There are two parliamentary by elections in the UK tomorrow both caused by the resignation of the sitting Labour MP. One is the marginal Copeland (2015 majority 2,564) and one the safer Stoke on Trent Central (2015 majority 5,179). But the pressure is all on Labour. With their ghastly poll ratings there is at least a chance of a Conservative gain in Copeland which would be the first time a governing party has gained a seat in a by election since Mitcham and Morden in 1982* and the first time from the main opposition party since Brighouse and Spenbourgh in 1960. Stoke on Trent Central might appear safer but it was a heavily pro Brexit voting area last year and Labour in their infinite (lack of) wisdom have picked a pro remain candidate and UKIP are throwing the kitchen sink (and new leader Paul Nuttal) at this seat. One defeat for Labour would be bad. Two would be catastrophic.
In theory the Conservatives should be laughing at this. But in my opinion the best result for Prime Minister Theresa May would be two Labour holds. The reason for this is that Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is not popular with voters and is not regarded as a potential Prime Minister by either the public or most of his own party. He is the Conservatives main electoral asset. If Labour win both by elections – especially if they win by increased majorities – Corbyn’s leadership is strengthened. Conversely if they lose one or both by elections the pressure on Corbyn will mount and he might resign or be forced out. Labour might then be led by a competent leader and the Conservatives will face a real fight in the next election.
Plus if UKIP win the Stoke by election that party – which has been a shambles since the last election and had three leaders last year! – might mount a comeback. The Conservatives won’t want that as UKIP could attract pro Brexit Conservatives who are unhappy with the Government- in the same way as the Lib Dems are a protest for pro remain Conservatives. Theresa May does not want a UKIP revival.
There are two by elections in history that a Conservative Government lost but the party benefited from the loss. One was Darlington in March 1983. This like Copeland was a marginal Labour seat. Labour like now had an unpopular leader in Michael Foot. The month before Labour had suffered a humiliating defeat to the SDP-Liberal Alliance in Bermondsey suffering a swing of 44.2 per cent – still a record by election swing and the pressure was on Foot. The Australian Labor Party had changed its leader just before a General Election in February 1983 and unexpectedly won that country’s General Election. People in the UK Labour Party thought a change of leadership might enable them to do the same thing. So the Darlington by election was vital. “In effect the contest became a referendum Michael Root’s leadership” (David Butler and Dennis Kavanagh “The British General Election of 1983” page 60). As it turned out Labour won with an increased majority preserving Michael Foot’s leadership. But it was a hollow victory. Ossie O’Brien the victor was an MP for less than three months. He lost his seat back to the Conservatives in the June 1983 election which the Conservatives win with a huge 144 seat majority. But had Labour lost the Darlington by election who knows? Foot might have been replaced, and Labour might have emulated their Australian counterparts and won the election. As the book on the 1983 election put it (page 43) “Darlington stayed Labour but the Conservatives were not sorry since Michael Foot was secured in office”.
Another by election that was a good defeat for the Conservatives was the Eastleigh by election of 2013. The Conservatives hoped to win the seat from their struggling Lib Dem coalition partners but Mike Thornton held the seat for the Lib Dems. But this benefited the Conservatives as like Darlington in 1983 it kept an unpopular leader – in this case Nick Clegg – in office. It also kept the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition in power. Had the Conservatives win the by election Clegg could have been toppled a more left leaning leader like Vince Cable could have been elected and the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition could have collapsed. That would have produced either a two year lame duck minority Conservative Government at best or at worst an early General Election which judging by the polls Labour would have won. Also if UKIP had won Eastleigh the UKIP surge of 2013 could have been even greater and had there been a General Election in 2013 UKIP could have gained votes and seats from the Conservatives. As it turned out Clegg survived the Coalition lasted two more years the Lib Dems got decimated in 2015 when the Conservatives win an unexpected majority.
The precedents of 1983 and2013 suggest that if there is an unpopular leader the other party can benefit if that leader remains in office until the next General Election. It might very well be in Theresa May’s best interest for Labour to win in Copeland and Stoke tomorrow and let Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership limp on to its probable diasterous end in 2020 – If he lasts that long.
*The 1982 Mitcham and Morden by election was a complicated affair. It was a Labour seat in 1979 but its MP Bruce Douglas-Mann defected to the SDP in 1982 and resigned to fight a by election under his new party banner (like Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless did in 2014). But unlike those two he was unsuccessful and the seat was gained by the Conservatives. Whether it should as a Conservative gain from Labour or the SDP is debatable but it is the last occasion a UK governing party gained a seat at a by election.