Wednesday 21 December 2016

Previewing the Copeland By-Election

And so we say goodbye to Jamie Reed, who today announced he's retiring from politics for a job in public and community relations at Sellafield. A rare instance, as one wag put it, of quitting Parliament to spend more time with something of even greater toxicity. Rare also was Jamie to not use the occasion of his resignation to criticise Jeremy Corbyn. Perhaps after a bruising year for our party, the season of goodwill has more to do with his kinder, gentler resignation letter than tell of a dark conspiracy of silence threatening the party after a year of open warfare.

Speculators are going to speculate. As the Copeland constituency is a marginal held by Labour with a 2,500 majority, it is suggested that Jamie's jumping ship before the party gets a pummeling at the 2020 general election. That's possible. On the other hand, under the boundary proposals Copeland is due to be dismembered and shared between three other constituencies, none of which are notionally that favourable to Labour. Whether Jeremy is leader or someone more to Jamie's tastes had ascended the hot seat, things aren't looking good had he battled on and contested one of the successor seats.

That's the future, but what about now, how is the imminent by-election going to look? Labour's majority in 2015 was 2,564 on a 64% turn out. The Tories are in second, though they too lost votes to UKIP (who trailed a distant third), and the LibDems and Greens made up the numbers. Their combined totals however is just a smidgen under the size of Labour's majority, and so could make a difference. Though it is very interesting to note that in this tight contest none of the advocates of a so-called progressive alliance have popped their heads up to demand the Greens and the Yellows hold their horses and stand down for the greater good. The demands of political altruism run in only one direction, it seems.

A couple of other things worth noting. The tendency for Labour voting in Copeland since 1997 is down, but historically it is a place the party held onto even through the nadir of 1983. Aeons have passed by since, but it indicates a long-term loyalty to the party in its radical and centrist phases. In other words, there is Labour support in the constituency who won't be put off by Jeremy Corbyn. And there might be a few attracted back to make up the numbers who are, as per by-elections in safe Labour seats during this Parliament. A second interesting dynamic is local government. Mike Starkie, the directly-elected mayor on Copeland Borough Council is an Independent while for the last 40 years, the council has more or less always been under Labour control. Discontent with local authorities, which can and do play important roles in Parliamentary by-elections could come into play here, though that depends on how the previous Labour administration was perceived and how Starkie is performing as mayor - to those sections of the electorate that care about such things. However, given his prominence in the roughly contiguous constituency Starkie or a Starkie-endorsed indie could well throw a hat into the by-election ring, which would make for another set of interesting dynamics.

Then there is Brexit. All of Cumbria voted Leave in the referendum, apart from Tim Farron's patch in Westmorland. While the result across the county was 56%, in Copeland itself 62% of voters cast their ballots for Leave. Troublesville for Labour? Possibly. Possibly not. While two thirds of Labour constituencies backed Leave, two thirds of Labour voters backed Remain. If the EU referendum result is a new social cleavage, the majority of Brexiteers are already outside the Labour Party. They present a challenge to be managed, and not the existential threat the likes of Paul Nuttall hope they do. Second, it might be too early to tell, but indications from Witney, Richmond and Sleaford, and the record of local council by-elections since June suggest that if there is an emerging cleavage, it's Remain voters who are most motivated by it. While Labour didn't perform fantastically in the local authority contests, evidence that Labour leavers are jumping ship is questionable. It appears only much smaller proportion of Leave voters vote primarily with Leave considerations in mind.

That is opportunity and threat for Labour in Copeland. The party's literature has to ensure its Brexit position is clearly spelled out. Trying to make the by-election a referendum on the NHS, which is the magic button for too many in our party these days, will not work. Here's an opportunity now for Labour to seize this issue and start owning it. If we don't, the LibDems will, they'll pile up the votes, and the Tories could squeak through the middle - even though their disarray and cluelessness becomes clearer by the day. As Labour hasn't lost a seat to a Tory government in a by-election since 1982, we should ensure the 34 year record has some way to run yet.

The second problem has nothing to do with Brexit and everything to do with the nuclear industry. Jeremy Corbyn is well know for his opposition to nuclear weapons, but on nuclear power he is opposed to new stations and retention of what presently exists. The problem is a new power plant in Cumbria has recently been unveiled and is out for public consultation. Early clarity about this is vital as the Tories are sure to support it and use it to underline their claims to economic competence. After all, Sellafield alone has 10,000 employees (from January, plus one) and so this could be the key determining factor in this by-election. Again, the Tories will fight to make it so.

Labour however does have some significant advantages. Its membership base is much bigger than that of the rival parties, though the Tories and LibDems can be expected to concentrate resources as the seat is vulnerable. Second, Labour's spread of 29 councillors in the borough gives the party an unrivalled understanding of the key issues on the ground. That means the local party must select someone from within the constituency to stand the best possible chance of successfully defending the seat.

Will Labour win? I don't know, but I think it's a mistake to assume the Tories are the favourites.


jim mclean said...

Odds on a GMB full timer or councillor being the choice?

Anonymous said...

This should be plain sailing for any half decent opposition. That there is even the prospect of losing this seat shows just how lamentably bad we are.

If we get the right candidate (pro nuclear is essential) we should hold on. But what a state we are in.

That Reed is leaving should be no cause for celebration. MP's quitting is a very bad sign. That there is talk of more doing the same is a sure fire indication that the PLP remain deeply unhappy and have no faith or trust in the leadership.


Boffy said...

