When Labour lost the Copeland by-election on 23 February 2017 the media went into overdrive to blame Jeremy Corbyn. Thankfully Labour held its seat in the Stoke-on-Trent by-election on the same day, beating UKIP.
In Stoke the challenge from UKIP’s fantasist-in-chief Paul Nuttall united Labour’s hard and soft lefts with some on the right of the party in a serious campaign to retain the seat. Activists from the North Staffordshire Campaign Against Racism and Fascism (NORSCARF) and Stand Up To UKIP, many of whom weren’t Labour Party members, played a big part in defeating the racists.
In Copeland the election was a straight fight between Labour and the Tories, in a seat that has been held by Labour since 1935. So how did Labour manage to lose?
Copeland is an unusual place. The biggest employer is the nuclear industry in the form of Sellafield. The presence of Sellafield means that, despite its remote location, average wages in the constituency are among the highest in the UK. And the nuclear plant and its offshoots formed a vital backdrop to the by-election in other ways.
The by-election was triggered when the previous MP, Jamie Reed, resigned his seat to take a job in “community relations” at the atom factory. But the local Labour Party rejected Corbyn’s choice of anti-homelessness campaigner Rachel Holliday, and opted instead for a Copeland councillor, Gillian Troughton, who had supported Owen Smith in the leadership contest and whose husband works in the nuclear industry. Meanwhile, Tory candidate Trudy Harrison’s husband is a welder at Sellafield.
At the outset of the campaign the Tories tried to make out that Troughton was a “hard left” Corbyn supporter when this was anything but the case. And in her victory speech Trudy Harrison also attacked Corbyn, saying he “doesn’t represent working people”.
But Corbyn’s politics were almost completely absent from the Copeland campaign. And the campaign itself has been sharply criticised, notably by Tom Raeside, a young Labour Party member from nearby Penrith, who canvassed in Copeland and afterwards wrote an open letter to Owen Jones, who had publicly criticised Corbyn for the defeat.
Raeside’s criticisms raise a number of serious questions about Labour’s conduct of the Copeland election operation. In particular, he describes Labour’s organisation of the campaign as “shambolic” and asks three questions:
“1. Why were there no tellers on the polling stations? 2. Why were the campaign offices completely inaccessible from public transport and removed from the hub of the community in Copeland? 3. Why was the street data so jumbled? It made the job of canvassing so much harder — when out canvassing in Whitehaven it took us 20 minutes to sort things out.”
The first and last of these are probably the most important. Labour is an electoral machine. Its organisation is dedicated to winning elections, and maintaining intelligence on how people vote is part of that. Seen in this light, a failure to place tellers on polling stations — in a two-horse race — is curious and worrying.
Similarly, the canvass sheets are a central part of any election campaign, and the major parties normally have fairly accurate data on voting patterns. In addition, tellers provide information on who has already voted, thereby preventing wastage of time and energy in canvassing people who have already cast their votes. However, Raeside says, “On polling day, we had registered Conservative voters on the knocking lists! [And on] a lot of occasions we were knocking on doors to people who had already voted!” He adds: “Never before have I seen anything like this.”
When the result was announced the Labour candidate was reported as having left the count without making a concession speech as would be expected, aimed at consoling one’s supporters and galvanising them for the fight next time. Perhaps she was devastated at losing, but together with Raeside’s account, the candidate’s actions create an impression of a campaign that was never serious about winning.
Labour’s share of the vote in Copeland had already been falling, from 58.2 percent in 1997 down to just 42.3 percent in 2015. A major part of the explanation for this is disillusionment, with core supporters drifting away as a result of successive policies that copied those of the Tories.
Set alongside the victory at Stoke, it seems clear that the by-election outcome was not due to Corbyn, but the previous rightward drift in the party, both nationally and locally, and an election organisation that — for whatever reason — was sorely lacking.