Stoke and Copeland might just be important.

The world of political results is filled with caveats. A poll has a margin for error, and could suffer from sampling problems, whilst election results outside of a general election often have an inconsistent reflection in major elections. However the by-elections on the 22nd of February are fascinating in their implications and in their events.

On a very shallow inspection Copeland looks to be the more interesting by-election. The by-election takes place in a Labour-held northern rural constituency, which has a large reliance on the nuclear industry. It is a Tory-Labour marginal, that on a uniform swing the Conservatives would win at a General Election. However a governing party barely ever gains at a by-election, the last time a governing party, without the aid of some extraordinary electoral circumstances, gained at a by-election was in Brighouse and Spenborough in 1461, and that was when the previous majority was just 0.2%. Matt Singh covered well the possibilities of Copeland here.

This all being said Stoke-on-Trent Central has recently gotten most of the attention of the two by-elections, and is generally more hotly anticipated. The by-election has interesting circumstances with Tristram Hunt going to take a reputable job in London, which is usually an unpopular move, and the by-election is far more accessible and centralised than Copeland. The attention was further drawn to Stoke by Paul Nuttall announcing that he would run as a candidate in the by-election, prompting great speculation over his chances, and constant chatter about the vulnerability of Labour amongst its old core vote. It is also the first major test of Paul Nuttall’s strategy to focus on post-industrial Labour cities as Stoke.

The by-election has seen great amounts of drama, from the debacle over Nuttall’s empty residence to Nuttall having to defend himself over claims that he lied about being present at the Hillsborough Disaster, and has been an intriguing spectacle to the onlooker. The race is considered to be tight between Labour and UKIP.

The speculation is rife about the results, and so naturally we must consider the 4 different possible outcomes of these two by-elections, held on the same day, and what they would mean for Labour firstly, but also for UKIP and to a lesser extent the Conservatives.

Possibility A: UKIP Gain, Con Gain

Media Attention: Labour’s general collapse, and their Brexit position.

Electoral Implications: Strong Con Ground Game confirmed, Nuttall not poisonous, possible UKIP momentum in Labour seats that voted to leave.

In the scenario that Labour take two losses, the 22nd February will prove conclusively that Jeremy Corbyn is not electable, and could trigger further Labour leadership elections. If Labour lose both by-elections it would be catastrophic, the Conservatives would make history in Copeland, and a particular shine would be put on the apparently unpalatable nuclear policy of Corbyn. At a General Election Copeland would be a key battleground to hold, losing it would destroy confidence in Corbyn’s ability to take on May at the next General Election.

Furthermore Labour would have been overcome by UKIP and their incredibly poor ground game and electoral difficulties in Stoke. It would confirm two of the three problems that Labour are meant to be scared of in the current political climate. UKIP would claim that they are becoming the party of the working man in the north of England, with a view to taking other marginal seats with similarly high leave votes from Labour. Nuttall’s claims that Stoke-on-Trent Central is 72nd on the UKIP target list are probably rubbish, from a mathematical point of view the seat is the 12th target seat for UKIP in terms of swing. Given Nuttall’s focus on Labour-held seats it may be as high as 10th on their list. With this information we do not necessarily have to believe that UKIP would bring a revolution to Labour in 2020, and if it is a marginal gain, it may only point to UKIP standing at less than 5MPs after the 2020 General Election.

The media narrative after this eventuality would most likely highlight Labour’s unconvincing Brexit stance, and might lead to a knee-jerk reaction where Labour takes a stronger stance on Brexit, to do so either way would be to abandon one part of Labour’s key coalition. If they joined the Liberal Democrats in attempting to fight Brexit and for Single Market Access, they would simply get further trounced by the Conservatives, and give new life to UKIP. Meanwhile, if Labour goes too far to appease the Leave voters within the party then it may well face defections and give the Liberal Democrats more momentum than they already have amongst Remain voters. Neither outcome is good, and the most damaging result of this possibility is not the precedent set by the by-election, because by-elections are unpredictable, but the reaction to it by the media and subsequently by the Labour Party.

Possibility B: Lab Hold, Con Gain

Media Attention: Corbyn’s view on nuclear energy

Electoral Implications: Strong Con ground game, polling showing Lab weakness confirmed.

This eventuality is looking increasingly like a possibility if we are being pessimistic for Labour, with Paul Nuttall making headlines for all the wrong reasons, Labour’s weakness might be in Cumbria.

