Thursday, 22 December 2016

Another by-election...but should we stand?

We have another by-election on the horizon - this time in Copeland, Cumbria, following the decision of incumbent MP Jamie Reed to literally take the nuclear option and call time on his political career.

Copeland is an interesting seat. On the face of it, it seems like it's Labour's to lose. After all, they've held it since 1935, and no party of government has gained a seat in a by-election from the main opposition since 1982. But those statistics don't tell the full story - this has often been a marginal Lab-Con seat. Frank Anderson won it for Labour 81 years ago with a majority of 352, and in more recent years since Labour have retained it with majorities of less than 2,000 (1,837 and 1,894 in 1983 and 1987 respectively). Reed's majority in 2015 was 2,564.

The media are playing this up as a three-horse race between Labour, the Tories and UKIP. Personally, I don't see UKIP as a significant player in this by-election. It is true that in 2015 they increased their vote share from 2.3% to 15.5%, but they still finished 10,000 voted behind Reed. They also have no local party to speak of, and failed to stand any candidates in the 2011 local elections for Copeland Borough Council. That changed in 2015 when they stood a single candidate, who finished fourth - which suggests the absence of a strong local organisation. They may well poll similarly to the General Election, but for all the media talk I can't see this as anything other than a straight Lab-Con fight. Paul Nuttall's already ruled himself out of standing, a sure sign he doesn't believe he can win.

What about the Tories? Well, they have good presence on the local council, but more tellingly they have strong and well-organised local parties not so far away - in Penrith and the Border and Westmorland and Lonsdale. Conservatives in Cumbria are relishing the opportunity to turn this patch of the county blue - not only because of what it means on a national level but also on account of the huge boost it will give them locally. They cut significantly into Tim Farron's majority at the General Election and haven't given up on taking back that seat.

As for Labour - well, their own problems are sufficiently well-documented I don't feel the need to add to what has already been said. Labour could well hang on in Copeland - especially if they select a good local candidate with both a knowledge of the area and a reputation for campaigning on the right issues (including the local NHS, which will be an issue of huge significance in the weeks to come). But while failure would increase the pressure on Corbyn's leadership, scraping home in a seat they've held for eight decades won't do a huge amount to relieve it.

What's in it for us? Well, not a lot. Fourth place seems a foregone conclusion. No doubt we would increase our vote and keep our deposit, which would be a victory of sorts. But, more importantly, we should be aware of what this by-election would mean for our wider strategy and message, especially in relation to Brexit.

Although the Tories held Witney and Sleaford and North Hykeham, our strong performances in both of those - in addition to the amazing win at Richmond - have helped pile the pressure on the government. Our sense of purpose, multi-faceted but focused on providing a voice for "the 48%", is something many have found themselves able to identify with and has had the Tories rattled. In Richmond, there were also appeals for a "progressive alliance" which, however vague and ultimately unheeded by Labour, seemed to have some level of popular support and resulted in the Greens standing aside.

Our messages on Brexit seem to be getting home. Tim Farron's uncompromising and clear position has resulted in significant progress being made in a short time, resulting in an increase of members and improved polling. The momentum is with us. The Prime Minister and her government have come under relentless pressure, their apparent indecision and lack of preparedness widely criticised. What a Conservative victory in Copeland would do is to undermine all that.

If the Tories win, the result would be spun (with some justification) as evidence of public support for Theresa May's Brexit strategy. It would be a major setback to the Lib Dem approach and would undoubtedly be a huge blow for the government. Irrespective of how we feel about Labour presently, we have to ask the question of what best serves our own party's interests at the moment. Would it be better for a divided Labour Party to scrape home, or would we prefer a triumphalist Conservative government to use the excuse of breaking an 81-year Labour stranglehold on a constituency to justify its populist position?

Essentially, if the Tories win we lose - irrespective of how much our vote share increases. Make no mistake - it would be a disaster, a setback of monumental proportions. It would arguably be even worse for us than it would for Labour.

Don't get me wrong, I don't believe we owe the Labour Party anything - especially after Richmond Park. But that's not really the issue. We have to do what is in our own best interests, and the worst thing that could happen in this two-horse race is for the Conservatives to win. Logically, we should therefore do what we can to avoid that outcome. This doesn't mean we should always take this approach, but we're talking within the context of a particular time and place. We could talk all we like about our terrific increase of the vote share, a positive campaign and a well-deserved 4th place...but will anyone notice if everyone's talking about the Tories' success and its implications?

