The by-elections in this Parliament are four or five party contests

by Trevor Fisher

Late last year I argued on this site that the progressive alliance strategy favoured by Compass might work in by elections, but not in general elections. Afterwards I suggested that Brexit dominates British politics. Poll data is starting to indicate people vote for their Referendum position – and a recent poll suggested only 15% of Leavers were prepared to vote Labour. Put these two factors together with recent by-elections and the run up to the Copeland by election becomes a tale of five parties.

Tim Farron argued after the Witney by election on October 20th  that the Liberals were back, restoring three party politics.

The Richmond by-election seemed to back this but as UKIP stood down and backed the Tory Candidate, Goldsmith only nominally being independent, as the Greens stood down and backed the Lib Dems, this was three party politics by proxy. In the event the progressives backed the Lib Dems, Labour voters also went with the Lib Dems, and the reactionaries showed they could form their own tactical alliances

Witney offered more pointers to the new world of five party politics in England though as turnout dropped from 73.3% to 46.8% there has to be caution. But with the Greens and UKIP doing badly on October 20th – factors which may have helped the Richmond decisions – and losing their deposits, Labour losing half its vote and the Lib Dems having a 23.4% swing, Farron looked to be correct, and to be reinforced by Richmond.

However both Richmond and Witney were Remain seats in the referendum, though Witney only by 53.5% to 45.4% and a pro Brexit Tory held the seat, while the same did not happen in the much stronger Remain seat of Richmond.

The role of Brexit has yet to be tried in a strong Leave seat. But Copeland and now Stoke are just such a seats.

In Copeland 62% of those who voted going for Leave, and this poses obvious problems for Labour. Particularly if it tries to trim towards Brexit.

However the big issues are for UKIP or the Lib Dems. For the Lib Dems, Copeland looks like a lost deposit. Their vote dropped from 4,365 in 2010 to 1,368 in 2015. No surge in a Leave constituency is likely for a Remain party, and a bad result could destabilise Farron in his own neighbouring seat. The Greens I regard as electorally irrelevant, a party that only exists to pay over lost deposits. They rose from 389 to 1,179 at the general elections, but there is nothing in Copeland for them but paying more money to HM Treasury.

UKIP faces the most interesting problems. While the Lib Dems are pretty much dead in Copeland, UKIP with 3rd place and 6,148 votes is on the horns of a dilemma. If they don’t stand and back the Tories – and the Tories might well have a Leave candidate – this raises the issue of what the point is of UKIP?  While we mull over that question, the issue for Labour is how to combat its appeal to some Labour voters.

Paul Nuttall has made a good start as leader, and his stance of taking Labour votes and challenging for their seats is a sound one, with Copeland and Stoke offering a couple of tantalising chances of doing just that, and perhaps overtaking the Tories to take the seat. Long odds but not impossible if the Tories stay split over Europe.

Certainly it would be difficult for UKIP to keep standing aside in by elections. They did badly in Witney, and stood down in Batley and Richmond as these were unusual elections. But can they afford to stand down in Copeland? This a seat they will find challenging. But can they afford to duck the challenge?

What is clear is that the by-election scene is not a 3 party race. Four and even five parties are in the frame, if we give the Greens a place. For Copeland, the scene is particularly confusing, but this is a Britexit seat and the progressive parties are on the back foot. If the Greens decide not to stand – which could threaten their future, making three elections in a row they have not fought – then we have a four party race. How that plays out will be tortuous, and imponderable. All that can be said is that Farron is wrong. We are not back to three party politics.

Trevor Fisher was a member of the Labour Coordinating Committee executive 1987-90 and secretary of the Labour Reform Group 1995- 2007. He was a member of the Compass Executive 2007-2009

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11 Responses to “The by-elections in this Parliament are four or five party contests”

  1. Martin says:

    In Copeland 38% voted to remain. With Labour trying to make a virtue out of Brexit and wanting to restrict free movement of labour, thereby abandoning the Single Market, who do the 38% turn to?

    With FPTP, 38% is enough to win most elections. The remain vote is up for grabs. Trevor Fisher think the Lib Dems will lose their deposit. Has he put any money on that? I am sure he could find good odds, but I do not think he would be offered interesting odds on the Lib Dems gaining a proportion of the vote and retaining their deposit.

    This by-election is interesting because Labour do not know which way to turn and in any case are nationally regarded as ineffectual and in disarray, while Conservatives and UKIP are both touting for hardened Brexiters. In this case, and rather dismally, a Labour win depends on a strong UKIP vote.

  2. John P Reid says:

    Why would Ukip stand aside in by election for the tories if the Tory was pro the EU, and also they know that there’s northern labour constituencies ,where doslusioned labour voters won’t vote Tory, recalling the 1980’s but will vote Ukip

    As for any issues apart from the EU, do the green have anything in common with the libdems

  3. Malc says:

    One party contest. You can have a Tory, or a Tory-lite, or a UKIP Tory. All you can vote for is a change of emphasis.

