Formalities, Failures, and False Claims: By-election review

For Jeremy Corbyn’s opponents in the Labour Party, Thursday’s by-election results were as bad as they could possibly be. Losing Copeland to the Tories – a Labour seat since its creation and the first mid-term government gain for 35 years – was humiliating but local factors, as well as Labour’s victory in Stoke, have allowed Corbyn and his supporters to shrug off questions about his leadership. Had Labour won both seats, the party’s left would be rejoicing whilst the ‘moderates’ would be pacified; had they lost both, even the most ardent Corbynista might be contemplating a change of direction. The results of the by-elections tell two very different stories. In Copeland, Labour’s steady decline and a UKIP collapse gifted the Tories victory whilst in Stoke, Labour were able to survive by treading water. With turnout low and local issues often taking centre stage, reading too deeply into by-election results is always risky, but hidden in these results are lessons for all parties.

Labour’s left was forced onto the defensive after the party lost Copeland. Many blamed false Tory claims about Corbyn’s policy on nuclear power – the Sellafield nuclear power station is the constituency’s biggest employer – as well as previous Labour governments whom they accused of leaving communities behind. Previous election results in Copeland suggest there is some weight to the latter theory. Labour’s vote-share has declined steadily from nearly 60% in 1997 to 42% in 2015 and 37% last week. This largely echoes the national picture although the constituency’s consistently low Lib Dem vote makes it difficult to draw national comparisons from 2010 onwards. The Tories had lingered between 30% and 40% prior to last Thursday, their winning 44.3% coming amid a UKIP decline from 16% to 7%. Combined with their abject failure in Stoke, UKIP are struggling to stay relevant thanks to Theresa May’s ‘hard Brexit’ agenda.

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Holding Stoke-on-Trent Central is usually considered a formality for Labour but Tristram Hunt’s resignation, in order to become director of the V&A, presented UKIP with a golden opportunity. Stoke voted heavily to leave the EU last June and having come second in the seat in 2015, UKIP threw everything at the Labour stronghold. The result last Thursday was unremarkable; Labour held a seat that had been theirs for decades with most parties polling more or less the same as in 2015. UKIP increased their vote share by a measly 2%, staying just ahead of the Tories who polled 24%. The Labour vote dropped slightly from 39% to 37% – arguably a negligible difference, but opposition parties are not expected to go backwards at by-elections. The Lib Dems increased their vote share from 4% to 10% which although nothing to shout about is arguably indicative of a steady recovery.

Extrapolating national vote shares from by-elections is wholly unscientific, but it’s also fun. Taking the swing between the 2015 general election and Copeland by-election and applying it nationally paints a dire picture from Labour’s perspective. The ‘Copeland Projection’ puts the Conservatives on 45% with Labour almost 20 points behind. Using UK Polling Report’s uniform swing model, this translates to a 200 seat gap with the Tories on 381, hugely extending their majority. Anecdotally, the Copeland result suggests the Lib Dems could gain around 5 seats whilst UKIP would have none. Conversely, the ‘Stoke Projection’ shows the Lib Dems recovering to 25 seats, the Tories gaining just 6 and Labour dropping from 232 to 212. Worryingly for Labour, it’s the ‘Copeland Projection’ that most closely resembles the national polls at present.

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To reiterate, these projections should be taken with (more than) a pinch of salt although they do spell out the scale of the task for Labour. A national result echoing Copeland would be the party’s worst showing since the 1930s whilst even the more optimistic ‘Stoke Projection’ has them 125 seats behind the Tories. The numbers behind last week’s by-elections are then as startling as the historical anecdotes being thrown around by triumphant Tories.

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