with the poll tax piloting and stuff

    5) If you left, you could take the oil. That you have chosen otherwise means it makes sense to acknowledge that with a decent financial settlement.

    I mean one might go further and have a debate over whether it’s enough, and one might compare with Wales etc., but in principle, there are some understandable reasons for a favourable Barnett

  2. @Danny

    “But long term, free trade is not benefitting the US as it once did and more people will support protectionism. Trump is pushing at an open door calling for it and also in calling for withdrawal from NATO.”


    I recently saw a YouTube interview with a very successful Chinese businessman who made some points about globalisation. He said it had been very beneficial for the U.S. economy, but they had spent a fortune of it on wars and allowed another huge chunk of it to be hoovered up at the top by the elite.

    If the proceeds had been invested for all, then peeps might not be so dishappinated by globalisation etc. was his point.

    Similarly, would peeps be as bothered by immigration if get numbers had been reduced by significant transfer payments to bolster the economies of Eastern Europe and bring them up to speed?

  3. @MILLIE

    “I have no problem with borrowing to invest. Its all about scale.

    Government is essentially about line-drawing. I would draw that line in respect of government borrowing at a lower point than we are presently.

    I agree about the private sector being equally unsuccessful at times. I don’t like LEPs being run by self-appointed private business, for example: its completely wrong.”


    Now we’re getting to the heart of it!! In some ways, one might prefer less government borrowing, but increasing borrowing can be entirely rational, if the returns are good.

    If we made Thorium work, how much would you borrow for that? A billion? Ten billion? Even a hundred billion might be chicken feed in terms of the potential returns.

    If you had the opportunity to buy Apple for just a billion, you’d borrow the money if you could, wouldn’t you?

    Now in the case of our government they have the extra safety net that if things go wrong, they can print money, stoke a bit of inflation, devalue etc. to help deal with it, stuff business can’t do. So governments can take more risk, if they control their own currency. Unlike Greece etc.

    In other words, it’s rational to borrow more, IF you get a good return and can manage the risk.

    Unfortunately, after a good start re-inflating the economy following the Crunch we made cuts which choked off growth and so the debt racked up more than it should have, crucially without much to show for it. We’d have been better borrowing to invest, whereas we borrowed instead to cover the cost of the cuts.

    It’s like, you wind up taking a financial hit, and your debt is racking up, so you make cuts, selling your car to save money. Only then you can’t get to work, lose your job, and wind up even worse off. What would have been more sensible, for example. would have been to borrow even more to retrain for a much more lucrative job. You wind up better off in the end.

    This is why businesses often borrow and invest when things are bad in a recession. It’s so they can wind up investing their way out of the hole. As opposed to making lots of sales peeps redundant. Sure, you save some money, but then you lose more sales…

    After the war, already in a MASSIVE economic hole, we took out a big loan on top. Invested it, and had a couple decades of rising prosperity.

  4. Carfrew

    “Hammered by deindustrialisation”

    Were those the areas that were building ships we couldn’t sell? Perhaps they could seek compensation from South Korea, as thats where most of the work went! Or might it be the areas digging coal we did not need? Speak to Arthur, he cocked that up.

  5. @Artair

    Well some countries, if their industry is struggling and/or subject to competition, they pile in the state aid. Hence the Americans recently injected a lot to save their car industry following the crunch.

    Back in the days of the oil crisis the French injected loads to save their car industry and furthermore to let it modernise to compete, and now they control Nissan.

    Failing that, they could have invested in new jobs if they’re going to let an industry collapse. Coal was up against foreign subsidised coal anyway, which required support of some kind.

    Of course, in top of that, there were were many other industries that took a hit, given that on top of the oil crisis and resulting inflation they had to endure on top a change of policy including record high interest rates and a near doubling of VAT….

  6. @Carfrew

    I said it was ‘all about scale’. I should also have said ‘and timing’.

  7. ARTAIR, how did Arthur cock that up? Do you mean if miners didn’t strike we’d still have mines? Fanciful.

  8. Carfrew,

    re exchange rates, mostly I am saying that countries’ ability to control them is severely exagerated. The market will fix the rate in the end.

    “I recently saw a YouTube interview with a very successful Chinese businessman who made some points about globalisation. He said it had been very beneficial for the U.S. economy, but they had spent a fortune of it on wars and allowed another huge chunk of it to be hoovered up at the top by the elite.”

    In other words, your typical Trump voter did not benefit from globalisation. Indeed quite probably your typical democrat voter did not either. We seem to have a similar situation, though the small size of the UK and high reliance upon trade makes matters much more problematic.

    It is questionable if the elite have got hold of the money, whether it can really be credited to the nominal national account at all.

    I agree the Uk should not have chosen to use cheap foreign labour to prop up its industry. But that was our choice and it seems it is still our choice.

    “Regarding the oil crisis, you have cherry picked an example which involves a situation which is awkward with respect to currency.”

    I picked an example which dominated the last 50 years of our economic history. And now we are in a new crisis which is also ‘exceptional’. (and I was thinking 2008, not Brexit, which is also ‘exceptional’) Maybe exceptional is the norm?

  9. Pete,

    No, but we might have had them for quite a bit longer. I admit, now, coal has had its day, but that is for reasons we did not appreciate then. Andvyes, he did ciu, by choosing the wrong fight at at a time this nation was fed up to the back teeth with pointless fighting with the unions.

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