Early next year we have an intriguing by-election lined up. The day after Parliament rose for its recess, Jamie Reed announced that he would be standing down as MP for Copeland to take up a role at Sellafield. This sent commentators scrabbling for their atlases and constituency guides. The following salient facts have been noted:
- Copeland and its predecessor seat Whitehaven have been Labour-held since 1935.
- The Labour majority is, however, just 7% over the Conservatives.
- No sitting government has won a by-election from the opposition since 1982 (and the last truly comparable case was in 1960).
- UKIP took 15% of the vote in 2015.
- The Lib Dems lost their deposit last time round.
- The Conservatives are doing better in the polls than they tallied at the last general election, while Labour are polling worse.
- The constituency favoured Leave by roughly 60:40.
Based on this, the betting public have initially installed the Conservatives as narrow favourites (evens or thereabouts) ahead of Labour (best price 6/4 with William Hill), with UKIP attracting interest at 10/1 or thereabouts too. Does this make sense?
All betting at this stage is a leap in the dark, given that we don’t know when the election is going to be or who the candidates are. On this occasion, however, the by-election is going to be still more of a leap in the dark because there’s a whole load of other stuff we don’t know either.
First, a few more things that we do know. All parties are going to struggle with logistics. Copeland is a remote rural constituency – it’s much quicker to walk from one end to the other of Islington South & Finsbury than it is to drive from one end to the other of Copeland. And that’s once you’ve got there: Whitehaven is 2 hours drive from Newcastle, 3 hours drive from Manchester and Glasgow and over 6 hours’ drive from London. Heck, it’s an hour’s drive from Carlisle. “Welcome to Egremont, gateway to Oblivia”, mocked Mike Harding.
Canvassers will have their work cut out. There will, however, be stunning views to enjoy. Copeland contains England’s highest mountain, Scafell Pike and a large part of the Lake District.
With all parties having just received raps on the knuckles from the Electoral Commission for their constituency expenses, we can expect them to be on their best behaviour. This, coupled with the remoteness of Copeland, may well mean that the campaign may be rather less intense than usual, even though its importance for the morale of at least two parties is substantial.
So what don’t we know? To date, Labour has mostly proved more resilient in actual elections than the low expectations set for it. Will that continue? It’s an open question.
Before the referendum, Labour put in perfectly respectable by-election performances in Oldham West & Royton, Ogmore and Sheffield Brightside & Hillsborough. All three of these constituencies went on to Leave by roughly 60:40. The mood music coming out of Oldham West & Royton in particular was terrible, but UKIP made no progress despite a lot of hype.
Since the referendum, the performance by Labour in Witney and Sleaford & North Hykeham was underwhelming (though better in each case than rumoured). In Richmond Park the Labour vote was ruthlessly squeezed by the Lib Dems. In none of these seats, however, was it remotely likely that Labour would win.
Copeland is the first seriously contested by-election since the referendum where a Labour vote can meaningfully affect the vote. Will the pre-referendum pattern in Labour-held seats hold good or will the post-referendum decline that Labour have registered in Conservative-held seats be the continuing trend?
The Conservatives will hope that their performance is as strong as it was in Sleaford & North Hykeham and not as poor as it was in Witney or (treating Zac Goldsmith as a Conservative, which seems reasonable given how many Conservative MPs canvassed for him) Richmond Park. It’s worth noting, however, that even in Sleaford & North Hykeham the Conservative share of the vote went backwards. If the Conservatives are going to win here, they are either going to have to break with all recent by-election precedent and increase their vote share (something that they have not achieved at any by-election since they entered government after the 2010 general election) or they are going to need to secure victory on a third of the vote or less.
The Lib Dems will hope to build on their recent success built around their Last Ditch Remain USP. It won them Richmond Park, got them a 20% swing in Witney and saw them gain strength in Sleaford & North Hykeham. They are far too far back to have any realistic chance of taking this seat but they can reasonably hope to make a reasonable advance in vote share.
UKIP have done consistently poorly in by-elections in this Parliament. Their supporters don’t care because the referendum was won. There’s no particular reason at present to suppose that their supporters are going to start caring by the time of this by-election and even if they do they don’t seem to have the organisation to run a by-election campaign.
Much is going to depend on choice of candidates. On current prices UKIP seem way too short and the Conservatives seem a bit too short. By default, therefore, Labour look quite a bit too long. Rarely has a value bet looked less appetising. Backing a party that is in disarray and in the doldrums in the polls is rarely rewarding. But you should probably hold your nose and do it.