The date for the Copeland by-election has been set for February 23rd.
According to The Daily Telegraph, Labour’s internal polling shows they are set to lose the seat to the Conservatives.
If this happens, then it would be the first occasion since the Mitcham and Morden by-election in 1982 that a Conservative government has gained a seat in a by-election. A defeat for Labour would be of seismic proportions in British politics. It would actually be more seismic than most people know.
Commentators are not comparing like with like. There are numerous parallels. In 1982, as today, the Conservatives had a woman Prime Minister. Labour was in thrall to the hard Left and had split even more decisively than now. Labour’s left-wing leader was seen as an electoral liability who was out of tune with the public mood on numerous issues and had narrowed the party’s appeal to its die-hard supporters. There was a controversial Republican in the White House, and tensions between the superpowers were on the rise.
However, there are significant differences. The incumbent had triggered the by-election by deciding to seek a new mandate after he defected to the Social Democrat Party that had separated from Labour, and not just to quit politics, as now. The Mitcham and Morden constituency itself was a relatively new creation, composed of the elements of previously Conservative seats. By contrast, Copeland has been a Labour seat for 80 years.
The most important difference is in the events just prior to the by-election. The week before, the Second Battalion of the Parachute Regiment had scored a major victory in the Falklands War, capturing the settlement of Goose Green by a frontal assault against a numerically superior and entrenched opposition. The date of the by-election, 3rd June, was eleven days before the surrender of all Argentine forces in the Falkland Islands following their decisive military defeat in the field of battle at the hands of our armed forces.
The British people knew they had a winner in Margaret Thatcher and her party. By contrast, Labour was, as now, a pacifist party, providing no answers to foreign military aggression or global terrorism apart from affinity, disarmament, compromise, and surrender. For their bogus idealism, dangerous allies, and dinosaur socialism, Labour were heavily punished at the 1983 General Election.
If the Conservatives defeat Labour on 23rd February, they will have done so on their own merits, based on sound policy and leadership in peacetime.
So if Mitcham and Morden is not a viable precedent, what is?
The Conservatives’ previous gain while in government was at Bristol South back in 1961. However, that was also exceptional, as Tony Benn, then a hereditary peer, actually won the by-election, but was disqualified as an MP because he was holding a seat in the Upper House and had been unable to renounce his peerage.
The next precedent would be the Brighouse and Spenborough by-election in 1960. However, that was actually a win for the Liberal National candidate. Liberal Nationals were the throwback to the emergency coalition of 1931, when Ramsay MacDonald brought Conservatives and some Liberals into the government because the Labour Party walked away from governing rather than take the tough decisions needed in the face of the burgeoning Great Depression. The Liberal Nationals eventually merged with the Conservatives. The Conservatives did not actually field a candidate in Brighouse and Spenborough; it was a straight two-party race between Labour and Liberal National. So it is necessary to look further back in time.
A Conservative victory in Copeland would be the first gain of its type, without extraordinary factors – apart from Jeremy Corbyn – since winning in Sunderland South in 1953, sixty-four years ago. This does exclude the stalemated Korean War, which was then winding down to an inconclusive armistice, as a factor in the decisions of Sunderland voters.
The Conservatives’ Sunderland win was just before the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, when Winston Churchill was Prime Minister and Clement Atlee was Labour leader. Then as now, Labour was into their second year of opposition and there were splits in the party between the moderate pragmatists and the radical utopians. Labour would not win a general election for another 11 years.
So a Copeland gain for the Conservatives would be Labour’s most cataclysmic by-election defeat for over sixty years. It would also indicate that Jeremy Corbyn’s personal mandate in the party does not translate into support, even in seats Labour already holds.
We live in interesting times. It will be possible to gauge the true level of support for Corbyn inside his party by the intensity of the campaigning by Labour in Copeland, especially by its enthusiastic new members who reportedly joined the party in droves just to support the new leader. If this is invisible, or insufficient to hold the seat, then it would appear that Corbyn’s personal mandate is merely a few hundred thousand line-entries in a party membership database and little more.
On the back of one or more defeats next month, moderate Labour MPs will have to accept they face a career in opposition politics, where they will achieve little, especially if they are fighting their own hostile extremists as much as they fight the Government. It may be rational for Labour’s best and brightest to see if they can be more effective outside Parliament.
Although vacating seats that may be occupied by people of lesser ability with more extreme beliefs will be bad for Parliamentary democracy, Labour MPs are only human. They may be worried that life is passing them by while they sit powerlessly in perpetual opposition and are unable to make more rewarding or satisfying use of their abilities.
Meanwhile, Jeremy Corbyn and his acolytes will appear to be allowed by their party to continue to drive their Labour into the dust. We will find out in late February.