Where is Copeland, and why is there going to be a byelection there?
Copeland is a large constituency on the Cumbrian coast, taking in Whitehaven (the old name of the constituency), part of the Lake District National Park and the Sellafield nuclear power plant. Labour’s Jamie Reed has been MP here since 2005 but he announced on Wednesday that he will quit at the end of January to take a job as Sellafield’s head of development and community relations. Reed has been a fierce critic of Jeremy Corbyn – he resigned from the front bench virtually the moment Corbyn’s election as leader was announced in 2015 – but he insists he is leaving parliament not as a Corbyn protest, but so that he can be at home as his children are growing up.
On paper, who should win?
In normal circumstances, a Labour hold would be a very safe bet. Copeland, and its predecessor seat, have been held by the party since the 1930s and, even though Reed’s majority was just 2,564 over the Conservatives at the last general election, it is highly unusual for the government to gain a seat at a byelection. In fact, it hasn’t happened since the Tories took Mitcham and Morden in 1982, after the Labour MP defected to the SDP and fought a byelection on behalf of his new party, ensuring that the 1979 Labour vote in the seat was split in half. Oh, and polling took place while the Falklands war was being fought, which didn’t help Labour either.
Surely things aren’t that bad for Jeremy Corbyn – why do the Tories think they’ve got a chance?
Because Labour’s national poll ratings are dire, and this will be the first byelection fought in a Labour/Conservative marginal since Corbyn was elected leader. At the 2015 general election, the Conservative share of the vote was 38%, and Labour’s 31%. The latest Guardian/ICM poll puts the Conservatives on 41% (+3) and Labour on 27% (-4), a swing of 3.5% from Labour to the Tories. In Copeland, Reed was on 42% at the general election and his Conservative opponent 36%. A 3.5% swing here would be just enough to enable the Tories to do a Mitcham.
Is that how byelections work?
Er, no. Sometimes there is a connection between how a party is doing in the national polls and how it performs in byelections, but sometimes there isn’t. In the five byelections held in Labour seats since Corbyn became leader, Labour has retained all five of them, with its share of the vote going up in four (Oldham West and Royton +7.5%; Sheffield Brightside and Hillsborough +5.8%; Tooting +8.7%; Batley and Spen – where other parties stood aside – +42.6%) and falling only fractionally in the fifth (Ogmore, -0.3%). Voters might have their doubts about Corbyn, but the party has not been choosing Corbynites as byelection candidates and voting Labour in a byelection won’t result in Corbyn becoming prime minister.
What is going to decide who wins?
At this stage, we just don’t know. The parties have not selected candidates, and it is not clear yet what is going to emerge as the key campaign issue.
There is a good chance that it could be the NHS. There is a huge row in the constituency at the moment about plans to downgrade maternity services at West Cumberland hospital in Whitehaven, which would involve some patients being sent 40 miles away to another hospital in Carlisle. Theresa May has defended the proposals, in words that could end up as a millstone around the neck of the Conservative candidate.
But, equally, it could turn into another Brexit byelection. Copeland council (which overlaps broadly but not exactly with the constituency) voted 62% to leave and, with Reed leaving parliament at the end of January, campaigning may start very soon after the supreme court ruling in the article 50 case, which could trigger a bout of media hysteria about Brexit supposedly being blocked. Ukip were third here at the general election, with 15.5% of the vote, and if they were to pick up more new votes from Labour than from the Tories, a Ukip surge could let the Tories in. Ukip’s new leader, Paul Nuttall, who is from the north-west, might have some appeal here, but financially and organisationally the party is in a weak state, and might not have the capacity to mount a strong campaign.
With Sellafield essential to the local economy, nuclear power will feature, too. Labour supports nuclear energy but a policy document Corbyn released during his 2015 leadership campaign saying he opposed “new nuclear power” (ie, new power stations) could be problematic.
So, will the Conservatives win?
The bookies think so, because they have the Tories as favourites (Conservatives 5/6, Labour 5/4). But in practice Labour’s prospects are probably quite a bit better than these odds suggest.
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