It has now been one week since the result of the Stoke-on-Trent and Copeland by-elections. And what have we learn’t? Firstly, Labour DO seem to be capable of holding on to working class Brexit voters, despite initial fears from the party. The party candidate in Stoke comfortably beat Nuttall, even if it was with a reduced majority compared to the 2015 result. However, huge divisions still remain within the party as to what they should be doing in response to Brexit, and these divisions have only been exacerbated by the Copeland result.
In Copeland, the records were update as, for the first time since 1982, the party in government won a by-election. This speaks to the lack of support Labour has in its heartlands and is highly significant for Jeremy Corbyn’s position as party leader, with many identifying his nuclear scepticism as a voter deterrent, as many people in the constituency work in that field.
Where next for Labour and UKIP? It’s hard to say. Surprisingly, the results of the elections have pushed us further into the unknown, with UKIP seemingly not in a position to contest but Labour struggling to retain support among its vital demographic. The Conservatives lead all national polls, many by double digits, suggesting that this is not the start of the fightback many Labour voters wanted nor the triumphant first-of-many victories that UKIP voters desired.
On February 23rd there will be an election held in Stoke-on-Trent to fill the Parliamentary vacancy left by Labour MP and ex-Shadow Secretary of State for Education Tristram Hunt. Mr Hunt leaves the role after nearly 7 years in his post after being offered a position as director of the Victoria and Albert museum in London. Were these ordinary political times, this constituency would gain little attention. Mark Fisher, Hunt’s predecessor in the role, was another Labour man who held, at one point, a 66% share of the vote in the constituency, over 50 points clear of the Conservative candidate in second. Indeed, since the constituency formation in 1950, every single election has been won by a Labour MP. Despite the party being trounced in the elections of 1959, 1979 and 1983, and in spite of the failure of the party to hold power for almost two decades and irrespective of all of the social, political and economic change this nation has seen over the last 67 years, this constituency has always, overwhelmingly, voted for the Labour Party.
These, however, are not ordinary political times. The rise of UKIP and populism and the result of the EU referendum have fundamentally shaken the British political system. No longer can the old ways be relied upon. And Paul Nuttall knows this.
Mr Nuttall is the man who has stepped forward to fill the shoes of Nigel Farage, the boisterous and divisive ex-leader of UKIP and one of their members of European parliament. Mr Farage retook the role following the resignation of Diane James just 18 days after her election but quickly made clear that he would not hold the position permanently, leaving the door open for Nuttall who had been deputy leader for 6 years. It is Paul Nuttall who will be on the ballot paper in Stoke-on-Trent and it will be Paul Nuttall who, many commentators believe, will either show UKIP to be a strong force to steal the working class from Labour or be the party’s last leader.
Nuttall has already faced backlash in the northern constituency over admitting claims on his website that he lost a “close personal friend” at the 1989 Hillsborough Disaster were not true. Moreover, journalists visited the house Mr Nuttall claimed to be his ‘permanent residence’ and discovered a vacant property. Lying on the electoral registration form is against the law and would have seen the UKIP leader removed from the ballot, but the party remain adamant no rules were broken. These scandals have dented the candidate’s favourability, with commentators like The Economist originally – who called Nuttall a “shoe-in” – now following the bookmaker’s in predicting that the seat will remain a Labour hold.
With that said, the rise of UKIP has been immense. Stoke-on-Trent was overwhelming in it’s Brexit vote, paving the way for UKIP’s success in the constituency with 70% of people voting against David Cameron’s government. Moreover, the rise in anti-establishment politics across Europe and the wider world sets a precedent for an unexpected result. The limited polling that has been done suggests an incredible close result, with Labour 0.4% up in a Google survey from February 21st. Indeed, the precedent set from the 2015 election is that people are generally more conservative than they care to admit to poll gatherers, a fact seen when the Conservatives recieved an unexpected majority in 2015.
This by-election will be a real test not only of UKIP, but also Labour. The last time Labour had a majority in any UK poll was in a poll by YouGov/The Times in April 2016, where they saw just a three-point margin over their Conservative rivals. Every single poll since then has put the party at or below the Conservative vote – some by as much as 18 points. Corbyn critics will likely use the failure at this by-election (or the one at Copeland, which will be held on the same day) to launch leadership bids for more centrist and appealing candidates. Many Blairite party members unashamedly admit to attempting to undermine Corbyn’s leadership, but failure in the Labour heartland would likely be all that was require to bring the leftist leader’s tenure to an end.
This election on February 23rd will undoubtedly be one of the most important in recent history. It may either see the reinvigoration of the Labour Party as an effective fighting force, who will take advantage of the Brexit chaos to establish themselves as the required influential opposition in the run-up to the 2020 elections or it will see the working class reject the democratic socialism they have voted with for a lifetime in favour of a new reactionary force with the potential to cause a major political realignment, the like of which is unseen in a century.