It’s extremely difficult to draw any tangible conclusions from a by-election, even harder from two separate by-elections, and close to impossible if those two by-elections produced two very different results. The victories for Labour in Stoke-on-Trent and for the Conservatives in Copeland reflect local issues and individual candidates, but inevitably clues to the wider political landscape can be found.
Firstly, the Stoke-on-Trent showdown between Labour and UKIP, framed as a test of who best represented the northern English working class, failed to materialise and Labour retained the seat fairly comfortably.
Secondly, the Conservative Party won the Copeland seat for the first time since twirly moustaches went out of fashion. This result also meant that a sitting government took a seat from the opposition for the first time since, ironically, having a twirly moustache has come back into fashion.
For Labour, the fear of UKIP in the North had become so great it had to become an obsession. One telling stat is that the Lib Dems, with their clear pro-EU message, increased their vote share in both seats, undoubtedly at the expense of Labour. When you consider that only around one third of Labour voters backed remain in the EU referendum you can see why Corbyn’s desperate attempts to appease the Brexiteer minority may have pushed more traditional Labour voters away, overall.
While a panicked Labour Party desperately tried to battle UKIP in their right flank, they failed to keep hold of a substantial number of Remainers slipping away on their left. As it transpired, the electoral threat from UKIP turned out to be relatively minimal. Almost certainly, this is largely due to Theresa May’s Conservative government deliberately muscling themselves into the political space formerly occupied by UKIP. It could be argued that through their attempts to counter the perceived risk from UKIP, Labour sold out Copeland to try and salvage Stoke-on-Trent.
It used to be the Tories who risked everything to hold off the threat of UKIP, as seen by Cameron’s fatal promise on the EU referendum. It is arguably a direct result of Cameron’s gamble that Labour now find themselves fighting the wrong war, in the wrong places and with the wrong enemy. For many on the left this just serves to reinforce the feeling that, in this most crucial of conflicts, they are also fighting with the wrong leader.