Defeat in UK byelections would spell fresh chaos for Corbyn

London Letter: A Labour loss in either Copeland or Stoke will reignite leadership issue

Byelections are traditionally a headache for governing parties and an opportunity for the opposition to take advantage of the voters' impulse to register a low-risk protest. At next week's elections in Copeland and Stoke-on-Trent Central, however, the stakes are highest for Labour and Ukip, while the Conservatives scent a chance of victory.

The byelections were caused by the decision of two Labour MPs, Jamie Reed and Tristram Hunt, to resign their seats in favour of jobs outside politics. Reed is taking up a job at the Sellafield nuclear plant, a major employer in the Copeland constituency, while Hunt is going to run the Victoria and Albert museum in London.

The resignations were widely viewed as an expression of despair at Labour's prospects of returning to power as the party and its leader Jeremy Corbyn continue to sink in the polls. Both constituencies voted Leave at last year's referendum and Ukip saw Stoke as an ideal target in its campaign to challenge Labour in its industrial heartland.

From the moment Ukip leader Paul Nuttall announced his candidacy for the seat, however, everything started to go wrong. The Liverpudlian registered an empty house in the constituency as his address in nominating papers, provoking Labour charges that he was a carpetbagger who may have breached election laws.


Hillsborough disaster

Then Nuttall came under scrutiny for claims that he had been present at the Hillsborough disaster in 1989 and that some of his close friends had died there.

“I lost close personal friends at that match and understand as well as anyone how deep the scars of that tragedy go,” he said on his website.

In a radio interview last week, however, Nuttall admitted that he had not lost any friends there, only “someone who I know”, blaming an aide for the blog post. Nuttall has been avoiding the media this week and on Thursday, he failed to turn up at a hustings in Stoke.

Labour's candidate Gareth Snell has also faced embarrassment, apologising this week for a series of offensive tweets aimed at female television celebrities some years ago. In the tweets, he referred to a woman on The Apprentice as a "speccy blonde girl", called panellists on Loose Women "squabbling sour-faced ladies" and described Janet Street-Porter as a "polished turd".

Still, Labour is increasingly confident that it will hold the seat in Stoke, and the party’s anxiety is increasingly focused on Copeland. Here, it is the Conservatives rather than Ukip who pose the greatest challenge, although the Tories have not won the seat since 1924.

Theresa May is so bullish about her party's chances in Copeland that she visited the constituency this week, although as it turned out, she would have been better advised to stay at home. The two biggest issues in the byelection are a threat to close the maternity unit at the local hospital and the future of a new nuclear power station at Moorside.

The development at Moorside could create up to 21,000 jobs but its main backer, Toshiba, has postponed a decision on its future after its chairman resigned on foot of huge losses for the company. May refused four times to answer a question about the hospital and she was evasive about Moorside. Then, when a local schoolgirl showed her a Lego robot she had made, the prime minister pulled a face which seemed to betray more disgust than admiration.


If Labour holds both seats, Westminster chatter about Corbyn’s future may subside after a dismal few weeks for the Labour leader. The loss of either will, however, fuel discontent among Corbyn’s erstwhile supporters as well as his irreconcilable enemies within the parliamentary Labour party.

Corbyn’s decision to impose a three-line whip backing the government’s Bill to authorise triggering article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty reflected the reality that two-thirds of Labour MPs represent constituencies who back Brexit. But it angered many of his supporters among the broader party membership, who are overwhelmingly pro-Remain.

Thousands of Labour members are reported to have left the party in recent weeks and some left-wing MPs are now looking for a new champion. Their problem is that, under Labour’s rules, any candidate other than Corbyn will need the support of 15 per cent of the parliamentary party, a hurdle nobody on the Left is confident of crossing.

Meanwhile, one poll this week put Labour’s support at just 24 per cent, and in third place among working class voters, behind the Conservatives and Ukip. If there is bad news for the party next week, more of Corbyn’s MPs may be updating their LinkedIn profiles as they eye the departing Hunt and Reed with envy.