What little solace Labour could take from the realisation that, however bad the party was under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, UKIP was infinitely worse, was wiped out with the result from a by-election some way North by Northwest from Stoke Central, in the Cumbrian constituency of Copeland, where they lost to the Tories for the first time since 1931 (the seat, formerly Whitehaven, had been Labour since 1935).
While the seat, vacated by Jamie Reed running off to secure More And Bigger Paycheques For Himself Personally Now from the nuclear industry, has not been quite as safe as some have painted it in the recent past - Reed’s predecessor Jack Cunningham scraped home by fewer than 2,000 votes in both 1983 and 1987 - for the opposition to lose a seat to a governing party is little short of a humiliation.
The Tories in Government last won a seat at a by-election from an opposition party in 1982, and even then the circumstances were unusual: Angela Rumbold won Mitcham and Morden not from a Labour candidate, but a former Labour MP, Bruce Douglas Mann, who had defected to the nascent SDP and then decided, unwisely, to fight a by-election in the aftermath of Mrs T’s successful prosecution of the Falklands conflict.
Excuses from the Corbyn faithful have already proliferated: their candidate was not left-wing enough (wrong), it was Reed’s fault (ditto), it was the media’s fault (ditto), it was a one-off (and so is every other constituency), it was Tony Blair’s fault (wrong), and now Corbyn himself is saying the voters in Copeland were “let down by the political establishment”. He’s been an MP for almost 34 years - he IS the political establishment.
Discontented Blairites and Brownites? They’ve kept schtum and held their fire for months now. The reality is that the Tories established a straightforward narrative: in a constituency where the nuclear industry is the largest employer, they took Corbyn’s anti-nuclear stance and played on it remorselessly. The strong Labour counter-claims on the NHS - especially after Theresa May visited the area and was evasive on the subject - fell short.
So other constituencies don’t have the nuclear industry. But Corbyn is just not cutting through to the electorate, either in Copeland or the wider country. Labour shows no sign of regaining ground lost to the SNP in Scotland, and no sign of tapping into those seats won in 1997 and 2001 which were later lost to the Tories. Jeremy Corbyn is not a credible proposition as a prospective Prime Minister - even with Ms May leading the Tories.
That’s the problem in one. Theresa May is not another Margaret Thatcher: she is weak and evasive, an unappealing figure propped up largely by a combination of fawning press coverage and - hello Corbyn fans - a lack of a credible opposition. Jezza has had enough time to set out his vision and take Labour forward. It hasn’t happened. The pleading will continue; for hardcore Corbyn fans, he can do no wrong. But the reality is different.
I’ll finish with this snippet from the BBC report: “Professor John Curtice, of Strathclyde University, said the Copeland result was the best by-election performance by a governing party in terms of the increase in its share of the vote since January 1966”. Two months after that, Harold Wilson went to the country and increased his majority from 2 to 97. Just be thankful Theresa May can’t do that right now. And get real about Jeremy Corbyn.