The reaction of the mainstream media to the defeat of the Labour Party in the Copeland by-election was wholly predictable. Of course, Jeremy Corbyn is not entirely blameless when it comes to the result, but the narrative that the blame is solely his has been uniformly set, and the mass of mindless political commentators is out in force regurgitating this simplistic trope. The reality, however, is that the decline in support for Labour in Copeland is not a new phenomenon, and is in fact an ongoing process that stretches back long before Corbyn was even elected to lead the party.
Simply put, Copeland was not a “safe” Labour seat in this by-election. It is true that Copeland had been Labour Party territory for decades, but it has become a marginal constituency, with a Labour majority of just 2,000 votes in 2015. The Labour peak in Copeland came in 1997 when Jack Cunningham won the seat with 58% of the vote. Ever since then the Labour Party has been on a downwards trajectory in Copeland -and Jamie Reed knew it when he resigned. Labour had lost 6.4% of the vote in 2001, another 1.3% in 2005, another 4.5% of the vote in 2010 and yet another 3.7% in 2015.
The 2017 by-election saw yet another decline in the Labour vote share of 4.9%. That means that Labour has lost support in Copeland in five successive elections over the course of the last 20 years. Corbyn clearly cannot be blamed for that long-term decline in the Labour vote, but he has evidently failed to reverse the trend. Yet, even if Labour had been able to arrest the decline in its vote share, it would still have lost the Copeland by-election. In 2015, 42.3% of the vote was enough for Jamie Reed to win the seat, but the Tory candidate this week bagged 44.3% of the vote.
The question, then, is how did the Tories manage to leapfrog Labour to such an extent that Labour would still have lost even if their vote share had remained intact? The answer lies in the collapse of the UKIP vote, which fell from 15.5% in 2015 to just 6.5% in 2017. This 9% fall in their vote share is almost exactly mirrored by the 8.5% increase in the Tory vote.
The real story from Copeland is that voters across the country are abandoning UKIP in their droves to throw their support behind Theresa May’s right-wing authoritarian agenda. In the run up to the 2016 EU referendum, UKIP consistently polled above 15%. Less than a year later, they’re averaging less than 12% and gradually slipping further. As the single issue party now bereft of that single issue, it is inevitably to a Tory government mimicking UKIP’s anti-European posturing and anti-immigration rhetoric that UKIP is shipping its votes, rather than to the europhile Liberal Democrats or a Labour Party too focused on internal factional conflict to define a coherent position for the party on Brexit.
Whether Labour is led by Jeremy Corbyn, or by some as-yet-unnamed alternative figure more popular and talented than any of the numerous already defeated contenders, the leeching of the UKIP vote threatens to entrench Tory rule for decades to come. The Tories already have a considerable electoral advantage, and if they pick up further percentage points from UKIP and succeed in the gerrymandering of constituency boundaries, England will end up as a de facto one-party state.
Even a unified Labour Party promoting consistent political alternatives would be facing an uphill challenge given this inevitable leeching of UKIP sympathisers, but in its current state, Labour faces electoral oblivion. Among its priorities ought to be a renewal of its appeal to Scottish voters. In the last election, the Scottish National Party won 40 seats from Labour, which, under Blairite leadership, had taken left-leaning Scotland for granted for far too long. Yet, Labour Party politicians the stature of Sadiq Khan seem determined to consign Scottish Labour to irreversible ostracisation with insulting rhetoric that labels the majority of working age Scots as racists for daring to seek independence from Westminster rule.
To pin the blame solely on Jeremy Corbyn, then, is demonstrably ludicrous. Corbyn cannot help being a limited public speaker. Neither can he help the fact that talent is so sparse in the Labour Party ranks that he has seen off all leadership challengers with consummate ease. The internal party critics, however, could have actually tried to contribute to a victory, rather than constantly plotting, backstabbing and briefing against him to the press before howling hysterically when a divided Labour then loses elections.