Storm in a teacup? Why the Stoke and Copeland by-elections matter for Labour

In normal circumstances, these votes would barely be newsworthy

Image: The Labour Party

There’s something romantic about a storm. Unless of course you’re one of the hundreds of activists trekking around Stoke and Copeland today, with only a party-branded umbrella shielding you from Storm Doris.

However, while the weather will probably impact mood of door-knockers and journalists, there is little evidence that adverse weather significantly impacts turnout in UK elections.

Among politicians and pundits, today’s by-elections have taken on an immense — and perhaps excessive — significance. In normal circumstances, Labour would be so confident that these races would scarcely be newsworthy. That party has never lost either Stoke or Copeland and, since 1979, there have been just four cases of opposition parties losing seats in mid-term by-elections.

But then, in normal circumstances MPs like Jamie Reed and Tristram Hunt don’t resign their seats because they feel they can contribute more elsewhere. And not since the dark days of the early 80s has Labour lagged so badly, and so consistently, in nationwide opinion polls.

If the party holds both seats, the dominant response will be relief rather than celebration. If they lose either one, it will rightly be called a catastrophe.

Currently, that looks more likely in Cumbria, where the Conservatives are snapping at the heels of Labour’s Gillian Troughton. She is a former NHS worker, and the state of the health service — particularly the threat to a local maternity unit — has been at the core of her campaign. If that narrative doesn’t cut through to voters, it will raise huge questions about Labour’s entire nationwide strategy.

In Stoke, the UKIP threat seems to have receded thanks to Paul Nuttall’s thoroughly disastrous campaign, particularly his false claim to have lost close friends at Hillsborough. Since the Tories scarcely invested in the race before this week, it’s difficult to see Labour’s Gareth Snell missing out, despite a series of campaign mishaps.

But while the result seems assured, it’s worth keeping an eye on turnout in Stoke. The constituency has the lowest turnout in the country in 2015, and today’s turnout could be the lowest on record, slumping below 20 per cent. As Conor Pope writes for Progress today, low turnout in either seat is a real problem for Labour and particularly for Jeremy Corbyn, who has emphasised the importance of reaching out to non-voters.

For UKIP, losing Stoke — which heavily backed Brexit — will be another nail in the party coffin. For the Conservatives, Copeland is basically a no-lose situation. If Labour hold, well that’s only to be expected. But the Tories claim the seat, it’s a major vote of confidence in the government.

For Labour, the inverse is true. Even in the best-case scenario — both seats are held with fairly small majorities — these by-elections raise huge questions about the party’s popularity its leadership and its campaign readiness.

And if it loses either, let alone both, then yet another storm is brewing.

Niamh Ní Mhaoileoin is editor of Left Foot Forward. Follow her on Twitter

See: Dear Stoke-on-Trent: Here’s what Paul Nuttall really stands for

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