'Staggering': How a truly historic defeat for Labour unfolded in Copeland

LONDON — “Historic… staggering… incredible” were just some of the words Conservative MP Andrew Stephensen used to describe his party’s victory in the Copeland by-election in the early hours of Friday morning.

“It’s truly historic,” the MP for Pendle told Business Insider. “That’s an overused expression but nothing like this has happened for the past century.”

Stephensen was right. For a ruling Tory party to win a seat that has only ever been controlled by Labour in a mid-term by-election with help from no unusual political circumstances is absolutely remarkable. A history-defining event.

But, for those who overcame the best efforts of storm Doris to attend the count at the Whitehaven Sports Centre last night, it didn’t come as a huge surprise.

The mood within the local Labour party in the hours leading up to the declaration was mildly optimistic at best.

An activist who greeted us upon arrival told us that his “gut instinct” pointed to a Conservative victory. Others described the contest as being on a knife-edge. Most paced nervously around the hall saying very little at all. If by-elections were determined by body language, then Labour had conceded defeat long before the 02:45 am declaration.

Around an hour before the announcement, Labour campaigners were subdued and slumped in their chairs while the party’s elections strategist, Andrew Gwynne MP, was on his phone in the foyer with a concerned look on his face. Conservatives, on the other hand, tried their best to conceal their smiles as the prospect of a once-unthinkable victory looked more and more likely. Their mood only improved when the Liberal Democrats called a Tory victory.

The first person we met upon arriving in Copeland on Thursday night was a taxi driver who had decided to switch to the Conservatives having spent his entire life voting Labour. “It’s the [nuclear] power station,” he told us.

“Simple as that. The Tories want to keep it open. They are good for this area.”

Other locals we spoke to agreed.

Labour’s heavy focus on the NHS wasn’t a mistake given how badly the local hospital is suffering due to severe cuts. But the NHS is an age-old attack line that just wasn’t enough for candidate Gillian Troughton to overcome the issues working against her. Labour’s support in the rural seat has been declining since the early noughties. The added burden of selling an anti-nuclear leader to a vehemently pro-nuclear community was, ultimately an ask too great.

As for Harrison, the former local councillor has pencilled her name into the history books of British politics.

“She fought a really positive, upbeat campaign which was about jobs, about protecting the nuclear industry, about delivering improvements to infrastructure this area needs,” Stephenson told us.

“It was a positive, forward-looking campaign. Trudy has four daughters. She’s always talking about the future and their future. It was just a really good campaign that won voters over on the doorstep.

I’m looking forward to welcoming her to the Commons on Monday.”

This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.

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