The Conservatives may be about to wipe Labour off the map in the North, as the SNP did in Scotland
by Michael Fabricant
former Conservative Vice Chairman, Campaigning
The Conservative victory in Copeland is truly historic. Not since 1982 has a Government in power won a Parliamentary seat from its main Opposition in Parliament ? a seat which Labour had held since 1935. And the magnitude of the win is magnified after seven years of tight fiscal control by Conservative Chancellors.
Labour has enjoyed near one party rule in the north. As John Woodcock and other Labour MPs have commented this morning, their comfortable reign is coming to an end. ?The Tories are after us.? Like on the tv series Game of Thrones, ?Winter is Coming? only this time it?s a blue tide.
And the Copeland result is even more remarkable in the light of 23rd of February not just being a by-election, but Doris Day too. The storm which hit the north west coast of England particularly hard affected rural voters more than those in tight urban areas where polling stations are more accessible. Conservative voters in the countryside had to brave falling trees and windswept moorlands to vote and there was a very real fear that this would keep them at home and give the Labour urban heartland a huge advantage.
Although Labour managed to cling on in Stoke Central, after a truly appalling campaign by UKIP?s candidate Paul Nuttall who spent most of his time being forced to apologise or explain his comments on Hillsborough or of women on television, there will be little comfort in Labour?s HQ this morning. For the reality is that it was not a Labour win in Stoke, but a relatively close UKIP loss.
I spent time in Stoke on Trent and Copeland on the campaign trail and the sense of utter despair amongst Labour voters with their leadership was complete: and this was reflected in the low turnout particularly in Stoke on Trent ? just 36.7% down from 49.9% in the 2015 General Election.
But a pattern is beginning to emerge. The long hoped for Liberal-Democrat revival is just not happening. And despite UKIP?s failure to seize Stoke, Labour MPs and mayoral candidates will be worried that their hegemony in the north of England is vulnerable as UKIP gain votes from Labour rather than from the Conservatives.
It is worth exploring this in more detail.
Despite the Liberal Democrats? Leader, Tim Farron, holding the adjoining seat of Westmorland and Lonsdale and making frequent forays into Copeland ? I met him in Keswick during the campaign and saw many Lib-Dem activists out on the streets of Whitehaven in the Copeland constituency ? their vote in this by election only rose to 2,252 from 1,368 in the 2015 General Election.
And in Stoke on Trent the Liberal Democrats failed to make any inroads coming a poor fourth with just 2,083 votes compared with 1,296 in 2015.
So after all the talk following the recent Witney by election, caused by David Cameron?s resignation from Parliament, of a tidal wave which will sweep the Liberal Democrats back into Parliament as a major force, this has come to nothing. Their triangular posters ?Liberal Democrats winning Here? proved to be just froth.
Meanwhile, UKIP?s showing in Stoke while not representing the breakthrough they had hoped for, is uncomfortable for Labour MPs. With the right candidate, they might have won. Paul Nuttall managed to reduce the UKIP vote from 7,041 in 2015 to 5,233 only just above the Conservative candidate?s, the feisty Jack Brereton, whose result in this by election was 5,154. As with so many elections, UKIP will be asking whether they could have won the seat had it not been for the Hillsborough controversy and their candidate.
While the Copeland result may not topple Jeremy Corbyn, he deserves a gold star for digging his heels in, Labour MPs will see uncomfortable parallels with the SNP?s victories in Scotland.
For too long, they have taken their Labour vote in the north for granted growing fat on the lack of a credible opposition. All this is beginning to change.
Speaking with Labour mayoral candidates for the major metropolitan areas in the north, they fear that in some areas UKIP and in other areas the Conservatives will sweep away their previously built in majorities. This could benefit the bookies? favourite in Birmingham, Andy Street ? the former chief executive of John Lewis ? who is hoping to become Conservative Mayor of the West Midlands in the elections on May 4th. As at least one Labour mayoral candidate for a northern conurbation has already said to me: ?If UKIP or the Conservatives do well in the Copeland and Stoke by elections, I will be shoring up my own defences and not be sending people down to help the Labour candidate in Birmingham.?
By elections can notoriously forecast a false dawn, but the win in Copeland and the Conservative?s and UKIP?s relatively strong performances in Stoke on Trent demonstrate a shift in the north away from Labour. Conservatives can feel more confident of victory in the future: the Mayoral elections in early May and the 2020 general election ? though, I as I always hope with my old campaigning hat on, never with a scintilla of complacency.
So Labour in the North: We are coming for you!