Wednesday, 21 December 2016

The Copeland Test

Readers, Jamie Reed, Labour MP for Copeland since 2005, has recently resigned in order to get a new job as Head of Development with the Sellafield nuclear power plant, which provides substantial employment in rural Cumbria. This means a by-election will take place in the Copeland constituency sometime in early 2017 (date TBC).

Copeland, called Whitehaven from 1832 to 1983 (Whitehaven is in fact still the clear focal point for this constituency, and little real change has happened to this constituency's boundaries since 1918) has been Labour-held since 1935 like many safe northern Labour seats, but the Conservatives do often make a strong challenge in their strongest years, reducing the Labour majority to as low as 4.3% in 1983 and 1987, and to just 6.5% in 2015 partly due to UKIP's intervention, which actually damaged both the Labour and Conservative votes. This is also strictly a Labour vs. Conservative contest, since the Liberal Democrats and their predecessors have never been able to manage better than 15.9% in their best years, and they struggle to better 10% most of the time. They have also elected a grand total of just two councillors throughout the whole history of the Copeland district from its first election of 1973. Like many rural areas, Copeland retains an Independent tradition despite the main towns (Egremont, Cleator Moor, and of course Whitehaven) being overwhelmingly Labour most of the time.

Copeland contains a lot of voters that politicians need to start listening to and connecting to, exemplified by the fact that this constituency voted to leave the EU by a margin of 62% to 38%, not that Brexit itself will be the most significant factor by any standards. Many of them were once industrial workers, but the coal and iron works in this area are long gone and it is mainly the Sellafield nuclear plant that is providing much of the employment in this area in addition to whatever harbour work remains around Whitehaven.  This also happened to be where the digital switchover trial for television began, meaning Cumbria was the first county to switch off its analogue signals, something I noticed when I holidayed in the Lake District (not too far from Copeland geographically but a very different area by any standards!) six years ago. Labour is losing their hold over a lot of their traditional, more rural and non-metropolitan voters, and these are the people losing out most in our modern, high-tech society at present.

Growth of green jobs and green technology is something Britain will really need to get going in the next few years if it is to prosper (particularly after we leave the EU), and Copeland is where they can be particularly useful and utilise the skills once used in coal-working, iron-working, and in chemical plants. Industrial and technological knowledge will be key to research and development of renewable energy technology and in sustainable farming, which Copeland's environment can provide in spades.

This by-election will prove a critical test for every major political party in Britain-not just Labour and the Conservatives. It is rather reminiscent of the Darlington by-election of March 1983, which Labour held on narrowly but then lost badly to the Conservatives in the June 1983 general election just 11 weeks later because their vision failed to appeal to the same type of voters in Darlington that are also abundant in Copeland.

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