Conventional wisdom is that opposition parties perform well and gain ground in by-elections while governing parties don’t. In Stoke Central, Labour managed to retain their seat, albeit with a reduced majority. The Conservative’s win in Copeland, however, was nothing short of a disaster for Labour in a constituency they have consistently held since the 1980s. It is the first by-election gain by a governing party since 1982.
There has been a temptation since the EU referendum to view subsequent electoral contests primarily through the lens of Brexit. Brexit, it is argued, is the new divide in British politics. Voters are aligned to remain or leave. There are remain constituencies and there are leave constituencies. This narrative was present in coverage in the run up to yesterday’s by-elections – to some extent in Copeland and to a large extent in Stoke. Media coverage was keen to highlight that both constituencies voted leave in the referendum. With around 70% voting for ‘leave’ in June’s EU referendum, Stoke attained the status of “the Brexit capital of Britain”, making it a prime target for the new UKIP leader Paul Nuttall, keen to reach out to disaffected Labour voters. Candidates were initially assessed not on their broader appeal to the local electorate, but whether they supported remain or leave in the referendum, whether they would respect the result of the referendum and so on. It’s a narrative that worked well with the Richmond by-election in December 2016, but cannot be applied so readily to yesterday’s by-elections.
Brexit no doubt played a role yesterday, but the result in Stoke in particular challenges the simplistic narrative that constituencies and voters can be neatly divided into “remain” and “leave”. Instead, questions can be raised about a range of other possible factors which have played a role.
For example, what impact has the popularity of party leaders had? Labour’s problems arguably run much deeper than its current leadership, but Jeremy Corbyn is by no means a popular leader. In the latest YouGov poll only 15% think he is best for Prime Minister, compared to 49% for Theresa May. Following her election last night, the Conservative victor Trudy Harrison was explicitly clear in attributing her success in what had been a long-term Labour seat to the fact that voters in Copeland simply felt that “Jeremy Corbyn doesn’t represent them”. This was despite the future of the local NHS hospital being one of the key issues locally, something Labour traditionally should have been able to capitalize on.
What about the quality of the candidates themselves? In Stoke, both Snell and Nuttall were the focus of significant media attention. Snell received significant criticism following the revelation of his less than squeaky clean social media history. And Nuttall too for his claims about Hillsborough and his potential breach of electoral law by failing to list his actual address on the nomination forms. Snell was able to draw on his local connections to Stoke, while Nuttall was never going to be able to shift his status as an opportunistic parachute candidate.
What about the local campaigns? The Conservatives put a lot of effort into the on-the-ground campaign to win Copeland, and it clearly paid off. Labour similarly had a heavy presence on the ground in Stoke, while UKIP’s efforts there were hardly a model for an efficient party campaign machinery in action. Again, Nuttall’s failure to list his correct address on his nomination form, along with his absence from some local hustings events are illustrations of this.
And what about the issues that resonate with local people (all politics is local after all)? Much has been made of the importance of the nuclear industry as a major employer in Copeland. To what extent did the current Labour leadership’s perceived ambivalence and lack of commitment to nuclear play on voters’ minds there? In Stoke, despite the high leave vote in June’s referendum, Brexit barely got a mention in the local campaign. Rather the performance of the local hospital, the future of other local public services and a general dissatisfaction with Westminster politics were key issues on the doorstep. This was even recognized by UKIP, and Nuttall was keen to point out in hustings (those that he attended) that Brexit wasn’t the most important issue at stake in the by-election.
Yes, certain areas voted predominately to leave, and others to remain. But yesterday’s by-elections show us the picture is far more complex than this simple characterization would have us believe. Leave vs. remain becomes rather more murky when you throw in the dynamics of party competition, for example. For those of us that study politics, this reaffirms the complexity of electoral contests, and the need to consider a range of local and national factors that have the potential to influence voter behaviour and the outcome of elections. Brexit and the proportion of leave/remain voters in any given area may be one of a number of explanatory factors explaining electoral outcomes, but it is important not to lose sight of local context.