Stokeland: Predictions for the Copeland & Stoke Central By-elections

Stokeland; Robert Peston’s accidental portmanteau for the Stoke Central and Copeland by-elections, provides a handy shorthand for what have become two complicated and multi-layered parliamentary contests.

It shouldn’t be like this. In a different political climate, two by-elections in ‘safe’ Labour seats and mid-way through a second Conservative term, would be unremarkable and predictable events in their own right. But against the backdrop of Brexit and Labour’s continued polling woes, Stokeland has come to represent the very soul of Labour’s struggle for political survival.

So in an attempt to cut through the histrionics (mine included), I’ve analysed the statistics and waded through the opinions, to come up with the following predictions:

Copeland

Labour will scrape through to victory, with the Conservatives coming in a close second (and with an increased vote share). There have been reports concerning the effectiveness of the local party’s ground operation. However, of more significance is Theresa May’s refusal on two-occasions, to claim whether or not she opposes the closure of the maternity wing at West Cumberland Hospital. This, coupled with Labour’s controversial messaging on the impact of the proposed closure, should just tip the result in Labour’s favour. A significantly reduced majority however, will store up problems for the party further down the line. Comparisons have already been made with the 1983 Darlington by-election, which Labour held with a reduced majority, only to lose to the Conservatives three months later at the 1983 General Election. This was also during a period of poor poll ratings for Labour, under Michael Foot’s leadership.

UKIP and the Liberal Democrats will retain third and fourth position respectively, with the pro-Europe Lib Dems also increasing their vote share. Although Copeland voted to leave the EU by an estimated 60%, the Lib Dems have been making gains in local elections in both remain and leave constituencies. They have recent form in the December 2016 Sleaford and North Hykenahm by-election, where they were the only main party to increase their vote share (5.3%); this, in a constituency that voted to leave the EU by an estimated 62%.

The Green Party will finish fifth, with little change in vote share on the 2015 General Election result.

Stoke Central

Labour retain a larger majority in Stoke Central (17 points) than in Copeland (7 points) and will hold the seat, albeit with a reduction in said majority. Gareth Snell’s offensive Twitter remarks aside, the party should be able to rely on a loyal Labour vote, borne out of retaining a majority in what has been a Labour stronghold since the constituency’s creation in 1950. Moreover, Paul Nuttall’s continued campaign of political kamikaze (the false Hillsborough claim being the latest in an embarrassing list of ‘alternative facts’) appears to be turning voters off to UKIP.

The Conservatives will therefore leap-frog UKIP into second place, delivering a severe blow to UKIP’s aspiration in ‘replacing the Labour Party’ as the country’s official opposition. The Tories under May, have been canny in their approach to by-elections. Their decision not to field a candidate in Richmond Park was a smart one. By allowing Zac Goldsmith free reign in his own beauty contest, the Conservatives were able to distance themselves from the resulting Lib Dem defeat. If he had won, they would be able to count on Goldsmith’s votes in line with the Tory whip. In Stoke, the Conservatives initially planed a low-key campaign, concentrating efforts on the more marginal Copeland; viewing Stoke as a two-horse race between Labour and UKIP. Again, a clever move based on how the election looked on paper. But life came at Gareth Snell and Paul Nuttall fast and sensing blood, May’s late campaign visit to the constituency, was a sign that she now sees Stoke as being ‘in-play’. Whilst this may be too little, too late to impact on this result, May is playing a long-game towards an eventual Conservative victory in the next General Election. The Tory approach to both Richmond and Stoke, demonstrates that the party has no qualms in following an informal ‘regressive alliance’ strategy, when it is politically expedient for them to do so.

This of course leaves UKIP in third place, further cementing the theory that the party doesn’t have the ground operation or political nous to win first past the post elections. Moreover, it highlights the question already on many peoples lips; what is the point of UKIP when the Conservative Party, with a proven track record of government, is already committed to delivering a hard Brexit? Surely a question that the Stoke electorate, who voted an estimated 65% to leave the EU, are also asking themselves.

As per my Copeland predictions and for the very same reasons, the Lib Dems and the Greens will finish fourth and fifth respectively.

Conclusion

A Stokeland Labour victory will not settle the party’s leadership question, even temporarily. The hard-left will spin the result as a Jeremy Corbyn victory, whilst the rest of the party will view it as an endorsement of the two moderate candidates; Gillian Troughton and Gareth Snell.

A UKIP loss in Stoke will be a significant blow to the party’s raison d’être, and whilst the Conservatives may gain respect for their national electioneering strategy, Theresa May’s aparent inability to properly grasp the issues that matter to most voters (the NHS being a good case in point), will be a cause of concern for some in her party.

The Copeland and Stoke Central By-elections will be held on Thursday 23 February, with results likely to be decalred in the early hours of the Friday morning.

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Andy Goss

Andy Goss

Political Geek. Freelance Writer. Election Commentary/Analysis.