Stoke and Copeland

Aaron Bastani

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.


  • 25 February 2017 at 11:21am
    piffin says:
    That Labour could beat off Ukip's anti-immigrant challenge in Stoke but lose to the Tories in Copeland suggests the latter result was informed by the very specific local issue of Sellafield and Corbyn's longstanding opposition to nuclear power.

    The results also offer little support for the media assumption that Europe is now the great divide of British politics. If there really is a great groundswell of popular opposition to brexit, you have to wonder why the LDs continue to struggle so badly. At no point since the referendum have they been above 14 percent in national polling.

  • 25 February 2017 at 11:50am
    streetsj says:
    As in all votes there are a multitude of reasons why people vote as they do but it seems unlikely that Nuttall's contribution was anything other than seriously negative for UKIP. Fortunately UKIP seems unable to attract anyone competent to be their leader let alone just a candidate. Just imagine if Oswald Moseley were around today.

    • 25 February 2017 at 9:57pm
      wearytruth says: @ streetsj
      Oswald Mosley with his jackboots and Hitler salutes? Even the Nazis found his stupid aping of hitler an embarrassment. He was as stupid as a jug full of mud.

  • 25 February 2017 at 1:50pm
    Ouessante says:
    Stoke: Cons+UKIP 49.1%, Lab 37.1%. Saved only by a split vote. Hardly cause for Lab rejoicing I think. They should be very worried.

  • 25 February 2017 at 8:40pm
    wearytruth says:
    "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."

    That was MY stated mission, too. I failed to get voters on my side because, like Corbyn, I could not compromise with them.

    "Had Owen Smith led the party and insisted on ‘rejecting’ Article 50, things might have turned out very differently."

    Brexit wasn't the only issue in these elections, though, was it? Voters time and again told reporters that they found Corbyn an extremist weirdo with his pacifism, lax attitude to immigration and his cordial contacts with terror outfits. Smith, by casting a more mainstream image, could have won both elections handsomely.

    Arguing with Corbyn fanciers is as pointless as arguing with Holocaust deniers. There is no evidence so obvious that they will accept it.

    The people up in the north will never go for Labour under an old pacifist chattering about Palestine.

    Corbyn is weak on immigration and weak on defence. Say no more.

    Harold Wilson would have had a thumping majority.

    Labour scraped through miserably in a stronghold. Letting ukip run a close second in one of your strongholds?


    Labour needs to win 100 Tory marginals to overturn the Tory majority in 2020. What hope?

    You'll be wiped out in 2020. Then what will you say?

    • 26 February 2017 at 8:25am
      IPFreely says: @ wearytruth
      "A week in politics is a long time." (Wislon)

    • 14 March 2017 at 2:33pm
      BGokay says: @ wearytruth
      "... Corbyn an extremist weirdo with his pacifism, lax attitude to immigration and his cordial contacts with terror outfits. Smith, by casting a more mainstream image, could have won both elections handsomely." You're just repeating what mainstream media keeps repeating about JC. I watched the campaign in STOKE closely, and there was almost no evidence among ordinary people of Stoke, so-called Brexit capital of England, that they saw JC as an obstacle for Labour winning the election. It's just the opposite, when JC visited the city, many times in the weeks before the by-election and spent hours knocking on doors, talking to people in the city, the general impression was very positive, even among non-Labour supporters, people saying that Labour Party lost our confidence with its heavy focus on the middle classes and the south, from Blair years onward, but JC is a decent guy, we trust him. JC's personal touch was very important to shift the balance in Stoke against UKIP. OS, on the other hand, had no significance whatsoever in places like Stoke, even among the longstanding members of the party, his support base was always very thin. That's why he could only manage to convince a small portion of the members, despite all that heavy campaign by Labour heavies and media.

  • 26 February 2017 at 10:34am
    Oliver Rivers says:
    Some back of the envelope numbers. There was a swing of 6.7ppt from Labour to the Conservatives in Copeland. Were that to be replicated uniformly in a general election, Labour would have 177 seats and the Tories 385, with the Tories having a majority of 138. Of the 55 seats Labour would lose relative to what they won in 2015, 33 (60% of total losses) would be seats in the north or Midlands. The Labour / Conservative swing in Stoke was 2.1ppt. That result nationally would mean Labour having 215 seat and the Tories 346, with a Tory majority of 60. Of the 17 seats Labour would lose relative to 2015, 9 (53% of total losses) would be in the north or Midlands.

