The Copeland result was devastating for Labour. There is no denying this. But why did it happen? I’ve tried to lay out a few of the possible reasons for this below. They are ‘in no particular order’ (more of a brainstorm really), but when read together they add up to a worrying picture which must be dealt with ASAP. So, I have also added a few suggestions as to how I personally feel this should be done.
The Resigning MP:
MP Jamie Reed represented New Labour, which is out of touch with the ordinary people of Copeland. There is a general antipathy to New Labour, especially in areas like Copeland, and no recognition that Labour has changed from this, so Reed’s replacement would more likely be seen as someone who would continue along the same pattern, unless voters were persuaded otherwise.
Mr Reed’s constant message that Corbyn was not suitable as a Labour leader certainly wouldn’t have given voters confidence either.
There is also the point that, although candidates for both Copeland and Stoke were anti-Corbyn and had spoken about this, Tristram Hunt could more easily be seen as a ‘shoe in’ candidate, whereas Jamie Reed embraced Copeland and its main industry (even while not supporting its welfare benefits). So, we have to ask, did Jamie Reed’s ‘warnings’ over Corbyn hold more sway than those made by Hunt?
Was the Labour Message Put Across Effectively?
It does appear that Labour didn’t really get their message across that they were no longer the ‘New Labour’ embraced by MPs who had failed their respective communities (or even how Labour as it stands now differs from ‘New Labour’). And in the case of those voters who did listen and agree that Labour’s emphasis has changed, it will take a long time for voters to trust a party that has grown out of touch with them over the years. Things are not seen to change overnight and even when they do, astute voters know that changes can easily be brushed over in support of political expediency.
It would certainly have helped if Labour party members and supporters had held a clear message on how Labour had changed that they could truthfully tell to sceptical voters. But of course, when Labour Party members’ hopes for a more caring, inclusive and anti-austerity Labour Party are constantly under pressure, it must be difficult to feel certain that the policies you are promoting on the doorstep will actually be the policies that Labour carries forward into a General Election.
There is no doubt that media blocking of positive Labour coverage, along with constant ‘digs’ at the leadership, was and is a huge problem.
But this leads again to ‘more effort required’ on the part of those who promote Labour Party policies and who organise Labour campaigns.
Corbyn’s ’10 Pledges’ are vote winners, but they need explaining to the voting public in a clear and concise way and they also need adapting to fit local circumstances. All this should be possible in a well-organised party, but somehow it didn’t appear that way.
Is it more that those ’10 pledges’ of Corbyn’s, which many local Labour groups are eager to get on and promote, are seen as less attractive by some of those who organise campaigns precisely because they are Corbyn’s?
I don’t know, but I think this could play a part in what happened, however small.
Voters Felt Forgotten by Labour:
Voters felt that Labour didn’t care about them, telling canvassers again and again ‘we only see you at election time’. Again, the resigning MP must take some blame for this, but also the local CLP, plus regional and national campaign coordinators needs to recognise that they have been found wanting too.
Labour should have been out there in the community long before the Copeland and Stoke by elections, but it appears that they were not, preferring, as in so many CLPs, to discuss and argue about policies in private.
Was Copeland Really ‘a Labour Stronghold’?
Despite what the media tell us, Copeland had not been held by Labour for 80 years – it became a constituency in 1983 and became much more marginal as a seat for Labour after the 2010 boundary changes which brought more Tory-voting areas into the constituency.
The Labour share of the vote had also been dropping continuously since 1997 and between 2 and 5 thousand votes each time, so, although the 2k loss was very disappointing, it followed the pattern rather than being extraordinary.
The Nuclear Issue:
There can be little doubt that Corbyn seen as anti-nuclear cannot have helped, especially when people already didn’t trust Labour because they felt that they didn’t represent them in the past.
Much more emphasis should have been put on Labour support for Sellafield and emphasising that, whatever Corbyn’s views (and he confirms this) Labour policy is to support nuclear plants.
Plus, there is no guarantee from the Tories that they will protect Sellafield workers in the years to come, and Labour should have been emphasising this, rather than seeming to give in to the ‘fact’ that the Tories were ‘the party of nuclear power’.
Labour should have been spreading doubt on that Tory claim, at least when it applied to local jobs and communities. But it seems that the Labour tactic was more a case of ‘deflect from Nuclear to NHS’ rather than to be prepared to face the situation head on and give good, clear and confident answers to voter fears.
Concentration on The NHS:
Our NHS is vitally important and Labour needs to continue to push their policies on it, but Copeland shows that all other policies need to be pushed too, and particularly those that effect local politics.
Copeland voters wanted assurance on jobs first and foremost. Concerns about the NHS most likely came second.
