24th February 2017
By Ben Sellers
Just a few weeks ago there was a real expectation that Labour would lose both Stoke and Copeland. It’s taken a lot of hard work by those on the ground, but in one of those by-elections, we’ve walked away with a decisive victory. People will say that Nuttall was a gift, and in many ways he was - but that open goal may not have been scored by a smaller, less grassroots oriented Labour Party (both online and offline). It seems that we are capable of seeing off UKIP, if we work collectively.
Copeland is an altogether different constituency with very specific issues. Nuclear jobs are a factor, but so is a political culture which has become insular, not recently but over many years. So discussions about alternatives have been discouraged to the point that they are taboo. That culture has been fostered by the New Labour hierarchy and the previous MP, Jamie Reed. Perhaps more understandably, it’s been promoted by the major trade unions, who see their sole role as protecting jobs. To shift any of that debate in a few weeks was going to be an almost impossible task, but again, Labour members on the ground did at least manage to get people talking about the NHS, transport and the Tories’ decimation of our public services. I doubt if many cast their votes for the Tory Party with much enthusiasm.
So now, our opponents will focus on Copeland and try to nail Jeremy Corbyn for it. The media aren’t interested in context. Not when they scent blood. The right of the party aren’t interested in understanding the longer term causes of our decline, because for them, this has become a tabloid-like game to bury Jeremy Corbyn, and with him the project of the left in the party.
So we’ll have to remind them where this started. Not with Corbyn, but with a New Labour project that was uninterested in working class communities outside of a south east corner: look at Scotland, look at decreasing majorities across the north; look at the South West even. The fragility of Labour’s base began years ago, when a party lost touch with its own grassroots and the trade unions. New Labour caused a crisis, which we were never going to recover from quickly, because we’ve had a decade of abandoning our people, our heartlands and people don’t forget easily.
On top of that, there has been a targeted and systematic campaign by those Blairite MPs who still hold huge sway in Parliament, and whose only purpose has been to create chaos for the leadership. That has undoubtedly dented our support, because people see a divided party and a leadership unable to control and pacify the PLP. Not everyone understands the machinations or the underlying causes of the chaos, so often they will blame Corbyn. But the reality is, a large chunk of the blame lies with those who still won’t accept that the party has changed.
None of this is to say that we can’t improve, as a project: in terms of communication, organisation and leadership we’re on a massive learning curve. It’s frustrating that we’re not learning quick enough, because that is leaving us vulnerable. We need to be bolder, less frightened and more open to the enormous grassroots that brought us here. That’s difficult when everyone around you is telling you that it’s failing, declining, in crisis. But they - the majority of the media, the right of the party and the political establishment - were always going to say that.
Copeland: a word from Richard Burgon MP
“Losing Copeland very disappointing and we need to win it back. But whilst this morning it is being portrayed as losing ‘a safe Labour seat’, up until just days ago it was usually described as being a ‘marginal’ seat. Indeed, The Guardian, The Mirror, The Spectator, The Daily Mail, The Express, Sky News election analyst Professor Michael Thrasher and even Conservative Home have all described Copeland as a ‘marginal’ seat. When I read some London-based commentators describing Copeland as ‘a Labour heartland’or a ‘safe Labour seat’, I’m left wondering ‘have you ever been to the North of England or do you just presume everywhere is all the same up here?’ Even if they have never ventured up here, surely they could at least look at the history of usually small Labour majorities in the constituency of Copeland since its creation in 1983.”
The effect of boundary changes
Copeland constituency emerged in 1983 out of the old Whitehaven seat. Whitehaven had been Labour since 1935. Progressively more bits of the Lake District were included into Copeland. In 2010 Crummock, Dalton, Derwent Valley and Keswick in the Allerdale District were added. Keswick is a lovely place, but it cannot be described as a ‘Labour heartland’. Together with long years of neglect by New Labour, the constituency has steadily become more and more marginal.
Labour Vote (%) Tory Vote (%)
1997 58.2 29.2
2001 51.8 37.5
2005 50.5 31.7
2010 46.0 37.1
2015 42.3 35.8 (plus 15.5% for UKIP)
The UKIP vote collapsed into the Tories in 2017.
The result is bad for Labour. It is not a catastrophe, and certainly not a reason to dump Jeremy Corbyn as leader.And it was nice to stuff UKIP in Stoke!
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