Tomorrow, Thursday 23rd February, two by-elections will take place in two Labour seats, which they are seemingly struggling to hold on to. In the Copeland seat, won in 2015 with a 2,500 majority, it looks like the Conservative Party may be the first sitting Government to pick up a seat in a by-election since 1982. Meanwhile, in the Stoke on Trent by-election, Labour face stiff competition from UKIP, who have leader Paul Nuttall running for the seat. Could Labour really create history and lose both seats?
Just before Christmas, Copeland MP Jamie Reed resigned to rejoin Sellafield Ltd, a nuclear decommissioning authority, formally leaving his seat in late January 2017. Labour’s vote share in Copeland has decreased every year since 1997, although they did retain a 2,500 majority in 2015. Reed’s resignation causes headaches for leader Jeremy Corbyn. Facing a constant onslaught from his own MP’s, he will now have to battle to keep the Copeland seat from the clutches of May’s Conservative Party.
Attempting to hold on to the seat is Labour candidate Gillian Troughton. The County Councillor was a strong Remainer during the EU Referendum, which may cause her problems in a seat which voted Leave by a large margin. However, she has announced a pro-nuclear stance and has rallied against the Government over NHS funding through her position as an ex-ambulance driver, which will likely be a vote winner.
Attempting to defeat her is the Conservative candidate Trudy Harrison. The previous Sellafield worker has attempted to highlight lower unemployment and higher education standards throughout the campaign. With Theresa May swinging into Copeland in recent days, will the Government sway voters to switch allegiance?
The Governing party are the bookies favourites to steal the seat, with Labour’s internal machine predicting that their vote share may drop by a third. There are contrary reports emerging from the Labour camp. Some say that the expect to retain the seat by a few hundred votes, confident they’ll just manage a victory. Most say Copeland could go any way and it is anyone’s guess who will be the victor. And of course, there are the mutterings that Corbyn has deserted the seat, with him allegedly prepared for defeat. On the other hand, 10 Downing Street are remaining tight lipped, even talking down claims they’ll snatch the seat from Labour. However, with all polls indicating a Conservative victory, is a Labour defeat inevitable?
Besides Copeland, the Labour Party have another battle on their hands; keeping the Stoke-on-Trent seat from UKIP. Previous MP Tristam Hunt resigned in late January to become Director of the V&M Museum, leaving a 5,000 majority for his party to defend. The resignation received mixed reactions from his own party; some were upset that an experienced MP had departed, others glad a centrist MP had taken his Blairite views out of the Party. With UKIP achieving nearly 23% of the vote in 2015, can the Eurosceptic party double the number of MP’s they hold?
Defending Stoke-on Trent is Gareth Snell, former leader of Newcastle Borough Council. The candidate has, however, been blighted by a series of modern day mistakes. Journalists have found his Twitter page to be a goldmine in gaffes, with the candidate being accused of sexism, describing Brexit as a ‘massive pile of sh*t’ and claiming Corbyn is a fan of the IRA and Hamas. Such comments have not gone down well in a seat which voted to Leave the EU by a large margin. The former Councillor has, however, delivered effective blows on UKIP and the Conservative Party over the NHS, which could help win over voters concerned over healthcare.
Going up against Snell is UKIP Leader Paul Nuttall. The forty-year-old claimed to be the unity candidate for UKIP, bringing reason and sense back into the party after Farage’s departure. He has, however, been plagued in controversy, his online history coming back to haunt him too. It has been revealed that his personal website featured several false claims, whether it being losing a ‘close personal friends’ in the Hillsborough disaster or claiming he was a professional footballer. Furthermore, it included posts supporting NHS Privatisation and limiting abortions. Despite this, in a seat with a 70% leave vote, can the Brexiteer convince Stoke-on-Trent to desert Labour?
With the Conservatives seemingly having abandoned any hope of gaining Stoke-on-Trent, the seat will likely be won by Labour or UKIP. Could Nuttall deliver a shock victory? The bookies don’t seem to think so, believing that Labour will hold on to a seat that they have never lost. That is understandable, with the party recording a large majority just two years ago. However, with constituents clearly favouring leaving the EU, UKIP stand a chance of convincing voters that another Brexiteer in Parliament could help deliver this. If they persuade the 7,000 strong Conservative vote to tactically support them, UKIP stand a real chance of gaining Stoke-on-Trent. Can UKIP defy the odds and win?
With the Labour Party seemingly in freefall in the opinion polls, can they stand their ground and retain Copeland and Stoke-on-Trent? All signs point to a Labour defeat in Copeland, with the Conservative Party likely snatching the seat by a few hundred votes. Corbyn and his Party will need to convince the left-wing voters in the seat that a tactical vote for their Party is better than allowing the Government to increase their majority.
The Labour Party should however, retain the Stoke seat against the outsider challenge of UKIP. Turnout will be crucial in a seat which has a traditionally low turnout and the victors will be the Party that can convince their voters that their support is needed.
If Labour do lose Copeland but hold Stoke-on-Trent, the Party will rightly be disappointed. Anything other than two victories on Thursday should be viewed as a failure and the leadership should be queried. However, if Labour manage to hold on to one of the two seats, we will likely see Corbyn continue in his position and possibly preside over several other losses across the UK.