Last week, some of you may have seen pictures of Jeremy Corbyn looking particularly grumpy and wondered what upset him. The answer is by-elections. (Alternatively it might have been because someone trampled all over his allotment. But that’s just speculation.)
But what is a by-election? And what do the results of the most recent two, in Stoke-on-Trent and Copeland, mean in the context of current UK politics? The answers to these questions will be the subject of this week’s blog.
Let’s start with the basic stuff. A by-election is simply an election for a specific Parliamentary seat, except that they occur outside of the normal General Election timetable. They take place when an unexpected vacancy occurs in the House of Commons. For example, if an MP dies, or decides to quit, or is forced to resign for some reason (usually sex or money, but sometimes both). In the case of Stoke-on-Trent and Copeland, the by-elections were caused by the almost simultaneous resignations of two sitting Labour MPs, Tristram Hunt and Jamie Reed. Both men decided to quit as MPs to take on new jobs outside of politics. Tristram Hunt became the new head of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, whilst Jamie Reed took on a senior position with Sellafield, the nuclear plant located in his constituency. It is worth noting that neither were huge fans of Jeremy Corbyn and Jamie Reed was a particularly vocal critic. Whilst both men deny that this was their motivation for quitting, it certainly must be considered as at least a secondary factor.
The other thing to bear in mind is that by-elections are usually seen as particularly awkward for the government in power. Usually, being in power and having to make all kinds of difficult decisions and compromises is not a particularly effective way of maintaining popularity. For example, the last by-election before Stoke-on-Trent and Copeland was in Richmond Park in South West London. It led to an embarrassing defeat for the Conservative MP Zac Goldsmith and the result was seen as a direct reproof of Theresa May’s move towards a so-called ‘Hard Brexit’. This was less of a concern for the Prime Minister in the case of Stoke-on-Trent and Copeland, as both seats were held by Labour anyway. She didn’t have much to lose. If Labour held on to both seats, she could rightly point to the fact that both constituencies have been traditional Labour strongholds for decades. If the Conservatives won one or both seats, it would indicate that her government still had public support. So far, so straightforward.
For the Labour Party, on the other hand, both by-elections were vital. With most national opinion polls showing Labour in deep trouble, their position was almost a mirror-image of the Conservatives – they had a lot to lose and not much to gain. If Labour held on to both seats, it wouldn’t be seen as much of an achievement to ‘just’ hold their ground. However, if they were to lose one or both it would be seen as disastrous and a severe blow to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. Stoke-on-Trent was seen as a particularly important barometer as it was a constituency that voted heavily in favour of leaving the EU during last year’s referendum. The question of what to do about Brexit has paralysed the Labour Party over the last 8 months and Stoke-on-Trent is a perfect representation of their dilemma: a political party that did not want Brexit, trying to win a by-election in a Labour heartland that voted overwhelmingly in favour of Brexit. And swooping over Stoke, like a vulture waiting to feed on a carcass, was the shadow of UKIP.
Paul Nuttall, the newly-elected leader of UKIP, decided to test his mettle by putting himself up as UKIP’s candidate in Stoke-on-Trent. It was always a gamble, but he was hoping to exploit Labour’s internal divisions over Brexit by appealing to the white, working-class voters who largely voted in favour of leaving the EU. These are people who have traditionally been seen as Labour’s core vote, but they seem to be drifting away from the Party in ever-increasing droves. It might have seemed like a reasonable strategy for UKIP, but it was hamstrung from the beginning by Nuttall’s many weaknesses as a candidate. For one thing he didn’t come from the area and his ignorance showed. More significant was his, shall we say, ‘flexible’ relationship with the truth. Not only had he repeatedly lied about his educational, professional and sporting qualifications, he had also exaggerated his personal experience of the Hillsborough tragedy. Whether he was even present at the disaster or not is still an open question. (For more on Paul Nuttall, please enjoy this brilliant bit of stand-up comedy by Stewart Lee). The end result was that Labour managed to hang on in Stoke, although with a reduced share of the vote. The turnout was also low, at just 38%.
In Copeland, on the other hand, the story did not have such a happy ending for Labour or its embattled leader. They were beaten by the Conservatives, losing a seat they’ve held in one form or another since 1935. It was also the first time since 1982 that a governing party had gained a seat in a by-election. Local factors do seem to have played a big role, in particular the future of the nearby nuclear reprocessing plant which employs some 10,000 people. Jeremy Corbyn is on the record as being anti-nuclear power. There is also plenty of anecdotal evidence that Corbyn’s leadership came up repeatedly on the doorstep as a big issue for voters.
The loss has prompted further soul-searching within the Labour Party, as well as more questions over Corbyn’s ability to lead Labour to victory in a General Election. His irritable reaction to repeated questions on this subject resulted in some disturbingly accurate comparisons to Bilbo Baggins from Lord of the Rings. Considering that Corbyn was re-elected as the Labour party leader in September with an increased share of the vote, another leadership challenge seems highly unlikely. It’s hard to disagree with John McDonnell’s (Corbyn’s right hand man) assessment that the previous attempted ‘coup’ was defined mainly by its utter uselessness. As it stands, the only thing that might shift the balance against Corbyn is a reassessment of support from trade unions. Their backing, particularly that of Unite (who are the UK’s largest Union), was a major factor that propelled Corbyn to the Labour leadership in the first place. There is no doubt that many of the unions and their leaders are sympathetic to Corbyn politically, but their primary objective is always to get a Labour government into power. Without one, their political influence is significantly diminished. If the union leaders begin to believe that Corbyn can’t deliver on that ultimate objective, their continued support is not guaranteed. There are some early signs that this process is already beginning. Even if this does happen, however, there are no particularly obvious candidates to replace Corbyn. His removal would likely lead to further internal strife and a large amount of jockeying for position between various factions within the Labour Party caused by a leadership vacuum.
It’s the political version of Aron Ralston’s dilemma (fair warning, this link is not for the squeamish!)