Friday, 24 February 2017
Some thoughts on Stoke and Copeland
And so the much anticipated by-elections of Copeland and Stoke threw up results that were interesting but not altogether surprising.
In Copeland, the result was what I feared it would be. True, there were positives for the Liberal Democrats - we increased our vote and moved into a creditable third place (up from 4th in 2015). I'm not sure it can be called a positive result for us, as a Tory win - the first time a party of government has gained from the official opposition since 1982 - has resulted in Conservative triumphalism and has inevitably been taken by the government as an indicator of approval in its policy direction. After Witney and Richmond Park, the momentum was very definitely with the Lib Dems - but there can be no escaping that the real winners last night were the government. Coming third of course represents some kind of progress, but I argued in December that our main objective should be to avoid a Tory win and that was, unfortunately, something we were unable to prevent.
The Conservative victory is as much a setback for everything we stand for as it is for Jeremy Corbyn's Labour Party. It's a defeat for progressive politics. This is so self-evident that I shouldn't have to explain the point further.
Labour is clearly a party with some real problems, most of them of its own making. Copeland is an unusual seat in that while it has been Labour-held for 81 years, for much of that time it was a two-way Lab-Con marginal. But in usual circumstances a Labour Party in opposition would hold somewhere like this, and hold it comfortably. On the other hand, the Conservatives have proven themselves able to squeeze UKIP and effectively appeal to UKIP supporters. Labour have an identity problem; the Tories are happy to adopt a new Euro-hostile, UKIP-lite identity.
I asked in December whether we should stand a candidate in Copeland at all. In the final analysis, our vote made the difference. In the absence of any constructive dialogue with Labour it is doubtful that any "progressive alliance" would have been possible, but I think serious questions now have to be asked about how collaboration around by-elections can take place. I suspect that More United isn't the answer, but we can ill-afford too many more Copelands.
The media were naturally far more interested in Stoke, not least because of their UKIP obsession. Would Paul Nuttall deliver on his promise to unseat Labour in their heartlands? Well, no - and no-one should realistically have expected him to. Nuttall is clearly a liability and, unlike Farage, struggles to be taken seriously.
In the event Labour held on easily, with UKIP (in spite of all the hype) very nearly falling into third place. Dr Ali, for the Lib Dems, did well to significantly increase our share of the vote and finish in a decent fourth. For me, the Stoke result was the least interesting and unlike Copeland there is not an obvious winner - yes, Labour have a new MP in Gareth Snell but it is clear the party has little direction and that victory was owed, in part at least, to UKIP's counterproductive strategy. There is, however, an obvious loser - and that was Paul Nuttall.
The UKIP leader might only be twelve weeks into his new job, but he staked a lot on this campaign and it failed spectacularly. He went into the campaign in the shadow of Nigel Farage and came out of it with any credibility he once had in shreds. In a constituency in which 70% of voters opted to leave, this really was UKIP's great chance of a historic breakthrough, whatever Nuttall said subsequently about Stoke being way down the list of UKIP target seats. Nuttall successfully managed to transform himself from a relative unknown to a figure of fun and ridicule - quite a triumph in the space of a few weeks. His "honeymoon" period is well and truly over. Indeed, when he insisted that UKIP "aren't going anywhere, and I'm not going anywhere" he was inadvertently making a significant admission. His party aren't going anywhere. Like Labour they are directionless, reduced to unsubtle appeals to working class voters and taking populist potshots at "the establishment".
In all the excitement, for all parties (the Tories aside) there will be some disappointment. For the Lib Dems, there will be some encouragement that the toxicity that saw us reduced to eight MPs in 2015 is evaporating. In both contests our vote share was up on the General Election, which looks good on paper and is certainly evidence that we are moving in the right direction. However, given the huge effort in Stoke, can a distant fourth place be called a good result? There is clearly still progress to be made to get back to 2010 levels. And, while we moved into third place in Copeland at the expense of UKIP (even if it was the second lowest percentage of the vote we have received in that constituency since 1979) a Tory win was the last thing we needed - I suspect I'm not the only party member to see that as a disastrous outcome and a significant setback to the pro-EU, pro-inclusive, tolerant approach being advocated by Tim Farron.