In a political system as muddled as Britain’s there are few firm rules that can be applied almost universally, but there is one which has generally proven to be correct over the years – governments do not gain seats at by-elections. Triggered by the death or resignation of a serving MP, by-elections usually act as indicators of how the government of the day is viewed beyond the Westminster bubble, and at times they can be pretty painful; over the course of the last Parliament, the governing Conservative Party lost three seats in by-elections. Indeed, until last week the party of government had not gained a seat in such a contest since 1982, when the Conservatives won the south London constituency of Mitcham and Morden following the defection of the incumbent Labour MP to the newly-formed Social Democrats. The following year, Margaret Thatcher won a general election landslide against the hapless Michael Foot, with Labour losing a further 52 seats and receiving just 28% of the popular vote.
With his unkempt appearance and radical left-wing views, Jeremy Corbyn has frequently been compared to Michael Foot, and last week these comparisons seemed particularly appropriate as Corbyn’s Labour lost their former safe seat of Copeland to the Conservatives. A large chunk of rural Cumbria that takes in part of the Lake District as well as a stretch of the North West coast, this is a part of the country that has been represented by Labour MPs since 1935, but in recent years the Labour majority has steadily declined. At the last election, Labour’s Jamie Reed held onto the seat with a majority of 2,500, just four hundred votes more than the new Conservative majority won by Trudy Harrison last Thursday. In a constituency that houses the sprawling Sellafield nuclear plant, the largest employer in the area, Jeremy Corbyn’s anti-nuclear stance was never going to go down well.
It is impossible to overstate how disastrous the Copeland result is for Labour. The Opposition should not be losing by-elections to the party of government, particularly not contests in seats that have been held by that party for the best part of a century. However, if anyone was expecting a period of introspection and humility on the part of the Labour leadership, they were mistaken. On the night of the by-election, shadow minister and Corbyn ally Cat Smith told reporters that the result was an ‘incredible achievement’ for Labour due to the close margin between the two parties, a sentiment which was shared by Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry who described Copeland as a ‘marginal seat.’ Likewise, the following days have seen senior Labour figures point the finger of blame far and wide; depending on who you listen to, Labour’s defeat was the fault of Brexit, the nuclear industry, or a New Labour conspiracy engineered by Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson.
There is only one thing which seems to have escaped the blame of senior Labour figures – the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. When asked by a reporter on Friday if he had considered that Labour’s problems may be his fault, Corbyn responded by simply saying ‘no’ without any further explanation, a staggering display of arrogance from a leader with nothing to be confident about. Tonight brings the news that he has also declined an invitation to address the parliamentary party, further evidence of the denialist bunker mentality that now dominates the Leader’s Office. Less than two months after the much-publicised ‘relaunch’ of Corbyn’s leadership, things have never been so bad for a man whose eighteen months at the helm of the party have brought one calamity after another.
Jeremy Corbyn was elected Labour leader because the membership wanted a change from the moderate centrism of his predecessors. His election was certainly a radical break from the past, but as leader he has been a complete disaster. In order to successfully recreate a party in their own image, a leader needs to have a clear message, broad public support and authority over the party. Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair had all three of these, at least in the early days, and that enabled them to reshape their parties, win successive elections and ultimately become the two most influential Prime Ministers of the past fifty years. In contrast, Corbyn is the most unpopular Labour leader in recent history, presiding over a party that has descended into a pit of squabbling factionalism, and despite his left-wing credentials he has been unable to put together a coherent message that he can sell to the British public. A diehard socialist ideologue, he has half-heartedly attempted to dress up as a populist in an attempt to mimic the popularity of Bernie Sanders across the Atlantic, but ultimately he has been unable to overcome his middle-class, north London persona.
In the wake of the EU referendum, Labour was never going to become the party of Brexit, dominated as it is by ardent pro-Europeanism, but neither did it expect to lose its status as the principal voice of Remain voters to the Liberal Democrats, a fact which was demonstrated in another by-election, December’s contest in the solidly Remain seat of Richmond Park. By supporting the government and voting to trigger Article 50, thus beginning the process of withdrawing from the EU, the Labour leadership has left itself stranded in the new political landscape, distrusted by Remainers and Leavers alike, and no number of Jeremy Corbyn speeches railing against Theresa May’s ‘free market, small state Brexit’ will convince voters that he offers a serious alternative. In contrast, the Prime Minister has smartly pursued a ‘third way’ between the elitist globalism of Tony Blair and David Cameron on the one hand and the populist nationalism of Donald Trump and Nigel Farage on the other, putting together a message that proved popular on the doorsteps of Copeland. Could this be replicated in Labour seats across the country?
The Copeland victory is just the start for Theresa May’s blue-collar conservatism. Having penetrated Labour’s working-class Northern heartlands, the Prime Minister will be seeking to go even further and win over voters in those urban, post-industrial areas that feel forgotten by the political establishment and backed Brexit en masse. One such constituency is Stoke Central, where a by-election was held on the same day as the Copeland contest and where Labour held on despite a prominent challenge from UKIP leader Paul Nuttall.
This result should not be understood as a Labour victory but a UKIP defeat; Nuttall’s campaign was shambolic, disorganised and dogged by scandal, and as a result he failed to take this seat in the so-called ‘Brexit Capital.’ In contrast, the Tories exerted very little energy in Stoke in order to focus on the far more winnable Copeland, yet their 25 year-old candidate Jack Brereton still managed to finish less than a hundred votes behind Mr Nuttall. With UKIP fading, no longer the formidable, flag-waving voice of the patriotic working classes, the Conservatives under Theresa May have a real opportunity to win over these voters and make significant inroads in constituencies that they would have never dreamed of winning just a few years ago.
As Prime Minister May assembles her dynamic Tory coalition, adding working-class patriots and rural Brexiteers to the existing Conservative base, Jeremy Corbyn remains perched at the top of a party that is becoming increasingly narrow, composed of the few voters who haven’t deserted Labour for a party that better represents their interests. Labour’s problems cannot be blamed exclusively on Corbyn’s ineptitude – the rot began to set in many years ago – but equally things can not improve for as long as the present leadership remains in place. Jeremy Corbyn is driving the Labour Party towards an electoral abyss, but with no viable alternative the party’s long-term future looks more and more uncertain with every week that goes by.