Monday, 27 February 2017

What is the meaning of Copeland and Stoke?


Sometimes we get stuff wrong. Well, quite a lot of the time actually. But speculation - even inaccurate speculation - is part of how we learn. So it is with the UK Labour Party's loss of Copeland in Cumbria, and the swing against the party recorded in Stoke-on-Trent Central. We said that Labour probably wouldn't lose either seat. History was against such an outcome. The data said that serving governments just don't win by-elections against the official Opposition. They certainly don't in the seventh year of an austerity regime that has just spent months tearing itself apart over Brexit. You know what? Theresa May's Conservatives did it. They had a phenomenally good night, not only taking Copeland for the first time since the 1930s (above), but blunting the United Kingdom Independence Party's challenge in Stoke too. There shouldn't be any champagne left within a five-mile radius of Conservative Central Office. We said it couldn't happen. It did. Sorry.

It's time now, therefore, to turn to what those results mean. First, Labour's good news. UKIP probably aren't going to smash their way through Labour's heartlands in the same way that the Scottish National Party have done in Scotland. They had a pretty torrid time of it in Stoke, with their leader battered by a string of allegations that he had been, well... not entirely measured in everything he had said. Their vote went up only a tiny bit, in a seat which had voted heavily for Leave in the referendum on Britain's membership of the European Union. Their vote fell in Copeland. They're not going to be taking many Labour seats any time soon. Their brand is just too toxic. The entire reason for choosing them on the ballot is rapidly diminishing as Mrs May steals all their ideas. Their pivot from seeking Conservative votes, to wooing Labour defectors, just seems too crude. Her Majesty's Opposition is going to be Labour's title for as far as the eye can see.

The really depressing thing for Labour comes when we look at why that is. It's because the Conservatives did so well. UKIP weren't able to persuade Conservatives to vote tactically for them in Stoke, where Labour's vote share was actually lower than in Copeland. The Conservatives outstripped their recent performances in both seats, confirming that they really are riding as high in the polls as it appears. In fact, given that the Copeland swing was bigger than that implied by polls (part of the reason we thought that Labour would probably cling on there), opinion polling might still be rather underrating them. 

It is very, very hard to get across just how unusual the Copeland gain is, and just how potentially frightening it is for Labour. Governments have increased their by-election vote share only seven times since 1970: two of those occasions rolled along last Thursday night. It was the first time the Government has seen its vote rise in two simultaneous by-elections since 1954. That Copeland result was the single biggest rise in a government's by-election vote since 1966. Yes, there have been government gains from the principal Opposition party since the Second World War. But Mitcham and Morden, in 1982, was really down to the split between Labour and the new Social Democratic Party, since the defeated incumbent had moved from the former to the latter. Yes, in 1953 Sunderland South went blue, but you could explain that by reference to a Liberal intervention where they had been no such Liberal candidate in 1951. There was Brighouse and Spenborough in 1960, but there the Conservatives hauled in a tiny majority that had amounted to only 47 votes in the 1959 General Election. As Matt Singh of the Number Cruncher Politics website points out, you have to go back to 1878 to see anything really comparable to this Labour debacle.

Now Copeland is a special place. The nuclear industry is critically important to its economy, and Trident is important in the south of the seat. No doubt that hurt a party led by Jeremy Corbyn, with decades of opposition to the nuclear industry and nuclear weapons behind him. But the really scary thing for Labour is not the industrial mix in Copeland. It's the class mix. It's quite a working-class seat, and the party that sees itself as standing up for those people's interests and ideas just lost it - badly. Working class voters have been drifting away from Labour since the early 2000s, of course, but the trend of disillusionment and disengagement now seems to be accelerating. Take a look at the very latest YouGov opinion poll (opens as PDF), and you'll see that the Conservatives lead Labour in the C2DE social class category by ten percentage points (38 per cent to 28 per cent). Labour are just nine points ahead of UKIP with these voters. They're filing out of the Labour tent. Gradually, sometimes imperceptibly, but steadily, lots of traditional Labourites are just switching off. The new model Labour Party always tried to claim that it might be able to win elections by raising turnout. That looks a distant, forlorn prospect right now. Reader, we're prepared to bet that turnout in (by then ex-) Labour areas will be low indeed by 2020.

