Labour has faced no greater electoral test since May 2015 than the Copeland by-election. The party held the constituency by just 2,564 votes at the general election and risks losing votes to the Conservatives, Ukip and the Lib Dems. Were the Tories to win (having finished second last time), they would be the first government to gain a seat since the Mitcham & Morden by-election in 1982.
With no electoral spending limit imposed until Labour’s Jamie Reed formally resigns, the Conservatives have already begun distributing leaflets highlighting Jeremy Corbyn’s opposition to nuclear power (“I say no nuclear power, decommission the stations we’ve got”). The seat is home to the Sellafield plant (where Reed will become head of development and community relations) and a new power station could be opened in 2024.
The Tories, who are the bookmakers’ favourite to win, have signalled their intent. As the Times reports, 100 activists and 10 MPs recently campaigned in the seat and another canvassing session is planned this weekend.
With the odds against them, Labour MPs regard the choice of candidate as crucial. Among those who have made the longlist, which the party’s NEC will whittle down to four, are Rachel Holliday, a local Unite activist and Cumbria’s Woman of the Year in 2015, former Scottish Labour MP Thomas Docherty, Gillian Troughton, a trained orthopaedic surgeon and local councillor, and two more councillors: Tim Knowles and David Southward.
Corbyn’s favoured candidate is Holliday and MPs fear that the NEC panel (which includes leadership allies Jon Trickett, Jenny Formby and Christine Shawcroft) will sideline strong contenders to give her the best hope of winning. For Corbyn, the selection presents a dilemma. A pro-leadership candidate would strengthen his authority (Corbynite candidates have been notably unsuccessful in previous contests). But it would also make it harder for him to avoid the blame if the seat is lost.
His opponents face a comparable dilemma. Though they believe that a non-Corbynite would give Labour the best chance of winning (citing the example of Oldham’s Jim McMahon), it will be harder for them to blame Corbyn if his candidate of choice is rejected. Whichever side triumphs will own victory or defeat.
Were the Tories to triumph, Theresa May would face greater pressure than ever to seek an early general election. But though the Prime Minister may yet need one, she emphatically does not want one.