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James Plaskitt

Senior Counsel London

Jamie Reed and Tristram Hunt are not exactly household names. Both have taken new jobs. It is the possible consequences of their career moves that could make them more than footnotes in history.

It’s rare for the main opposition party to lose seats in Parliamentary by-elections; especially rare to lose them to the sitting government. You have to go back 35 years to see Labour losing a seat to the governing Conservatives in a Parliamentary by-election (Mitcham & Morden, 1982).

But it’s testimony to Labour’s plight, under Jeremy Corbyn, that on 23rd February, the party now faces the prospect of losing two Parliamentary seats in by-elections in one day.

Copeland

The constituency has a remarkably stable voting pattern over the last four general elections. Labour’s share has softened only slightly, from 51% in 2001 to 42% in 2015. The Conservative share is almost static at 36%. There are bigger movements for the minor parties, with UKIP coming from nothing to 15% in 2015, while the Liberal Democrats have declined from 10% in 2001 to 3% in 2015.

This stability should reassure Labour. But we are not in normal circumstances. Simply applying the national ‘swing’ since 2015 would give the Conservatives a win here. Since 2015, around one-third of Labour’s 2015 support has either departed or is seriously wavering.  Applied in Copeland, that too would hand the seat to the Conservatives – and this scenario appears to be borne out by Labour Party internal canvassing returns reported over the weekend..

Labour has a policy problem too. Employment in the nuclear power industry is vital to the constituency. Corbyn in the recent past has declared himself for decommissioning nuclear power.  That’s a vote-killer in Copeland.

With local NHS issues troubling the Conservatives, they may struggle to increase their vote. The result may hang on how far Labour’s share drifts down. If Labour ‘Remainers’ move to the LibDems, and Labour ‘Leavers’ drift towards UKIP, the erosion could be enough to hand victory to the Conservatives.

Stoke on Trent Central

The constituency paints a vivid picture of Labour’s steady decline in its heartlands. Labour’s vote share has tumbled from 61% in 2001 to just 39% in 2015. Labour has hung on to the seat because the anti-Labour vote has been split. The Conservative share has been pretty steady, moving from 19% in 2001 to 22% in 2015. But UKIP have gone from nothing to 23% in 2015, in a seat which voted heavily for Leave in the referendum. The Liberal Democrats have declined from 15% in 2001 to 4% in 2015. The BNP contested the seat in 2005 and 2010, picking up 7% of the vote.

Labour’s vote is clearly eroding in Stoke. Whether it loses the by-election or not largely hangs on whether any one alternative party can garner the anti-Labour vote. It’s hard to see that being the Conservatives. Their steady one-fifths share probably represents their limit.

But UKIP could potentially do something here, especially given the massive Leave vote in the referendum. It is being widely reported – though remains unconfirmed at this stage – that new UKIP leader Paul Nuttall will contest the Stoke seat. This clearly indicates that the party considers the seat to be potentially fruitful territory. But they would need Conservative voters to come over to them too.  The election record suggests the Conservative vote is rock steady; UKIP’s surge has come at Labour’s expense. So it may well turn on how many more Labour voters are prepared to move to UKIP. But is the incentive sufficient, now that Brexit is happening?

Immigration is a top issue in the constituency. Corbyn’s wavering around the subject will not reassure working class Labour voters in Stoke; they may wish to send him a message.

Prospects

Both are tough calls for Labour. The party will need strong candidates and a heavy mobilisation for the ground war if they are to prop up their chances. The resurgent Liberal Democrats have been scoring some remarkable successes in Labour heartlands in recent local government by-elections. But these two contests would be a massive stretch for them, especially as both voted heavily for Brexit.

For Labour, a great deals rides on the outcome.

Hold Both. Corbyn and his followers will breathe a mighty sigh of relief.  His position will be secure for the time being.  However, other moderate Labour MPs considering abandoning Westminster, but loyal to their local activists, may feel easier about doing so.  That doesn’t speak well of the party’s prospects.

Lose One. The rumblings about the Corbyn leadership gain some fresh momentum. A loss to the Conservatives in Copeland might be easier to write off than one to UKIP in Stoke. The latter would send shudders through Midlands and Northern heartland Labour constituencies. Corbyn would come under intense pressure to toughen his immigration stance, but to do so would dismay his core supporters.

Lose Both. The fissure between the Corbynistas and the voters would be gaping wide for all to see. His double-leadership victories will be instantly devalued. The leadership question would be back on, with full vigour. And if Corbyn can hold back the tide for a while, he would still have to face the meltdown in May, when hundreds of council seats will tumble. His prospects of surviving 2017 would not be good, as even some of his most loyal supporters near the top of the party would surely begin to question his continued viability as leader.

As she struggles with a faltering NHS, and Brexit woes, Mrs May has been given some welcome respite by the career moves of two young men. They have turned the focus back onto Labour and its unending travails.

This piece first appeared on the Cicero Elections website on 23 January. Cicero Elections is a free political information hub brought to you by Cicero Group.

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