WHITEHAVEN, CUMBRIA — Labour campaigners were out in full force in Copeland this week amid the very real possibility of Jeremy Corbyn’s party surrendering a seat it has controlled for nearly a century.
Last week, Labour MP Jamie Reed resigned as Copeland’s MP, triggering a by-election which is expected to take place in February. In the past, it was a seat Labour could have banked on winning — having held it at every election since 1931 (under it’s previous name of Whitehaven).
But Copeland, a white, working-class stronghold on the Cumbrian coast six hours from London, is one of many rural seats Labour now risks losing. The Tories are currently the bookies favourites to win here.
We travelled to Whitehaven, a small port town with a population that makes up most of the Copeland constituency. It has a communal feel. As you wander through the town people stop and chat to at least half the people they pass.
Like for other working-class communities in the north of England, one of the key issues is immigration. This was evident when Business Insider spoke to a number of campaigners and local councillors this week.
“If you go down Manchester way they don’t really notice it [immigration],” one local Labour councillor told us. “Up here they do, especially when you’ve got Mr Farage banging the drum. That’s why Nick Griffin got elected as the North West EU member. He got in on the pure fact that people here are scared to death of change.”
He added: “When they were discussing the candidates [for local elections] the moment the possibility of two Workington people standing was mentioned they were all up in arms.”
Workington is a town less than 10 miles north from Whitehaven up the Cumbrian coast. The councillor’s comment, although accompanied by a chuckle, spoke of just how tightly-knit the area really is.
A Labour activist who we spoke to echoed the councillor’s remarks. “We are a very closely-knitted community. We all know each other. You know when somebody is foreign,” she said.
The Copeland Labour branch is yet to select its candidate for the upcoming by-election. Councillors told Business Insider that they expect the shortlist to be “eight to ten names long” and include both local hopefuls and candidates from outside the area.
But as we discussed who should succeed Reed, it became clear that the ideological divide that has stunted Labour at national level is also pushing the party to a precarious position at local level. There is a clear gulf in opinion between supporters of Corbyn and those more sympathetic to so-called ‘moderates’, or ‘Blairites’, like Reed.
Two activists told us they had joined Labour on the back of Corbyn’s election as leader. One said it was the first time he had joined a party in over two decades, after years of feeling unrepresented by the ruling political class.
Momentum, the group set up to support Corbyn and his policies, enjoys an increasing presence in the area, too. A meeting was due to take place on Wednesday evening at the local rugby club for growing numbers of members.
But while Corbynism may steadily be on the rise in western Cumbria, it remains dwarfed by traditional Labour politics. “At the end of the day, we don’t do Corbyn here,” one councillor told us.
He added: “Ordinary people will vote for what they know. I can’t think of anything inspiring about Jeremy Corbyn. We voted for the Yvette Coopers and Andy Burnhams. Traditional, solid, sensible candidates. [Corbyn’s] won leadership elections and he’s the boss. But if he leads Labour to slaughter then he has to go. If he chooses not to go then all hell will break loose. What’s the point in a party if it can’t win elections?”
Asked whether he thinks “slaughter” awaits Labour at 2020, he said: “I couldn’t possibly comment. I’m an elected representative.”
Reed, of course, is a well-documented critic of Corbyn. He described the leader as “reckless, juvenile and narcissistic” during a House of Commons debate on whether the Trident nuclear deterrent system should be renewed. “Jamie Reed is the most un-red man you’ve ever met in your life. He’s an SDP man,” the councillor added.
Labour’s main line of attack when it comes to fending off the Tory threat will be the NHS. The local West Cumberland Hospital has struggled to cope with the effects of austerity and is a big issue for local people.
One activist told us: “People will struggle to vote for the Tories here considering how the government has stripped away and underfunded the hospital. That really resonates with people around here. They are not gullible. The situation on our high street and in our hospital is because of the austerity we have had.”
Another councillor said: “Jeremy Hunt has an almost messianic vocation in life to redo the NHS. I don’t actually know anyone who likes what’s happening to the NHS. They’re cutting back on funding for county council budgets and there’s no welfare money. The budgets are being butchered. Hit them on the health. They can’t defend themselves.”
Another reason many Labour members here are confident despite the projections of bookmakers is the size and enthusiasm of the party’s ground campaign. The Tories are yet to really make themselves known on the streets of Whitehaven, while UKIP’s resources in the north of the country have always been limited.
“We’ll bury the Tories at that,” a councillor said.
“I’ve been involved with campaigning for around 20 years and the Tories will have barely anyone up here on the ground. Yes, we are second favourites in the bookies but bookies make money from elections. We’ve been Labour here forever and we’ve seen massive growth in the local Labour party. We will out-march them.”
But the prospect of Labour losing a seat that has been a consistent feature of the party’s history is leaving many members understandably anxious. “The Tories were only 2,000 votes behind Jamie. I’m a bit nervous,” one said.
Like many constituencies in this part of Britain, Labour’s message is lost on some people who for years were loyal to the party. We spoke to a local man who had for decades backed Labour but due to “disillusionment” with them voted UKIP at the last election.”The only politician worth anything on this earth is Donald Trump. If he does what he says he’s gonna do then the world is going to be a better place,” he told us.
Disenfranchisement was rife among residents of Whitehaven who spoke to us on Wednesday. “It doesn’t matter who they are — it won’t make a difference. They just promise things for the area and then do nothing,” a pub owner said. “I couldn’t care less [about the election] if I’m honest with you,” a childhood friend of Jamie Reed said.
But these are the people Labour will have to convince if it is to avoid catastrophe and retain Copeland in the by-election. As a Leave-backing, white, working-class area in north-west England, it will be a huge test of both Corbyn’s leadership and just how relevant Labour still is to people living in areas like this. Right now, the Tories are licking their lips.
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