LONDON — “If it is an election on the NHS, we’ll win. If it’s an election on Corbyn, we’re f—-d.”
That’s what one local Labour source told Business Insider on Thursday when we asked them what could win or lose the crucial Copeland by-election for the party.
The by-election, which will be triggered as soon as outgoing Labour MP Jamie Reed officially resigns, is set to be a huge test of the waning party’s relevance in pro-Leave, working-class strongholds like Copeland.
Labour has held the seat in west Cumbria since 1931. However, at the last general election, the party’s majority was slashed to just 2,500 votes, and bookmakers say the Tories are odds on to win this by-election, which Business Insider understands is likely to be in May.
As we reported on Thursday, councillor Gillian Troughton is a leading candidate among local Labour members to stand in the by-election. Troughton won a Cumbria County Council by-election in 2015 and is well-respected locally. “She has a strong handle on the big issues in the seat,” a Labour campaigner told Business Insider.
Two of Troughton’s biggest rivals are likely to be former MP Thomas Docherty, who Business Insider understands is strongly considering a bid to re-enter Westminster politics, and Rachel Holliday. The latter announced her intention to stand for the Labour candidacy on Friday morning after weeks of speculation, tweeting: “Excited to announce that I’m running to be Copeland’s next Labour MP to fight for our people, jobs and services.”
Holliday, like Troughton, enjoys an advantage in that she’s widely-known in Copeland, and has been a prominent campaigner on local issues like the crisis facing West Cumberland hospital. Her husband is part of the Sellafield nuclear plant’s security team, and she used to work there herself. Copeland is a communal, tightly-knit area and Holliday, who was Cumbria’s Woman Of The Year in 2015 for charity work, will benefit from being a familiar face.
However, a possible Achilles heel is her support for Corbyn. Holliday describes herself as centre-left and pro-nuclear, but supported the anti-nuclear, socialist veteran in the party’s most recent leadership election. Copeland isn’t a progressive Labour seat in metropolitan London. It’s a traditional, pro-Leave, working-class seat with widespread concern about immigration. “We don’t do Corbyn here,” a local Labour councillor told us when we visited the area last month. With Sellafield being the area’s biggest employer by a country mile, it’s also one of the most pro-nuclear places in the country. “Even the Corbynistas are pro-nuclear,” one local Labour source said.
This will likely be an issue for Holliday. She is the “preferred” choice for Corbyn’s office, according to one senior Labour figure we spoke to, meaning she will likely have to distance himself from the divisive leader in order to optimise her chances of being elected.
With this in mind, the Copeland Labour branch, which will choose and announce the party’s candidate on January 19, may well be tempted to field a candidate with no obvious links to the Labour leader. Leading Labour figures in west Cumbria are already secretly urging voters to “ignore” Corbyn’s views, according to the Mirror, which, if true, gives more credence to the idea that selecting Holliday could be a risky move. Troughton backed Owen Smith.
Another potential name to look out for is seasoned councillor Lee Sherriff. She lost out to Tory candidate John Stevenson in the nearby constituency of Carlisle at the 2015 election, but her supporters claim that she is “battle ready” to stand in what will be a closely-fought, gruelling by-election.
Another confirmed candidate is Shropshire councillor Usman Ahmed. “I know the area, the people and the issues. I know the NHS is a real issue in Copeland and as a passionate believer and supporter of the NHS I will campaign hard to protect all services,” he told the News & Star newspaper earlier this week. One person who isn’t standing despite widespread speculation is Workington councillor, Andrew Lawson, who said on Thursday that it is not the “right time” for him to fight for a parliamentary seat.
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