  4. Christabel says:

    You missed out Sleaford & North Hykeham – a strong Leave seat (62-38 like Copeland), but with a natural Tory majority.

    None of the main parties lost their deposit. The Lib Dems increased their vote by pulling in committed Remainers – you’ve got to remember that 38% is still a lot of votes. Remainers in such areas feel quite embattled, are probably more likely to vote, and they’re more likely to adjust their vote accordingly. However, with little chance of a non-Tory winning, a heck of a lot threw up their hands in horror and stayed at home – turnout at @37% (In a seat that usually passes 70%) was shocking, and if that fall in interest is repeated in Copeland or Stoke then anything can happen. This figure suggests that Tory Remainers gave the polling stations a wide berth too.

    Furthermore, Labour voters were staying at home in droves because of JC and telling us so. The reasons are similar to Copeland – defence industries etc. and the perception of woolly thinking weakness.

    The positive was that in a place which the media decided was ripe for UKIP, they didn’t make much progress. It appeared more than it was because the Labour vote collapsed but I got the impression that UKIP have probably peaked – at least at the expense of the Tories – though they may well pick up a few more Labour Leavers.


  5. john P Reid says:

    martin ,you assume that those who voted remain,love the EU or love the single market or think that we can stop brexit, yes they’ve got the libdems, but when the public voted to remain in 1975 and the 1983 manifesto, was on us leaving after all the public said to the labour party, get over it

  6. paul barker says:

    Perhaps Mr Fisher could explain why three-quarters of the Libdems recent Council gains took place in areas that voted Leave ? That doesnt fit with his assertion that they have no chance in Copeland or, presumably, Stoke.

  7. Tafia says:

    Martin – ” In this case, and rather dismally, a Labour win depends on a strong UKIP vote.

    Ooop North, the UKIP vote is mostly former Labour voters. A strong UKIP vote would hand the seat to the tories. Or UKIP.

  8. Anne says:

    I think you are all missing big points on the Copeland election.
    If Labour concentrates on local issues it might stand a chance but this position was not helped by JC lack lustre response to the nuclear energy question posed on the Andrew Marr program. Sellafield is the major employer in this area. There is also the issue of downgrading services at the local hospital.
    My prediction is that the Conservatives will win this seat with Labour in second and an increase in Lib Dem votes – Tim Farron is well respected in Cumbria – often in the local news – seen as a good guy.
    Yes Copeland was a BREXIT vote area but with a large rural economy- farmers thought they would get a better deal outside the EU – now they realise that the EU subsidies will not be replaced and they will have competition from countries like New Zealand for their products.
    Who knows?

  9. Lee says:

    What the UK should do is move to an Australian style election system. The Lib Dems push for proprtional representation is a disaster, every country it has been tried in leads to unwieldly coalitions containing heaps of minor parties, plus you don’t get your local member to handle constituent issues, a major part of the Westminster system.

    However, in Australia we get it right. In each seat you mark your voting card in order of preference, then the preferences flow to whoever the Top 2 vote-getters in the seat are. So say you have a seat with 6 people running

    Lib Dem

    You would have to fill in your voting form from 1 – 6

    If Labour and Tory finish 1,2 then the preferences flow to them from the other voters

    So if a Lib Dem voter went

    Lib Dem

    The Labour would get their vote

    This takes away the fear of the wasted vote and allows people who feel Labour have moved to far to the centre to send a message but voting something like this

    Libe Dem

    or a Tory voter to do the same for opposite reasons

    Lib Dem

    This along with compulsory voting sees our 2 major party’s constantly encouraged to move to the sensible centre. I really believe that this is the reason that Australia has the best performing economy in the world, and other than our disgraceful treatment of refugees who arrive by boat is a major reason that, despite all the whining Australians do, this is by far the best country in the world to live in.

  10. john P Redi says:

    Lee ,I put this to some labour party members in Clacton to stop ukip winning (even Though Douglas Carswell) is a gentleman, and if say the Ukip person was a person who had social views away form the labour party, then would labour party members tactically vote tory to stop UKIP, or would it be a case like up north where many ex labour dislike the tories rather than UKip

    for the record I Know Dagenham Tories who tactically voted labour in 2010 on the council elections to oust the BNP who had seats there in 2006

  11. I started to write a reply Christabel and Paul Barker but the computer crashed. Yes I missed the Sleaford by electin and agree with Osborne: bad fr democracy for the opposition to go from 2nd to 4th.

    As for the remain – Lib Dem issues, remain is asset for them if they can pick up labour and tory reminers. Council seat turn out is low so not typical, but I expect them to continue to push labour votes down.

    For by elections, they have to have strong local support. No ideas about Copeland, but in Stoke central as in Copeland their vote collapsed in 2015. We shall see if they can rebuild their support. In Stoke they were fourth to UKIP and the Tories. I do not see them doing well in Stoke Central

    Trevor Fisher

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