Hard Choices!

Sheila Lawlor

Friday 24th February: Voters in this week’s by-elections recognise that their future will depend on a different economy, one competitive, global and skilled, says Politeia’s Director, Sheila Lawlor.

This week the people in two northern seats voted. Having judged the complex cocktail of policies and politics, they kept Labour in Stoke-on-Trent Central, its historic ‘potteries’ constituency. But they sent the party packing further north in Copeland, the Cumbrian coastal seat from which coal exports were once despatched, electing instead the Conservative challenger. Is this, as Labour’s Stoke victor, Gareth Snell, implied, a return to the politics of the two-party system, without the complications of the referendum? Or are the voters once again ahead of Labour, not just on Brexit, but on the economic realities that they and their country face today?

Snell claimed that voters in Stoke-on-Trent (nicknamed ‘Brexit Central’ for its high Brexit vote) had now chosen the politics of hope over fear. In his moment of success he can be forgiven the platitude, but not for presuming further, and wrongly, that the city ‘would not be defined by last year’s referendum’. For, if anything, this week’s vote in Stoke was an endorsement of Brexit. To compare like with like, at the last election (the General Election in 2015), Labour did better than this time (39 per cent then, as opposed to 37 per cent now). This week UKIP, despite having an implausible candidate in Paul Nuttall, came second with 24. 7 per cent of the vote (up on the 22.7 of 2015), just pipping the Conservatives, in at third with 24.4 per cent (up from 22.5 in 2015). Thus, 51 per cent of the voters voted for parties now officially Eurosceptical, whereas in 2015 the combined UKIP and Conservative vote was only 45.2 per cent. Stoke may give Labour a breathing space, but little should be read in to the result other than that the party is on notice from the voters.

Labour’s chaotic, divided and bemused response to Brexit is of a piece with its failure to understand the significance of either that vote or of the showing this week for Euroscepticism in both by-elections. Voters in each, having already voted to end Britain’s membership of the EU and its protectionist Single Market built on quotas, tariffs and unnecessary regulation, are ready to move on from its old industrial base, however hard that will be. They accept that they must leave behind, as the market has done, the iconic artefacts and ceramics of Doulton, Staffordshire and Wedgewood. As in Copeland, the majority of voters assess the world as it is now and judge that their future will depend on a different economy, one that is competitive, global and skilled.

From Copeland, this message came very strongly. Formerly as the Whitehaven constituency it imported tobacco from America and was among the main coal exporting ports in the 18th century, before Bristol and Glasgow took over. Extended after the 2010 boundary review by the addition of four Lake District wards including Keswick, Copeland has been held by Labour for generations. The constituency, home to the nuclear decommissioning plant at Sellafield, will benefit from the proposed new nuclear power plant at nearby Moorside, with some estimates suggesting 21,000 new jobs in the area. The Labour leader’s hostility to nuclear power will not have helped the party, but even less will its overall uncertainty about the direction of change needed for the whole country. The Conservative by-election victory, a first in decades for a governing party, is as much a green light for the Prime Minister’s Brexit policy as it is for her policy of economic change.

In Copeland, as in Stoke-on-Trent Central, a majority of voters see clearly that a clean break with the EU is part of the package for a new economy. They know that Britain and the world have moved on since the days of coal and steel and potteries. And they know that they must forge a new future, one that looks beyond the failed ‘certainties’ of the EU and the muddled horizons of Labour.

*Sheila Lawlor is Director of Politeia. Her background is as a 20th century British political historian. Her academic publications include Churchill and the Politics of War, and for Politeia she has recently written Ruling the Ruler: Parliament, the People and Britain’s Political Identity.