In the weeks leading up to the Oldham and West Royton by-election in December 2015, there was talk of UKIP gaining the seat from Labour. Just before the 2016 local government elections, the majority of political commentators were suggesting that Labour would lose around 200 seats. A few weeks later, there was similar contemplation; Labour would lose the Tooting by-election. In the event, none of these things came to pass. In Oldham and West Royton, there was a modest increase in the Labour vote, in the local government elections, Labour polled the largest share of the vote (whilst losing 18 councillors) and in Tooting, Labour doubled their majority. The Corbyn-wing of the party hailed these as successes, rather than out-performing low expectations. Anyone that brings up Corbyn’s dire polling position is promptly pointed to the fact that in ‘real elections’, Corbyn has performing remarkably well.
In early 2017, we will see just how true this is and it is just possible that the Labour party will be dealt a devastating blow when the Conservatives become the first sitting government since 1982 to gain a seat at a parliamentary by-election. Having held the seat of Copeland since 2005, the resignation of Jamie Reed has come as a shock to many. He has been a vocal critic of Jeremy Corbyn and was one of a number of MPs to resign from the Shadow Cabinet as soon as he was elected in September 2015. Reed’s resignation as an MP has provided the perfect end to a tumultuous year in world politics and the ultimate cliff hanger to end 2016 on. Copeland has been held by Labour since 1983, and its predecessor seat, Whitehaven, since 1935. Under any other circumstances, the seat would be considered safe and the fact that is even ‘in-play’ shows the perilous position of the Labour party under Jeremy Corbyn.
Since 1945, there have been 495 by-elections, in only four of them- Sunderland South 1953, Brighouse and Spenborough 1960, Bristol South East 1961 and Mitcham and Morden 1982, have the seats been gained by the incumbent government and one of those, Bristol South East, doesn’t really count*. Under normal by-election circumstances, the governing party loses ground and the opposition does relatively well. In by-elections during Ed Miliband’s time as leader, the Labour party lost one seat to Respect, but gained one seat from the Conservatives. It would, therefore, be unprecedented for Mrs May’s party to take Copeland from Labour, but the political climate in the United Kingdom has fundamentally changed in the last year and there are several issues that bring the seat into play.
The key factor, which political commentators may well be talking up, is that in the EU referendum, the area voted to leave the EU by margin of 62% to 38%. This by-election will be a handy test as to whether or not the British electorate are now defined by the way they voted in the referendum. With UKIP taking voters that believe we need to get out of the EU as quickly as possible and the Liberal Democrats biting on the remain vote, it is entirely possible that the Labour vote will flake enough to let the Conservatives in. If the Conservatives run a hard-brexit candidate, they risk turning their remain base to the Liberal Democrats but may manage to pick up some wavering UKIP voters in the process. Secondly, the Labour vote in Copeland predominantly comes from white working class people. It could not be more different from Jeremy Corbyn’s constituency of Islington North and worryingly for Labour, this demographic has begun to see Labour as a London-centric party. With UKIP trying to pitch itself as the party of the working class, these are some of its target voters and whilst this is not an ideal seat for UKIP due to a strong Conservative presence, it will be interesting to see how the party performs. The third and most localised issue, is that in the constituency, the local economy is heavily reliant on the nuclear power station at Sellafield. Here, Jeremy Corbyn’s position on nuclear power may prove an issue and will have a huge baring on the candidate that Labour runs. If they run an anti-nuclear candidate, they will risk turning off a huge portion of their working class vote in the constituency and again if the other issues don’t come into play, this could be enough to put the Conservatives over the top.
For both wings of the Labour party, this by-election is very bad news. For moderate Labour MPs, either result is a bad one. If the party does manage to cling on to the seat, even if it is by a few hundred votes, Corbyn’s leadership will be vindicated to the hard left. If the Conservatives manage to gain the seat, the Corbynistas will not blame their leader. They will find another source of their defeat, PLP disloyalty, candidate not left-wing enough, candidate a Blairite. Anyone that speaks out and blames Corbyn’s leadership for the defeat will be denounced by the left as a trouble-maker.
Corbyn is in an equally tricky position. Over the last few months his leadership has been significantly weakened. Losing their deposit in Richmond Park was bad enough, but finishing fourth in Sleaford and North Hykeham has caused the party embarrassment. He is badly in need of a big win here to show that the party is on the right track. If the party does perform badly, or the worst does come to the worst, other MPs are rumoured to be considering making a similar exit to Reed. After all, in their view, why should they wait to be pushed in 2020 when they can go now of their own accord? If more MPs to resign, it means more by-elections and for Corbyn, that could lead to further humiliation.
Of course, all of this is based on the supposition that Labour are going to perform badly, and the early evidence certainly suggests that this is the most likely outcome The Conservatives have entered the race as the bookmaker’s favourites but it is early days and if history is anything to go by, the chances of a Labour hold are being underestimated. This by-election is a big test for Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, it will give the best indication yet of how the party is connecting with its traditional working class base and will show us whether the party is capable of holding together its coalition that includes both leave and remain voters. Jamie Reed’s parting gift to his party, a parliamentary by-election in a seat that voted leave with a relatively small Labour majority in 2015, has provided us with a fascinating end to a rocky year in politics and leaves us poised for more in 2017.
*Tony Benn won the seat at the 1950 General Election but became ineligible to sit in the House of Commons when he inherited his father’s peerage in 1960. He fought the by-election anyway but the Conservative party candidate was declared the winner.