    These numbers, aside from being crude estimates, are based on by-election results, which tend to be less favourable for the incumbent party. It's not unreasonable, on the basis of Labour's performance in Copeland, to imagine it holding fewer than 170 seats after the next election. Although Aaron is correct that a total wipeout of Labour in the north and Midlands is unlikely, it seems probable that the scale of its losses in those regions is going to be very large. Given where we are now, and the capabilities of the current leadership team, the chances of Labour holding all the seats it currently has, let alone increasing its total, seems vanishingly small.

  • 26 February 2017 at 12:49pm
    Graucho says:
    The seat Labour desperately need to lose is Islington North.

    • 27 February 2017 at 10:19am
      Rikkeh says: @ Graucho
      It's in the frame for annihilation in the boundary changes. Corbyn loyalists Dianne Abbott and Emily Thornberry hold adjacent seats and so are likely to jump on the grenade for him.

      However, Islington and Hackney are Remain central, and demographically, the population is increasingly socially and economically liberal. Given Corbyn's hard Brexit stance and the increasing despair of these normally Labour-supporting voters at his refusal to step down for someone, you know, electable outside of the party membership, you can see the Lib Dems taking his seat off him (if only temporarily from Labour).

    • 6 March 2017 at 2:14pm
      CaptainGinger says: @ Rikkeh
      I was out on the the doorsteps of Islington North yesterday afternoon, canvassing for the forthcoming council elections, and was surprised at how little opposition there is to Corbyn. In some of the leafier parts of Junction Ward and Highbury (where the remain vote was around 80 per cent) there were some prepared to criticise him, but I encountered just one person who said he no longer intended for vote Labour.
      As someone who has gone through something of a long, dark, teatime of the soul over Labour and Brexit, I was surprised.
      Corbyn himself is aware of the dichotomy between his actions and the views of his personal electors, but is unrepentant. He is prepared, however, to admit that his support for the government was based as much on expediency as principle, saying, "We would lost a lot of the north if we had opposed the referendum result."

    • 9 March 2017 at 10:09am
      Rikkeh says: @ CaptainGinger
      @CaptainGinger That's a really interesting bit of detail, and not at all what I would have expected.

    • 9 March 2017 at 2:14pm
      John G Stewart says: @ CaptainGinger
      If you had canvased this remain voter in Canonbury, you would have had a different reaction. I blame Jeremy Corbyn for failing to fight last spring and summer for remain, and his actions since then -- including the three line whip to back the Tory programme for Brexit -- is even more wrong-headed. I will not vote Labour as long as Jeremy is in charge.

    • 9 March 2017 at 5:51pm
      Dominic Rice says: @ John G Stewart
      Corbyn and Labour aren't to blame for the referendum result, and since then they've pursued the only realistic course open to them.
      What else could they have done? Declare the result invalid and campaign impotently to have it overturned? That's what the Lib Dems have been doing since June 24 and they haven't been above 14% in national polling since.
      The reality is there's no evidence of any widespread disillusion among Leave voters; in fact, all the polling shows that, despite everything, most Remain voters have now adjusted to the outcome and moved on.

      If Labour had taken the Lib Dem approach they'd have haemmorhaged even more working-class support and would now have about as much significance as the Lib Dems.

  • 26 February 2017 at 1:43pm
    Peterson_the man with no name says:
    The reasons for the turn to the right in the US and much of Europe are not hard to understand. It's because of the realisation that the day is coming when some people will no longer be automatically entitled to a better life than others, simply by virtue of having the good luck to be born in a richer country.

    That raises a dilemma for leftists. Defending the interests of the majority of the population in Britain today means defending the interests of (in global terms) the privileged. Of course some will deny this. Some may even still talk hopefully of 'the 99%' allied against the super-rich. But the last few years have made it clear that other divisions are possible; and to most people, they make more sense. Socialists want a fair and just world: but right now, the main gripe of most people in the West is that the world is no longer quite as unfair as it used to be. The left can't offer them what they want without ceasing to be itself.

    In the future, being a leftist is going to be about defending the interests of the minority who genuinely are oppressed against the majority who merely think they are. But then, to those who have become used to enjoying special privileges, merely being reduced to the same status as everyone else can feel like oppression.

