Labour’s loss in Copeland last night was a historic moment. It’s a heavily working-class seat. Labour has held it since the constituency was formed in 1983, having held the seat that previously represented the area, Whitehaven, since 1935. Before Trudy Harrison, the Tory candidate who beat Labour’s Gillian Troughton by more than 2,100 votes, the last Conservative to represent the area was William Nunn, who was born in 1874. Tories are rejoicing, and with good reason. This is the first time a government party has taken a seat from the Opposition since 1982.
But all these factoids don’t quite do justice to the terminal decline the Copeland loss underscores. The party whose mission is to speak for the working class couldn’t hold on to one of its northernmost, heartland seats. Even though Labour’s Gareth Snell saw off UKIP’s Paul Nuttall in the parallel by-election in Stoke Central, it was hardly a ‘decisive victory’, as Jeremy Corbyn claimed this morning. Neither seat should have been under threat in the first place. And given Stoke’s dwindling turnout, Snell now inherits from predecessor Tristram Hunt the unenviable title of the UK’s least popular MP.
If you want an insight into how Labour lost in Copeland and struggled in Stoke, you need only look at how the campaigns were waged. And in this you glimpse the worldview that is fast making Labour an irrelevance.
In Copeland, the campaign focused on proposed cuts to the local health service, in which its maternity unit would move 40 miles away. Labour canvassers shoved leaflets through letterboxes featuring quotes from unnamed midwives, warning ‘mothers will die, babies will die, babies will be brain-damaged’ if the Tories got in. The NHS was also a priority in Stoke, but only really to distract from Brexit. Stoke is the ‘Brexit capital of the UK’, whose residents voted for Leave in their thousands. But Snell, a sneering Remainer, has dubbed Brexit ‘a massive pile of shit’.
These are the two sides of how Labour sees the working class – as vulnerable or as shit; as desperately needing health services or the bureaucratic oversight of institutions like the EU. When they’re not bashing working-class people, painting Leavers as thick or racist or both, Labourites coo over them. They can only connect with the gruff oaths of the north by posing as their saviour, their social worker, their white knight pledging to save them from Dickensian destitution by means of OUR NHS. Working people are viewed less as individuals with aspirations to be met, than as people with fears to be exploited. The masses are either barbaric or bovine.