It probably didn’t matter so much to many Sellafield voters that the UK as a whole needs urgent action on the NHS if their main concern was jobs and protecting their local community. So we cannot really blame Copeland voters for that (as some have done) – but we should be blaming Labour, particularly at local level, for not realising this and working with it.
It has also been pointed out to me that the major employer, Sellafield, has a scheme in place for its workers which may have left NHS campaigners a little on the back foot. Evidently the Sellafield employer offers a worker scheme of shared payments into private health insurance. Therefore, although the NHS campaign by Labour was essential, especially considering the closure of local NHS services, it may not have had such a strong effect on Sellafield workers as in some other parts of the country.
If this is the case, why weren’t the local campaign officers made aware of this so that they could moderate their canvassing messages accordingly?
Both Copeland and Stoke were strong ‘Leave’ constituencies and Labour had hoped to show voters in both constituencies that they did support their views and their right to Democratic acceptance of the Leave vote. Thousands of campaigners went to Copeland and Stoke to support labour candidates with this message in mind, but was it a case of ‘one campaign fits all’? These were both ‘leave’ constituencies, but they still had local concerns specific to each area.
Labour’s pushing of the fact they supported triggering Article 50 may well have helped in Stoke, but was it used as well in Copeland and was the same campaign as effective?
In Copeland, the Tories gained hugely from ex-UKIP voters. In fact, that swing from UKIP to the Tories was enough to seal the win for them. Whereas in Stoke, it was Labour who had felt most under threat from UKIP and they gained from the incompetence of Paul Nuttall as UKIP candidate.
So, in Copeland, it was the Tories who had previously lost votes to UKIP, but got those votes back because:
a) The Copeland UKIP candidate wasn’t very assertive or prominent.
b) by often being more UKIP than UKIP in their statements and policies, the Tories provide an established voice for those voters.
Stick that on top of the failure to fully address the Sellafield issue while the Tories pushed it hard, and Labour were in a very dire situation.
A friend who attended the Stoke canvassing said that Momentum had arranged for supporters from ‘down south’ to go to Stoke, while those from ‘up North’ went to Copeland.
Was there a problem in this strategy? Could it have meant that there was more concentration on Stoke than on Copeland from a movement with its head office based in London?
Reports from the doorstep and from phone banks say that it didn’t matter where the canvasser was from, they received the same welcome (or non-welcome depending on who they spoke to). But I’m just wondering if the same numbers were there for Copeland as for Stoke. Only time and a chance to look at canvassing figures will tell on this.
There was a fair bit of ‘regret’ on the left when the Copeland candidate was not the one Corbyn recommended and in fact was instead someone who had spoken out against Corbyn in the past. But, the chosen candidate was local, a doctor and NHS worker, so I can see why her name was put forward.
This of course goes back to the point above – was the Labour campaign in Copeland, in concentrating so much on the hospital closure and NHS in general the best course of action, considering the overriding spectre of Sellafield and the future of jobs?
Either way, the candidate should have known her stuff and have been strong enough to fight a rigorous campaign, including watching Labour’s back on ‘less helpful’ subjects for Copeland. But reports (which I am really hoping are incorrect) say that she could have done better. She missed interviews and an initial hustings and when Sellafield was mentioned, after saying that she fully supported it, she hastily moved on to the NHS.What about stressing again and again that it was Labour party policy to support Nuclear industries and local jobs?
Perhaps she did do that and her words were not reported…?
Which brings me on to…. The media were tireless in their pursuit of Labour candidates in both Copeland and Stoke, but while the Stoke candidate overcame this (and it appears also overcame dislike from some Labour voters), the Copeland candidate appeared to back off, with her helpers shielding her from confrontation.
Now, we have seen this with Corbyn being shielded at times, and it doesn’t work. It simply gives the media another stick to beat the candidate with. Labour needs to deal with the way ‘assertive questioning’ from the media is dealt with, and quickly.
Then there is the case of opposing candidates. Unlike in Stoke, where the Tory candidate appears to have been a ‘you’ll learn from this for later use’ candidate, the Tory candidate in Copeland was strong, assertive and well-chosen. And it showed. Copeland CLP and Labour central office chose their candidate later than the Tory one. Surely they should have looked at what they were up against?
It is said that the Corbyn-supported candidate was stronger, but that may just be wishful thinking. I don’t know. But for Labour to win elections it can no longer give the candidate position to someone just because they are liked by the CLP or who local members feel loyalty to for long service. The candidate has to fit the locality and the current situation. Gillian Troughton may well have been an able candidate in another constituency, particularly where the main issue is NHS cuts, but I’m not sure at all that she fitted the bill for Copeland.
