In an ordinary election cycle, last week’s by-elections in Stoke-on-Trent and Copeland might not have generated headlines. Labour has held solid majorities in both constituencies for years.
But there hasn’t been an ordinary election cycle since Britain voted to leave the European Union this summer.
Voters in Stoke-on-Trent and Copeland both opted for Brexit in June, in defiance of Labour’s support for EU membership.
There is also widespread dissatisfaction in the party with Jeremy Corbyn, which makes every by-election a test of his leadership.
Neither election went entirely as expected.
Stoke-on-Trent, with its closed coal mines, silent steel mills and famous ceramics industry, was considered vulnerable to the right-wing United Kingdom Independence Party, which was one of the driving forces behind the EU referendum.
UKIP leader Paul Nuttall even stood as a candidate in Stoke-on-Trent himself. Yet he ended up sharing second place with the Conservative candidate. Labour’s Gareth Snell won by a comfortable margin of twelve points.
Things fared very differently for Labour in Copeland. A constituency that voted Labour for eighty years elected a Conservative, Trudy Harrison.
Not only that; it was the first time a governing party has managed to pick up a seat since 1982.
Mixed result for Corbyn
The victory in Stoke-on-Trent means Corbyn is probably safe for the time being.
However, Labour’s loss in Copeland does bolster his opponents, who believe Corbyn’s far-left policy is costing them votes.
In a telling sign, union bosses — who often have the final say in crowning Labour leaders — have called on Corbyn to accept responsibility for the defeat.
Vindication for May
The Copeland result gives the Conservatives, led by Theresa May, confidence that they made the right decision embracing what is known as one-nation conservatism: a less liberal and more Christian democratic program that appeals to low-income voters who used to support Labour.
Skeptics warn that the party could lose support from higher-income voters in the middle. But so long as Labour fails to reach out to those who voted to remain in the EU, and so long as the Liberal Democrats remain in third or even fourth place, the Conservatives have the center ground to themselves.
Trouble for UKIP
As for UKIP, could this be the beginning of the end?
They have spent months claiming they are replacing Labour as Britain’s second party, yet they were unable to prevail in a constituency that voted 70 percent to leave the EU.
Perhaps it is Paul Nutall, not Jeremy Corbyn, who ought to worry about his position.