Friday, February 24, 2017

May's Tories Score Historic U.K. Election Win Over Labour

First governing-party gain in special election for 35 years; Victorious Conservative lays defeat at Labour leader’s door.

By Robert Hutton
February 24, 2017

U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May demonstrated her dominance of Britain’s political landscape in a special election that saw her Conservative Party make a historic gain, taking a seat from the opposition Labour Party.

The Tories won Copeland, in northwest England, with 44 percent of the vote. May’s Conservatives won the district for the first time since its creation in 1983 -- an achievement all the more remarkable because it’s exceptionally rare for British governing parties to gain seats in such special elections.

The last prime minister to make a special election gain was Margaret Thatcher in 1982. But that Tory win in South London followed a Labour split and the defection of the sitting lawmaker. Matt Singh, of the NumberCruncherPolitics blog, said historians had to go back to 1878 to find a comparable upset.

While May will be happy to take credit for the success, the winning candidate, Trudy Harrison, attributed it to Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. Still, Corbyn will take comfort from the result of another election in Stoke-on-Trent Central yesterday, where his party saw off a challenge from the pro-Brexit U.K. Independence Party to hold the seat.
‘Truly Historic’

“What has happened here tonight is a truly historic event,” Harrison said in her victory speech. “It’s been very clear talking to people throughout this campaign that Jeremy Corbyn doesn’t represent them. They want a party which is on the side of ordinary working people.”

Labour had fought the campaign arguing that it was best placed to protect a local hospital. The Tories argued that Corbyn was hostile to nuclear power, a large source of local jobs.

“The Copeland vote had two very important local issues -- nuclear power and National Health Service reorganization -- the first of which worked against a Corbyn-led Labour and the other in favor,” said Colin Talbot, professor of politics at Manchester University. “The former proved more important.”

Holding Stoke

Labour earlier in the night held the district of Stoke-on-Trent Central, beating UKIP’s new leader, Paul Nuttall. UKIP had hoped to do well in a seat that voted strongly to leave the European Union, and to exploit Corbyn’s weakness to show that it was a serious threat to Labour in its working class heartlands.

In that election Labour’s Gareth Snell won with 37 percent of the vote, down slightly from the 2015 general election. Nuttall was second, with 25 percent of the vote, barely ahead of the Conservatives’ 24 percent.

That the special elections were called at all was a blow to Corbyn. Both were the result of the sitting member of parliament deciding to take up a job outside politics, not something that often happens in parties seen as headed for power.

But despite the disastrous result for Corbyn, and a campaign in which Nuttall struggled to cope with the spotlight, both party leaders may be likely to hang on. UKIP is already on its third leader in six months, and unless the former incumbent Nigel Farage can be persuaded to give up his broadcasting career and return, there is no obvious successor.

Corbyn won the Labour leadership with a landslide in 2015, and then easily fought off a leadership challenge last year. His lawmakers passed a vote of no confidence in him, but they may be reluctant to challenge him again unless they’re sure that the minds of ordinary party members have changed.

“They say half a loaf may be better than none but in Labour’s case, I’m not so sure,” said Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary, University of London. “Only losing one seat rather than two makes it less likely that the party will fully get the message that, unless it somehow contrives to get shot of Corbyn, then it’s heading for disaster at the next general election.”

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