This is no ordinary week for Labour. The by-elections in Stoke and Copeland are the first major electoral test for Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership since his second emphatic leadership election victory last year. Recently, most Labour rebels have accepted Corbyn’s mandate to lead and redirected their attention towards the Government’s Brexit agenda. However if Labour loses one or both of these seats, plotting is sure to resume in an attempt to ward off electoral wipe-out in 2020.
The Copeland constituency was represented by arch-Blairite Jamie Reed. Popular amongst pro-EU Labour moderates, Reed was one of Corbyn’s main critics, especially regarding the leader’s perceived ambivalence during the Referendum campaign. However, Copeland voted overwhelmingly Leave last June, and so Labour’s current preferred position of Brexit-lite may curry favour. This constituency exemplifies the contrast between Leave voters in the English regions, and the metropolitan Europhiles who ran Labour for the past 2 decades. The Conservatives believe they’re in with a real shout in Copeland, in a further indication that English Toryism is appealing more and more to traditional Labour areas. Labour are looking to fight this election on local issues including the West Cumberland Hospital and the Sellafield Nuclear facility. However, if voters continue to prioritise the EU and immigration over other such concerns, the Tories’ hard-Brexit messages may well pay off.
Labour are also fending off Brexit-borne nationalism in Stoke-on-Trent, this time from UKIP rather than the Conservatives. Tristram Hunt’s resignation to assume directorship of London’s V&A museum underscores the gulf between working-class Labour voters and the MPs who represent them. Like Copeland, Stoke comprehensively voted Leave in the Referendum. Amidst efforts from the Liberal Democrats, elements across the House of Lords and even Tony Blair himself to directly obstruct Brexit, the allure of UKIP, the party of Euroscepticism, might prove too strong. Questions over the personal calibre of UKIP’s candidate and Party leader Paul Nuttall appear to have bought Labour some breathing space, but many Labour elites are very worried indeed.
Two seats will not make a huge difference in the grand scheme of Brexit. However, they will be an indication of Labour’s fortunes in its traditional working class, northern strongholds. Victory will buoy Corbyn and suggest that his embrace of Brexit is the right strategy. Defeat will revive his opponents and suggest that Labour should vigorously fight for EU membership, which is of course impossible under the current leadership. This week will show whether it’s possible for Labour to take a position on the EU which satisfies their entire coalition of liberal metropolitan and working class English voters. These by-elections will, in short, show us whether the Labour party’s schism is cosmetic, or runs deeper.