Copeland gives a good demonstration of why governments so rarely gain by-elections
A wet and windy Saturday in Copeland is neither the time nor place to be wearing £250 brogues, as one volunteer reporting for duty in Egremont discovered (he was later spotted sporting rather less stylish but more functional off-white trainers).
I mention this not as advice – it’s too late for that – nor to poke fun at the volunteer, who shall remain nameless (it wasn’t me!), but as a miniature of the distance between the west of Cumbria and the big cities of Britain. Copeland is remote: very remote. Egremont, for example, is a long way from Barrow, never mind Manchester, Leeds, Edinburgh or London.
And that matters because geography is playing an unusually prominent role in the by-election. You might be forgiven for believing that Labour’s candidate in Copeland is Gillian Troughton. Not so. She will simply be the beneficiary of Labour’s votes on Thursday because of the tiresome technicality of having to nominate a human being. The real candidate is West Cumberland Maternity Unit, which is where geography comes in.
You don’t really get an accurate impression from looking at a map at how cut off the west of Cumbria is. It has a few A roads linking the bigger towns and the coast, and the whole is only a couple of dozen miles from the M6 and civilisation. In reality, these roads are narrow and twist and turn constantly; one snowfall could paralyse the county. Those who live there know that and are understandably worried about their local hospital being downgraded. Even in good weather (and there was precious little of that during my visit this weekend), it’s well over an hour’s trip to Carlisle, the offered alternative. West Cumberland Hospital therefore has a sizable personal vote and Labour is hitting the Conservatives over the issue extremely hard.
Will it be enough? I don’t know. I saw a fair amount of activity from Labour activists while I was there, though that might just have been happenstance as to where I was and where they were. I didn’t see any Labour posters at all, even in the towns and villages that must have formed the bedrock of Jamie Reed’s vote, and that of Jack Cunningham before him; just the occasional window bill. To be fair, there weren’t all that many Tory posters either but there were at least some. The whole election seems low-visibility.
The rule of thumb for by-elections is that they exist to allow the electorate to give someone a largely cost-free kicking, and that usually it will be the government on the receiving end. There is no risk of any new government being formed so the desire to ‘send a message’ can be sated. The question in Copeland is which of two competing targets will be most kicked? Will it be the anti-nuclear and ineffective Corbyn or will it be the Tory government which, through whatever delivery mechanisms, has responsibility through the NHS for the local hospital?
My guess is that it’ll be the latter. It’s a real live issue of genuine concern and the decision to send pregnant mothers to Carlisle over precarious roads is one that could only be taken in a comfortable city-based office; it is a brogues option for walking boot country. Add in the fact that no government has overturned an opposition majority of more than a thousand at a by-election since well before WWII* and the conclusion ought to be a Labour hold.
To that end, the betting value is on the Labour double, teaming Copeland up with Stoke Central: Labour is 3/1 with Ladbrokes to hold two seats they’ve represented since the 1930s.
* The most recent instance of a government overturning an opposition majority of more than 1000 at a by-election is definitional. There are several possible candidates but multi-seat constituencies, parties not contesting either the previous general election or the subsequent by-election and other complications mean it’s not possible to give a definitive answer. Assuming we exclude Bristol SE in 1961 (where Labour polled most votes but was disqualified), the most recent possible example would be the decidedly odd 1929 Liverpool Scotland by-election.