Labour and Corbyn Under Pressure in Brexit-Flavored By-Elections

  • May’s Conservatives seeking gain unparalled since 19th century
  • New UKIP leader Nuttall is running in Brexit citadel Stoke

The outcome of parliamentary by-elections in two British districts on Thursday may add to pressure on Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the main opposition Labour Party.

Voters go to the polls in Copeland, northwest England, and Stoke-on-Trent Central in the Midlands, two districts that Labour has always held. In normal circumstances, there would be little interest in either contest. The norm is that opposition parties gain seats in British by-elections, they don’t lose them.

Though the party’s support in both constituencies has shrunk over the years, neither was on a knife-edge in the 2015 general election: Labour won with a lead of 6.5 percentage points over the Conservatives in Copeland and was 16.7 points ahead of the U.K. Independence Party in Stoke. But in both districts Labour now faces a threat. 

Stoke voted strongly to leave the European Union, while Labour campaigned to stay in, and the party has since been split on how to respond to Brexit. That presented an opportunity for UKIP, whose new leader, Paul Nuttall, is running for the seat. Meanwhile, in Copeland, also pro-Brexit and a district whose economy depends on a local nuclear plant, Corbyn’s hostility to nuclear power may hold the party back.

Read more on the background to the by-elections

Bookmakers make Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservatives the favorites to capture Copeland. It would represent a unusual by-election gain for a ruling party, and according to Matt Singh of Number Cruncher Politics, you have to go back to 1878 to find a result that would be equally extraordinary.

“Government gains in by-elections aren’t just exceptionally rare, the examples that have occurred are mostly the product of freakish circumstances,” Singh wrote on his blog. “The Conservatives are trying to do something that hasn’t been done on a genuine like-for-like basis for 139 years, since a time when women couldn’t vote and secret ballots had only been in use for one general election.”

May’s party has been campaigning hard in the northwestern district -- the prime minister visited last week -- in the hope of an upset. Meanwhile, in Stoke, the threat from UKIP, which was at one point listed by bookmakers as favorite to win, seems to have receded, after Nuttall faced questions about the veracity of statements he’d made about his past. A UKIP gain would also be unprecedented: The party’s only previous House of Commons election victories have been by defectors who’d held the seats previously as Conservatives.

Read more about the mood on the ground in Stoke

Both Thursday’s by-elections were caused by the decisions of the sitting lawmakers to take jobs outside Parliament.

Defeat for Labour in one or both constituencies might hasten another challenge to the party leader. Corbyn has trailed in national polls since he took over in 2015 and has already seen off one challenge to his leadership, in the summer of 2016. But there are signs that even his original supporters are growing unimpressed with his performance, especially his handling of the Brexit referendum and its aftermath. Clive Lewis, one of them, quit as the party’s business spokesman this month in protest at his leader’s support for beginning Brexit talks.

Even so, Corbyn is likely to remain where he is for now, whatever the by-elections produce, according to Steve Fielding, professor of politics at the University of Nottingham.

“If Labour wins both he will cling on, but even if they lose both I think he’ll do that too,” Fielding said. “MPs aren’t going to invoke another vote of no confidence, and he’s not resigning until the left changes the nomination rules, which they can’t do before the annual conference” of the party in September. “But he’s a zombie leader whatever happens,” Fielding said.

Polling continues in both constituencies until 10 p.m. local time, with the results due in the early hours of Friday morning.

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