What did we say, back in January? Well, this: if Labour did lose one, and especially both, of these seats 'they probably face a defeat that cannot even be described as a catastrophe. Such a result would be a sign of impending cataclysm: the opening of a political black hole from which there may be no escape'. Now that might be a bit overcooked, actually, especially given UKIP's complete failure to move forward on any front. But there is now at least the possibility, at one end of the bell curve, of an actual Labour meltdown. Mr Corbyn is in all likelihood going nowhere. He's entrenched as leader, and he can't be removed. He's ludicrously unpopular overall, and he's dragging down his party, though among better-off Britons Labour isn't doing quite as badly as it is amongst those aforementioned C2DEs, and it's at least holding out in London and some other big cities. Eyewitness accounts in Stoke back up the numbers: among young people and students, Corbyn-Labour is pretty popular. Unfortunately, there aren't enough of such voters to prevent a really thumping marmalisation in a General Election, and in the age of Individual Electoral Registration, all-expat voting and a rapidly ageing population, their significance is about to depreciate rather than increase.

This is not the likeliest outcome, by any means, but a 1931-style rout cannot now be ruled out. Flying blind with a comms team that seems able only to speak in a weird kind of pseudo-English fixated on 'bargain-basement tax havens' (whatever that means), and which spends its limited time on this earth threatening parents with their own children's death, is... sub-optimal. As they put up utter neophytes for trial by interview, and go on being 'directed' by a 'Shadow Cabinet' totally unmatched to the task before them, the risk of Labour's complete annihilation seems to grow by the day, if not by the hour. A General Election campaign might be fronted by Mr Corbyn losing his rag with reporters and John McDonnell shouting at imaginary plotters, backed up by amateur dilettantes unable to get even the most basic press release out in a timely fashion. If that does happen, the Conservatives could well end up with a 1930s-style clean sweep. Copeland is a warning: a clear siren of danger in the blue skies and the sharp air of February. All democrats - all citizens who believe in a viable multi-party system, in electoral competition, and in good governance - should listen. Heed the warning, before it's too late.

4 comments:

  1. "A General Election campaign might be fronted by Mr Corbyn losing his rag with reporters and John McDonnell shouting at imaginary plotters, backed up by amateur dilettantes unable to get even the most basic press release out in a timely fashion."

    This is the part of the scenario that I'm struggling to see happen. The Hard Left don't do accountability and as this unfolding horror show continues, I'm convinced that they will bail out in some form or other.

    If they can get the 5% threshold for nominations through then I suspect they will attempt a quick succession to an anointed 'momentum' candidate given the slow bleed of support that's occurring. If the anointed one fails to become leader then it will be the Labour membership who will have betrayed the cause. The campaign will be vile though with Blairitefinder Generals everywhere.

    If the rule change fails to occur then Corbyn and McDonnell face competing nightmares: the accountability of a general election or being the betrayers themselves.

    A general election cataclysm wouldn't change the PLP enough to gather the 15% needed for any successor to Corbyn post-apocalypse leaving them with both blood on their hands and no future control of the party.

    Whereas concocting an excuse for leaving such as illness would allow them to continue the narrative of betrayal and let a more moderate figure carry the can for the disaster.

    The only thing that gives hope is Brexit but if the UK government gets bogged down into a long exit process through a transition arrangement (which remains the most likely option as it dissipates the divorce bill) then the effects of Brexit would be too slow to rescue the Party and this assumes that there would be some bounce to Labour which has to be doubted.

    Corbyn and McDonnell will hold out as long as they can in this scenario but their critics need to allow them to escape whilst holding their feet to the fire of accountability. These are two vain men who would rather keep their fantasies than expose them to reality. They'll run sooner or later.

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  2. "a weird kind of pseudo-English excoriating 'bargain-basement tax havens' (whatever that means)" - as you probably know, it's a reference to the image of post-Brexit Britain as a low wage, low corporate tax island competing with European economies in a race to the bottom (as threatened by Phillip Hammond I think it was?). I think it's a decent enough slogan and certainly better English than this gibberish:

    "As they put up utter neophytes for trial by interview, and continue to be directed by a 'Shadow Cabinet' unutterably unmatched to the task before them, the risk of Labour's utter annihilation seems to grow by the day, if not by the hour"

    which is so overwritten it reads like a parody. (The managerialist jargon of "good governance" etc also rather blunts your call to arms).

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    1. I disagree. This was my favourite paragraph in the whole piece: it perfectly captures the 'fling it at the wall and see what sticks' attitude that the leadership seems to have towards the rotating cast of the Shadow Cabinet.

      The point here is that we should be making a distinction between the sort of language that is appropriate for academic historians such as the author of this blog, and that which is appropriate for a political party that is seeking to capture the imagination - and indeed the votes - of the proverbial man on the street.

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  3. تعرف على احدث التقنيات المستخدمة فى صيانة الاعطال من مركز صيانة يونيفرسال مع اكفا مهندسى الصيانة تواصل معنا الان

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