Tories winning Brexit battle
Stoke and Copeland shows the growing ascendency of the Tory Party, writes Eddie Ford
There can be no doubt that last week’s by-election results were a setback for Labour. One of the first things that has to be said is that Stoke Central did not represent a “decisive rejection” of the UK Independence Party, as rather sillily claimed by Jeremy Corbyn - let alone the alternative reality inhabited by the ex-Trotskyist, Paul Mason, in which Labour “well and truly stuffed” Ukip and “shows how to destroy” the organisation (it is doing that all by itself).1
Back in the real world though, Labour’s candidate, Gareth Snell, got a pretty paltry 7,853 votes (37.1%), as opposed to ‘Dr’ Paul Nuttall’s 5,233 (24.7%) on a very diminished turnout of 38.2% (down 11.7% from 2015).2 A truly decisive rejection or stuffing would have seen Ukip near the bottom of the list, struggling to beat the Monster Raving Loony Party or the Christian Peoples - when in fact its vote went up slightly by 2.1%, whilst Labour’s went down 2.2%.
True, there had been intense media speculation, ever since Tristram Hunt resigned the seat for his “dream job” of director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, that Stoke Central could fall into the hands of Ukip - for fairly good reasons, it does have to be said. Stoke council, though not the same as the constituency, has been under ‘no overall control’ since 2015, with Ukip at its core. Stoke, of course, notched up the highest Brexit vote of any UK city with 69.7% - hence the exaggerated talk about the “Brexit capital of Britain”, and so on. Generally, Labour’s grip on the area has slipped considerably in recent years, enabling Ukip to make relatively impressive gains in all three of the city’s constituencies at the last general election - for example, closing the gap with Labour to just 2.7% in neighbouring Stoke-on-Trent North.
Alas for our former Tranmere Rovers player, it was not his night - with the Conservatives’ Jack Brereton breathing down his neck on 24.3%, a very close shave indeed (79 votes difference). As for the Liberal Democrats, they got what must have been a disappointing 9.8% (albeit up 5.7%). Overall, you can say that Stoke was not a disaster for either Labour or Ukip - depending on what their expectations were. At Ukip’s recent spring conference, Nigel Farage set the bar very high, describing Stoke as “fundamental” for “the futures of both the Labour Party and indeed of Ukip too” - it “matters and it matters hugely”. By that criterion, Stoke was a failure - but, regardless, for the time being Farage is publicly standing by Nuttall. Only time will tell.
Another thing that has to be said about Stoke was that it was dominated by near endless boring stories about Nuttall and Hillsborough - did he lose “close friends”? Whether a Ukip employee or researcher posted inaccurate material on Nuttall’s website is profoundly uninteresting, especially when you consider all the big issues that could have been raised - Ukip’s survival, the weakness of the Labour Party and the continuing crisis of Corbynism, ‘hard’ Brexit under Theresa May, etc. Similarly, we also had tiresome stories concerning a series of tweets made years ago by Snell that included calling Janet Street-Porter a “polished turd” and the panellists on ITV’s Loose women “squabbling sour-faced ladies”. Again, absolute trivia from the media. Anyway, Stoke was only a “decisive rejection” of Ukip if you were genuinely convinced that it should have been a shoe-in for Nuttall - which was always a dubious proposition.
Copeland, however, is a different matter. Yes, you can talk about special circumstances - such as the importance of the nuclear industry as a major local employer, Storm Doris, and the fairly small size of the Labour majority (2,147). Nevertheless, in terms of the core constituency, Labour has held Copeland3 since 1935, when it was recovering from the debacle of the 1931 ‘national government’. In the end, the Tory candidate, Trudi Harrison, won with 13,748 votes (44.2%) on a much higher turnout than Stoke of 51.33% - amounting to a 6.7% swing to the Tories. Labour slumped to 11,601 (37.3%), down 4.9% - whilst the Lib Dems and Ukip trailed well behind, getting 7.2% and 6.5% respectively (meaning that Ukip’s vote fell sharply by 9.0%).4 This represented the first gain for a governing party at a UK by-election since 1982. Copeland also saw the largest increase in a governing party’s share of the vote in a by-election since 1966.