Labour should:

1. Set out a clear demand for remaining in a reformed EU. Reformed not as Cameron et al proposed, but reformed in workers' interests on the basis of building EU wide workers organisations and solidarity.

2. Argue vociferously for workers ownership and control of the nuclear industry. We are not Luddites. We want to develop technology as far as possible to be used in workers interests to produce things more cheaply, and to lessen the load on labour. But, we do not trust capital, and more specifically capitalists to do that safely. By putting the nuclear industry under workers ownership and control it puts workers in charge of how that technology is used and developed so that it is done so so as to maintain jobs in the industry and to protect the health an safety of the workers and of the local community and environment. We should demand that the state provide the same huge subsidies to workers in running the industry on that basis as the state already gives to capital be it in the banks, nuclear and power industry or to train companies.

3. Labour should make a clear commitment to protect and improve workers jobs in shipbuilding and aerospace industries that currently are heavily dependent on arms production. We should set out proposals for the need to produce a large amount of ships and planes etc. to be used for real security, for example, life boats and other sea rescue equipment. We should argue for a massive expansion of real defence based upon the development of a democratically controlled civilian militia similar to that in Switzerland, which would require lots of such equipment. The need for such equipment in Cumbria is well known given its recent problems with flooding etc.

jim mclean said...

The local Labour seem positive, Labours Nuclear Energy policy is not too much at odds, strong Labour Brexit area and if UKIP WC voters return to the fold they should hold on, if I were Copeland Labour I would hammer UKIP as no point to its existence, the LibDems hopefully will vote anti tory.

Walsie said...

It will be a local candidate heavily pro nuclear in a classic company town, which means the spotlight will be on JC and Barry Gardiner on this one issue

Anonymous said...

A better survey of things than some of the lazily predictable HOT TAKES in the MSM, but there are still a few points worth making.

Firstly, the "last lost in 1931" meme ignores that the present seat that came in for the 2010GE is less favourable for Labour than was previously the case - the Tories would certainly have won it in the 1980s. Of course, a Labour loss now would still be a terrible result, and a decent local candidate should avoid that prospect. NO PARACHUTES!

Secondly, you maybe underestimate how much of a long term electoral desert for the LibDems Copeland is - the equivalent of a seat like Cornwall N for Labour. There is absolutely no possibility of the yellows "piling up votes" in any circumstances - even amongst the "remain" voting minority, the sort of ardent Euro-evangelists found in some areas (eg Richmond) are thin on the ground. Labour certainly has in this case more to fear from losing votes on its other flank to UKIP (even if their nationwide "threat" to Labour is much exaggerated by many) and I expect the coming campaign to reflect that.

Lastly, the proposed new nuclear development is far from universally popular - Greens have made limited headway locally in some areas on the back of it.

Let battle commence :)

jim mclean said...

Oh, the constituency will disappear by 2020, it makes sense now.

Anonymous said...

Well, indeed so jim. Not to mention that Reed was likely to lose out to Workington MP Sue Hayman in the redrawn Workington/Whitehaven seat (there is no doubt his post-GE behaviour cost him some local support)

Anonymous said...

The NHS and cuts to services in the new West Cumberland Hospital is a big issue locally.

Anonymous said...

Have to say having noticed it, that your comment that Copeland will be split between three seats "none of which are that favourable to Labour" is wrong - the proposed Workington/Whitehaven seat will easily be their best prospect in the redrawn Cumbria (and indeed, their only reasonably reliable seat)

The point is, as stated above, Reed knew that his chances of getting it were not good.

Phil said...

Yes, only realised that in retrospection. Ooops!

Anonymous said...

There's a lot of concern in the area about the impact of nuclear power, though - people have had to live with the risks for the last 60 years. Problem is that employment-wise there is very little alternative. Barrow is one of the most deprived areas in the country and about a fifth of the constituency overall is classified as living in the most deprived parts of England. There is a real need for employment - and especially alternatives to Sellafield.

Badger said...

Phil, many thanks for an excellent article that filled the massive gaps in my knowledge. another thing that strikes me is that Mr Reed, as well as getting a far more secure job, would not be devastated if the seat were lost and Corbyn got the blame.

Anonymous said...

Of course Reed thinks that, Badger, but he can't be *too* open about expressing it for obvious reasons. Assuming the Labour candidate isn't an out and out Corbynista (and that is pretty unlikely I think) the likelihood is that he will make a show of supporting them.

Good chance that both the Tories and UKIP will stick with their GE candidates, which makes Labour's choice all the more intriguing.

jim mclean said...

long list.
Barbara Cannon – Allerdale borough councillor who lives in Workington.

Tricia Clarke – CWU activist who took part in the Labour selection for Carlisle before the 2010 election.

Thomas Docherty – former Dunfermline and West Fife MP who grew up in Whitehaven.

Rachel Holliday – founder of Calderwood House hostel and named Cumbria Woman of the Year 2015.

Graham Kendall – Keswick councillor and advisor to NHS Partners Network.

Tim Knowles – Cumbria county councillor who lives in Frizington.

David Southward – Cumbria county councillor who lives in Beckermet and holds the economic development portfolio.

Gillian Troughton – Cumbria county councillor who lives in Whitehaven

Short List
Rachel Holliday
Gillian Troughton
Barbara Cannon

good quality from what I can find on google

jim mclean said...

As stated on one forum "Is being mistakenly reported as an All Woman Shortlist when it is in fact a shortlist that is all women."