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.