Corbyn's Labour under pressure in British by-elections

Ukip leader Paul Nuttall (centre) campaigning in Stoke on Wednesday. Meanwhile, the ruling Conservatives are gunning for a separate Labour-held seat.
Ukip leader Paul Nuttall (centre) campaigning in Stoke on Wednesday. Meanwhile, the ruling Conservatives are gunning for a separate Labour-held seat.PHOTO: WASHINGTON POST

Party may lose in two districts, posing a new challenge to main opposition party's chief

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

Voters went to the polls yesterday in Copeland, in north-west 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, as the norm is for opposition parties to gain seats in British by-elections, not lose them.

And although the party's support in both constituencies has shrunk over the years, neither was on a knife-edge in the 2015 general election. Then, Labour won with a lead of 6.5 percentage points over the Conservatives in Copeland and was 16.7 points ahead of the UK Independence Party (Ukip) 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.

CHANCE FOR UPSET GAIN

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.

MR MATT SINGH, of political analytics website Number Cruncher Politics.

That presented an opportunity for Ukip whose new leader, Mr Paul Nuttall, is running for the seat.

In Copeland - also pro-Brexit and a district whose economy depends on a local nuclear plant - Mr Corbyn's hostility to nuclear power may hold the party back.

Bookmakers make Prime Minister Theresa May's Conservatives the favourites to capture Copeland. It would represent a unusual by- election gain for a ruling party. According to Mr Matt Singh of Number Cruncher Politics, one would have to go back to 1878 to find an equally extraordinary result.

"Government gains in by-elections aren't just exceptionally rare, the examples that have occurred are mostly the product of freakish circumstances," Mr 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."

Mrs May's party has been campaigning hard in Copeland - the Prime Minister visited last week - in the hope of an upset.

The threat from Ukip, which was at one point listed by bookmakers as the favourite to win in Stoke, seems to have receded after Mr Nuttall faced questions about the veracity of statements he had 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 had previously held the seats as Conservatives.

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

Defeat for Labour in one or both constituencies might hasten another challenge to the party leader.

Mr Corbyn has trailed in national polls since he took over in 2015 and has already seen off one challenge to his leadership last summer.

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.

One initial supporter, Mr Clive Lewis, quit as the party's business spokesman this month in protest against his leader's support for beginning Brexit talks.

Even so, Mr Corbyn is likely to remain where he is for now, whatever the by-election results, according to University of Nottingham professor Steven Fielding who studies politics. "If Labour wins both, he will cling on, but even if they lose both, I think he'll do that too," Prof Fielding said.

Polling was to continue in both constituencies until 10pm local time (6am today, Singapore time), with the results due today.

BLOOMBERG

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 24, 2017, with the headline 'Corbyn's Labour under pressure in British by-elections'. Print Edition | Subscribe