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24 February 2017

Labour loses Copeland to the Tories but clings onto Stoke-on-Trent Central

It is the first time a party in opposition has lost a by-election to a governing party since 1982.

By Julia Rampen

Labour have lost the seat of Copeland, which they have held since 1935, to the Conservatives. 

Meanwhile, the party only narrowly saw off a threat from the right-wing populist Ukip leader Paul Nuttall in Stoke-on-Trent Central.

Jeremy Corbyn, who is to set out the party’s path to Brexit today, tweeted: “Labour’s victory in Stoke is a decisive rejection of Ukip’s politics of division. But our message was not enough to win through in Copeland.”

The Labour leader’s unpopularity with the country at large is likely to loom large in the by-election post-mortem. In Copeland, an area heavily reliant on the nuclear industry, the Tories made much of Corbyn’s unwillingness to counter further expansion.

In Copeland, the Tory candidate, Sellafield worker Trudy Harrison won with 13,748 votes, beating Labour’s Gill Troughton by 2,147 votes. The Conservatives won with an increase of 8.5 points, taking 44.3 per cent of the vote.

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The election was characterised as one of “nuclear vs the NHS”, with locals also worried about a relocation of hospital services which could leave them travelling 40 miles for treatment. Despite a candidate who was a former doctor, and the NHS being Labour’s bread and butter, the party failed to keep the seat.

In Stoke-on-Trent Central, by contrast, party activists will be relieved to see off Nuttall, who has tried to rebrand Ukip as the party of the working class. Nuttall is reportedly determined to carry on as party leader, but as my colleague Anoosh writes, the party will now have to mull over a fundamental question: if Ukip can’t win in Stoke, where can it win? 

However, given Nuttall’s reputational meltdown over a false claim to have lost close friends at Hillsborough, Labour’s Gareth Snell only narrowly beat him.

Snell received 7,854 votes, compared to Nuttall’s 5,233, a majority of 2,621. Labour squeaked to victory despite a 2.2 point reduction in its previous vote share.

In his victory speech, Snell said his constituency would not be divided by race or faith: “So for those who have come to Stoke-on-Trent to sow hatred and division, and to try to turn us away from our friends and neighbours, I have one message – you have failed.”

Both Copeland and Stoke-on-Trent voted Leave in the EU referendum. However, the Liberal Democrats, which has styled itself the voice of Remainers since the EU referendum, enjoyed a surge in the by-elections.

In Stoke-on-Trent Central, the Lib Dems increased their vote share by 5.7 points, while in Copeland they did so by 3.8 points.

Lib Dem president Sal Brinton said of Stoke: “We would have done even better but for many voters, drawn to the Lib Dems, who felt they just couldn’t risk being represented by a Ukip MP, so reluctantly backed Labour.”

Corbyn allies among the Labour MPs have tried to play down the loss of Copeland, with Richard Burgon describing it as a “marginal” (albeit one held by Labour for more than 80 years), and Paul Flynn taking a swipe at former Copeland MP Jamie Reed, tweeting: “Copeland MP is pro-nuclear right winger. No change there.”