    The Corbyn experiment was worth trying, because the alternative is continued slow decline, with the Labour party being pushed further and further right every time it loses an election (and probably even if it wins). But barring some event which completely changes the terms of political discourse (another banking crisis, for instance) it is not going to bring victory.

    • 27 February 2017 at 10:34am
      Rikkeh says: @ Peterson_the man with no name

      The elephant curve shows us that neoliberalism has, in economic terms, been fairly benign for the world's poorest 10%, been hugely beneficial for percentiles 10-70 (as well as the 1% and especially the 0.1%) while being *bad* only for those in the trunk at 75-90%.

      The arguments of the hard left set against this background seem to suggest that completely upending the current system and in so doing throwing 60% of the world's population under a bus for the sake of benefitting a richer 15% is "progressive".

      I say this not to troll, but because I genuinely haven't heard a decent answer to this point, and would like to hear what the LRB board thinks. Even Piketty, when I saw him at a Q&A in London, didn't have an answer. It's why he's proposing wealth transfers from the 1% to the 75-90%- he seems to accept that the current system has (by and large) worked well for the people of the world.

    • 27 February 2017 at 11:34am
      deano says: @ Rikkeh
      Neoliberal economic policies were designed to benefit the very richest alone, at the expense of everybody else. This latest justification being put around - that neoliberalism is raising up the impoverished masses of the developing world - is plainly false and only lends further weight to the old JK Galbraith observation:

      "The modern conservative is engaged in one of man's oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness".

      At least three-quarters of the billion or so who've escaped extreme poverty in recent decades live in China, a state-directed economy protected by high tariffs barriers. Certainly no exemplar of free-market orthodoxy. And perhaps the main cause of extreme poverty reduction elsewhere in the developing world has been the influx of cheap products from this very heterodox, unwestern economy.

      Here in the West, a generation of neoliberal hegemony has produced levels of inequality unseen since victorian times, lately culminating in explosive political results. But for the true believer the blame continues to be laid at the door of a malign "hard" left, a group that hasn't seen power since the economic golden age of the social-democratic post-war decades.

    • 27 February 2017 at 2:08pm
      Rikkeh says: @ deano
      The starting premise of this (it's "plainly false") seems to be a denial of statistics without any justification for why the statistics are false. If we reject these denials when they come from the right, we must do the same when they come from the left (otherwise it becomes a shouting match and not a reasoned debate).

      There's the suggestion that the current system has been designed- I'm not sure that's accurate. Regarding the quote- I'm not seeking to justify the status quo on the basis it having decent objectives. I'm suggesting instead that the effects are, economically at least, broadly positive worldwide.

      You suggest that China is not a free market economy and so doesn't count as part of the neoliberal world order, but then make the point that its exports have changed the world. Either the world order is neoliberal (in which case China counts as a huge part of that order) or it isn't (in which case the term loses much of its meaning).

      Your point about how we have seen "levels of inequality unseen since Victorian times" is plainly false. I *do* have something to back this up, which is here:

      We're on firmer ground going a third of a century later and picking the start of WWII/the Wall Street Crash as the "bad old days". And, yes, this point in time does mark the start of a "U shape" which bottoms out in the mid 70s and then starts climbing but (i) that's only for income, not wealth; and (ii) the extent to which we've returned to 1929 depends hugely on which country we're talking about. US, yes. Canada, no.

    • 28 February 2017 at 10:26pm
      Neil Foxlee says: @ Rikkeh
      Iz it neoliberalism that's had this effect or globalisation? The latter, surely, but this interview with the late Hans Rosling would suggest that the effect is real: .

      But that is, of course, looking at things from a global perspective, which is no consolation to those in the West who feel they've lost out as a result of globalisation (and/or neoliberalism). Similarly, within countries, it's no consolation to people whose standard of living has declined to know that the economy of the country as a whole is growing.

  • 26 February 2017 at 2:37pm
    IPFreely says:
    There are quite active left movements in Italy, Spain and of course in Greece, where the ideal of a just political system is being stifled by the demands of the conservative governments, headed by Germany and Poland. But the view that the world is 'no longer quite as unfair' is not supported by any data that I have seen. The democratic left has seen where a demagogue such as Orban or Trump can go when it comes to stifling democratic processes and as a consequence hopes for the resurgence of the Occupy movement, this time in the guise of a 'Dump Trump' movement in the USA. If there is any hope for democracy then it is probably in a form that is ready to use more militant methods for progress, in the way that the French workers have reacted to governments measures. Wait and hope got us nowhere in June 2106 and there are Farages lurking all over Europe.

