Wednesday, 22 February 2017

My questions for the Copeland and Stoke-on-Trent Central by-elections

Tomorrow, voters will go to the polls in places that are in two very different environments: Copeland (rural/small town) and Stoke-on-Trent Central (inner city). These two different environments have key similarities: both are Labour seats that have been held continuously since 1935 (Copeland was called Whitehaven until 1983 and Stoke-on-Trent Central was simply called Stoke until 1950, but the areas they cover are essentially the same), both heavily voted to leave the EU last year, both had once-proud industries which have largely disappeared and been replaced (somewhat), and both contain significant sectors of working-class voters who are gradually shifting away from Labour in different directions.

Both of these by-elections will prove critical tests for Labour, given that since Theresa May took office as Prime Minister last year, they have almost always been at least 10 percentage points behind the Conservatives in opinion polls of varying kinds. However, opinion polls are arguably becoming less reliable, especially with most of the mainstream media cottoning onto the anti-Corbyn narrative irrespective of the truth. 'Fake news' (or at least, unreliable news), is not confined to spoof websites.

Here are my five questions for these two by-elections?

1. To what extent will the high Leave vote in each of the two constituencies have an impact on the overall result?

Not as much as commentators and the media would have us believe. The aftermath of Brexit is an area of concern for many voters, but pressing local issues particularly in Copeland will almost certainly be a bigger factor. West Cumberland Hospital is under threat (and the nearest other hospital is 40 miles away in Carlisle) and the Conservatives have been doing major damage to the NHS since they took office, and the geographical isolation of Copeland exacerbates the problems this will cause. The high Brexit vote will likely not be enough to help Paul Nuttall due to the many lies of his that have been exposed throughout his campaign in Stoke-on-Trent Central, not to mention internal problems with UKIP that came out during the campaign.

2. Given the issues at hand, could the Green Party save their deposit in at least one of the two by-elections?

Yes, but more likely this will happen in Copeland due to the presence of the Sellafield nuclear plant, which will draw out many anti-nuclear Green voters in particular. Copeland is also more rural so environmental issues will be of strong importance. However, the Green Party did not save its deposit in either constituency in the 2015 general election, and neither did the Liberal Democrats where in said 2015 general election they took the most extra votes from. The Green Party sadly is not overall polling better than its 2015 result, either.

3. Could candidates from minor parties or Independent candidates have an impact?

Apart from Michael Guest (chairman of Whitehaven town council) in Copeland, not much. Although Stoke-on-Trent is a particularly volatile place psephologically, none of the four 'serious' (i.e. non-OMRLP) candidates have any real credibility, especially not vexatious litigant Barbara Fielding-Morriss (one of the Independent candidates in the Stoke-on-Trent Central by-election).

4. Will 'Storm Doris' actually affect turnout enough in Stoke-on-Trent to cause a surprise Labour loss, as the media have speculated?

In all likelihood, the answer is no. Bad weather deters turnout from voters of all kinds, particularly more passive voters. Although transport services will be disrupted by Storm Doris in many parts of Britain, this will likely not cause significant disruption to turnout on the levels speculated because polling stations are generally designed to be as within walking distance to electors as possible, especially in cities like Stoke-on-Trent where the polling districts are much smaller geographically. Also, parliamentary by-elections, with rare exceptions, always have lower turnouts than at the preceding general election, and Stoke-on-Trent Central's turnout was notoriously the lowest in the nation in 2015 anyway at 49.9%. Only time will tell if turnout there will beat the record low peacetime turnout set by the Manchester Central by-election of 2012 (turnout: a dismal 18.2%).

5. Which one is Labour most likely to lose out of the two if it does not hold both-Copeland or Stoke?

Copeland, on balance. The Conservative candidate, Trudy Harrison, despite having been selected much later than Labour's candidate, Gillian Troughton, has not received the torrent of bad publicity that UKIP leader Paul Nuttall has received in Stoke-on-Trent Central, irrespective of the criticism of tweets by Labour candidate Gareth Snell. Also, the anti-nuclear Labour leadership will likely have a detrimental effect on the Labour vote in Copeland the same way it did in the 1980s.

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