If ever a double-edged sword of a Christmas surprise were to be invented by the most cynical of political observers, they could manage little better than the news this morning that semi-detached Labour MP Jamie Reed is to resign his seat in order to join the nuclear industry in pursuit of More And Bigger Paycheques For Himself Personally Now. The party will be glad to see him go. They will not relish the mess he has left them.
Reed has spent the year-and-a-bit since Jeremy Corbyn became party leader doing little more than whinging. Whether he was pining for the days of Tone is not known: the bawling and blubbering has by now been screened out by most of his colleagues. But that is not what will concern Labour HQ: rather, they will have seen Reed’s 2015 majority of just over 2,500, a largely rural constituency, and the potential for electoral disaster.
Reed represented Copeland, which is basically the town of Whitehaven, plus a significant part of the Lake District National Park. Boundary changes prior to the 2010 General Election added the town of Keswick, an area of Very Few Natural Labour Voters. The area voted 62% to Leave the EU, although when rural voters see that the trees on which farm subsidies grow may not be exclusively British, this might change.
Jamie Reed - looking to do some damage
The constituency has some similarities with Crewe and Nantwich: one significantly sized Labour-voting town and a largely rural Tory heartland. The Tories may already be asking Eric Pickles about his successful management of the 2008 by-election campaign there; Pickles was savvy enough not to be fazed by Gwyneth Dunwoody’s post-1997 majorities, but looked back to 1992, when she scraped home by just under 2,700 votes.
She might have lost had the Tories not fielded the local Prince of Darkness Brian Silvester, now reduced to a comedy side-show as a UKIP parish councillor. But the Tories are not going to field a clown like Silvester in Copeland. They will already be looking for a mainstream, Eurosceptic, pro-nuclear, pro farming lobby, and above all experienced politician and campaigner. And Labour will be bracing for trouble.
The Copeland constituency - lots of rural. And nuclear
Copeland is the constituency that includes the Sellafield complex. This provides a significant number of jobs - even more importantly since the steel industry in nearby Workington employs far fewer nowadays, and others, like Leyland Buses and Trucks, are long gone. Labour has a leader with a clearly sceptical stance on things nuclear. Corbyn will be portrayed during the upcoming campaign as anti-Sellafield.
The prize for the Tories will be the first time a Government party has taken a seat off the opposition since 1982 - and even that (Mitcham and Morden) was an exceptional case, a Labour to SDP defector losing during the Falklands conflict. UKIP will try hard, but Paul “Bad Bootle Meff” Nuttall probably won’t play well here. The Lib Dems’ leader has the seat next door, but they would have to come from a long way back to pull this one off.
Unless Labour can counter the inevitable Tory “Corbyn hates nuclear” attacks, they are looking at a loss that would damage them grievously. Jamie Reed probably gamed it that way. His determination to damage Corbyn may be about to bear its poisoned fruit.