Labour’s situation is even worse than it first seems when you remember that by-elections tend to underestimate support for the governing party, and reward oppositional parties, which provide voters with an opportunity to give the government a mid-term kicking. This makes it all the more telling, and ominous, that it was May who had the most to celebrate on Friday morning. Labour looks to be facing decimation at the next general election.
These by-elections raise a number of worthwhile questions. Firstly, does Ukip have a long-term future? You do not have to be a genius to think it is pure nonsense to believe that Ukip is on the road to replacing Labour as the official opposition or natural voice of the working class. The Labour Party is a historically constituted party based on the trade union movement. True, that movement may have considerably declined over the decades, yet we are still dealing with a membership of six million - not something that will go away easily.
Ukip, on the other hand, is an ephemeral organisation based fundamentally on opposition to the European Union. In that sense, Ukip can only be defined negatively - by what it is against, not what it is for. Now, after June 23 - with Theresa May skilfully appropriating the ‘hard Brexit’ agenda - what actually is the point of Ukip? Maybe to stumble on as a pressure group, making sure the prime minster keeps to her pledge - which is not much of a reason to exist. No wonder Ukip tops are falling out with each other. Arron Banks with Douglas Carswell, Nigel Farage with Douglas Carswell, Neil Hammond with Nigel Farage, etc.
Essentially, in Copeland a big slice of the Ukip vote simply marched into the Tory camp. There is every reason to think that that this pattern will be replicated, to one degree or another, in the general election, as May ploughs ahead with her Brexit plans - EU deal or not, World Trade Organisation rules or not. If Brexit actually happens, which is a possibility in the new world of Trump, that would further place a question mark over Ukip’s future - with job done, surely time to close shop. Then again, if Marine Le Pen does defy the polls and becomes president of France - not something you can completely dismiss - then the EU will be finished anyway, almost making Brexit redundant. There would be nothing to exit.
What about the Lib Dems? Historically speaking, this should be ideal conditions for a revival after getting punished by voters for getting into bed with the Conservative Party in the coalition government. We have had the unedifying spectacle of Jeremy Corbyn getting out his three-line whip and urging Labour MPs to vote with the Tories to trigger article 50 and proceed with what Labour was telling us would be a catastrophe for the British economy - in which case, surely we should be duty-bound to oppose it? Step forward the Lib Dems, saviours of the country from Brexit darkness. After all, almost half of the electorate voted ‘remain’ and even in Stoke just over 30% came out for continued EU membership. And here is the party that is making opposition to Brexit its core issue. Yet what did they get in the by-elections? In Stoke, their vote only went up 5.7% (to 9.8% - at least they saved their deposit this time) and it was pretty much the same in Copeland - only increasing by 3.8%, putting them on 7.3% of the total vote.
You could argue that we could be seeing another attempt to create a centrist third party - in that the cross-party Open Britain has been backed by Tony Blair, Peter Mandelson, John Major, and others. Thus John Prescott in the Sunday Mirror says that OB “looks like an SDP mark two”, with Mandelson and Blair “whipping up dissent to split Labour”, just like Roy Jenkins and David Owen did before they launched the Social Democratic Party in 1981.5 This is very unconvincing, to say the least. In the 1980s you saw an upsurge of the centre ground - just as importantly, if not more so, for a while it looked as if joining the SDP could possibly be a good career move: it seemed to be going places.
But the situation today is totally different. British politics is increasingly polarised, albeit in contradictory ways, between left and right - and now is being repolarised along Brexit lines, with even more contradictory outcomes. The centre ground is not undergoing a significant revival. In Stoke and Copeland the Lib Dems merely showed that they still exist. Nor does anyone in the Labour Party seriously think that there is going to be another SDP that is going to provide them with an alternative career plan - or dislodge Jeremy Corbyn.