That doesn't mean we should simply stand aside for Labour. But we should at least consider the option. The Greens stood aside for us in Richmond, because they saw the value in doing what was ultimately in their best interests. So did UKIP and the Conservatives, to encourage their supporters to vote for Zac Goldsmith. We shouldn't be afraid of doing the same, but it will require Labour to step up, open some positive dialogue and select a candidate who isn't ashamed to oppose the government's Brexit stance. That's unlikely of course, but it's an option and a potential opportunity. Just as Labour gained nothing from standing in Richmond Park, Copeland offers little for us. We could gain far more by standing aside for the right candidate than we do in standing what will ultimately be a paper candidate.

Certainly the only people welcoming this by-election will be Conservative activists. Ultimately much will depend on the Labour candidate, and clearly this is a decision for the local party to take. But I can't help feeling that the smart money will be on a Conservative win, and that is something we should do our utmost to prevent.

Update (24.2.17): The result, now declared, confirms the Conservatives as winners. Their candidate, Trudy Harrison, secured 13748 votes - with Labour's Gillian Troughton on 11,601. Rebecca Hanson for the Lib Dems came third with 2,252 votes, with UKIP disappearing into fourth (as I fully expected).

The Tories are predictably triumphalist. Already the victory is being spun as "historic" and proof of public approval of Theresa May's government. While our party may have finished in a creditable third place (and yes, that is an achievement) the losers here are anyone who cares for progressive politics.

Labour's predicament is one of their own making. That does not mean it is necessarily in our interests, or those of the country, to see them losing by-elections to the party of government - especially when that government is bent on pursuing socially destructive policies.

The question I asked remains valid. Our candidate polled sufficiently well as to be the difference between the two main parties in this race - if everyone who supported Rebecca Hanson had voted for Gillian Troughton, questions would be asked of the Tories' strategy and direction, while also providing a minor headache to a Labour Party who only just managed to hang on in their homelands. But most importantly, we'd have one fewer Tory MP.

I argued above that our main target shuld be the prevention of a Conservative victory - not for tribal reasons but because, in the context of the current political climate, that would provide a huge setback to our objectives. I don't know whether not standing a candidate would have made the difference, but I hope in the coming months we can have a serious conversation about how to effectively form some kind of loose alliance with a broadly progressive agenda. More United clearly isn't the answer, but when the alternative is the triumph of a particularly divisive expression of Conservatism a collaborative approach surely needs to be seriously considered.


Philip Thomas said...

If we stand aside, don't at least some of our votes go to the Tories, thus increasing the chances of a Tory win?

Andrew said...

Always possible of course. But I'd guess, especially in Cumbria, Lib Dem voters are far less likely to lend their votes to Tories.

Doesn't detract from my main point, however. How do we best ensure the Tories don't win? An intentionally low-key campaign? Or do we just campaign without pre-empting the result, and just hope that all our progress isn't destroyed by a Conservative victory?

Alan said...

This seat hinges on UKIP more than you might think. I just checked the 2010 results and straightaway, I noticed that Tory+UKIP adds up to 51.3%. If UKIP does not contest or deliberately undercampaigns, Labour is in serious trouble.

Also, Copeland EU vote:
Remain 14,419(38%)
Leave: 23,528(62%)

The best way to prevent a Tory win may actually be for UKIP to do well enough.

Andrew said...

I'm in agreement with that, Alan.

It's not that I don't think UKIP will get a decent vote - after all I predicted the best we could conceivably do is fourth.

What I do discount (unlike the mainstream media) is the scope for the UKIP victory. They may well have a say in the outcome, but they won't win themselves.

With no local organisation to speak of and a likely aggressive Tory campaign I'd think UKIP would find themselves squeezed, but they should still get somewhere between 3,000 and 5,000 votes. Which may well be decisive. Let's hope so. But I don't believe there's any serious chance of a new UKIP MP entering Westminster any time soon...

Andrew said...

And yes, Copeland was a strong pro-Leave constituency. Although as other Lib Dems point out that does mean 38% of local voters who voted Remain may be tempted to support our party in a by-election. (Personally I think that's too simplistic - and optimistic - but I can understand that kind of thinking).