t has been quite a remarkable week in British politics with two by election results showing a developing trend that will sit uneasily with supporters of the Labour Party and probably mean that this country is set for a Conservative government at least till 2025.
The first of these by-elections was in a constituency called Copeland. It has been a safe Labour seat since 1935 and the last time that an opposition party lost a safe seat to a sitting government in a by-election was in 1982. But Labour managed to create records on both scores as it lost to the Conservatives by over 2000 votes which, in a by-election in these parts is deemed a comfortable majority.
The turnout was not great but the Conservative candidate polled 44.3 per cent of the votes, increasing the Conservative share over the 2015 general election by eight per cent and a swing towards the Tories of six per cent. In terms of the increase in its share of the vote, it was the best by-election performance by a governing party since 1966, just
over 50 years.
The other by-election was in the constituency of Stoke Central, which again has been a safe Labour seat since anyone can care to remember. Labour held on to it, but by a majority decreased almost by half with a strong challenge by the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) leader who was beaten into second place. Stoke was one of those Labour constituencies which, in the Brexit referendum in June 2016, had voted strongly to leave the EU and the logical expectation therefore was that it would go in favour of the UKIP candidate. And so it might have been had not the UKIP candidate made the most spectacular mess of his campaign. He had claimed, back in 2011, that he had lost close friends at the Hillsborough football disaster, the incident in 1989 in which 96 football fans in Sheffield lost their lives in a stampede while 766 were injured. It was by some distance the most tragic footballing disaster in the UK, but the UKIP leader’s attempt to gain sympathy on the back of this backfired hugely when it turned out that his claim was not true but a part of what now, in the post-Trump world, has come to be known as the ‘alternative truth’.
But there was more to it than that. The fact is that many voters realised that all that UKIP stood and worked for was for Britain to leave the EU and now that that argument had been settled, it had very little more to offer. They were thin on policies and you may be able to get away with that sort of thing in Pakistan, but not here. For that matter, fibbing about having close friends in a public disaster would perhaps not be considered a misdemeanour at all in the Pakistani political climate, but here it has been enough to lose a candidate a by-election and quite possibly mean that his party now becomes an irrelevance in British politics.
The prospect of spending another eight odd years under Tory rule is a daunting one. The fact that this is now almost a certainty in spite of the savage cuts they have imposed on many public services almost beggars belief. People moan every day and everywhere about these cuts; in my local GP’s surgery in what is at best a small town in Kent, the electronic message board tells all patients that the resources of the surgery have been cut by almost a third in the last five years. Yet, the Tories are way ahead in the polls.
Perhaps it was not really the Tories who won in Copeland but Labour who lost it. The messages coming out from Labour are very mixed and there are many who feel that its leader Jeremy Corbyn is fighting the battles of the 60s, the battles between leftist and rightist ideologies that, as far as British politics is concerned, have long since been settled. Corbyn’s message during Brexit and the parliamentary battles that have followed since have been ambiguous and limp so that he has not managed to win the support of either side of the argument. There was a huge opportunity with 48 per cent of British people having voted to stay in the EU and now that figure has almost certainly gone up with news of economic uncertainty and problems in the future hitting the stands on an almost daily basis. But when the matter for empowering the government to proceed with Article 50 formally signifying the UK’s decision to leave the EU came before the House of Commons, Corbyn ordered all Labour MPs to vote on the same side as the government. Quite a few disobeyed him, adding to the growing belief that Labour itself did not know which road it wanted to go on. Now with the defeat in Copeland, it is becoming increasingly clear that this road will only take Labour to a hammering of frightful proportions in the next general elections. Much of it is down to Corbyn himself but when asked whether he was reconsidering his position after the defeat in Copeland, he said he was going nowhere. Neither, it seems, is the Labour Party. •