Interference from ‘the moderates’:
Blair and Mandelson both intervened at a time when anyone who really wanted Labour to win Copeland (or Stoke) should have realised that their intervention was unhelpful to say the least.
To have an ex Labour PM calling for people to fight to Remain in Europe after Corbyn had assured the public that Labour would abide by the Leave decision, was undermining, and showed to people who didn’t really take that much notice of Labour infighting that Labour politicians could not be trusted to represent the people.
Mandelson’s attack on Corbyn, saying that he fought every day against him as Labour leader, demonstrated to voters that Labour was divided and that there are powerful forces in Labour who appear hell-bent on destroying the party unless it follows their particular vision.
Both of these interventions were bound to have an effect on the Labour vote, but luckily (and thanks to the extremely hard work put in by canvassers and candidate), the interventions failed to stop Labour winning Stoke (although it may well have lessened their votes). But in Copeland, a much more marginal seat, combined with all the other factors, they no doubt had an effect.
And then of course there was storm ‘Doris’:
It is often said jokingly that if God exists then she would be a Tory. Well, on Thursday ‘she’ also became a Tory force of nature, whipping through Copeland and Stoke, making all but the keenest voters doubt whether it was a good idea to risk the trip to the polling station that day.
Again, much credit to the canvassers who managed to get so many voters out to the polling booths and to those Labour voters who braved the storm to get there.
But storm Doris most likely had some effect on the turnout figures in both seats and it seems that a low turnout usually does not favour Labour…
Was the loss of Copeland Corbyn’s fault?
No. Despite the media doing its best to tell us otherwise. It was not.
But let’s be honest here. We cannot deny that while Corbyn is leader of the Labour Party the Party as a whole faces an even tougher fight to get their message out to the voters than they have had for years.
So, if Labour Party members want to keep Corbyn as leader, then they need to allow that things are going to be difficult (and often seem impossible) and find ways to counter this.
Does that mean that Corbyn has to be replaced (simply because it might be easier to get Labour’s point across with a different leader)?
No, certainly not. the last thing that Labour needs right now is another Leadership election. (although we must consider that a man in his late sixties should at least be considering a successor within the next few years).
But those around the leadership must work harder; much harder perhaps than they would have worked under a Labour leader from the right of the party.
What Needs To Be Done:
It is no longer simply a case of protecting Corbyn from the undoubted onslaught from the right, but a case of protecting and projecting his policies.
At the moment, if Corbyn resigned, a leadership election would not see any candidate from the left of the party able to get enough MP votes to stand, so Corbyn’s policies would be resigned with him.
Labour members cannot allow that to happen.
Sustained attacks from the right-wing of Labour, coupled with a biased media, are making it very difficult to get a positive view of Corbyn across, despite his policies which, if shown to be effective, are vote winners.
And Corbyn and his team must find a way to get his message across in a way which will appeal to ordinary voters.
No longer can they fall back on the ‘it’s the media’s fault’ excuse. Yes, it often is, but Labour now needs to quickly find effective ways to counter that.
Many Corbyn supporters are arguing that Corbyn needs to be stronger – to sack the detractors in the party.
But he is unable to do that, because he cannot rely upon the backing of Labour’s ruling body, the NEC.
However, the time has passed when members could fall back on blaming the NEC; the right of the party; ‘moderate’ CLPs; etc. If the Labour membership accepts that it wants Corbyn and his policies to remain then they have to fight for them.
In fact, all those who wish to keep Corbyn as leader really need to get their act together at every level.
Members need to ensure that they are working hard in their CLPs and applying for EC and even NEC places, plus membership of the policy forum and as delegates at regional; forums and at Labour’s next conference.
And this time those delegates need to be as sharp as the right-wing Progress and Labour First groups, and ensure that nothing is allowed to happen behind their backs.
It was all very well that Momentum had a great event called ‘The world Transformed’ as a fringe meeting at last year’s Labour Party Conference, but while that was going on, the right of the party brought forward and won the vote on changes to the NEC which were favourable to them. And the left were well…left unprepared.
This cannot happen again.
Corbyn supporters must be sharper, smarter and at least as ruthless as Labour groups on the right of the Party.
Any less than this and Corbyn, his policies and the movement which has grown around him will be pushed to the wayside and we will be back to a right-of-centre Labour Party which will not win at the ballot box, despite the ‘moderates’ assertions that it will.
Copeland was a bad result for Labour. Even considering all the points I’ve made above, it was still devastating to hear that result read out.
Labour cannot let that happen again.
We’ve seen some of the reasons why this happened (and I’m sure others could find more). Labour no doubt needs to learn from them, but they also need to learn how to move forward.
And for goodness sake do it quickly!
The country needs a strong Labour Party now.
Without it we are all sunk. Well, 99% of us are anyhow…