Jamie Reed, Labour MP for Copeland, has decided he doesn’t want to be a member of parliament any longer. This will trigger a by-election that it would be drastically understating the facts to call tricky for the Labour Party, to take place early in 2017. To say this is exactly what they did not need would again be to play down how bad this is for Corbyn’s crew.
Copeland is in Cumbria. It has always been a Labour seat, but apart from in 1997, by a narrow margin against the Tories. It voted by a reasonable percentage to leave the European Union in June. Sellafield is in the constituency and that’s a whole other can of worms for Labour that needs another article just to introduce properly (Reed is quitting to take up a job in the nuclear energy industry). As if all that wasn’t enough, the seat will be heavily butchered in the boundary changes, so getting worthy candidates to stand for Labour just got that little bit more difficult.
Let’s talk good case scenarios and bad ones for Labour. The best I can imagine is a narrow hold over the Tories, with UKIP staying roughly where it was in 2015 (they got 15%), with the Lib Dems in a distant fourth place or worse. It would provide Labour with a desperately needed by-election victory, as well as demonstrate that they can still win in their old seats where Leave won the day. It would also be a very flat first run for UKIP’s reboot in the north, which on its own would be fantastic for Labour.
The most credible worst-case scenario I can imagine is pretty grim for Labour. Tories win the seat, with UKIP in second, Labour in third, and the Lib Dems not significantly behind. Not only would they have lost another by-election in opposition, this time in a held seat. UKIP would be shown to be able to at least get more votes than them in a northern constituency. A Lib Dem mini-resurgence would show the salience of Brexit in voters minds – and that Labour are definitely caught in no man’s land in the issue.
What do I think will actually happen in the by-election? A narrow Tory win with Labour losing by less than a thousand votes. UKIP in a very distance third, barely increasing their vote share. The Lib Dems will probably keep their deposit, but not much more. This is still a very bad result for Labour – they really need to win this one.
Yet even if they lose, expect no problems for Corbyn in the near future. The current electoral misfortunes of the Labour Party are always conveniently someone else’s fault, and losing a by-election caused by the resignation of an MP who once described Corbyn’s leadership as “poisonous” will definitely not be the exception.