LONDON — The Conservatives’ victory in the Copeland by-election was on a bigger scale than even they had dared dream of.
For a governing party to gain a by-election from the opposition is rare enough — the last time was in 1982 — but to do so on this scale is almost unprecedented. Election analyst Matt Singh wrote earlier this week that the last comparable by-election victory was way back in 1876.
However, the result says very little about the popularity of the Conservative party and a great deal about the unpopularity of Labour. Labour’s recent polling, which has had them anything up to 18 points behind the Tories, is bad enough. Yet the swing of 6.7% in Copeland was actually larger than even this polling would suggest.
The result is disastrous for Corbyn who was the focus of all the Tory attacks in the campaign. As one local Labour source told Business Insider in January that “If it is an election on the NHS, we’ll win. If it’s an election on Corbyn, we’re f—-d.”
In a statement sent out after the result, Corbyn admitted that “our message was not enough to win through in Copeland,” but added that voters in the seat “have been let down by the political establishment.”
The implication is that it was not Labour, who after all have represented Copeland for the best part of a century, that had let voters down, but some other nameless “political establishment.”
This is part of a longer-running strategy by Corbyn’s team to present him as an anti-establishment populist left-wing figure in the model of Bernie Sanders. Yet the Labour leader has none of Sanders’ rhetorical skills, nor his widespread popularity. In a poll of potential Labour leaders this week, Corbyn and his shadow chancellor John McDonnell came right down at the bottom of the list.
The simple truth is that the public have made up their mind about Corbyn and there is no sign of that even beginning to change.
Of course Labour’s problem is not simply Corbyn. Right across Europe, parties of the social democrat left have suffered at the expense of more populist and radical parties on the left and right. In that sense Corbyn’s strategy of reshaping himself as a populist leader makes sense.
The problem is that all the evidence so far suggests he is incapable of pulling it off.
Last week Corbyn’s head of campaigns, Simon Fletcher, resigned after apparently becoming disillusioned with the Labour leader. In a telling departing message to colleagues, the former chief of staff for former London mayor Ken Livingstone wrote that “democratic socialist politics is about campaigning to win in order to deliver for a majority.”
As their historic defeat in Copeland shows, this is an aim that Labour under Corbyn are now further away from achieving than ever before.
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