In this scenario the emphasis will go straight to Jeremy Corbyn rather than to Labour’s Brexit stance. Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour will have lost a seat reliant on the nuclear industry and the microscope will burn on just that fact. The Labour candidate for the by-election Gill Troughton has said that she is completely pro-nuclear and that her husband relies on the nuclear food chain in the area, but the press will doubtless say that Corbyn’s appearances in Copeland had put people off so much as to lose a seat they have held since 1935.

If Labour handily keep Stoke-on-Trent Central away from UKIP then little emphasis will really be put on the fact that Copeland had the highest Brexit vote in Cumbria at around 62.5%. In fact Labour and Corbyn might be saved quite some embarrassment from the abysmal Copeland result by Paul Nuttall’s impressively poor campaign in Stoke, and by people calling for him to resign if his performance is poor enough. Labour candidate Gareth Snell has made comments about Brexit and Women and shown public disdain for his own party leader, which are all opportunities for Nuttall. If Nuttall does not capitalise on any of these and falls well short then he might be just as electorally poisonous as Jeremy Corbyn. Nevertheless it should be stressed that UKIP failing to take the seat would not be a huge surprise.

Possibility C: Lab Hold, UKIP Gain

Media Attention: New party of the people narrative, Labour’s Brexit position.

Electoral Implications: Possibility that UKIP make great advances in former Labour territory.

According to the betting markets this possibility is becoming less and less likely as the UKIP campaign grinds to a standstill, however if Labour  has a bad evening it would not be as shocking as one might think, given that a government struggles to ever increase their vote share at a by-election. This fact would no doubt be picked up on in the aftermath of this eventuality. However if Labour lose Stoke alone it will do little to convince the public they are electorally powerful, and given Paul Nuttall’s unpopularity it would show that Labour’s ground game is simply awful, there would be no two ways about it. Unless Paul Nuttall has an exceptional turnaround of events or Gareth Snell is embraced in an incredible scandal, then a Labour loss to UKIP would simply be catastrophic. Frankly put the Copeland result just would not matter if there is a loss to Paul Nuttall in a safe seat. Expert projections put Labour ahead before Nuttall’s campaign started to come apart at the seams and him becoming a figure of ridicule, at this point Labour should hold the seat.

If Nuttall succeeds he and Nigel Farage will likely dominate the cameras for the next day, celebrating what they will likely call a new era for the forgotten voters of Britain.

Possibility D: Lab hold both

Media Attention: Less attention than otherwise, focus on Nuttall’s failure

Electoral Implications: Con ground game has weaknesses, core Lab voters less persuadable than thought.

This surprisingly likely outcome is obviously the best for Labour, but depressingly it does not really lead to any positives for them. Life will mostly continue on, with Corbyn claiming success and his critics pointing out that the Labour candidate disagrees with him on nuclear energy. Corbyn is unlikely to capture much positive media attention with success in seats that they should probably win anyway.

The media will probably prefer to listen to Paul Nuttall’s concession speech, which will be by far the most interesting moment of the night if Labour keep both of the seats. Nuttall is an unlikely character for being humble and if Nigel Farage’s speech after he failed to win South Thanet in the 2015 General Election, is anything to go by then Nuttall will claim victory whatever happens. As long as Nuttall does not actually decrease his vote share, he will claim that the UKIP revolution of the North is still coming and proceed to say that this by-election might have been a failure, but that it somehow shows that UKIP is electorally strong. Of course it is complete rubbish that UKIP are electorally strong if they lose the by-election nevertheless Nuttall is unlikely to back down, and his speech will be picked apart the following day by politicians and media figures. Corbyn will get relatively little coverage.

Of course if the by-election is a complete and unmitigated UKIP disaster then Nuttall may well be replaced, although at this point UKIP are probably quite tired of by-elections.

Projecting by-elections mathematically can be quite difficult given their unpredictability. There are some good estimates that explain recent results and what we might see in Copeland and Stoke. Each possibility brings unique and far-reaching consequences, with some doing so more than others, in light of this the by-elections are justifiably worth watching for their implications.






Have the Populist Right reached their Peak?


It was remarked countless times that 2016 was a year like no other when it came to political results. In British minds, there is no escaping the EU Referendum or the 2016 US Presidential Election, both of which were gigantic victories for the populist right which ultimately realised the ambition of two men: Donald Trump and Nigel Farage. Of course, these events are neither the only events of the populist wave of 2016, nor are these two men the sole reasons for their respective election outcomes. However, they are indicative of the feeling that the political ascendancy and momentum is owned by those who are able to control a strong anti-outsider sentiment being felt throughout Europe and America.

