Copeland by-election: Brexit and other issues that could swing the vote

Labour has a fight on its hands to stop the Cumbrian seat vacated by Jamie Reed falling to the Conservatives

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Voters in Copeland, the west Cumbrian constituency vacated by Jamie Reed in December, will go to the polls on 23 February. Though Labour have held the seat (previously called Whitehaven, after its main settlement) since 1935 and have controlled the borough council for 38 years, they face a fierce challenge from the Conservatives, who squeezed Labour's majority to just 2,564 at the 2015 general election and have been campaigning hard. But what are the main issues at play?

Brexit

Copeland voted overwhelmingly to leave the EU in June - its 62 per cent Brexit majority was the highest in Cumbria. While outgoing MP Jamie Reed was a vocal Remainer, the borough’s elected mayor, independent Mike Starkie, backed Brexit. Starkie’s diagnosis is a familiar one: the remote constituency’s physical and perceived isolation from Westminster decision-making and frustration over migration meant Vote Leave’s promise of taking back control was an attractive proposition.

Suitably optimistic quotes from the "Brexit means Brexit" Prime Minister Theresa May - who will hit the campaign trail in Copeland this week - feature prominently in the Conservatives’ campaign material. Their message to voters is clear: “Labour’s candidate won’t respect the result of the referendum and deliver what people voted for.”

For her part, Labour’s Gillian Troughton - a leading light in the local Remain campaign last June - has kept relatively quiet on the issue, focusing instead on health and infrastructure. That, however, is unlikely to stop her party shedding support to insurgent campaigns from the Lib Dems and Ukip, whose local activists are expecting modest increases in vote share at Labour’s expense.

The NHS

Turning next week’s by-election into a referendum on the state of the healthcare provision in West Cumbria represents Labour’s best chance of holding onto the seat. The local NHS’s “success regime” has proposed downgrading Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital, leaving those in need of consultant-led maternity care, stroke, children’s or major trauma treatment with a 40 mile journey on unpredictable rural roads to Carlisle. At the rural edge of the constituency, Keswick’s community hospital also faces losing all of its inpatient beds, meaning local concerns about the future of the NHS are seldom out of the local papers.  

Reed repeatedly raised the issue at PMQs in his last year in Parliament. Campaigners against the changes have placed posters in just about every shop window from Whitehaven to the most remote villages. This is a boon for Labour. Locals are uniquely animated by the plans, and as the NHS winter crisis rumbles on, some Labour activists are increasingly hopeful that the issue will prove decisive. 

Nuclear

While Labour believe harnessing local anger over the hospital will stave off a Tory surge, their opponents have focused almost entirely on an issue crucial to the area’s self-image as "Britain’s energy coast" - nuclear power. Ten thousand people - including outgoing MP Jamie Reed - are employed at the Sellafield nuclear decommissioning plant. Europe’s largest nuclear power station is slated for construction next door at Moorside.

Unsurprising, then, that Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, a former Sellafield employee, is selling herself as the best bet to protect both existing jobs at the decommissioning plant and the 21,000 promised for Moorside. Plenty of locals also commute to BAE’s shipyard in neighbouring Barrow-in-Furness, which manufactures Trident nuclear submarines. 

The presence of Corbyn, hardly renowned for his love of all things nuclear, as Labour leader offers the Tories a ready-made and effective attack line. Mailshots to thousands of homes warned of his hostility to new nuclear power well before Reed had formally resigned - and though Troughton and the local Labour establishment are staunchly pro-nuclear, Corbyn has helpfully played to type. In an interview with ITV last month, the Labour leader refused five times to offer his backing to Moorside.

There is, however, a chink in the Tories’ nuclear armour. That unions representing Sellafield workers are locked in a months-long dispute with ministers over plans to cut pensions. Labour hopes the row would undermine the Tories’ nuclear attack lines and shore up its industry support. After a series of talks with ministers, however, Prospect - which represents over half of the decommissioning plant’s workforce - has ruled out a strike ballot before next Thursday. Sources familiar with the negotiations say Unite, Aslef and the GMB (who are campaigning hard on Labour’s behalf) are equally unlikely to take action before voters go to the polls. While questions over pensions remain unresolved, that the government has managed to avert the serious industrial unrest that union chiefs were predicting in December could boost the Conservatives’ chances of victory. 

Unsurprisingly, the Greens - who came last and lost their deposit last time - are running on an anti-nuclear platform. 

Transport and infrastructure

Copeland is among the biggest - and most remote - of England’s parliamentary constituencies. London is six hours away, and the 40-mile journey to Carlisle takes over 70 minutes in antiquated two-carriage diesel trains, or almost two hours by bus, which Labour have pointed out is equivalent to the time it takes to travel the 120 miles from Manchester to Carlisle. 3G mobile coverage and high-speed broadband are also close to non-existent in large swathes of the constituency and pledges to improve such infrastructure, along with the much-maligned main road to Carlisle cited by hospital campaigners as a reason to keep services in Whitehaven, can be found both of the main contenders' manifestos. 

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.