Stoke-on-Trent and Copeland: crucibles of the new political landscape

23 February 2017

Voters in Copeland and Stoke-on-Trent Central go to the polls today to choose new MPs. Jack Bridgewater explains why these by-elections represent both a major electoral challenge for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour leadership, and perhaps an early indication of the extent to which the aftermath of the EU referendum is reshaping party politics in the UK.

Both constituencies have been Labour seats since their inception, and in both over 60 per cent of voters wanted to leave the EU. With the Labour leadership now backing Brexit, and by-elections traditionally an arena in which it is easier for the opposition to make gains, it would normally be reasonable to assume that Labour are on course for two comfortable victories. However, the volatile political climate and the absence of any local polling data means that the results of both are hard to predict. Overshadowing both contests are Labour’s – and Corbyn’s – dire poll ratings. And all four major contenders (Conservative, Labour, Lib Dems and UKIP) have the chance to make inroads.

Stoke-on-Trent Central is the constituency in which Labour has the larger majority, polling 39% in 2015, with very little between UKIP (22.7%) and the Conservatives (22.5%) in second and third, respectively. Labour will hope that their current stance on Brexit and historic popularity in the area will propel them to victory. However, their candidate is a Remainer, and Stoke’s status as ‘capital of Brexit’ is likely to prove a challenge for a party increasingly seen as out of touch with the many of the working-class voters who used to assure it their vote.

To capitalise on this, UKIP have fielded their leader, Paul Nuttall, in the hope that their pro-Brexit stance remains relevant even after the UK has voted to leave. If voters decide otherwise, it is the Conservatives that are likely to benefit. It is worth mentioning that Paul Nuttall comes with his own baggage: serious doubts have emerged over several statements he has made, most notably whether or not he was present at the Hillsborough disaster. Theresa May’s recent visit to Stoke demonstrates that the Conservatives think they are in with a chance, perhaps making this a genuine three-horse race. The notoriously low turnout in Stoke-on-Trent Central (just 51.3% in 2015) means that the party that can best mobilise their supporters through postal votes, and on polling day, will stand the best chance of victory. In this sense, Labour should be at an advantage over UKIP and the Conservatives, having held the seat for so long.

It is perhaps in Copeland where Labour are more likely to be unseated. Since 1997, the constituency has provided diminishing returns at the ballot box for Labour, with their share of the vote decreasing from 58% in 1997 to 42% in 2015. The constituency’s biggest employer is the Sellafield nuclear commissioning site. With ambiguity over whether or not Corbyn backs nuclear power, and local Conservative leaflets capitalising on this issue, it could be that Labour’s leader proves a barrier to victory for the party.

In both these the seats, the Lib Dems will be hoping to attract Remain voters who are at odds with the two main parties’ stances on Brexit - particularly in Stoke, where they were the main opposition to Labour as recently as 2010. Sizeable gains in both constituencies may indicate the party are on track to rebuilding their support. Again, UKIP will hope that their policies are still relevant in the wake of the Brexit vote, and that they can take votes from both Labour and the Conservatives.

The last time any government won a by-election was in 1983, and with Labour considerably behind in the nationwide polls and Corbyn’s popularity low, a gain in either seat would be a remarkable victory for the Conservatives and further evidence that they are dominating the post-Brexit political landscape (though, as Matt Singh points out on NumberCruncherPolitics, it would be even more remarkable than this). Turnout in by-elections tends to be relatively low, and it could be possible to read too much into the consequences of the results for the future of party politics in the UK. However, a loss in either constituency will embolden Labour MPs who want to get rid of Corbyn.

Jack Bridgewater is a doctoral researcher in English party politics and identity at the University of Kent. He tweets @JLBridgewater