This view is the prevailing one, but the possibility for the populist right to lose their momentum could come within the next two years, and by the 2020 Presidential Election Donald Trump could be the last bastion of his kind. The boom and bust cycle is quick for parties who have very little groundwork historically, and populist right-wing parties tend to have very poor infrastructure.

In the UK the United Kingdom Independence Party has abysmal ground game in elections, and beyond Nigel Farage they have struggled to maintain a leader, which the country really cares about. Paul Nuttall is currently sitting at a -22% satisfaction rating, even though only 44% of those asked had a view on him. Their electoral chances are slim, and the upcoming by-elections in Stoke Central and eventually in Leigh may prove this. Therefore they may be consigned to sit as a fringe party, occasionally getting air time when a Brexit discussion comes up. The Conservatives largely do what UKIP does, but they are organised and powerful electorally, so UKIP becomes defunct.

Headlines were made in France last year when several mayors attempted to ban the burkini because it did not fit with French values. This was said to be a symptom of France’s populist right wing attitudes, and would suggest great possible victories in 2016 for the Front National. However, whilst Le Pen commonly has the single highest support of any candidate in the French Presidential election, the French Presidential Election is based on a runoff of the top two candidates, and here she is yet to be ahead in a single poll no matter if she is compared to Emmanuel Macron or Francois Fillon. She even loses to the socialist Manuel Valls, which is incredible given he is dogged by the mightily unpopular Hollande administration.

Le Pen’s problem indicates a common issue that parties as controversial as UKIP or the Front National are. As soon as they get even slightly close to winning any sort of power, they are faced with mass tactical voting to stop them. In Le Pen’s case, Macron’s and Fillon’s voters are almost certainly destined to support each other over Le Pen, and Le Pen would have to break open a completely new section of the electorate, which is unlikely to happen in the next few months, and this does not seem likely, as Le Pen would have to upkeep further time in opposition and wait for a crisis of the same type and of an even greater magnitude than the refugee crisis.

The same can be said for Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom who are unpalatable for a coalition, and so have to get many more votes than any other party to get a foothold on power.

By 2016 the refugee crisis had sparked anti-immigration parties that finally had a serious ferocity and support with them. The Austrian Presidential Election saw Norbert Hofer’s Freedom Party of Austria win the first round in much the same way as Le Pen is projected to in France, different from Le Pen however, is that he was actually in the lead in the Presidential runoff before postal votes had been taken into account. His opponents dramatic win by just 30,863 votes by the final tally was so small that the election was annulled for fears that the number of voting irregularities was actually twice the winning margin, and the wrong person may have actually won. However, this is not the interesting part of the Austrian Presidential Election, the interesting part is that when the run-off between Van Der Bellen and Hofer was held again in December 2016, Hofer lost by 348,231 votes, and Hofer’s vote share decreased. The polling actually overestimated Hofer considerably, which meant for the first time we can see the power really slipping away from the populist right during the refugee crisis.

It is possible that this is not indicative of a trend, but simply a symptom of having an election re-done bringing less support for more radical right-wing parties. It cannot be denied that this result could be significant, and herald the start of the downfall of anti-immigration and in Europe anti-European Union parties.

Right now right wing populist support will require a new foreign affairs crisis to breathe new life and new electoral chances into them otherwise they will slowly fade out of public view and popularity towards oblivion. The next important election to judge this matter on will be the German Presidential Election where the Alternative for Germany (AfD) who will seek to make their mark in the Bundestag, the way that the party’s support changes from now to the election will be one of the most important political indicators of 2017.

To finish we must return to the single biggest character of 2016 once again: Donald Trump. Trump enters office as having the lowest job approval rating of any US president in the modern era in the immediate aftermath of his inauguration at 45%, compared to Obama’s 67% in 2009, whilst he may wish to dismiss this as ‘fake news’ he is almost certainly misguided in this label. Given that four years in office are unlikely to improve his popularity, then he is unlikely to win in 2020 when he runs for re-election, however, by then the wheels of public opinion may have turned against his ilk anyhow, with decreasing electoral support in key countries. The 2020 Presidential Election may be the vote that brings an end to a brief and ferocious political era in the western world. However the evidence either way is as of yet not conclusive.

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