The by-elections in this Parliament are four or five party contests

Late last year I argued on this site that the progressive alliance strategy favoured by Compass might work in by elections, but not in general elections. Afterwards I suggested that Brexit dominates British politics. Poll data is starting to indicate people vote for their Referendum position – and a recent poll suggested only 15% of Leavers were prepared to vote Labour. Put these two factors together with recent by-elections and the run up to the Copeland by election becomes a tale of five parties.

Tim Farron argued after the Witney by election on October 20th  that the Liberals were back, restoring three party politics.

The Richmond by-election seemed to back this but as UKIP stood down and backed the Tory Candidate, Goldsmith only nominally being independent, as the Greens stood down and backed the Lib Dems, this was three party politics by proxy. In the event the progressives backed the Lib Dems, Labour voters also went with the Lib Dems, and the reactionaries showed they could form their own tactical alliances

Witney offered more pointers to the new world of five party politics in England though as turnout dropped from 73.3% to 46.8% there has to be caution. But with the Greens and UKIP doing badly on October 20th – factors which may have helped the Richmond decisions – and losing their deposits, Labour losing half its vote and the Lib Dems having a 23.4% swing, Farron looked to be correct, and to be reinforced by Richmond.

However both Richmond and Witney were Remain seats in the referendum, though Witney only by 53.5% to 45.4% and a pro Brexit Tory held the seat, while the same did not happen in the much stronger Remain seat of Richmond.

The role of Brexit has yet to be tried in a strong Leave seat. But Copeland and now Stoke are just such a seats.

In Copeland 62% of those who voted going for Leave, and this poses obvious problems for Labour. Particularly if it tries to trim towards Brexit.

However the big issues are for UKIP or the Lib Dems. For the Lib Dems, Copeland looks like a lost deposit. Their vote dropped from 4,365 in 2010 to 1,368 in 2015. No surge in a Leave constituency is likely for a Remain party, and a bad result could destabilise Farron in his own neighbouring seat. The Greens I regard as electorally irrelevant, a party that only exists to pay over lost deposits. They rose from 389 to 1,179 at the general elections, but there is nothing in Copeland for them but paying more money to HM Treasury.

UKIP faces the most interesting problems. While the Lib Dems are pretty much dead in Copeland, UKIP with 3rd place and 6,148 votes is on the horns of a dilemma. If they don’t stand and back the Tories – and the Tories might well have a Leave candidate – this raises the issue of what the point is of UKIP?  While we mull over that question, the issue for Labour is how to combat its appeal to some Labour voters.

Paul Nuttall has made a good start as leader, and his stance of taking Labour votes and challenging for their seats is a sound one, with Copeland and Stoke offering a couple of tantalising chances of doing just that, and perhaps overtaking the Tories to take the seat. Long odds but not impossible if the Tories stay split over Europe.

Certainly it would be difficult for UKIP to keep standing aside in by elections. They did badly in Witney, and stood down in Batley and Richmond as these were unusual elections. But can they afford to stand down in Copeland? This a seat they will find challenging. But can they afford to duck the challenge?

What is clear is that the by-election scene is not a 3 party race. Four and even five parties are in the frame, if we give the Greens a place. For Copeland, the scene is particularly confusing, but this is a Britexit seat and the progressive parties are on the back foot. If the Greens decide not to stand – which could threaten their future, making three elections in a row they have not fought – then we have a four party race. How that plays out will be tortuous, and imponderable. All that can be said is that Farron is wrong. We are not back to three party politics.

Trevor Fisher

This article was first published in Labour Uncut

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