Today the British Labour party faces two by-elections in what should be safe seats but with post-Brexit tremors still reverberating across the British political scene, and leader Jeremy Corbyn deeply unpopular in national opinion polls, a double disaster could be imminent.
• Labour faces difficult double by-election test
• Divided party and an unpopular leader under the microscope
• First post-referendum test for anti-Brexit Labour
• Double loss could throw party into chaos
Safe seats could suprise
Stoke-on-Trent Central in the British West Midlands and Copeland in the north-western Lake District area have elected Labour MPs since 1950 and 1983 respectively, so should in theory be a safe bet for a double win and a welcome boost for the party. But both seats voted to leave the EU in the recent referendum, against the direction taken by Labour.
Corbyn’s past critical comments about nuclear power have not gone down well in the Copeland constituency, home of the Sellafield nuclear fuel reprocessing plant which employs many local people. In an effort to fight back the party has focused on concerns about maternity services at the local hospital and issued leaflets claiming mothers and babies could be at risk if cuts are made.
Brexit Champion scores own goal
In Stoke, which voted by a majority of 70% to 30% to leave the EU, Labour faces the challenge of UK Independence Party (UKIP) leader Paul Nuttall, who has focused on Brexit and Labour’s opposition to it.
Despite being on the right side for the majority of the constituency, at least on this issue, his campaign has been overshadowed by allegations about being “economical with the truth”, to use that famous and polite description of telling lies. One of these included the allegation that he had lied about losing friends at the infamous Hillsborough disaster, in which 96 Liverpool fans died in the Sheffield stadium. Whether this will fatally damage his campaign remains to be seen but it has certainly cast a shadow and distracted from what UKIP hoped would be the main issue.
Double loss could signal suffering to come
Many commentators are predicting a Conservative win in Copeland, and perhaps a UKIP win in Stoke. If the Conservatives do take Copeland it will be the first by-election victory in the UK by a government party since 1982, so it would be a comparatively rare event which would underline how far the Labour party has fallen. To lose Stoke to UKIP would not be a big shock, but it would raise two important questions. How far can Labour fall in its traditional northern heartlands and how high can UKIP rise in a replacement role for these Labour voters?
For a party already divided by a battle for its soul, and still a long way from recovery, following two bitter leadership elections which ended with victory for Jeremy Corbyn, to lose both by-elections would a catastrophe. Anti-Corbyn members of parliament and party members would see this as the proof they need that the opinion polls are right and evidence that Corbyn will lead them to Labour’s biggest ever electoral disaster if he stays on as leader. His supporters, many of whom are young and/or have joined in the last year or so, are unlikely to accept a double defeat as the writing on the wall and time for a rethink.
Corbyn’s comments in recent days, about “problems with the media” seem to be preparing the ground for excusing poor performances in both constituencies.
Old loyalties die and an old party divides
If Labour is hit with a double dose of electoral reality today, in its first excursion into real opinion poll land since the Brexit referendum, this would be a signal that the UK political landscape could be about to change for ever.
In large parts of the north of England, where the Labour party has been able to rely on absolute tribal loyalty for generations, UKIP will sense that its moment has come if it wins Stoke. These areas which on the whole voted heavily for Brexit feel no sense of belonging to or identifying with a London-centric and hard left Labour party, or with a leader who won’t sing the national anthem, has made ambiguous statements about terrorism in the past and has, despite Brexit, refused to acknowledge concerns about immigration.
If UKIP can convince these voters that it is on their side, understands their concerns, and, crucially, has the ability to formulate policies which will help them, this could be the springboard it needs to grow into a genuinely national party. At the moment though, even given success in Stoke, the jury is still out on whether it can overcome internal squabbles and get a grip on the sort of problems which have damaged Paul Nuttall in this campaign.
Squeezed from one side by a loud and proud pro-Remain Liberal party in some constituencies, far behind a so far cool, confident but yet to be tested by Brexit negotiations Mrs May and her Conservatives in the polls, and perhaps soon to be devastated in the pro-Brexit working class parts of northern England, the Labour party seems set for a difficult path to perhaps its worst general election result ever.
Results today could decide whether it even faces the electorate in its current form or whether two parties will have emerged by then, to represent what seems increasingly likely to be a permanent parting of the ways on the British left.