This explains Tom Watson’s reaction to the by-election results at the Scottish Labour Party conference in Perth - he argued strongly that there should be no more challenges to Corbyn’s leadership. Further attacks on Corbyn from the Parliamentary Labour Party could result in Labour MPs losing their seats (and lucrative careers) - and for what? Corbyn cannot be removed under current circumstances, as the mass membership retains faith in him - that was recently tested with the second leadership contest. The right’s candidate, for all the backing from MPs and the media, lost badly - therefore to keep openly attacking Corbyn would be self-defeating. That is the calculation of most of the PLP: stick with JC as leader for now and muddle through to the next election hoping that events might come to your rescue. Perhaps Corbyn will have a heart attack.
When you look at opinion polls, what is immediately noticeable is not the growth of the centre - forget it - but the strength of the Tory Party, increasing its electoral position over this period to almost 1950s levels of support. Hence a YouGov poll, published on February 17, has the Conservatives on 40% and Labour on 24% - with the Lib Dems on 11% and Ukip on 15% (support for other parties totals 11%).6 Theresa May continues to be the favoured choice for prime minister, with 49% of people preferring her to Corbyn. The Labour leader is backed by only 15% of voters, whilst 36% don’t know.
Even worse for Jeremy Corbyn, an ICM/Guardian survey that came out on February 20 has the Tories on 44% and Labour on 26%.7 Apparently, only three other polls in the monthly Guardian series dating all the way back to May 1983 have produced a larger Conservative lead, and two of those were just days apart before the June 1983 general election trouncing of Michael Foot. In other words, in terms of popular support, it is the Labour Party that is losing out - in Scotland to the Scottish National Party, and in England and Wales to the Conservatives. Stoke and Copeland just underline the growing ascendancy of the Tory Party.
Needless to say, this poses acute problems for Labour strategy - which appears fundamentally flawed, as argued by professor John Curtice in TheGuardian.8 Curtice, of course, is famous for being the man behind the shock exit poll which flashed up on our TV screens at 10pm on general election night in 2015 - sending pundits into a frenzy and making Paddy Ashdown promise to “eat my hat” if the findings were true - 99% of all previous polls had said the Tories had no chance of securing an outright parliamentary majority. Anyhow, Curtice notes that Labour seems to have “misguidedly” decided that its “first priority” is to “stave off the threat from Ukip to its traditional working class vote - much of which supposedly voted ‘leave’ in the EU referendum”. But in so doing, he writes, Labour “seems to have forgotten (or not realised) that most of those who voted Labour in 2015 - including those living in Labour seats in the north and the Midlands - backed ‘remain’”. Therefore the party, he concludes, is “at greater risk of losing votes to the pro-‘remain’ Liberal Democrats than to pro-Brexit Ukip” - with Stoke and Copeland seeming to prove that ‘remain’ voters “must now be Labour’s top priority”. Consolidate your base.
Meanwhile, the Socialist Workers Party carries on obliviously. Yes, it agrees that the by-election results were bad and that Corbyn has “made crucial concessions to the right in a bid to keep them onside” - when instead he should “break from the right”.9 But its recommendations as to what the Labour leader should do next are pathetic and silly. “Crucially,” we read, “there has to be more of the type of struggle that gives a sense that society can change” - which for the SWP means “big demonstrations against Trump and racism, and in defence of the NHS”, all of which “are a start”. The writer of the piece, Nick Clark, thinks “it is good” that Corbyn is joining the demonstration for the NHS on March 4, but wants “far more focus on active battles against racism and austerity”.
The SWP’s solution to the dire problems facing Labour is for Corbyn to go on more demonstrations. What is that going to do in terms of the ongoing civil war in the party, reselecting MPs, tilting the balance on the NEC, the anti-democratic coup in Momentum, rewriting clause four, ending the bans and proscriptions, etc? The SWP has nothing to say on such matters, being march-obsessed - as if all answers lie on the streets l
3. Or its predecessor, Whitehaven - created in 1832 and renamed Copeland in 1983.
9. Socialist Worker February 28.