Voting has now closed in two crucial by-elections in Labour’s traditional heartlands, with Jeremy Corbyn awaiting the result of his toughest electoral test to date.
The Labour leader is fighting to hold Copeland and Stoke-on-Trent Central in the face of strong challenges from both the Conservatives and Ukip, with the party leader Paul Nuttall contesting the latter. Both sets of results are expected in the early hours of Friday morning.
Early indications suggest Labour is braced for defeat in Copeland, with senior sources saying it was “neck and neck” and that “rural constituencies still come in likely to favour the Tories”. They were, however, “confident” of holding onto Stoke where turnout was 38 per cent – down on the 2015 general election.
The contests were triggered after the sitting Labour MPs Jamie Reed and Tristram Hunt – both persistent critics the Labour leadership – quit. Mr Hunt, a former Shadow Education Secretary, took up his role as the new director of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London earlier this week.
As the polls closed Mr Corbyn thanked those who campaigned for the party in the final hours and braved Storm Doris, which lashed parts of Britain with up to 94mph gusts. He added: “The political establishment has let down Copeland and Stoke, who have seen their industries gutted, living standards stagnate and hope for a better future for their children and grandchildren decline.
“Whatever the results, the Labour Party - and our mass membership - must go further to break the failed political consensus, and win power to rebuild and transform Britain.
With the party trailing in the nationwide opinion polls – the latest placing Labour behind Theresa May’s Conservatives by 18 points – the by-elections are also being viewed as a test of whether Mr Corbyn can reconnect with its traditional supporters in the wake of the Brexit referendum vote. It is likely Mr Corbyn will endure yet more questions regarding his leadership if the party fares badly.
Stoke voted overwhelmingly for Leave in the referendum – earning the nickname “Brexit Central” – and the Ukip believes it is potentially fertile ground for an electoral breakthrough.
However, Ukip has been hit by a series of setbacks, with Liverpudlian Mr Nuttall being forced to apologise for a false claim on his website that he lost “close friends” in the Hillsborough disaster. If the embattled party leader suffers a heavy loss in the constituency, it is likely his leadership will be called into question – just last week at Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton former leader Nigel Farage said the by-election was “fundamental” to the party’s future.
There have been signs in recent days of growing confidence among Labour MPs that they will hang on in Stoke Central, which the party has held since it was created in 1950, despite a concerted challenge by Ukip. Momentum, the grassroots movement that grew out of Mr Corbyn’s leadership bid in the summer of 2015, has mobilised hundreds of activists in both constituencies and over 100 MPs are believed to have travelled to the constituencies on polling day alone.
But in the Cumbrian seat of Copeland, the bookies still make the Conservatives the narrow favourites to snatch victory. On Monday Mr Corbyn told the weekly meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) that the Copeland contest was on a “knife edge”. It came after the party suffered yet another dismal result in the poll, with researcher ICM placing Labour 18 points behind Theresa May’s Conservatives.
A victory for the Tories in Copeland would mark the first time a rival party has been defeated by the party of government at a by-election since 1982, when the Labour MP for Mitcham & Morden defected from the party to the SDP.
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