    • 27 February 2017 at 12:27pm
      Joe Morison says: @ IPFreely
      Governments could enforce equality when money could be contained by national borders, but now they are impotent. You are absolutely right when you say there has to be a big change in perspective; we have to think of ourselves as one world and start to operate, from the people up, as a single polity.When money spans the globe, democratic organization must follow.

  • 26 February 2017 at 4:07pm
    suetonius says:
    A few thoughts. One, the left needs to go back to it's roots. "One Big Union." No more defense of Western privilege. We're all in this together. The need for work is ending. Really. We've hit that point in the production curve where the reduction in the work required is now much bigger than the addition of additional work, and it's only going to get worse. I think many people 100 years ago never thought we could get here in this unequal a society, even Keynes thought it would all go smoothly, and everyone would just gradually reduce their work until leisure time was spread around, as was income. But that's not what's happening, more and more people are becoming a permanent part of the reserve army of labor. Except the reserve army isn't necessary anymore, no one in it is ever going to have to work again. We really are heading for dystopia, unless control passes to the many. It should be a good thing that everyones needs can be met with minimal human input, but its won't be unless we do something, now.

    • 27 February 2017 at 7:02am
      Dominic Rice says: @ suetonius
      Good points. Time the political-media class woke up to this impending dystopia.

    • 27 February 2017 at 2:46pm
      Joe Morison says: @ suetonius
      (This was meant for suetonius.) Governments could enforce equality when money could be contained by national borders, but now they are impotent. You are absolutely right when you say there has to be a big change in perspective; we have to think of ourselves as one world and start to operate, from the people up, as a single polity.When money spans the globe, democratic organization must follow.

  • 28 February 2017 at 9:50pm
    Chrisdf says:
    Awful Nigel 'give us a book contract' Farage and his increasingly disreputable crew are (thank goodness) slowly sliding into BNP territory of irritating irrelevance. Meanwhile Jeremy Corbyn's 'impressive gound game' is currently delivering the prospect of an impregnable Tory majority at the next election.

  • 1 March 2017 at 1:58am
    Scott White KY says:
    A few observations on the Copeland by-election from across the pond informed by a discussion post-election with a former Labour MP from the North. The Stoke analysis strikes me as dead on,, but Copeland needs a bit more meat.

    Bastani observes, "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." he is right.

    I would argue these additional "local factors though, that perhaps Bastani agrees with but due to space did not itemize:

    1. Foremost is that the Tories, and national press, were able to successfully define the election as the key issue being Corbyn's leadership which was anathma in this constituency given Salafield and the rural vote which is distrustful of the urban leadership now in place. Canvassers on the main allowed themselves to be engaged on that instead of focusing on a theme of "well, COrbyn isn't on the ballot, is he?" and hit the main talking points. May seem naive or simple, but in a by-election "local" is even more the overarching factor in which the larger themes of a general election are not as overwhelming.

    2 - Traughton herself was weak in terms of voter engagement and stump speaking. This seems generally agreed by local party members but not reported well in the post-mortem. The cult of personality is never to be acceded to, but charisma and ability to relate one-on-one in what are essentially small voting districts cannot be ignored.

    3 - Perhaps from frustration, the local party apparati was not well-organized or trained . . . again, allowing themselves to engage on the ground of the Tory's choosing: Corbyn. The traditional strength of Lib Dem, particularly in Whitehaven proper, also contributes to this lack of a strong local effort.

    Of course, Labour goes in to the vote having to deal with the Selafield albatross (as Bastani correctly lifts up as his main "local" factor by singling it out) and the perception of a national Leadership at best skeptical of nuclear power. Though I agree, and have argued to folks in Labour given the US' experience in the 2012 general and 2010 and 2014 mid-terms, the working class is susceptible to what Bannon now terms "Economic Nationalism". Ergo the rapid growth of the US Tea PArty movement and the equally swift rise of UKIP from a laughable fringe.

    Labour like its more right counterpart here, the Democratic Party, must seek a new vigilance in local work including identifying and training strong candidates, party building and an effective, nnon-elite way of communicating with the working class that is persuasive that these parties do in fact offer the best hope to their circumstance. In Copeland, Labour failed in every categorie: message, defining turf and candidate selection.

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