In yesterday’s by-election in Stoke-on-Trent Central, Labour’s Gareth Snell beat the Ukip leader, Paul Nuttall, into second place. Many people, in the Labour Party and the media, had talked up Ukip’s chances in advance, with one commentator even speculating it could be ‘Corbyn’s Waterloo’. Last summer, 70 per cent of the city voted to leave the EU, with Nuttall describing the seat as Britain’s ‘Brexit capital’. Between that and Labour’s ever diminishing majorities, Ukip were understandably bullish.
But they came second, with only 79 more votes than the Tories. As the dust settles, it’s easy to see why: beyond Nigel Farage, the party contains not one competent politician; Nuttall couldn’t have run a worse campaign; Labour’s ground game was very impressive; and Jeremy Corbyn’s commitment to triggering Article 50 meant Labour wasn’t as vulnerable as it could have been over Brexit. Had Owen Smith led the party and insisted on ‘rejecting’ Article 50, things might have turned out very differently.
Labour’s success in Stoke is being talked down by Corbyn’s detractors, but it shouldn’t be. Last night offered Ukip an opportunity to establish a foothold in the Midlands, confirming their belief that the leave vote could translate to electoral success. Had that happened, the talk would have been Labour seats in the North and Midlands in 2020 going the way of Scotland eighteen months ago. Now, such speculation is as absurd as Nuttall’s storybook CV.
In the medium-term, however, Ukip’s demise offers a major advantage to the Conservatives. In the last General Election half the electorate voted for either party, with Ukip winning almost four million votes. The huge polling lead currently enjoyed by the government reflects – as well as Labour’s difficulties – how most of those who voted Ukip last time round will probably turn blue after Brexit. The parlour talk of the London media was that Labour had more to fear from Ukip than the Tories, but this was never true. After Brexit, eurosceptics and voters with ‘traditional values’ are returning to the Conservative Party.
That also explains the Tory success in yesterday’s other by-election, in Copeland. Local factors can’t be ignored – foremost among them the importance of Sellafield and nuclear power in the area, and the Labour leadership’s perceived indifference to it – but a governing party hasn’t taken an opposition seat in a by-election since 1982.
The Labour candidate, Gillian Troughton, picked up 37 per cent of the vote, enough to have won the seat at the last general election (and the same share that Snell won in Stoke). But Ukip’s vote plummeted, with the Tories picking up their supporters. Meanwhile, a sliver of voters probably switched from Labour to the Liberal Democrats. If those two phenomena were to become a national pattern – Ukip voters going Tory and a small minority of Labour voters defecting to Tim Farron’s party – Corbyn would face major problems.
Between them Labour and the Liberal Democrats (or its Liberal/SDP predecessors) enjoyed a comfortable majority of the popular vote in every general election between 1964 and 2010. In 2015, however, Ukip and the Tories won half the vote between them. This reflects a major shift to the right on a range of issues: dissatisfaction with the EU and ‘elites’; belief that Labour was responsible for the 2008 crisis and, therefore, austerity; growing hostility to migration; anger at declining living standards and services; and a blind faith – despite all the evidence – that the Tories are uniquely equipped to handle the economy.
The Tory victory in Copeland last night unfolded in a new context. Britain now has a six-party system (seven if you include the Greens), and elections are not zero-sum transactions between government and opposition. Furthermore, Brexit has clearly left a dynamic situation in its aftermath – which led to the Copeland result last night, but also to Richmond-on-Thames and Witney last year.
Corbyn’s stated mission in leading Labour is to offer a break with the past and create an economy for the many, not the few. At a time where the values of the right have never enjoyed greater consent, and with Labour facing a crisis that has been decades in the making, the task before him and his supporters is gargantuan. All the more reason to get on with it.